Maasai women must build a home for their husbands once they are wed.
Maasai women must build a home for their husbands once they are wed. Denise Pickering

Where to find luxury in the African bush

IF THE bird songs don't gently awaken you then the soft steps on the tent's deck will as the Maasai house boy delivers your tray of steaming pots of tea and coffee.

You will lift your head from the crisp, white pillow and the vista of acacia and elephants in the distance will leave you in no doubt you are in the land of iconic animals and breathtaking landscapes.

This is glamping, African-style, where the luxury tent accommodation hidden deep within national parks, nearly, just nearly, steals the show from the wildlife.

Safari companies have done their homework well, creating not only remarkable five-star tent and mesh structures in the untouched wilderness, but luxury lodges delivering five-star comfort, impeccable service and international cuisine.

We were on safari in east Africa, sampling three of Sanctuary Retreats' most exclusive lodges - Swala in southern Tanzania, Kusini on the Serengeti in northern Tanzania, and Olonana in the Maasai Mara in southern Kenya.

Each property is individual in its design, but operated around the philosophy of "Luxury, naturally".

Expect super king beds with white linen and draping nets, but only canvas and insect mesh to separate you from nature.

It defies belief how they equip these tents with hot showers, flushing toilets and power to recharge phones, laptops and cameras all at once. Although wi-fi is available, who on earth would want to connect with the outside world?

Each camp is a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. So too, a retreat.

The first Sanctuary Retreat, Olonana, opened in Kenya in 1999. The company now operates lodges and camps in Zambia, Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa.


Sanctuary Olonana's rustic lodge offers luxurious comfort.
Sanctuary Olonana's rustic lodge offers luxurious comfort. Denise Pickering

Building on its heritage of luxury adventure travel, it now runs six expedition cruise ships in the epic rivers - the Yangtze in China, the Nile in Egypt and the Irrawaddy in Myanmar.

Our first introduction to Sanctuary was Camp Swala, in a remote corner of the Tarangire, one of the most exciting and least visited parks in Tanzania.

Ancient baobab trees and ambling elephants are the jaw-dropping backdrop in this secluded setting.

And you don't have to be on safari to get up close and personal with the wildlife in this area.

Impala are everywhere in the camp grounds, cheeky monkeys steal your breakfast at lightning speed when you least expect it and a wild cat darts in and out of the shadows as guests dine under the stars.


Sanctuary Swala offers secluded tent accommodation as good as any five-star hotel.
Sanctuary Swala offers secluded tent accommodation as good as any five-star hotel. Denise Pickering

It was a different scenario at Camp Kusini, in the south central Serengeti, where the close encounters are likely to be with one of the Big Five at your tent's doorstep. A lion kill at the lodge's front door was a stark reminder that we were as close to wild Africa as you can possibly get. Sanctuary Kusini is the only permanent camp in this unspoilt and remote part of the Serengeti where every year nearly two million wildebeest, impala and zebra congregate on the camp's "doorstep" in one of the world's most spectacular wildlife migrations.

The personalised safaris were every bit as good as the fantastic reviews they receive, but so were the hours spent back at camp. Kusini offers one of the best sunset views in the world from the kopjes (boulders) located within the camp and overlooking the spectacular plains.

We sat on blankets on huge boulders, our cameras focused on the orange-red sky.

Camp waiters brought our glasses of red and the peace and beauty of our surrounds engulfed us.

We loved Kusini and with a heavy heart flew out of the Serengeti bound for our final destination, the small and exclusive Camp Olonana, the first of Sanctuary's luxury safari properties in the Maasai Mara.

This is heart-stopping safari country and the big cats, hippos, giraffes and elephants thrilled us for hundreds of safari kilometres.

But the Mara is also home to the Maasai, the ancestral inhabitants of the area, and Sanctuary Olonana gives guests the opportunity to take a fully escorted tour into not only the villages, but their homes.

Denise Pickering was a guest of Sanctuary Retreats Swala, Kusini and Olonana. She travelled courtesy of Emirates and Coastal Aviation.


These hippos in the Mara River, just below our tent, display the huge open-mouthed
These hippos in the Mara River, just below our tent, display the huge open-mouthed 'yawn' that reveals their formidable teeth. Denise Pickering