Travelers keen on Africa have dozens of options, but even upscale safaris have one drawback.
Amid the lions and giraffes and gazelles, there are other travelers. No sooner is one of the Big Five spotted than a platoon of radio-ed Land Cruisers barrels in with excitable tourists and aimed telephoto camera lenses.
This is not a problem in Katavi National Park, the stunning, remote preserve in Western Tanzania. Whereas the country's more famed park, the Serengeti, draws upward of 200,000 annual visitors, Katavi is half as big and rarely attracts 2,000. During my three-day visit, we passed a solitary Jeep with two people.
"That's it," said our guide, Tom Lithgow of Firelight Expeditions, as we barreled past. "This huge park is all your own!"
True enough. We never saw anyone again — not at Paradise Plains, which teemed with herds of zebras and bushbucks; not at the riverside watering hole where monkeys bounded among the elephants and giraffes; not at the river teeming with hippos and crocodiles.
We had, if possible, begun our week's trip in even greater isolation: on an island. Lupita Island is a 130-acre private retreat on Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in the world at more than 400 miles north to south. Plunging 4,000 feet, it is the world's second-deepest, behind only Lake Baikal in Russia.
With its brilliant blue waters set off by the looming mountains of the African Rift, all that breaks the tranquility are the chirping of birds and the muted singsong from fishermen who set out each night from the mainland in their zebra-striped canoes. Though we'd arrived on a spiffy speedboat, it was not hard to imagine the great explorers of the 19th century — Livingstone, Burton, Speke — battling their way a thousand miles inland and stumbling on this pristine body of water that they hoped was the source of the Nile.
Lupita Island today is a destination for adventurous visitors who like their seclusion with a dose of luxury. Scarcely visible from the water, the lavishly decorated, thatched-roof "cottages" average 2,000 square feet, and all have open-air views of the lake. There's a swimming pool, spa and fully equipped gym with its own spectacular vista.
Golf carts whisk guests to a wharf for lake activities including kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving. One day, the resort boat delivered us to a sandy white beach where staff had prepared a barbecue lunch. Another morning we crossed a narrow causeway and took an hour's walk through fields of yucca to a village where women in brilliantly colored dresses dried the men's night fish catch on rocks.
Accommodations range from $2,200 for an 1,800-square-foot cottage to $3,400 for a two-bedroom, two-bath suite. Included are almost all activities, liquor and meals, which Lithgow accurately described as "gourmet cuisine but with an African twist." Did I mention there are no mosquitoes? In six years of operation, a single harmless snake once fell from a tree, Lithgow told us. For serious wildlife, one needs to return to the mainland and the interesting if bumpy four-hour ride to Palahala Camp in Katavi.
I'd been on safaris before but never felt so much a part of the landscape, a sprawling mix of woodland, savannahs and marsh. We climbed out of our Land Cruiser for a picnic by a watering hole, and within minutes a group of giraffes emerged from trees on the opposite bank to drink. Reedbucks joined them, then elephants. Monkeys scampered by our chairs. A muddy, sluggish river turned out to be wall-to-wall hippos. We saw too many crocodiles to count. Warthogs, my vote for most adorable animal, constantly trotted across our path.
Enjoying our lavish buffet breakfast one morning, we were startled to find an extremely large elephant and her baby lumber from the brush to within 20 yards of our table. Our unflappable guide seemed mostly concerned one would stomp on a riverside viewing platform.
"Easy there," Lithgow said in his most soothing voice, gesturing us to hold still. "We're just sitting here. Nothing to get excited about, big fella."
The elephants eventually wandered off, leaving us to finish our eggs Benedict.
Our last afternoon we set out on a "safari walk" through the bush, Lithgow leading the way with a very large rifle and accompanied by a park ranger with an AK-47. It was reassuring to have the armed guard, especially when Lithgow pointed out fresh leopard tracks on the path. Hippos presented a more likely danger, though the one we encountered was lolling oblivious in a deep spring; we watched from folding chairs on the surrounding rocks, set up by the camp's prescient staff who poured cocktails and passed around hors d'oeuvres.
The food was every bit as good as on Lupita. We stayed in spacious permanent tents that were a few minutes' walk from the main lounge overlooking the Katuma River, the fishing ground of eagles, cranes and storks.
In operation for 15 years, Firelight Expeditions is co-owned by Lithgow and his wife, Belinda. Lithgow is a "born-and-bred" Tanzanian who grew up taking safaris with his father, a guide for the likes of Hemingway and Roy Rogers. A great raconteur and wildlife expert, he will lead any groups of 10 or more personally.
To reach Lupita Island, we flew British Airways to Dar es Salaam and connected to a scheduled internal flight. Charter flights offer other options. Our trip comprised three days at Lupita, three days at Camp Palahala; pairing these very different experiences makes for a great "second trip to Africa," said Lithgow, though they could just as easily serve as an introduction.
Agents can arrange trips directly through the website, FirelightExpeditions.com