What is bush chic? It refers to establishments in Africa’s safari country that regularly garner truckloads of awards from Condé Nast, Travel & Leisure, Tattler and a string of other notable travel magazines.  It caters for upscale clients who are willing to pay for plush after a day out in the wild to track wildlife on vehicles, elephant and horseback or from balloons, boats or helicopters. 

These establishments come in all forms and shapes. Tents, bandas, rondawels and chalets. Regardless of the level of luxury they are all required to conform to one golden rule: Don’t mess with Mother Nature. Stay eco-friendly and blend in with the surroundings.

One wonders what President Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent safarist in his day, would say if he were alive today.

In the early 1900s he sent a card to friends to show off his rather basic tent in East Africa where he had gone on what was termed “the safari of the century.” 

“My boma where I was camped alone,” Roosevelt proudly wrote under a grainy picture of a tent adorned with the American flag. It went out in postcard format to his friends and admirers.

What Roosevelt paid in total for this “comfort” amounted to $75,000 in 1909 (today’s equivalent of well over a million dollars). Today for about the rate that one would pay at a first-class hotel in a major city safarists can stay at luxury tents that offer teak floors, chandeliers, soft beds, great decor, privateb plunge pools and the like. (By the way, the American president had it all wrong when he described his tent as a “boma.” In safari country the word actually denotes an open-air enclosure where people meet and eat). 

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                                                                       Richard Branson’s Ulusaba Rock Lodge, Sabi Game Reserve, South Africa

Teddy Roosevelt was, of course, not the first foreigner to follow the animals into the African interior and pitch a tent under the star-studded skies. David Livingstone, Cornwallis Harris, Samuel Baker and many other explorers and hunters preceded the president. 

Next Hollywood came along to romanticize the rustic with their own impression of what safari camps should look like in movies such as Mogambo and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Today many safarists still prefer tented camps that offer “a Hemingway experience”—named after the famous author who popularized Africa with his tales about hunting and safaris.

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                                                                          Leopard Hills, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

In 1926 Eastman-Kodak founder, George “Pop” Eastman, pitched his tent next that of Martin and Osa Johnson to get a taste of the safari experience. The Johnsons were sponsored by Eastman to film the first full-fledged wildlife documentary in East Africa. Ever the inventor, Eastman set out to design a new safari shower. While seated in a zinc bathtub he regulated with a clothes peg the flow of warm water from a suspended canvas bucket. (Today a somewhat modified similar bucket shower is widely used at mobile tented camps).   


With the establishment of national parks and private game reserves  there was a need for permanent structures. In East Africa the park authorities built bandas (square thatched roof huts) and in Southern Africa they constructed rondawels (round-shaped thatched roof huts). Both were styled after local tribal huts.

They started out simple and somewhat Spartan with comfortable sleeping quarters and separate communal showers and toilets. Soon the beds became softer, bathrooms ensuite and overall design less austere. 

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                                                                         Lounge at Singita Sabora Tented Camp, Tanzania

Good dining was offered at centrally located lodges for those who did not opt to prepare their own meals with supplies purchased at the camp store. Campsites were made available as well. Most safarists were locals and peak times were during school vacations. 

The now familiar round and square huts became progressively more comfortable as game parks started focusing on more demanding foreign clientele. However, today not only locals but also cost-conscious travelers from abroad still go for these lower priced comfortable accommodations. 

Bush chic 

In the seventies private entrepreneurs stepped in and the competition intensified. Bush chic was born. These private lodges don’t only look like they could compete with the best hotels in the world—they do. 

Criticized by old-time purists for making the experience too sumptuous, bush chic pioneer Mike Rattray responded: “To view the animals you don’t have to live like them.” 

Styles vary from luxury Hemingway-type tents—replete with soft beds, stylish campaign furniture, bucket showers and drop toilets—to chalets with plush interiors designed by renowned decorators.  


Lion Sands Ivory Lodge bathroom

It all started in South Africa’s Sabi Sand private game reserve and spread like a bush fire to other safari regions, including national parks where private entrepreneurs were granted concessions by the authorities. Every national park sets its own rules. Most, but not all, unfortunately, limit the private lodges to a small number of guests. Maasai Mara and Serengeti have allowed major hotels to slip through the fence. 

Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

Eating out at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge

After allowing a few major hotels on the riverbanks in Chobe, Botswana today restricts lodges to one guest per thousands of acres and does not allow permanent structures in the Okavango Delta and other parks. Luxury tents on wooden platforms that can easily be removed to return nature to its pristine condition are the norm. In Kruger National Park private entrepreneurs who obtained leases are equally restricted in size but allowed to build permanent structures.

Service is outstanding and guests are pampered with haute cuisine varying from African-style dishes and traditional food to continental cooking. 

 There are private plunge pools, and even fitness rooms, and saunas and massages for those who might be concerned that all the rich living in the bush might transform them into human hippos. 


The choice is largely, but not only, dictated by cost. 

Not even the best and most luxurious accommodation can compensate for a second-rate safari experience. Therefore the first consideration should be the quality of the rangers and the quantity and diversity of the surrounding wildlife. This is why it is important to seek professional advice before you plan your trip and make reservations.

                                                                            Lion sighting at Tubu Tree, Okavango Delta, Botswana