Imagine capping off four days of meetings in Johannesburg or Nairobi with a heart-stopping flight across the African veldt, seeing wildebeest migrating and lions and hyenas tracking them. Then picture yourself after a dusty but invigorating game drive relaxing in your own plunge pool or having a massage in a tented spa, where you can watch an elephant family move before you as if in slow motion. Now imagine the gentle tinkle of ice in your gin and tonic as you watch the African sun go down.
Africa as a meeting point for global business travelers has a rare advantage: It’s one of the world’s most coveted leisure destinations. The World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2018 Travel and Tourism Economic Impact Report states that a whopping 69.5 percent of Africa’s direct travel and tourism GDP in 2017 was leisure-oriented compared to 30.5 percent for business travel spend. But both are expected to grow in the coming years, and the “bleisure” traveler (the combination of business and leisure dollars) is going to be all the more important in 2019 and beyond.
Nowhere else in the world but Africa will a short flight or drive get you from the board room to the wildness of an animal-rich savannah in under an hour.
Business travelers flying South African Airways from JFK to Johannesburg, for instance, have access to the Kruger National Park, one of the world’s best places to see the “Big Five” of game fame: lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo.
Travelers flying new direct routes to East Africa on Kenya Airways’ recently debuted New York to Nairobi route can get to the Maasai Mara, that massive expanse of wild sanctuary in the direct path of the Great Migration.
Safaris and safari lodges are traditionally the best way both to see wildlife and to steal some well-deserved days for rest and relaxation after finishing up meetings and business travel and just before heading home on flights that can be over 15 hours long. Some lodges are also large enough to host buyouts of up to 50 people: perfect for intimate incentive groups, wildlife-inspired board meetings or small group team building.
Small aircraft safari operators like Scenic Air Safaris (scenicairsafaris.com), a Nairobi-based company, can get travelers to the lodges and Africa’s wilderness in under an hour, with flights on small light aircraft that are so thrilling they’re often one of the best parts of an already peak experience. The agile airplanes can get down low, tracking migrations of wildebeest and coming amazingly close to large animals like elephants and giraffe. Other wildlife you can see near the Mara include over 500 species of birds like pink flamingos and more.
Flying into Sir Richard Branson’s tented Mahali Mzuli camp on the Maasai Mara, for instance, lets you see animals from above like lion, cheetah, even crocodiles and hippos in the Mara’s rivers. Because the land is traditionally tended by Maasai people, the flyover also lets you see young Maasai warriors, elders and children tending their precious herds of cattle.
Scenic Air Safari’s marketing director Simon Penfold explains the remarkable diversity of the wildlife. “Animals will vary on geographic location. Northern Kenya differs from the southern reaches. Examples would be the different species of zebra: the endangered Grevys in the north and the not-so-endangered Burchells in the south,” Penfold says.
“Gerenuk which is an antelope that stands on its hind legs to feed is only found in the north, as are many bird species. It largely depends on what you want to see. If business travelers on leisure holidays or small incentive groups or team builders have specific animals on their list then we will tailor an itinerary specifically to include sightings of those animals.”
Different African countries offer their own specific species, Penfold says. “Ethiopia has different wildlife to Kenya – although they share some of the same, by and large they are completely different. The Ethiopian Wolf, The Gelada Monkey and the Ibex antelope are only found in Ethiopia.
“The best time of year depends on what you want to see,” Penfold says. The Great Wildebeest Migration takes place year round between the Serengeti and Maasai Mara as the animals move in a giant circle. However, the biggest attraction is watching the wildebeest cross the Mara River in their thousands, dodging hungry crocodiles. The best time for this is when they migrate north into the Maasai Mara in July and then back into the Serengeti in October.”
Africa’s natural diversity is on display all year round, but some seasons seem to put on a better show, Penfold says. “My favorite time of year in East Africa is May and June, after the long rains. Everything is really green, animals have all had babies and plenty of grass to eat. It’s not too hot. The acacia trees are all in bloom. The wild flowers are out. The smell of Africa is at its strongest and one feels alive and in tune with nature. It’s just amazing.”
Small groups or individual business travelers have a wide range of accommodations from luxury camps to lodges to choose from. “There is a difference between a camp and a lodge,” says Penfold. Camps are tented canvas and lodges are stone with thatch roofs. What distinguishes them as ‘luxury’ would be the overall standard of accommodation (beds, mattresses, fixtures and fittings), amenities (pool, spa, facilities), service, cuisine and of course excellent guiding. In my book it’s almost impossible to compare any safari product to international hotel grading standards.
“You won’t find televisions or a running machine in a safari camp,” Penfold explains. “But you might just find a minibar with ice in one or two of the better ones. What we grade as five-star would be an all-round exemplary experience and a large part of that falls on the shoulders of your safari guide. This can make or break a safari. Lodges tend to be bigger with more public areas and amenities. Swimming pools, spas, gyms and the rooms can have air conditioning.”
Some of Africa’s most amazing experiences can be found in these lodges and camps. Although the list of opportunities is phenomenal, we’ve chosen a few highlights:
andBeyond’s Phinda Private Game Reserve
The game reserve encompasses protected wildlife land in KwaZulu-Natal. To get there take an Airlink flight from Johannesburg to the Phinda airstrip (with a connection in Nelspruit). Arrive early afternoon and have plenty of time for that day’s afternoon game drive. Alternately you can fly to Durban and do a three-hour road transfer.
The name Phinda means “return to the wild” and when the camp opens up this July after a recent refurbishment, guests will see why. Phinda has seven distinct ecosystems from palm savannah and mountain bush to rare sand forest and dense thornveld. Animals you may see include black and white rhino, lions, cheetahs and night turtles. You can also do Zulu village tours with andBeyond’s staff.
The property includes 17 suites, three family cottages, and one family suite, and will accommodate 50 guest in all. The company itself was founded with a mission to give back to the communities within their lodge areas, another reason to feel good about a stay at Phinda.
andBeyond’s Ngala Safari Lodge
Another andBeyond property, the Ngala Safari Lodge is poised at the edge of the Kruger National Park. Game drives in Ngala will most likely entail viewings of the famous “Big Five,” as well as cheetahs and an abundance of birdlife. Ngala has a relaxed “Out of Africa” ambiance and can accommodate up to 45 guests.
For more information visit andbeyond.com/destinations/africa and look under the South Africa tab for Phinda Private Game Reserve and Ngala Private Game Reserve.
Mahali Mzuri (virginlimitededition.com/en/mahali-mzuri) is Sir Richard Branson’s 12-tented luxury safari camp in the Kenyan Bush, part of Branson’s Limited Edition of luxury properties. At Mahali Mzuri you’ll have a front row seat, not just to the migration, but also to the abundant game you can see all year round.
The camp is situated in the private Olare Motorogi Conservancy in the wider Maasai Mara ecosystem. It weaves Maasai culture into the entire experience from game drives with local Maasai warriors dressed in traditional Shuka garb (the plaid cotton clothes that are worn while warriors are on watch with their cattle) to visits to local Maasai villages with local guides to dinners under the stars in thorn wood bomas (the circular fences that surround a Maasai village).
Many of the camp’s staffers are local to the area and will gladly share lore, legends and history of their villages and ancestors.
A game drive with a Maasai guide who has grown up with the animals is a rare, wild and astonishingly accessible way to view this magical place. It’s the kind of experience which inspired Out of Africa author Isak Dinesan to write, “Looking back on a sojourn in the African highlands, you are struck by your feeling of having lived for a time up in the air.”