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Into the wild

Love the idea of camping but hate roughing it out in the middle of nowhere? With glamping, camping no longer means leaky tents, hard and wet ground or bush toilets.
Saturday, December 17, 2016 - 05:50

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Kids, we're going glamping. More travellers are answering the call of nature in style, with free-flow wine and wifi.

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Tents are generous (the Honeymoon Tent, above, is a sprawling 102 sq m) and have hardwood floors.

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MASAI MARA, KENYA

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MASAI MARA, KENYA

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At Olare Mara Kempinski, specially-made jeeps give visitors an almost unobstructed view of wildlife.

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At Olare Mara Kempinski, specially-made jeeps give visitors an almost unobstructed view of wildlife.

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On the sand dunes of Rajasthan, 30 luxurious tents form the Manvar Camp in the Thar Desert.

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The writer on a camel ride.

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Treasure Bay Bintan

When you go glamping, there is absolutely no hassle of pitching tents, unrolling sleeping bags or building fires. Instead, glamping - as its name suggests - is a new way to experience the great outdoors without sacrificing luxury, be it in a tent, a hut, a cabin, or a treehouse.

A marriage of glamour and camping, glamping has spiked in popularity over the last 10 years.

It has become particularly popular with city dwellers seeking the luxuries of hotel accommodation alongside escapism and adventure.

Eurotours & Travel, which has been in the travel business for 42 years and is a forerunner in organising glamping holidays, saw its number of travellers in this sector increase by 25 per cent in the last five years.

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Market voices on:

Its founder Hedy Mok says: "This market in Kenya and other parts of Africa, is smaller than, say, Australia and Europe. Those interested in going glamping are usually seasoned travellers. They are middle-aged, are established in their career and would spend that kind of money."

A handful of savvy hospitality groups have also built and offer luxury getaways for not-so-rustic folks to unplug in comfort.

MASAI MARA, KENYA

Sleeping among lions

Going on safari in Africa to see the Big Five is something that tops most travellers' bucket list, but there is no need to leave the comforts of home behind.

But unlike hotels in big cities such as New York and London, the first thing guests are told when they check into Olare Mara Kempinski in south-western Kenya is to never leave their tents unaccompanied after nightfall.

Sound advice, especially when the hotel is right smack in the middle of Olare Motorogi Conservancy, home to a good population of predators and herbivores. There are between 70 and 100 lions, many elephants, and hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, Thomson's gazelles, topis, elands, and zebras.

Amazingly, there are no fences anywhere. Guests literally get up close and personal with the wildlife. Sometimes there would be a hungry hippopotamus eating outside the tent, or monkeys using the canvas roof as a trampoline. Even lions roar just 200 metres away from the campsite.

"This is their home. As guests, we respect the residents of the place and play by their rules," wildlife guide Rafael Mutula says.

Olare Mara Kempinski is located on a staggering 33,000 acres (133.55 square kilometres) of undisturbed wildness in Olare Motorogi Conservancy.

Its hotel manager Barnabas Wamoto calls his hotel "a precious jewel set in the middle of the wild".

The conservancy is part of the 1,510 sq km Masai Mara National Reserve, one of Kenya's oldest safari destinations which stretches along the Tanzanian border adjacent to the Serengeti. All members of the Big Five - lion, leopard, African elephant, cape buffalo, and black rhinoceros - are found here.

Tucked away on the banks of the Ntiakitiak River on the conservancy, Olare Mara Kempinski comprises 12 deluxe tents, each a far cry from mere poles stuck into the ground.

Eleven of these traditionally-styled tents measure about 74 sq m, and the last, the honeymoon suite, is close to 102 sq m with its own plunge pool overlooking the Mara plains and a hippo pool. All tents have hardwood floors and ensuite bathrooms with toilet, rain shower and bath.

And good news for those who need to be plugged in 24/7: There is in-room WiFi. For others who need to be plugged in in a different way: Wine is free-flowing.

"We boast of the highest density of lions per square kilometre in Africa and over 50 different species of raptors," Mr Wamoto says of his award-winning, silver-rated Eco camp.

For many visiting city dwellers, there is something both exhilarating and scary about sleeping in a tent in the middle of a game park, especially when they hear strange noises at night.

"There is something about a lion's roar. It resonates into one's heart. The pride residing closest to the hotel is the Moniko Pride, led by Olbarnoti. With him are four females and two babies," Mr Mutula says.

Not only do the animals regularly wander through camp, but given that Olare Motorogi Conservancy has the highest number of large mammals per sq km in Africa, wildlife-spotting on drives is superb.

There are two game drives on each day of the stay, in specially-made jeeps with a practically unobstructed view, with the first safari starting as early as dawn.

And it is quite easy to spot the elusive leopard in a distant tree, or a pride of 16 lions under the bushes, mostly with help from the sharp-eyed driver-guides. Of course, guests cannot miss the thousands of zebras, wildebeests and gazelles.

At times, you could spot lions eating a wildebeest, while hyenas, jackals and vultures wait impatiently from a distance.

The best time to visit is during the great wildebeests' migration between July and October.

Touted as one of the world's most spectacular natural events , the wildebeests, who number just under 1.7 million, with some 400,000 Thomson's gazelles, 300,000 zebras and 12,000 elands cross the Mara River where crocodiles lie in wait.

The good thing is that this vast area has a small tourist population. This also means that there are never more than six vehicles at a stretch.

What is even more mind-blowing is stopping under a large acacia tree for a bush breakfast, with everything is served and eaten while in the bush.

A deluxe tent is priced between US$902 and US$1,677 per night, based on the peak average rates during the off-peak period and the peak holiday period.

RAJASTHAN, INDIA

Miles of nothingness

Driving off the Jodhpur-Jaisalmer highway onto the vast sand dunes of Rajasthan, you would not expect to see 30 white luxurious tents lined up in a semi-circle, surrounding a central Durbar tent.

It is almost like entering a different world, and indeed, the concept of the 30-tented Manvar Camp, located in the Thar Desert, can be traced back to the 17th century to the fourth Mughal Emperor Jehangir. Known for his luxurious lifestyle, he used to set up camps equipped with all the amenities befitting a king.

At Manvar, the tents have nothing short of the comforts of home. Each one comes with its own en suite bathroom, equipped with hot and cold water and many of the modern conveniences of a city hotel (but no WiFi). There are also large windows with adjustable flaps to allow light and fresh air in. The campsite is 7km off-road from the main freeway, leaving the sounds and sights of urban chaos behind. Getting there can only be done in a 4x4 vehicle.

The drive to the location winds through valleys between the dunes and while it feels endless and empty, you can still spot free-roaming herds of gazelles and other wildlife, or even glimpses of villagers if you keep your eyes peeled.

In the evening, the central Durbar tent comes alive with a sumptuous Indian spread, wine and traditional musical performances around the campfire.

Before dawn, guests who opt to watch the sunrise are woken up with coffee to experience the splendour of the desert, while perched atop camels.

Riding the animal across the plains is not for the faint-hearted though. Typical rides last about 45 minutes to an hour before it is time to return to the camp for breakfast.

It will cost S$255.80 for a night's stay in a standard tent with two meals provided. But if you're looking at a jeep safari or a camel ride with the night stay, then you will have to pay S$302.90.

A typical glamping holiday can last anywhere from two to 10 days. By the end of your trip, though, you would have seen enough for a lifetime.


Glamping closer to home

IF you have only the weekend to get away from the hustle and bustle of work or there are limited funds to spend on a holiday, then look no further than Bintan.

An hour from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal and another five-minute drive from Bintan's Bandar Bentan Telani ferry terminal lies The Canopi.

This 40-suite resort tucked among mangrove forests is where luxury meets adventure.

Opened in September, The Canopi offers guests a chance to go camping without the usual hassle of pitching the tent, dirt and sleeping bags.

Each of the resort's 37 sq m tents comes with its own ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning, a four-poster bed, LCD television and yes, WiFi.

The bigger tents also have their own outdoor jacuzzis and barbecue pits in ensuite private gardens.

The resort has the 338-hectare adventure ground of Treasure Bay Bintan that includes a private forest and mangrove reserve, beaches, and a man-made 6.3ha filtered-seawater Crystal Lagoon.

The resort offers a range of water activities in the lagoon, from bumper boat rides to wakeboarding.

But if you are somewhat of a landlubber, you can also explore the nearby mangrove and estuary using the all-terrain vehicles and see its exotic wildlife like the kingfisher, raptors and otters.

A night's stay in the Lagoon View Tent, which allows you to jump right into the lagoon is S$225.30 (2.1 million rupees) but if you prefer the Deluxe tent, then it costs S$246.73.

There will be additional costs for renting equipment such as the water tricycle (S$12), water zovb (S$12), sea scooter (S$35), and jetovator (S$180).

PHOTOS: OLARE MARA KEMPINSKI, MANVAR CAMP, JUDITH TAN, CHANG AI-LIEN

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