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The Queen at Treetops: Africa's Royal Safari LodgesFebruary 6, 2012
The Daily Telegraph, February 6, 2012
When King George VI died unexpectedly, Princess Elizabeth was at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, watching big game with the Duke of Edinburgh. Brian Jackman recalls his visit to Treetops, and suggests other African safari camps and lodges with a royal connection.
“For the first time in the history of the world,” wrote big-game hunter Jim Corbett in the Treetops logbook, “a young girl climbed into the tree as a princess and climbed down as a queen.” Treetops, founded in 1932, is Kenya’s oldest safari lodge, and Corbett was in residence when Princess Elizabeth learnt of the death of her father while she was staying in a treetop cabin there on an official visit in 1952.
Her momentous visit put Treetops on the map. Overnight it became the world’s most famous tree house, and was the beginning of a royal love affair with Africa that has continued to this day.
The lodge itself is a venerable affair, a wooden triple-decker ship of the forest beached on the edge of a floodlit waterhole in the mountainous Aberdare national park. No need to go jolting around in the bush when you stay here. Instead the animals of the forest come to you – lured by a natural salt lick. Elephant, buffalo and bushbuck are regulars – but bring warm clothes. At 6,450ft the night air is cold.
Book through Kuoni ( www.kuoni.co.uk )
Mara Serena Safari Lodge
The same goes for the Masai Mara national reserve, Kenya’s best-known big game stronghold, where Prince Charles once camped on the hills of Ol Donyo Oseyia. Although less than a hundred miles south of the Equator the Mara is more than 5,000ft above sea level. So, while days are blissfully sunny and warm you’ll be glad of a hot water bottle at night.
The 74-bed Mara Serena Safari Lodge now stands where Prince Charles pitched his tent but you can still enjoy the same sweeping views across the plains, listen to the roars of the Serena lion pride and enjoy a ringside seat for the greatest wildlife show on earth when the Serengeti wildebeest surge across the Mara River at migration time.
Book through Tribes Travel ( www.tribes.co.uk )
Meno a Kwena
Very different are the thirstlands of Botswana, where the endless, scrub-covered Kalahari sands shimmer in the heat haze around Meno a Kwena camp. Set on a low cliff above the seasonal Boteti River, Meno a Kwena (Tooth of the Crocodile) is run by Dave Dugmore, an engagingly laid-back safari hand, and must be the last no-frills bush camp left in Botswana. Its swimming pool fills up with tadpoles and its sun-bleached tents have poles around them to keep the lions out. But none of that stopped princes William and Harry from having a good time there.
Like them, you can use Meno a Kwena as a springboard for day trips into Nxai Pan national park (with cheetah and black-maned Kalahari lion on the tick-list). Or visit Baines’ Baobabs, a sentinel grove of ancient trees whose swollen trunks have been a landmark for centuries in this vast, flat land. Thomas Baines, a contemporary of Livingstone, painted this scene in 1862 and nothing much has changed since then.
Alternatively, come here in the dry season when thousands of zebras pitch up at Meno a Kwena’s artificial waterhole. As Dugmore says: “Why bother with a game drive when you can just grab a beer and watch it all kick off right here in front of you?”
Book through Expert Africa ( www.expertafrica.com )
There must be something about Botswana’s wide open spaces that appeals to Prince Harry, who celebrated his 25th birthday exploring the limpid waters of the Okavango Panhandle on board the Kubu Queen. She is roughly the same age as Prince Harry and started life as a ferry until she sank in the late 1990s. Five years later she was bought for a song, lovingly restored and fitted out as a kind of mobile floating safari lodge based at the waterside village of Shakawe. From here she sets off with six guests at a time on leisurely voyages of exploration among the broad reaches and whispering reed beds of this pristine African river.
In truth, with her faded paintwork and blistered varnish she is a slightly raddled old royal. Never mind. What is good enough for Harry is good enough for me, and I had a brilliant cruise three years ago. Sumptuous meals and bags of character make up for any lack of five-star comforts, and the ultimate luxury is the river itself, an African Everglades teeming with all kinds of wildlife, from frogs to hippos, otters and fish eagles.
Book through Cazenove & Loyd ( www.cazloyd.com )
Lewa Safari Camp
Prince William, meanwhile, had been developing a soft spot for Lewa, a private 65,000-acre wildlife conservancy near Nanyuki in the shadow of Mt Kenya. Lewa is the home of Ian Craig, a quietly-spoken third-generation Kenyan who has transformed his rolling savannah ranch lands into a vital haven for endangered rhinos and Grevy’s zebras.
The 12 luxury tents at Lewa Safari Camp are to die for, each with its shady veranda and en suite bathroom. But Prince William is made of sterner stuff, and it was in a remote cedar log cabin at Rutundu, high above Lewa on the northern slopes of Mt Kenya that he proposed to Catherine Middleton, his royal bride-to-be, in October 2010.
Book through the Ultimate Travel Company ( www.theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk )