In Green Hills of Africa, his account of blasting through the fauna of what is now Tanzania, Hemingway rhapsodizes about the thrills of safari, including “the discomforts that you paid to make it real.” Reading the book by the infinity pool at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge, iced tea in hand and overlooking the endless Serengeti, I don’t hunger for discomfort. So what if this is not real? And what’s real anyhow, Ernest? Hunting and drinking whiskey sodas while porters carry your zebra skins and kudu heads? I put down the book. All the entertainment I could want is right in front of me—just beyond the pool is a watering hole where more than a dozen elephants are splashing about. Others queue up for their turn: impalas, zebras, waterbuck. The mammalian smell in the air is very real.
With its first property in sub-Saharan Africa, Four Seasons is hoping to lure brand loyalists into unusually rugged terrain.“Civilization in the middle of the bush” is how my guide put it when I arrived after a puddle-jumper flight from Arusha and a 45-minute drive on dirt roads. Spread out over a third of a mile smack in the middle of the national park, the two-story complex is a city in itself, with 72 rooms and five villas. This is no inconspicuous lodge blending into the scenery.
Since taking over the property from Kempinski Hotels last year, Four Seasons has made small but significant changes. Modernist decor has given way to warmer fabrics and colors, and once-bare walls now display African artworks and artifacts. The excellent wine list is almost all South African, and Nevisian-born chef Curtis Smithen, a 20-year Four Seasons veteran, emphasizes the similarities between Caribbean and African cuisines. The most creative nod to Tanzanian culture involves the decidedly nontraditional use of a Masai bludgeon to knead out knots during the spa treatment.
I have slept in a tent three times in my life. I’m no David Livingstone, making me exactly the kind of client Four Seasons is courting: the nervous first-timer.“The elevated walkways and solid walls--these provide a layer of extra security,” says general manager James Kostecky. (Not that Four Seasons isn’t after safari habitues. It plans to open two more properties in Tanzania, including a beach resort in Zanzibar. Eventually all variety of safari will be available in a single trip. Variety here is key. After four days of game drives, you start to wonder if you’ve seen that hippo before.)
Leading me on an early-morning walking expedition is resident zoologist Oliver Dreike, whom Four Seasons hired to create the Discovery Centre. Unique in the Serengeti, the mini museum hosts master classes by wildlife photographers and lectures by experts like paleontologist Louise Leakey. During the walk, Dreike sets up a few motion-“camera ” programmed to take photos of passing animals (a huge hit with the kids, I’m told). The next day, we collect the cameras. One snapped thousands of pictures of a single swaying blade of grass. The other caught a rarer sight: an aardwolf, a shy, nocturnal, insect-eating sibling of the hyena that Dreike had yet to spot in the flesh.
Having helped set the trap, I share in Dreike’s giddy sense of triumph. This is a 21st-century version of what Hemingway must have felt when he finally scoped the elusive kudu. I deserve my whiskey soda.
We recommend the first-floor Terrace Suites (from $1,420), each of which has a plunge pool, at the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti. Rooms start at $890; 255-778/888-888; fourseasons.com