Ndarakwai Ranch, Western Kilimanjaro
A journey through Tanzania tends to echo many similar journeys throughout Africa. The popular notion of wild Africa is these days confined to a handful of carefully preserved wilderness areas, with the remainder becoming increasingly subject to the reality of over-population, poor land-management and a populist government approach to conservation. All of this contributes to catastrophic environmental damage across the spectrum, from the degeneration of the Kilimanjaro forest to the overgrazing and erosion of vast areas of the Masai Steppe.
Against the odds a handful of local eco-warriors are willing to stand up against this almost irrevocable tide. Among these is 51-year old Peter Jones, an environmentalist whose vision is leavened by a practical notion of how real conservation in this part of the world can most likely be achieved.
Tourism is a revenue earner, and if the natural environments of Africa are to be reclaimed and preserved, then tourism is an obvious vehicle to pay for it. Thereafter tourism can reasonably easily be harnessed to provide an alternative bounty for common people whose right it is to in one way or another to exploit their landscape.
Such is the basic premise behind Ndarakwai Ranch. Peter Jones, a long time resident of Tanzania, long involved in the tourist industry, acquired the lease of this extensive, but largely barren acreage of land in the Western Kilimanjaro quadrant. In the years since independence in 1961 this erstwhile colonial landholding has suffered wholesale poaching, unregulated grazing and tree cutting. In a bold experiment Peter determined that, with effective protection and management, Ndarakwai (named after a local wild cedar tree) could potentially recover, and one day perhaps return to its natural condition, and maybe even support the diverse population of wildlife it once did.
Peter had no idea how successful or rapid this transformation would be. Under effective protection the depleted ground cover quickly recovered, the micro-climate improved while the level of the subterranean water table rose. In due course wildlife began to return, with the result that currently some 65 animal species have been recorded, including elephant, zebra, eland, giraffe, wildebeest, gerenuk, lesser kudu, and mountain reedbuck.
The return of wildlife to Ndarakwai is a work in progress, and although sightings on either the morning or evening game drives do not compare with the better known regional national parks and conservancies, a sense of contributing to the evolution of a profoundly important experiment in conservation ought by rights to compensate for that fact.
A further compensation is the tented camp facility that is the epicentre of the Ndarakwai experience. There is no greater sense in any of the bush camps that I have visited in Tanzania, and indeed throughout Africa, of being so completely melded into the surrounding bush. A hidden marvel of Ndarakwai is the astonishing proliferation of birdlife that occupies the densely wooded gully into which the individual tents are blended. Over and above the cacophony of colour and sound that never ends, is the more subtle activity of feeding Sykes, or Blue Monkeys. These beautiful creatures rest atop the giant Sycamore Figs and ponder the human activity below with no particular effort being made to interfere.
The tents themselves are not the most comfortable or lavish that are on offer among the family of tented camps in the region, but this is a good thing. Comfort has a level beyond which it becomes ostentatious, and there is absolutely nothing ostentatious about Ndarakwai.
This is also evident in the hospitality area that is simple, comfortably appointed and again designed to promote a deep commerce with the surrounding bush. The cuisine is unusual and rather individualistic, with wide use being made of local farm products that tends again to underline the multi-dimensional nature of Peter Jones’ project.
It is here that Ndarakwai cannot be faulted. Ecological sensitivity underlines every aspect of the Ndarakwai project, and from locally made soaps and lotions, to home-made humus and cheese, to an utter determination to make no use of generator power or any other practice not wholly in line with the green revolution, this is the last word in sustainable eco-tourism. Top marks to Ndarakwai.
Ndarakwai is as authentic a bush camp project as you will find anywhere in Africa. Do not go there with the expectation that you will be surrounded by an Eden like proliferation of wildlife, since this factor of the camp is very much a work in progress. Rather enter onto the property with a view to enjoy the comfort of a well appointed camp, to immerse yourself in the proximity of tropical bushveld with all of its subtle variants, and the fact that you are contributing to a very real and sincere conservation effort. The commercial aspects of this are essential to ensure, not only its current survival, but its long term sustainability on a human landscape not characterized by its general concern for nature.
Rough Travel Africa Style: The Tented Camps & Lodges of Serengeti
Mbuzi Mawe Tented Camp
Mbalageti Tented Camp
Sopa Lodge Serengeti
Sopa Lodge Ngorongoro
Lobo Wildlife Lodge Serengeti