There are many great guides and outfitters to Africa, and DEPARTURES has had the good fortune of traveling with some of the best. Our list of favorites is by no means exhaustive; instead it highlights organizations and individuals we’ve worked with over the years, along with others we’ve newly come to admire and trust for their sage advice. The best of the Africa outfitters, of whom five made our final A list, wield unique connections to put clients in exciting places and in front of the continent’s most plugged-in conservationists, intellectuals and cultural figures. They also know to bring along the hair dryers, masseurs and Château Lafite for those who think they want to camp but will only enjoy doing so on their terms. Our “Best of the Rest” includes a fascinating mix of nature experts, academics, athletes and much more.
New York-based Gordon is a former pilot who lived in Kenya for 11 years and used to head up the travel division of the outfitting company F. M. Allen. For her, a safari is a family affair. Her husband, Saul, set up Park East Tours in 1966 with his brother, bringing in Kenya’s earliest safari travelers.
Specialty: Gordon’s expertise runs from Malawi to Tanzania. Her custom itineraries mix high and low, a balance meant to shake up cocooned travelers and convince them that authentic tented trips are the best way to go.
Itinerary of Note: A ten-day trip in the Mara Serengeti during the great migration, combining Singita Grumeti’s glamour with walking safaris at Chem Chem, a new Tanzanian lodge; and the Serian properties, in the Ngovongovo conservation area and the northern Seregenti, owned by safari guide Alex Walker.
Our Call Gordon is particularly knowledgeable about family trips. She raised three daughters in Africa, one of whom, 31-year-old Elizabeth, is the company’s CEO.
Contact 800-403-6012; extraordinaryjourneys.net.
Melissa Biggs Bradley
A former journalist, Bradley has retained a critical editorial eye and recommends nothing she hasn’t vetted herself, from private villas in Cape Town to flying safaris in Namibia.
Specialty Bradley is a personal friend of financier Paul Tudor Jones and knows his property, Singita Grumeti in Tanzania, more intimately than most. She’s equally familiar with the &Beyond lodges.
Itinerary of Note In Rwanda she combines a gorilla-tracking safari with a program working among war refugees and with women’s groups rebuilding communities. Such philanthropic elements are increasingly present on her itineraries.
Our Call Bradley is perfect for Masters of the Universe who won’t settle for anything less than straight-talking recommendations coupled with silky logistics—especially on her knockout South African honeymoons.
Contact 212-988-2611; indagare.com.
Journeys by Design
Along with arranging truly unique trips, Jones introduces travelers to conservation-oriented investments through his organization, Wild Philanthropy.
Specialty Jones has exquisite knowledge of Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia and is also strong on Botswana and Mozambique. He is a passionate advocate of the authentic mobile safari experience.
Itinerary of Note East African helicopter safaris, from Kenya’s Lake Turkana to Ethiopia’s remote Danakil Depression.
Our Call Jones, British but with a U.S. office, is committed to every last detail, often flying to meet a client, as he did recently with Ralph and Ricky Lauren, to discuss itineraries.
Contact 315-955-6842; journeysbydesign.com.
Passage to Africa
South African-born, Cape Town-based Lorentz is as much host as guide when he leads trips through 13 of the 17 sub-Saharan countries where the company operates. To be honest, we can think of no one we’d rather spend time with, be it on elephant-back safari or contemplating the aesthetics of a termite mound.
Specialty Lorentz focuses on precision planning, from booking helicopters to arranging meetings with influential local artists and conservationists. He is always up to speed on what’s happening on the ground, keeping meticulous track of wildlife movements and the status of lodge refurbishments.
Itinerary of Note Passage to Africa is one of few top outfitters offering trips in Chad—specifically the birders’ paradise of Zakouma National Park, which bristles with black-crowned cranes, carmine bee-eaters and red-billed quelea.
Our Call Lorentz—along with partners Sandor Carter and Richard Coke—operates with the grounding belief that great guiding matters more than opulently appointed lodges.
Contact 27-15/793-0811; passagetoafrica.com.
The Best of the Rest
1. Henrietta Loyd is a founding partner of the UK- and U.S.-based Cazenove + Loyd. Thirty years in the safari game means the company knows the guides of East Africa as well as anyone. It is strong on Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia and is expert on exclusive-use camp rentals for family groups. 800-409-4233; cazloyd.com.
2. Geoffrey Kent, a safari legend who started Abercrombie & Kent in 1962, was born and raised in Africa. The company has offices in seven sub-Saharan African countries. Kent will usually provide one-on-one attention for clients who want to toy with complex itineraries using private jets or bookings. 800-554-7016; abercrombiekent.com.
3. Fulbright Scholar Joel A. Zack made a reputation early in his career arranging culture-focused travel experiences. Since 1998, his area of expertise has included southern Africa, where his New York-based company, Heritage Tours Private Travel, creates thoughtful safari itineraries that encourage contact with local communities. His city-based guides in Cape Town and Johannesburg are true intellectuals, specializing in art, gastronomy and politics. 800-378-4555; htprivatetravel.com.
4. Albee Yeend fell in love with Africa at the age of 27 while canoeing down the lower Zambezi River. She ran San Camp in Botswana and is now working with UK-based outfitter Red Savannah. Her knowledge of South Africa is exceptional (she has a house there), along with Zambia and Botswana. Hand-holding of American clients isn’t, however, as tight as some of her competitors—a deal breaker to some, liberating to others. 855-468-5555; redsavannah.com.
5. Micato Safaris organized DEPARTURES’ Namibia trip with its brilliant on-the-ground guide Alan Petersen. It gets the pre-departure information perfect, right down to how much underwear to pack. The family-owned business, based in New York and Nairobi, was founded in 1966 by Felix Pinto and his wife, who often host client dinners in Nairobi. 212-545-7111; micato.com.
6. Butterfield & Robinson creates unusual, active experiences, including bike and walk safaris in Tanzania and Namibia. Brad Crockett, who has seven years of experience leading tours from Mali to Madagascar, is its man in Africa. Walking trips in Rwanda and biking in the Cape are also itineraries at which the company shows an edge. For 2014, it is adding seven more African countries to its lineup. 866-551-9090; butterfield.com.
7. Born in the Belgian Congo and educated in South Africa, Norman Pieters now lives in Miami, where he runs Karell Travel. His itineraries are among the most affordable on our list, with five nights in Zambia and Zimbabwe starting at $2,750 a person, excluding flights. The company works mostly with well-known, no-surprises luxury brands but has a good handle on South Africa’s train journeys, including those by Rovos Rail and The Blue Train. 800-327-0373; karellgroup.com.
8. Zimbabwe-born Deborah Calmeyer divides her year between Cape Town and New York. Her company, Roar Africa, provides golden keys to the region’s safaris, shopping, restaurants and hotels, opening up an eclectic insider’s address book ranging from seafood shacks by Cape Town’s docks (Panama Jacks) to dinners at private wine estates. In fact, other outfitters often hire her to sort the South Africa portion of their trips. 855-666-7627; roarafrica.com.