"Ele!” our Tanzanian guide, Jeremiah, whispers excitedly. He points in the opposite direction of where we’re parked. He raises his binoculars, starts the engine, and slowly drives toward the banks of the Mara River near Singita’s Mara River Tented Camp in Tanzania.
A glorious East African sunset bathes the sky a creamsicle orange. Thirty feet from our private Land Rover, an “ele,” slang for elephant, has just given birth. The calf, still wet with blood, teeters, falls, and attempts to stand. We name it Jambo — Swahili for hello.
“In my ten years as a guide, I’ve never witnessed a birth,” says Jeremiah, grinning. “This is a real treat.” We are awestruck and anxious, as Jambo is just a few feet from the steep riverbank, where we’ve seen crocodiles stealthily await their prey. The baby wobbles precariously close to the edge as its mom repeatedly uses her trunk to push her newborn toward higher ground. This delicate dance continues for 45 incredible minutes. Once the two are finally safe, mom refuels with acacia leaves while Jambo reaches for milk. Then, suddenly, with a loud stroke of her trunk, the massive female eats her placenta. We are speechless. The only sound now is the click-click of my friend’s Nikon.
Travelers dream about a safari — a bucket list check for most curious adventurers. We envision traversing Africa’s wild heart and witnessing the “Big 5” — lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, Cape buffalo — in action. We prep for it with Google searches and vaccines, buy new cameras, shop for safari outfits, and read field guides. Expectations are high. Yet nothing can prepare you for actually setting foot on African soil. The scent of this storied land — an undeniable mix of earth, clay, lavender, and grass — is the first of many sensory overloads. No matter where you’re from, for most travelers, there’s a feeling of coming home. African wildlife represents a beauty and a brutality that’s at once jarring and reassuring.
At any Singita property, expect gourmet cuisine, fine South African wines, authentic African hospitality, a mix of British colonial and contemporary design, and tented camps best described as glamping on steroids. But be forewarned, if a “one-and-done” safari is what you have in mind, Africa might just leave you hoarding flight miles for a return visit.
The Best of the Bush: South Africa
Exclusive Resorts’ “South Africa: Kruger National Park and Sabi Sand Game Reserve Adventure" features a vetted, best-of-the-bush itinerary. “Wow factor?" Guaranteed. Members start in Johannesburg and then travel to Sweni Lodge, set amidst the southeastern stretch of Singita Kruger National Park. Seven private, one-bedroom suites hug the edge of the Sweni River, which consistently attracts wildlife — not to mention endless photo opportunities. Active travelers can opt for a guided walking safari. Come evening, unwind at Sweni’s Bush Spa and then indulge in a wine-paired meal. Next up, a short charter flight delivers Members to Sabi Sand Game Reserve, where four nights are spent at Singita Ebony Lodge. With 12 secluded, luxe suites nestled along the banks of the Sand River in the heart of South Africa’s big cat country, you can count on heated plunge pools, outdoor showers, and game viewing decks. Spanning upwards of 45,000 acres, Singita Sabi Sand is coveted for its high concentrations of big game. Members will also connect with locals during visits to the nearby towns of Justicia and Lillydale, where the impact of Singita on local communities can be experienced firsthand
The Call of Conservation
When asked if Singita is a hotel or conservation company, Bailes quickly responds, “conservation.” His vision was seeded 25 years ago when he opened Singita Ebony Lodge in 1993 on family-owned land. The first of his sustainable luxury lodges sprinkled across Africa. Ebony Lodge — a model marrying hospitality with wilderness experiences to support conservation — anchors his company’s plan. “We have a 100-year vision, and that is to protect large tracts of wilderness for future generations,” Bailes explains. “We are very strategic and methodical in the way we think through the future. We’re not driven by money. We’re driven by purpose.”
Singita’s purpose is manifold, embracing conservation and supporting local communities and intense anti-poaching efforts, all while delivering exceptional service to a high-end clientele. The company’s heartbeat, though, is the very land on which its guests explore. “I realized Africa was in trouble, and it’s gotten progressively worse, which intensifies our mission,” Bailes says. “Africa’s population is doubling, from 1.2 to 2.4 billion by 2050. It’s frightening, and it’s putting so much pressure on the land.” While Singita guests also contribute on an ever-increasing philanthropic level, the challenges — mass tourism, population booms, and poaching — are many. So, how will Bailes measure success? “We want to protect large pieces of land. At the end of the day, when are you finished with that? Never.”
Game Drives + Sundowners
When witnessing my first lion in the bush, I got goosebumps as it slowly walked within four feet of our truck. “Remain still,” advised our guide. I dutifully followed orders while imagining what could happen if it actually jumped in the doorless vehicle. Soon enough, I realized that humans are insignificant to these animals, though safety remains paramount on game drives. By the end of my ten days in Africa, I will have run through the bush behind a Maasai warrior (safety vehicles nearby), witnessed the Great Migration (this is reason enough to plan a trip), watched cheetahs, rhinos, wildebeest, and warthogs navigate prey, and hot-air ballooned at dawn, soaring over the mating rituals of a pair of lions. While staying at Sasakwa Lodge in Tanzania, our final sundowner — the requisite British tradition of toasting the fleeting sun with gin and tonic in hand — is celebrated to our song request: “Africa” by Toto. Cliché, perhaps, though it’s a moment of indelible connection with our guide as he teaches us traditional African dance moves. We return to the lodge with our spotlight scanning the dark horizon for flashes of eyes. Suddenly, we discover a parade of lions on the prowl.
“When you see animals kill one another, it’s survival of the fittest,” Bailes says. “There’s a very harsh reality, and it’s not the idyllic life for these animals. They’re always under pressure, always looking over their shoulder to survive. There’s this cycle I’m always very aware of — birth and death — and I’m reminded of it all the time.” Indeed, the animals are always center stage, yet the following day, while at Singita’s anti-poaching Joint Operations Center (JOC), I met their fierce protectors.
Betting Against Ivory: Anti-Poaching Pursuits
Wesley Gold, Singita Grumeti Fund’s Law Enforcement Manager, greets us with a smile and welcoming demeanor, yet as we tour the JOC near Sasakwa Lodge, it’s readily apparent he means business. Formerly stationed in Afghanistan and having served ten years in the British Army, Royal Regiment of Scotland, Gold’s mission here is also dangerous. His task? Helming an impressive anti-poaching operation with one of the highest ratios of scouts per square kilometer. Launched in 2003, Singita’s scout force now employs 104 game scouts. Gold, brought on in 2016 with a mandate to restructure law enforcement operations, utilizes cutting-edge surveillance technology. The scout force has, to date, caught more than 5,000 poachers. According to the film The Ivory Game, in the past 100 years, African elephant populations have diminished by 97 percent. More than 50 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants could be killed in the next ten years if illegal poaching continues at the current rate.
Gold walks us through the grounds, which include an air-conditioned dog kennel housing a new, elite canine unit, a CrossFit gym to keep his Special Operations teams in top shape, and an operations room that’s surrounded by surveillance monitors. The pursuit of protection is prescient. If these elephants, considered among the most intelligent creatures on the globe, can’t be saved, how will Africa survive? In partnership with Paul Allen’s Vulcan company, recent technology-based anti-poaching initiatives include introducing a new Domain Awareness System (DAS). It streamlines information on snares, fires, poaching camps, charcoal, and illegal cattle. Additionally, drones and Reconex cameras assist in locating animals not readily visible by helicopter. “Africa is as close to the garden of Eden as I’ll ever get,” explains Gold about his relentless determination to protect it. Most visitors can relate and leave Singita feeling called to action. Bailes adds, “Guests come into our world and say, ‘How can we be more involved?’”
If private game reserves are its calling card, Singita’s staff is its soul. Given the brand’s reputation for stellar service and cuisine, it’s surprising that most employees are from local communities versus high-end hotel programs. At Singita, guests are treated to exceptional hospitality, from personalized dinner menus incorporating dietary preferences to lodge managers who set a top-down tone of individualized professionalism. “We look for people with passion, first and foremost, and enthusiasm,” says Bailes. “If you have those two qualities, you can train almost anybody. The African way is so friendly. It’s what I call genuine sincerity. We give them full ownership of their roles.”
A visit to the Singita School of Cooking, headquartered near Sasakwa Lodge in Tanzania, is the quintessential example of the brand’s education and training programs. The school originally opened in 2007 in South Africa and expanded to Tanzania in 2015. Ten local students train for 12 months per class, and most begin work at Singita lodges and camps. One 30-year-old student recently completed an internship at the esteemed Blue Hill Farm in New York. Her trip to the United States marked the first time she’d ever been on an international flight. At all Singita properties, service with a smile isn’t forced, which allows for an authentic sense of place. Singita’s Chief Marketing Officer Lindy Rousseau adds, “You don’t need to teach someone how to relate to another human being. Hotel schools have taken away the natural entertainment and hospitality gene people naturally have. We just allow them to blossom.”
The Future is Now
So what’s next for Bailes and his 100-year vision? First up, the anticipated Singita Kwitonda Lodge. Located adjacent to Volcanoes National Park, more than one-third of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas live in the high-altitude cloud forests of the small, enchanting country of Rwanda. Conservation efforts will be robust, helping to improve the buffer area between agricultural plots and the habitat of the estimated 320 mountain gorillas. Guests can experience gorilla tracking in Rwanda, then a classic safari at Singita Serengeti in Tanzania. And though details are pending, Singita devotees may soon have a new reason to visit Mozambique, as Bailes hints at a unique opening on a major coastline. “The fascinating thing about Africa is you keep going back, and it’s never the same,” he says. “Every time you go, you will see something for the first time. People often say to us, ‘That was life-changing.’”