Off the Grid: Rustic Luxury in the Maasai Mara

When was the last time you sat down to eat with an interesting mixed group, surrounded by wide-open plains, the stars blazing overhead, and not a single distraction? This is standard mealtime at Naboisho Camp, an all-inclusive safari camp inside the 55,000-acre Mara Naboisho Conservancy, within Kenya’s Great Rift Valley.


Our safari began in earnest when, dressed in standard Maasai checkered shuka, our guides Wilson and Benjamin greeted us at the Mara Serena airstrip. Piling into the open Land Cruiser, we set off on the 45-minute game drive that would lead us to Naboisho Camp. The intimate nine-tent camp is one of just seven housed in this exclusive conservancy, which is community-owned. It’s part of the Greater Mara Region and borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve.

Less than 10 minutes into our drive, with Wilson and Benjamin’s keen eyes on the bush surrounding us, we’d spotted a sounder of warthogs, which led us all to think fondly of Pumbaa, the flatulent warthog from The Lion King. Just ahead was a striking Acacia tree from whose branches hung a few dozen nests belonging to the social weaver. By the time we pulled into Naboisho Camp, we’d seen a few giraffe, a zeal of zebra, a gorgeous lilac-breasted roller (Kenya’s national bird), and a herd of antelope—and that was all before lunch.


Meals at Naboisho Camp are a communal affair, served either outdoors in the shade of a big Acacia tree or on a long wooden table in the dining room. There is no Internet (in emergencies, the office computer can be used) and this renders mealtimes full of good conversation. Camp managers Helen and Roelof Schutte sit down to dinner nightly with guests; on our first night at Naboisho, over a salad of snap peas and tomatoes, we learned that after college, Helen worked at Disney World, inside the Animal Kingdom park. On the second night, we spoke with Roelof about his experiences growing up in South Africa.



After dinner, our group retreated to the fireplace to continue our discussion over drinks, but guests tend to turn in early at Naboisho Camp, happily worn out from a day of game-drives. At night, a ranger accompanies each guest back to his or her tent, though tent really does not do justice to the accommodations at Naboisho Camp. This is glamping in the truest sense of the word. Each of the nine tents (two of which are for families) has a verandah with day bed, wicker chairs, and an infinite view of the bush. Ensuite bathrooms have a flush toilet and hot running water shower; towels are thick and plentiful. The plush beds are a most welcome respite after a day in the Landcruiser. Rangers patrol the property all night, and on the desk in each room are a flashlight, an air horn, and a walkie-talkie whose calls go to the staff. In the morning, we watched the sun rise over the grass, sipping coffee and munching a few biscuits that had been delivered at our requested wake-up time.


Days at Naboisho Camp start with either breakfast in the main lodge or with a morning game drive and bush picnic. Sitting in the shade of a tree, sipping Kenyan tea and coffee and tucking into a veritable feast is a lovely way to begin a day of activities. Naboisho offers game drives and bush walks and can easily arrange visits to a nearby homestead, where you can meet a local Maasai family. We had picked up a soccer ball in Nairobi, and as the sun set over the plains, we kicked it around with the half dozen kids in the homestead. It’s hard to decide which is a better way to end a day at Naboisho Camp: watching pint-sized locals trying to score a goal, or having a sundowner around the roaring bonfire while listening to the guides’ stories. Luckily, you don’t have to choose.

Sanctuary Swala: Peace in the Tanzania Wilderness

I awake just in time for sunrise, rub my eyes and remind myself where I am: Tanzania. I grab my camera and go out to my wrap-around deck, which sits right in the middle of the savanna. An orange glow is low on the horizon shining through the acacia trees. Monkeys and guinea fowl run around in front of me. I hear only nature – rustling in the bushes and the sounds of birds awakening all around me. I grab the yoga mat that is stocked inside my tent and do 20 minutes of chatarangas and sun salutations. Lovely French press coffee is brought right to me on a tray and I sit in wonder.


Sanctuary Swala
is about a four-hour drive from Arusha—the first two hours are paved, while the rest is on a dirt road through Tarangire National Park. It’s the first “hotel” at which I’ve stayed where on the way there, I pass zebras, giraffes, and lions.


Upon arrival, an attendant escorts me to my “permanent tent”. One of twelve canvas pavilions, each tent has a bleached hardwood floor, a canvas ceiling with ceiling fan, upholstered chairs in a sitting area, fluffy white duvets on comfy beds, a full en-suite bathroom complete with modern cement slab vanity, double sinks, and an indoor and outdoor shower. There is a wooden deck surrounding the tent and you can sit on your front “porch” and watch zebras and elephants walk right on by. It’s surreal. If this is glamping, I am hooked.


It is hot and dusty in Tanzania, so admittedly one of my favorite things is the complimentary laundry service. There’s nothing like clean clothes for the light packer. One interesting caveat, since they have an all male staff, they do not wash women’s underwear, but do give you detergent in your room so you can hand wash your delicates.

And just in case of any emergency, each tent is equipped with a handheld radio.


At night, I am told to give out a sort of “bat signal.” I simply shine the flashlight that I find charging in my tent up toward the treetops and an askaris (night watchman) comes over and escorts me to the dining room. Seem unnecessary? You have to remember we are just living on the grounds of a national park. There is no fence between us and the wild beasts, just the door of the tent, so at night it’s in our best interest to be careful and still be escorted on the lighted pathways.


Each day at camp, you can join a safari drive, take an early walking safari at dawn, or even go jogging with one of the staff just outside of the park at a local “football” field.

“Feeling adventurous?” asks Chris, the property manager. “Want to go for a little walk in the evening?”

“Sure!” I exclaim without even thinking.


We meet at 5:15pm in the open-air lounge and I sign some “you could die” waivers and get the briefing about safe distances between us and the animals and when we might have to freeze or flee. Oh yeah. This is not just a “walk in the park.” A hike in Tanzania is much different than a hike in any park I’ve ever been to. This is the bush. When on safari we are not allowed to get out of the car. But now we are walking away from our lodge—away from any vehicle or shelter—and are literally just on our own out in the wild with 15,000 pound African elephants (the largest land mammals on earth), dangerous buffalo (they are very unpredictable and kill more people in Africa than any other animal) and lions. The big difference? We are escorted by a park ranger carrying an AK-47 and Chris leads the way also carrying a rifle. Of course, I don’t want to die, but I also really don’t want to put any animal in danger. I started having doubts before we even set out. Why should I risk the life of an animal just so I could get closer? That’s the last reason I came to Tanzania. For better or worse, we only see the elephants that were already at the campsite watering hole (therefore distracted with their bathing and cooling off) and some waterbuck. The most dangerous thing we happen upon are some big termite mounds and huge piles of elephant dung.


Sanctuary Swala sits in a remote corner of Tarangire National Park. While it is one of the least visited in Tanzania, it is also teeming with wildlife—massive herds of elephants, giraffes, cape buffalo, wildebeests, zebras, and lions abound. The park is situated in and around Masai tribe country, which makes for a great introduction to the diverse people and landscape of this amazing country.


Sanctuary Swala is run with the philosophy of “luxury, naturally.” This gives you a great combination of a comfortable stay, with a more natural kind of luxury in a place with a very strong commitment to conservation and responsible tourism. The camp has been built with high eco-standards and is said to have a particularly low carbon footprint. Power is run by generator, which is turned off part of the day, and then there is some low battery charged power. The location was chosen to be close to wildlife without causing any harm or distress. Wastewater is carefully managed and they do not use locally made charcoal as it promotes deforestation, instead they use briquettes, which are made locally from agricultural waste for cooking and heating water. Only biodegradable cleaning products are used and waste is sorted and transported to the city of Arusha for recycling. I also really like that, unlike most other properties I’d stayed at so far, they provide water in glass bottles which they refill everyday instead of using plastic water bottles.


Since it’s a small place, dining at Sanctuary Swala is an intimate affair. The fixed menu rotates every six days and one day each week they have a communal barbecue around the campfire. Breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner are included and meals are served on the main dining deck, which is lifted on stilts around an enormous, ancient baobab tree. Breakfast is served before the morning game activity. Lunch can be enjoyed back in camp or picnic baskets can be arranged for guests going out on safari. As evening sets in, there are drinks and canapés around the campfire followed by a three course dinner. And to top it off, there is even an unexpected pizza oven. To be honest, after several days of safari, I loved my time just sitting still in the camp—watching the animals from the lounge and my deck on the edge of the wilderness of Tanzania.

Lisa Lubin is an established travel/food writer, three-time Emmy®-award winning TV producer, and travel industry expert. After a decade in broadcast television she took a sabbatical, which turned into three years traveling around the world. She documents her (mis)adventures on her blog, You can follow her adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Tongabezi…The Best of Victoria Falls

The world’s largest waterfall extends 5,604 feet and crashes into the Zambezi River casting a mist that can be felt for 30 miles…but to unlock the true wonder of Victoria Falls, a stay at Tongabezi Lodge is key. As the first hotel to be built on the upper banks of Zambia’s Zambezi river, Tongabezi has the ultimate location, connections, and expertise to satisfy your every glamping desire.
Founders Ben and Vanessa Parker built the eco-lodge to embrace the area’s African roots and wild environment…without straying too far from Western comforts. This is the base camp for their slew of river activities and where we met for our first culinary adventure.
At the dock, a wooden boat greeted us with a perfectly set table for two. We savored every course as we wound our way up the lively Zambezi.

The spiced lamb kebabs with sauteed okra and tomato (grown in Tongabezi’s very own garden) had the most incredible flavor…a trend that continued with every meal. For a little post-lunch entertainment we coasted by a family of hippos having an afternoon dip.
Escorted by our valet Niambe (all guests have a personal attendant throughout the course of their stay…talk about luxury!), we were presented with two fantastic suites to choose from. One was a gorgeous room directly on the river with nothing but screens keeping you from the sounds and breezes of the Zambezi. The second choice was the “Nut House,” a thatch-roof cottage tucked up on the hill with views out to the river and an infinity plunge pool outside. Both amazing, but who says no to a private pool?
Here is the aqua beauty that won us over, complete with to-die-for views of the wildlife teaming along the riverbank. We swam in the heat of the day and the twinkle of the stars.

Inside our suite, the room was the epitome of African luxury. A staircase brought us down past our bar area to the fireplace lounge area, and then to our grand four-poster bed. The vibrant Zambian textiles, antique accents, and modern amenities made us want move in.

In the afternoon we went on safari at the nearby Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (which means “The Smoke that Thunders,” the Tonga name for the falls). There we saw giraffe, zebra, warthogs, elephants, baboons…but this hippo sighting? It was at dinner! We were on the patio a few feet above the riverbanks and heard the sound of a big mouth chopping and snarfing; we flashed our light and low and behold it was an adolescent hippo a few yards from our table! You’d think with the light he might scurry away, but no, he ate right alongside us throughout our meal and even joined us for some after-dinner drinks.

09. livingstone
Tongabezi is a true pioneer in eco-tourism throughout the region and the best example of that is Livingstone Island. They have exclusive access to this island which literally hangs over the edge of the world’s largest waterfall, providing views that will make your stomach drop and your heart soar. For our full experience at Livingstone Island and the National Park of Victoria Falls, see our Glamping review of their neighboring property Sindabezi Island Camp.
When it comes to ambiance and romance, Tongabezi left us love-struck. Chilled wine awaited us in the room each evening, bubble baths drawn before dinner, hot cocoa and blankets for morning boat rides, and countless other thoughtful touches popped up at every turn. But the gesture that really gave them top billing in our hearts was our dinner on the Sampan. Check out this video clip and imagine sitting with your partner on a floating dining room in the middle of the Zambezi river, enjoying dinner under the glow of lanterns and moonlight, accompanied by the sounds of an African choir growing louder and more beautiful as they row towards you in a canoe. It will take your breath away.

Most mornings we woke up early to take advantage of the cool air and to watch the animals start their day. While out for a sunrise boat ride and fishing adventure, we saw a bit of rustling on the river bank and spotted this feisty pair of elephants having a drink. Press play to see this powerful encounter.
A visit to Tongabezi wouldn’t be complete without at stop at their trust school, Tujatane. It started in 1996 as a primary school for the owner and staff’s children, but with fantastic success it now serves nearly 200 community youth. We took a tour with the principal and he proudly regaled us with stories of students that had gone on to be doctors, pilots, and leaders in their community. Amazingly the school is run entirely on donations and proceeds from the gift shop!
Staying a few nights at Tongabezi and a couple nights at their sister camp Sindabezi was the perfect way to experience the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls. The same river and safari activities are available from both properties –so regardless if you want the excitement of camp or the creature comforts of the hotel, you don’t have to compromise any adventures by day.

Anne and Mike Howard are creators of the around-the-world honeymoon blog and Long Term Travel Coaches for anyone looking to travel the world safely, affordably and off the beaten path. You can follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at @HoneyTrek.