The Serengeti: Tonight We’re on Safari…Like it’s 1909

Our tent at &Beyond’s Serengeti Under Canvas

If you’ve ever wanted to travel like Teddy Roosevelt in days of yore (minus the animal poaching), I’d suggest transporting yourselves to Tanzania‘s elegant, far-flung Serengeti Under Canvas.

After all, when’s the last time you washed your face over a copper sink, lay down in a bed beneath a sparkly chandelier, and listened to a herd of wildebeest rustling just outside your tent?

Serengeti Under Canvas was our last safari camp in Africa, and when I dwell on it for longer than a minute, I get stuck in an Inception-like rut — playing its sights and sounds over in my mind on in a loop. Two canvas deck chairs with a long, sloping view of emerald hills teeming with zebra; two cups of tea on a silver tray brought right to our zippered door; and the shared, rumbling roar of two lions rutting just out of view in the pitch black night.

Run by sustainable luxury outfitter &Beyond Africa (the safari company we used for our entire trip through Botswana and Tanzania), Serengeti Under Canvas is split into two mobile camps that pick up and move every few weeks to follow the Great Migration around Serengeti National Park.

Each camp is akin to the other, and ours had: big public tents for dining and living rooms as well as a small library; an open-air dining area set each day anew with tables and chairs; a complex network of tents for the full-service kitchen and all the staff; and several guest tents dotted along a series of hard-packed, barely-lit paths. Each guest tent has an outdoor sink and shower; a double bed; electric lighting; and an indoor sink and standard porcelain toilet. Every meal is served with china and glassware, and the bar is always stocked.

We hadn’t been at the camp 10 minutes before we realized that breaking down, packing up and moving an operation like this anywhere, much less the rocky, grassy plains of East Africa, would be an epic undertaking.

Those first 10 minutes, by the way, followed a (semi-) epic undertaking of our own. We’d flown that morning in a 12-seat charter plane from up near Ngorongoro Crater over to Lake Manyara and on to the Serengeti, sweeping low over the Mara River and landing amidst a verdant swath of herds and flies. We were shortly having coffee with our safari guide (who despite being unfortunately named Cyst, was warm and funny with an easy smile and a quick-to-rise eyebrow) and our truck-mates, Anne and Gary, both Aussie expats and longtime friends, busy leading a life of fascination, hard work and fast-flowing bubbly in thrifty Bangkok. In Tanzania to celebrate a milestone birthday for Anne, they would welcome us into their lives and delicious snark over the next two days, then eventually continue on to the antique and oceanic fabulousness of Zanzibar.

(Oh, how I was jealous. I mean, seriously, what word, what place, sounds more fantastic than Zanzibar?! You almost have to say it like: Zannnnnnziiibarrrrr.)

On our little crew’s first day out with Cyst, an accomplished photographer who admitted to being happiest in the company of terrifying animals, we learned that enormous boulders stud the Serengeti, a Spider-Man lizard is a real thing, and if someone tells you that two million some-odd wildebeest slog along for the Great Migration every year, you should believe them. Before we’d even make it to camp that day, we’d see at least 20,000 of them, heavy-headed, loping and driven by a desperate need to graze.

We would also see something so nakedly primal and horrid and sad that I don’t think I can ever forget it. One of these wildebeest, isolated from her herd, pregnant and in bleating distress, struggled to give birth to a stillborn calf. One minute later, a flock of enormous vultures descended as if on cue and, shooing the tragic mother away with their looming wings, tore the fetus to shreds. Amidst the melee, Cyst pointed out that one of these scary scavengers was the majestic and endangered Rüppell’s Griffon, the world’s highest-flying bird.

And that’s Africa for you, folks. Take the amazing with the sometimes unspeakably awful.

We were greeted back at camp by a full lineup of khaki-clad men who live much of the year out in the bush, away from the company of women. (Honestly, I’ve rarely felt so dusty and graciously admired all at once.) Their hierarchy was a well-oiled machine, their regard for one another clear and heartfelt; it was as though we’d found ourselves at a peacetime army officers’ club in the northern midst of nowhere.

While we lounged on a leather sofa, our quiet, small and sixty-something butler, Julius, arranged our shower for us right away. At Under Canvas, a shower for two comes once a day, pre-heated in a large canvas bag that’s been capped with an aluminum shower head and affixed to a hook above a screened-in (and well-covered) area at the back of each tent.

That first shower, standing beneath a stream of hot water all but outdoors in the freakin’ Serengeti, Adam and I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all. Then we got dressed beneath our in-tent chandeliers — and laughed again.

And only partially because we had a butler, as though we were all characters in Jeeves and Wooster in the African Bush.

That evening, Adam and I dined by lantern-light beneath a cloud-shrouded moon, wineglasses in hand, surrounded by four other couples and one Austrian gem magnate taking a break from sport hunting to simply look at animals. (Charming.) Later on, Gary and I would speculate that two men sitting together and dressed exactly alike were actually a couple — and we were right. A pair of doctors from Arizona, these guys (one guy large, pink and cheerfully sweaty, the other small, bespectacled and obsessed with birds) were actually on their honeymoon, and the entire staff were sweet and supportive of their union, wishing them congratulations and continued years of happiness. 

Later on, in bed, we sat up with eyes wide and ears open, listening to the warm snufflings of wildebeest grazing just outside. I recalled thinking that as over the top as it might seem to be out in one of Earth’s wildest places in a fancy-ass tent for the simple pleasure of being far from home, I couldn’t imagine trading it for all the wildebeest in Africa.

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See also
Olduvai Gorge: Way the Hell Back in Time
Shifting Sands: In the Wind
Ngorongoro Crater: Africa’s Amazing Hobbit Shire
Ngorongoro Crater: Survival of the Fittest
Ngorongoro Crater: Way Beyond the Rim
TWT Travel Binder: Tanzania

and
My Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta series
Off to (a Birthday Safari in) Africa
Africa: Turns Out, It’s Really There
Logistics of an African Safari

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