Can You Actually Go on an Ethical Safari?

In the modern age of culturally conscious travelers, one writer questions whether it’s truly possible to have the experience of a lifetime on safari in Africa—and banish the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt.

Can You Actually Go on an Ethical Safari?

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

Sit back, squint your eyes against the sun, and behold the stunning boredom of the western Kenya bush. The intertwined zebras dozing, heads on each other’s backs, tails mindlessly wagging; the shade-seeking lions, flopped over like house cats; the contortionist leopards, wrapped in the trees, suspended. The mud-bathing buffaloes; the strolling, prehistoric rhinoceroses. Giraffes staring off into the middle distance, chewing cud. Floating crocodiles, drifting in the Mara River’s slow current.

It is amidst this boredom, heavy enough to weigh on every animal in the valley, that you can engage in a kind of communion with the laziness: let the heat in, allow the body to slump against the seat of the car, stare off into the waving grass and sort out life’s big questions. In March 2016, at the end of a long game drive, I did just this. It was my first time back to Kenya in 26 years. I had spent that time simultaneously longing for the place and avoiding it out of principle. There was a lot to unpack.

I was just a year old the first time we moved to Africa, in 1987. My mother, an anthropologist, had received a Fulbright, so our young family—she and my father, my older brother and I—was transplanted from California to Nairobi for the tail end of the 1980s. We moved back to the States before I began preschool. In 1996, when I was 10, we briefly moved to Zimbabwe, where she taught and resumed her fieldwork, and though we traveled around the area then, we didn’t make it back to Kenya. I’ve wanted to since, but the time has never been right—my life here, the political climate there, the myriad reasons one can summon to convince oneself not to do something. I wasn’t afraid of Kenya, not directly—you could say I was afraid of being afraid of it, of discovering that, despite my childhood, I’d grown up to be a dumb, ogling tourist. Or worse, a privileged, oblivious one. I must emphasize: It had never occurred to me to go back to Kenya on a safari.

The development of the safari was predicated on an outsider’s obsession with danger and exoticism.

For some travelers, safaris are, to use a word thrown around a lot lately, problematic. To go to Kenya and look at animals these days is to buy into an antiquated kind of colonial fetishism. It is something not quite of this time, a remnant of an earlier, much worse era. Long before 1888, when the English planted their flag in what they would call British East Africa, rich men with guns were visiting that part of the continent in search of trophies. In the late 19th century, Kenya became a favorite waypoint for these men, and this status persisted through the colonial era. On a famous visit by Teddy Roosevelt in 1909, the former president and his son killed some 500 animals.

Do I even need to point out that safaris are an imported good? Before Europeans and Americans arrived, tribal people on the Swahili Coast did not don khaki jackets and stalk out across the bush in search of animal heads to mount; they certainly did not cap off their treks with gin and tonics. Local people hunted, of course. Some, like the Masai, even made the killing of a lion a coming-of-age ritual for young men. But the development of the safari—the traditions, the expectations, the industry that sprang up around it—was predicated on an outsider’s obsession with danger and exoticism. The animals provided the danger; Kenya itself provided the exoticism.


Masai guides lead intimate safaris at Angama Mara in Kenya.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

Even though hunting was banned in the country in 1977, the African safari persists. Binoculars replaced the guns, but all the trappings are still there. And yet I was curious: Has it evolved? Has a new age of eco-consciousness and cultural awareness in travel changed the game? I decided to test the boundaries of my safari aversion. I wanted to know if my notions about the safari might be as outdated as game hunting itself, if it was possible to set out across Kenya in a Land Cruiser and not participate in a form of historical acid reflux.

And to do that, I had to go to the Mara.

There is no easy way to get to the Mara, the piece of the Serengeti that spills over the Tanzanian border into Kenya. To reach it from America involves at least two layovers. The last of these will be in Nairobi, and if you’re lucky, will include an overnight at the Fairmont Norfolk, one of the city’s oldest, grandest hotels. Here, with one evening to kill before the adventure began, I tried to recall a few of the Swahili words I’d tucked away decades earlier. For years, I believed the words were up there somewhere: an entire vocabulary—a child’s vocabulary, but sentences nonetheless—that would unspool at the first sound of native dialogue.


Balanites trees shade zebras, topis, and the Big Five: lions, elephants, buffaloes, leopards, and rhinoceroses.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

This did not happen. I remembered a word here and there, the familiar cadence of some popular phrases, but I still felt largely like a first-timer. One word I did remember well was mzungu, Swahili slang for white foreigners, cleverly derived from the phrase for “those who walk in circles.” Perhaps I remembered it in self-defense.

It is possible to scan the landscape, even with binoculars, without spotting signs of modern life.

The next morning, I made my way to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport, two intersecting airstrips and a single waiting area, a favored entry point to the east African bush. The last leg of my journey would be aboard one of Airkenya’s tiny twin-prop planes, which pick up tourists in Nairobi and deposit them on dirt airstrips across the country. We took off and banked over the city, angling west, the buildings and roads thinning out beneath us. By the time we flew above the Ngong Hills, there was nothing but the hardened ripple of the Rift Valley, circular Masai homesteads pockmarking the land. The plane flew so low I could just about count the number of huts in each.

I was making my way to the Mara with Nicky Fitzgerald, the owner and operator of a recently opened lodge there called Angama Mara. Angama was my great hope for a conscientious safari—one of the newest lodges, and seemingly one of the most clued-in: small, owner-run, connected to a nonprofit that supports projects throughout its community. Nicky and her husband, Steve, spent decades in the business, opening and running lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa for the outfitter andBeyond. Fifteen years before Angama opened, Steve had reached out to the Masai landowners to ask about a lease. Fifteen years later, he and his wife got their wish. Construction began in 2014. And the lodge opened in the summer of 2015.


Some Masai staffers at Angama Mara wear traditional dress instead of uniforms.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

An hour after takeoff, 150 miles west, we landed at Angama’s private airstrip, a flat patch in an area favored by grazing zebras. All of Angama’s guests are greeted by a small welcome party. Since Nicky was on my flight, our welcome party included the camp’s manager, an effusive woman named Milka.

Karibu!” Milka exclaimed, greeting Nicky with a hug.

I should have remembered karibu. Of all the Swahili words ferreted away in my memory, the word for “welcome” is the one I ought to have kept within reach. Karibu is ubiquitous in Kenya, simultaneously the greeting and the word that comes after asante, thank you. It is part of not one but two of the language’s fundamental call-and-responses: Jambo/karibu. Asante/karibu. You are, very frequently, welcomed.

Angama is suspended in midair. That’s what the word means, and it’s what the lodge is. Its main building, a stunning, glass-walled structure built around a massive, chimney-shaped column, is perched on a cluster of rocks jutting out from the Oloololo Escarpment. Thirty individual tents, separated into two camps, dot the land along the bluff, high above the valley. From most points on the main building’s deck you cannot see evidence of vertical earth. In fact, the only way to get a clear perspective of the height of the escarpment—of the distance to the valley below—is to point the house telescope at one of the tiny dark smudges way down in the grass. It is almost impossible to make out what they are. Which is weird, because they are elephants.


The deck at Angama Mara sits 1,000 feet above the valley.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

If you’ve seen Out of Africa, you have seen Angama’s land. It is right here, on this very hill, that Robert Redford’s character seduces Meryl Streep’s over a picnic. Streep and Redford played real people, the big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton and writer Karen Blixen, while the Mara played itself. In the film—made in 1985 but set in 1914—Redford invites Streep on a trip with him. “There’s country there you ought to see,” he says, meaning the Mara. “It won’t last long, now.” And what’s really miraculous about that statement is that he was wrong. In 1914 and 1985, he was wrong.

It did last. The Mara is still wildly unchanged. There are lodges here and there, and what could be generously described as roads. But it is possible to scan the landscape, even with binoculars, without spotting signs of modern life. It is open grazing land, fenceless, unadulterated, and at any given time the plains are spotted with herds, prides, families, and pods. The animals move as they want.

They have the Masai to thank for this. Although the Masai were, for centuries, a nomadic tribe, state and private land-grabs in the 20th century eventually began to suffocate their ability to roam. So they adapted. Some of the Masai families began to purchase land. One, in particular, purchased a lot of land—land that happens to overlook the pristine Mara River valley, some of the most lush, animal-filled acreage on earth.

That Angama is built on land leased from a Masai family is a serious part of its appeal. A chunk of the money you spend on your room is destined for the area’s native inhabitants. And the tribe’s footprint is everywhere. Much of the hotel’s staff is local; some 20 employees were hired on after they helped construct the buildings. And Ole Kijabe, the leader of the family that owns the land, is a frequent presence in the hotel’s library. He and his close relatives sometimes use the space as a kind of second living room, gathering around a big table and chatting into the night.


Safari days are simple: Search for wildlife until the sun goes down.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

Some hotels excel at cloistering guests, creating a protective film between the space and its surroundings. Angama does the opposite, promoting a kind of porousness with the larger Masai community. You can see evidence of this everywhere, but it was especially apparent during the week I visited, when Ole Kijabe’s family and the hotel staff took it upon themselves to throw a traditional Masai wedding ceremony for Kate, Nicky and Steve’s daughter, who had gotten married the previous year, but not at the lodge. I saw the preparations being made throughout the week, Ole Kijabe and his relatives planning the celebration, Nicky trying on the traditional Masai outfit that had been made for her. There was a kind of hushed excitement as the staffers readied the camp; they were doing it, one could tell, out of love (and largely out of sight) of Nicky and Steve. It felt like a gift.

In the Mara, you see the animals on their terms, not yours.

Days at Angama—at any safari lodge—are best spent in the bush. Traditional safari protocol is to wake before dawn, head out at first light, spend the morning spotting animals before the sun is too high in the sky, and head back to camp in time for a nap and some G&Ts. This is certainly an option at Angama, but I preferred a looser schedule. My guide for my entire stay was Alice—a brilliant, feminist Masai woman, one of only four female guides in the Mara. The job of the safari guide is part driver, part zoologist; the best of them, I think, take on the role of collaborator, too. Alice and I practiced a kind of unhurried, impulsive safari. I had no checklist.

She and I must have spent a dozen hours together, driving around Kenya, frequently pressed against binoculars, whispering “Do you see it?” Until the other one did. By the third day, I began to feel as if our wildlife-spotting goals were intertwined, that our safaris were not simply designed to show me animals, but for the two of us to look for them in each other’s company. We watched a pride of 16 lions soaking in a shallow, mud-colored puddle—an unheard-of occurrence, shocking to Alice and everyone I described it to. I almost grew tired of watching the elephants shovel grass into their mouths, until they did the thing where they walk single file, alternating adult and child, which is staggeringly cute. We saw innumerable pods of hippos, yawning in the river, huddled in little gangs. Two clearly annoyed rhinos. A crane swallowing a rat whole.


Children from a local school supported by Angama’s foundation pose for a photo.

Photo by Alex Crétey Systermans

At one point, a fellow guide radioed Alice to tell her a leopard was stuck in a tree because two lions were mating beneath it. Her excitement was palpable. I wanted the day to be over. I was exhausted, sunburned, cowering under a windbreaker to protect my inflamed skin. We were basically in Tanzania at that point, but Alice pointed the car in the direction of the pinned leopard and refused to let me wimp out on the experience. It took about 45 minutes to get there, and by the time we did, I couldn’t wait to see it; her excitement had spilled over onto me. It was something to behold: a pissed-off leopard, wrapped around a branch, eyeing a couple of lions who, perhaps maliciously, refused to stop screwing long enough to let the treed cat come down. And yes, here I did stop to think about how long it had been since people would come here to shoot these things. How distant and wrong that felt, even from the front seat of a Land Cruiser, even while wearing khaki.

I can tell you this, now: It is possible to go on safari and not feel like you’re play-acting a hunt. It’s possible here, especially, at Angama, driving around with a guide like Alice. In the Mara, you see the animals on their terms, not yours. You are welcomed—karibu—not just by Angama, but by the Masai. You are their guest. It’s their land. Still.

On my last day, I headed back to the runway, watching zebras scurry as the tiny Airkenya plane swooped down to land. I looked out my window as we took off, and beneath me, on the crest of a hill, overlooking the endless valley, was the wedding. Even from the sky I could make out the colors. Alice and the rest of the staff had traded their uniforms for native Masai dress, as had Nicky and her family. It was something to behold, bursts of Masai red and blue, the lush spectrum of the green hills. The Mara’s newest residents and its oldest. A celebration both traditional and not, some incredible new territory in between.

>>Next: The Best African Safari for Every Type of Traveler

More From AFAR