Our welcome to this East African nation began with a nearly two-hour flight west from Arusha, past the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, near the snow-dusted peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and deep into the western edge of the Serengeti plains to Grumeti Reserves. High up on a ridge, overlooking endless grasslands dotted with acacia trees, perched Sasakwa Lodge, where linen-clothed tables and South African sparkling wine awaited us to toast the thousands of zebras and wildebeests roaming in antlike trails below. A leisurely lunch followed, and at the end of our second course (a delicious prawn curry), we were met by our guide, Martin, who suggested we move quickly into the Land Rover; a cheetah and her cub looked as if they were about to hunt.
We bounced down the hill and sped out onto the expansive plains—wildebeests darted back and forth, topis (giant antelopes) sprung by with impressive leaps, and zebras called out with their unmistakable hee-haws. We slowed, but then Martin told us the hunting cheetah had been spotted and the Thomson's gazelles (the preferred and easiest prey for cheetahs) alerted. The kill was not going to happen.
Then we got a call on the radio. Another cheetah and her two cubs were on the far side of the herd, which was headed right toward them. We barreled around and arrived just as the mother bounded from the grass. Sprinting from zero to nearly 70 miles per hour, she skillfully zigzagged, her eye on just one "Tommy." Total chaos ensued, animals ran every which way, and in less than a minute, it was all over. She'd triumphed, and her two cubs feasted hungrily as she sat nearby, catching her breath. There is something primal and surprisingly empowering in viewing a kill. It's not easy to watch but nevertheless thrilling, and at the end of the day, you realize that we're all a part of life's natural cycle.
The Selous, a four-hour flight south of Arusha, stands in stark contrast to the Serengeti. Thick bushy woodlands abut the banks of the Rufiji River, which massive pods of hippopatamuses and crocodiles call home. Still in a dream state upon leaving our comfy cottages in Sand Rivers Selous camp at 6:00 a.m., we boarded a private boat; any lingering grogginess quickly wore off as hippos bolted from the banks and splashed into the river just feet away. Navigating water where hippos fight then lie submerged in the muddy brown realm below was an unnerving thrill, as was pulling up to the riverbank to get a close look at the eggs in a crocodile nest or landing our boat on a beach that a male lion had claimed as his own. (He let us know with a lunge and a growl before we pulled away.) Instead, we unloaded our picnic brunch on another large beach, where we could easily see any approaching predators that may have been eyeing us as their midmorning snack.
The next afternoon, we opted for Sand Rivers Selous' fly-camping adventure, where, after a walk in the bush with giraffes and wild dogs, we arrived at the lion's beach site we'd seen the day before from the boat. Our guides had reclaimed it and set up mesh tents that allowed us to gaze at the stars; then they barbecued our dinner while we showered under a banyan tree. And all the while, lions roared in the distance. (For more info, tanzaniatouristboard.com)
I was tempted to lean out of the open 4x4 safari vehicle and run my hands over the back of the muscular leopard skulking through the grass just feet away. But I refrained because, well, frankly, I like having two arms. The big spotted male's focus was not on our Range Rover full of wildlife seekers but on an unsuspecting herd of impalas just ahead—one of which he intended to make breakfast. We watched in silence as he crept through the brush of the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, just outside Kruger National Park. He stopped, lay in wait, then finally made his move, albeit too slowly. One keen-eyed impala saw him and let out a piercing cry that alerted the others to danger. The horned antelopes scattered, leaving the hungry cat alone. A missed opportunity, but not for me. The leopard sighting completed my Big Five viewing at Kirkman's Kamp, where the other four—elephants, lions, rhinos and cape buffalos—plus spotted hyenas, wildebeests, giraffes, zebras and a wide array of birds, had kept my head turning and my camera clicking.
We continued, dodging branches as our ranger, Malcolm, maneuvered the abused 4x4 through the bush to an open area near the Sand River; across the murky water, an enormous elephant magically blended into the scenery. Unbeknownst to us, we were being treated to a bush breakfast that managed to outshine the excellent ones served on the veranda at the lodge after our four-hour morning game drives. Malcolm and his Shangaan tracker, Thomas, spread white blankets and oodles of throw pillows beneath a cape ash tree, and set up an impressive spread: champagne glasses holding sparkling South African wine and orange juice, flaky croissants, fresh fruit and yogurt, sausage, tomatoes and eggs. It was all a tad more traditional than the exotic dinners (think grilled ostrich) I'd been devouring. When we returned to the circa-1920s colonial-style lodge, I headed to my cottage. Malcolm's 5:00 a.m. wake-up knocks had gotten the best of me—it was my seventh day of rising before the birds I was quickly learning to identify.
Before being coddled at Kirkman's Kamp, I'd checked out Africa's largest private reserve, Tswalu Kalahari. There, our ranger, Warwick, picked us up at the airstrip and whisked us off for lavish sundowner cocktails on the crest of a torch-lit dune awash in vivid hues. Red dirt, rust-colored canvas folding chairs and amber flames leaping from the fire complemented the red cherry in the bottom of the Kir Royales we sipped as we watched the sunset turn the sky a mix of orange, maize and crimson. That night, in my bungalow, I enjoyed an outdoor shower beneath the stars before I grabbed a flashlight and headed to the alfresco dining boma, where we feasted on lamb chops, medallions of beef, and pork pinwheels under umbrella thorn acacias.
During the next day's drives, a pride of lions lazed in the postdawn sun, and a cheetah tugged at a carcass in the midafternoon glare. I laughed as I watched the bouncing, fluffy bums of ostriches that ran at the sight of us. Trading the 4x4 for a saddle—I'd ridden several times but never faster than a walk—I made my way on horseback through the desert past antelopes and kudus. I was ready to try a trot when my horse suddenly galloped away as I bounded along, hanging on for dear life. It was a little more adventure than I'd bargained for, but a massage at The Sanctuary Spa was the perfect antidote to the unpredictability of the African bush. (For more info, southafrica.net)
"Tarzan never had it this good," I thought after a warm shower on a platform built aloft into the giant mahogany tree beside the honeymoon suite at Chiawa Camp. From this tree-shower perch overlooking a watering hole on the Lower Zambezi River, I saw hippo moms and their babies lumbering down the banks and sliding into the water. As the sun rose, the shore quickly crowded with elephants, antelopes and zebras. In the limbs above me, vervet monkeys chattered, and exotic birds twittered. I climbed down and kissed my wife, Echo, as she soaked in the Victorian clawfoot tub.
At 6:00 a.m., we were served fresh fruit, porridge and yogurt beside a campfire before heading out on a walking safari. An armed ranger led our small group. "Africa is all about personal space—good manners count here, too," he said. "Lions walk single file in transit, but they spread out when hunting. Stay behind me and walk in single file."
A great white egret rose over the plains. We spotted impalas, kudus and warthogs. Upon encountering a group of baboons, all but one large, glaring male scattered. A little while later, as we stopped for a look at an elephant cow and her calf, Mama flapped her enormous ears, shaped like the African continent itself, and snorted. She made a show of charging to signal we were too close for her comfort.
On our canoe trip back to camp, we passed hippos, elephants, wildebeests and a few small crocs. We transferred to a pontoon boat and anchored mid-river, where we relaxed and dined on curried beef and jasmine rice with peach chutney. While sipping champagne and eyeing cape buffalos and fish eagles, I raised my glass and toasted, "To the wild life."
Our next stop was Stanley Safari Lodge, an intimate retreat on a hill overlooking the Upper Zambezi River with distant views of famed three-mile-wide Victoria Falls. From our suite, Echo and I could see its spray rising, but I wanted a closer look. Early the next morning, I got my wish: A pilot picked me up for an ultralight flight over the falls, known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya or "The Smoke that Thunders." Just after sunrise, we burst through the shimmering spray right above the mighty cascade, and the rainbows below looked as if I could reach out and grab them. (For more info, zambiatourism.com)
Sand Rivers Selous: Spacious open-front cottages are perched above the Rufiji River, where hippos snort throughout the night. For total indulgence, book the one-bedroom Rhino House (doubles from $1,240, all-inclusive; 888/995-0909 or unchartedoutposts.com).
Singita Grumeti: Reserves Among its three camps—Faru Faru, Sabora and Sasakwa—newlyweds will enjoy the elegance of Sasakwa, built in the style of a colonial home and set on a bluff. Sabora, on the plains, is "glamping" in the extreme: silk-lined tents scattered with Persian rugs (doubles from $1,900, all-inclusive; 011-27-21/683-3424 or singita.com).
Kirkman's Kamp: This property features 18 cottages with verandas, deep bathtubs (arrange a rose petal-filled bath à deux) and separate showers. Mingle in the lounge area and enjoy dinners in a dramatic boma or a romantic lantern-lit bush setting (doubles from $796, all-inclusive; 888/882-3742 or ccafrica.com).
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve: Rustic refinement prevails at The Motse, where each of the eight stone-walled, thatch-roofed suites has a spacious outdoor shower, fireplace and private sundeck. Postsafari, hang out in the cozy library or poolside (doubles from $1,200, all-inclusive; 011-27-11/274-2299 or tswalu.com).
Chiawa Camp: These eight luxury tents are adjacent to a watering hole on the Lower Zambezi River, with a viewing deck next to the thatched-roof bar/lounge. The Honeymoon Tent has a shower for two and river views—even from the clawfoot tub (doubles from $1,590, all-inclusive; 011-26-01/261-588 or chiawa.com).
Stanley Safari Lodge: Secluded wood-and-stone chalets feature a netted bed with white linens, private plunge pool and fireplace; splurge on the Honeymoon House. The main lodge has Zambia's only wine cellar, available for candlelit dinners (doubles from $540, all-inclusive; 800/322-3867 or stanleysafaris.com).