Saving the Serengeti on $1,500 a Day
Sitting on the promontory of Sasakwa Hill, overlooking the boundless sun-washed Serengeti, I watched the shadow of a cloud move over the landscape. It was a dark shadow shaped like an arrow with a very long shaft. At first I didn't take much notice. I was more interested in a late afternoon nap.
I closed my eyes. "Clouds aren't shaped like arrows," I thought sleepily. "They don't have skinny tails that stretch for 10 miles. And there isn't a cloud in sight."
I opened my eyes and studied the shadow again, this time through a telescope. Through the haze of dust sent up by a hundred thousand (or two hundred thousand, or maybe a million) hooves, I saw that this was in fact a mass of wildebeest, the rear guard of nearly 2 million grazing animals that annually pass within view of Grumeti Reserves, possibly the world's most luxurious eco-tourism resort.
Backed largely through the efforts of the American financier and environmental philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones, the 10-month-old resort specifically exists to sustain the local economy and protect the unimpeded migration of huge herds of wildebeest, zebra and other grass-eaters through the isolated Western Corridor of the Serengeti ecosystem. This eternal migration is a continuous, circular movement of animals following the rains in search of food. It is a spectacle unequaled anywhere else in the world, and though the governments of Kenya and Tanzania have gone to great lengths to protect it, poaching has taken a huge toll. But with the founding of Grumeti, the animals now have safe passage through an additional 338,000 acres.
Grumeti can accommodate only 54 guests in two lodges and one tented camp. Most stay for a week or so, enough time to take advantage of many of the activities offered: wildlife walks and drives, equestrian safaris, and tennis, croquet and archery. Experiencing the Serengeti in such privacy costs upward of a thousand dollars per person per day; add grand cru wines, spa treatments and hot-air ballooning, and the price tag heads even farther north. But if the thought of enjoying so much luxury in a land where so many people have so little causes guilt pangs, consider that Grumeti supports the economy of five local villages, whose people work as waitstaff, gardeners, masons and carpenters. The resort also supports more than a hundred rangers hired to patrol the area, many of them reformed poachers lured by Grumeti's higher wages.
Sasakwa Lodge is Grumeti's poshest property. Its design evokes the golden era of colonial living (well, at least it was golden for the colonists), with chintz-covered furniture, dark-wood billiard tables, cut-crystal port decanters, prodigious displays of flowers and a library filled with first editions of Africana. The whole thing looks as if it were transplanted from the world of Karen Blixen; in fact, the designers' office is near the Blixen home, in the Ngong Hills outside Nairobi.
Just after my group arrived at the lodge atop Sasakwa Hill, we saw a troupe of elephants crossing the plain for a late afternoon visit to the water hole. Leaving our bags still packed, we quickly drove down and sequestered ourselves in a stand of trees while "the ellies"—as we soon learned to call them—came in.
Once I got over the thrill of being so close to such majestic animals, it struck me that the difference between seeing wildlife on TV with a narrator and a sound track and experiencing it in the wild is the sound. Elephants walking through a stand of trees crack tree limbs and rustle branches as loudly as an approaching storm. Their breath as they exhale is even louder, sounding like the air brakes on an 18-wheeler. My wife, Melinda, snapped photos, then stopped in awe as the elephants came closer and closer until they were no more than 10 feet away. As for me, I hunched my shoulders and prayed the huge beasts didn't decide to overturn our jeep just for jollies.
Back at Sasakwa, cocktails and dinner awaited. My brother, Don, picked out a Woody Guthrie tune on the guitar and sipped a glass of whiskey. I looked over a lengthy wine list that included vintages of Haut-Brion and Puligny-Montrachet, a wide selection of South African wines, and a well chosen smattering of Australian, New Zealand and American bottles. I'm a fool for white Burgundies—or any Burgundy for that matter—so I chose a '99 Puligny for the fish course, musselcracker flown in that morning fresh from the docks of Zanzibar. A lovely bottle of Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara went perfectly with roasted loin of wildebeest (occasionally a wounded animal is taken for the table rather than left to the hyenas and vultures who would otherwise get it), served rosy rare and crusty, with a brawny red wine sauce fortified with wildebeest broth. With the windows in the dining room wide open, a cool wind rose from the savanna. We dined by the light of huge silver candelabras and a king-size fire in the hearth.
A few days later, we moved down to the Sabora Plains Tented Camp (the third of the lodges, the Faru Faru River Lodge, was still under construction during my visit). There are up to six tented suites, all with billowing raw silk curtains, canopied beds, thick Persian carpets and hardwood camp furniture with brass fittings. Each dawn when I opened my eyes and drew back the curtain, I would gaze across the endless plain, dotted here and there with acacia trees, the only movement the stately passage of the great herds of grass-eaters, the comic ballerina-like dance of ostriches, the flick-flick-flick of the gazelles' tails.
One afternoon we left the camp to follow a mother cheetah as she taught her cubs to stalk, their movements as diffidently elegant as a runway model's. The cheetahs were not bothered by our presence as long as we maintained our distance. A recent rain had brought forth a fresh growth of grass that attracted game and the creatures, like the cheetah, that preyed on them. Lion, cheetah and leopard fed often and gluttonously on the zebra and wildebeest, impala and gazelles.
For humans, the food at all three properties ranges from modern European-American—filet mignon with a bordelaise sauce, or frenched rack of lamb with pommes Anna—to traditional Tanzanian. Because Tanzania's heritage encompasses Arab, Indian and African cultures, local recipes rely on a wide range of spices: clove, cumin, cardamom, chiles.
I eagerly accepted an invitation to spend a day in the kitchen at Sabora. I chopped and diced onions and tomatoes for a wonderful Tanzanian salad called katchambari, delicious with chicken wrapped in a banana leaf and infused with spices. And although the combination of beef and cabbage has never thrilled me, I revised my opinion once I tried a version made by local Ikoma and Masai called mseto, mixed with okra, coconut milk, cinnamon, cardamom and ginger.
My favorite time in the kitchen was watching the Tanzanian chef, Hassani Iddi, make chapati, the Indian flat bread that Tanzanians eat with every meal. Hassani never varied his movements: He rolled and trimmed each ball of the dough, rolled it up again like a croissant and finally flattened it. I have often thought that such concentration on a simple but exacting task is the mark of a true chef.
One morning Melinda and I celebrated our 20th anniversary by taking our daughters Lucy and Lily for a full English breakfast in the bush: bacon, sausages, eggs and fried tomatoes served on white linen and fine china, with Champagne iced down in silver buckets. On another day, we played tennis on courts made from ground-up termite mounds, which produce an excellent claylike surface! We had the unusual experience of watching our out-of-bounds balls scattering the ostriches and gazelles that nibbled the grass surrounding the court. Another afternoon, we rode horses in a meadow where elephants browsed among the trees along its borders. Grumeti is one of the only places in the Serengeti where one may ride horses in the wild.
My most memorable outing was a late afternoon bike ride with my daughters. We pedaled along a dusty road (followed by an escort car with an armed guard in case of an unwanted wildlife encounter). Parallel to us no more than 50 yards away, a long line of zebra marched along. The slanting light grew more golden by the minute as we rode without speaking, the zebra brushing the grass aside with the sound of a gentle surf and our bicycle tires crunching against the sandy road. As African experiences go, I suppose this was not the stuff of epic poetry, but I could not have wished to be anywhere else in the universe except on that dusty road, with those shambling zebra and my kids. I was reminded of a Swahili saying that Hassani told me while fashioning his flat breads: "Haraka, haraka haina baraka." ("Hurry, hurry brings no blessings.")
Peter Kaminsky collaborated with chef Michel Richard on Richard's forthcoming book, Happy in the Kitchen, due out this fall.