You would think that a business operating lodges in the heart of Africa’s richest wildlife destination would begin and end its story in a game drive vehicle. Think again because the Lemala story has many layers that are touched by the rich diversity of wildlife spread across its areas of influence, which is just the beginning of the story.

When I made my first tour of Lemala Camps & Lodges assessing its suitability to be a member of the coveted Warren Green & Associates portfolio, I was expecting some hard core well-used 4×4’s along with crusty guides who spoke pidgin English and drove like the clappers to get you between sexy sightings. Well, not quite as dramatic as that, there is a fair amount of poetic license in my description, but I wasn’t that sure that the company would pass muster. I had known the previous owners and wasn’t convinced that their commitments lay in the field of sustainability, but rather the field of financial sustainability and margin management. 

I was quite blown away by everything that Lemala, under the direction of CEO Leanne Haigh, had touched. I set off from Arusha with an overland guide headed for the Tarangire National Park. The vehicle, brand new, equipped with communication radio, outlets throughout the vehicle – charging ports for the many devices carried by the modern traveller, ox tail swishes discretely placed behind the seats – their intention to be used as fly swishes as one passed through the cattle herds of the Maasai and the occasional tsetse as you bumbled around the south-western edge of the Silale swamp and beyond.

A large box nestled between the rear seats gently rumbled away keeping an assortment of beverages chilled for consumption during a dusty day of adventures. Bird, mammal, insect, and tree books were on hand as were a few pairs of 10×42 Bushnell binoculars for some of the further away species or tricky to identify LBJs that you run across along the way. The seats draped in Maasai cloth for comfort were a colourful addition to the neutral toned khaki colours synonymous with safari.

Leaving Arusha and the cloud veiled Kilimanjaro in the rear-view mirror I was eagerly anticipating rolling into the Tarangire, but instead of heading into the main gate we veered off the road pursuing a dusty track that narrowed into a footpath ending outside the Acacia (ok, and yes I know the names have changed, but for now I think you’ll appreciate and understand Acacia better than Vachellia or Senegalia) clad cattle and goat enclosures of Chief Lubolu’s manyata. I was there because Lemala had teamed up with the chief to finically assist him develop education programs for his community.

In return he’d walk tourists through his village, introduce his family, which included four wives and he wasn’t yet 50 years old and some of his fifteen children. Extrapolating, he could well expand his family to double that should circumstances favour him. But the point isn’t about his virility, rather about his intention to educate the youth and give young girls the opportunity to grow beyond early marriage and a hard life of Maasai domesticity. Chief Lubolu is a visionary leader, he himself caught up by age old traditions, but excitedly determined to make changes to his culture for the better of the new generation. 

His efforts aren’t appreciated: After hearing of his intentions the villagers pushed back, threatened him, and ultimately took action. He woke one morning to find that his precious water tanks – those black ones that are mounted high to deliver gravity drawn water, were empty, punctured by Maasai assegais and drained into the parched dry soil. Undeterred he vowed to replace them with indestructible concrete tanks, which he did and like his resolve to get things done, the changed tanks remain, and the kids now go to school.

It’s an impressive story – Lemala’s participation ensures that he meets and welcomes tourists in a non-commercial and interactive way. Guests are encouraged by the women of the community to engage in a little beading, some get their hands dirty with mud and dung learning an ancient Maasai skill of wall plastering, learning the art of homemaking, while the guys get a healthy dose of Maasai chauvinism and watch while the women work – because a man’s job is to tend the cattle and goats, figure out and resolve community issues and create the foundations of the new home, shaping the branches to build the walls and fashion the roof. They do dance, leaping higher than any other human being not competing in the Olympics, their car tyre shoes slapping the earth in clouds of dust as they come down and dance away to the delight of the brightly coloured ladies in waiting. Chief Lubolu’s visits have earned his community around $1600 per annum with funds contributing to the construction of a classroom and part funding of the teacher’s salary. 

The first lodge stop was the spectacularly positioned Mpingo Ridge, which as its name suggests, sits high above the Tarangire Valley with sweeping views across the park toward Kili (Mt. Kilimanjaro) way off in the distance. At first the lodge leaves you with a feeling of a tented camp on steroids, which it is. High roofed, every creature comfort from double king beds, through to plumbed bathrooms, hot and cold indoor and outside showers, private spaces, and outlets to power a myriad of devices. Minibars, tea and coffee machines and filtered water in carafes, fluffy bathrobes, oversized towels, soaps, gels and salts for the tub and, and… and. Yes, the rooms are tents on steroids, as is the main lodge structure with all its obvious five-star lodge amenities.

What caught my eye was the less than discretely placed water urns where guests are encouraged to replenish their water bottles before heading out on drive. But before I dive into the water, the buildings are their own story, made from recycled and repurposed material while the footpaths and decks are all made for recycled composite material with equal parts plastic and bamboo. The lodge, blending into the crest of the ridge, is made pretty much entirely of recycled product setting the bar high for lowering its own carbon footprint. At Mpingo Ridge 49 tons of motor vehicle steel was recycled into the lodge structures.

But construction and materials aren’t enough to claim the badge of honour in the field of sustainable practices – these ask many more questions, and as I dug many were answered. So back to the water. How do you get a supply of fresh water in a bone-dry park without importing pallet loads of shrink wrapped, single use plastic bottles? It’s well water, but for a tourist this is not entirely palatable, many fear that the water in Africa is contaminated, which is half the reason why so many anxious travellers want to break the seal on a bottle of water. Problem is Lemala has a strong zero tolerance policy for plastic, amongst other pollutants, and so manufactures its own water. The same systems occur throughout the company’s Lodges in Tanzania. Reverse osmosis process render the purest drinking water possible, which is piped throughout the camp to the water urns and other consumable outlets. The reverse osmosis plant produces around 15,000 gallons of water annually arguably saving around 170,000 plastic bottles from the landfill.

That story ends well. Actually on diving deeper the water story has an even better ending. In each room and every dinner table is a unique carafe for water. The carafes might differ from one to the other, maybe the colour, the shape and design. Each is special, hand blown and made from recycled glass generated by the bottles discarded after a night of Bacchus celebrations around dinner. The wine bottles are sent off to Arusha and return in a new shape along with batches of glasses to match. Now that’s a better story…

Oh, and did I mention that the smaller tented camps, without the same infrastructure are all supplied water from the nearest Lemala lodge such as Nanyukie in the central park and Kuria Hills in in the North! Lemala has bought back around 180 pieces of recycled glassware from the Shanga in Arusha, however as all glass generated from Lemala is recycled this is a tiny return with the balance going toward glassware sold directly to the public from the Shanga itself.

Sustainability goes beyond mere environmental factors, which include energy generation and waste, which is an area where Lemala seems to continue its acceleration with each camp surviving off its own solar farm. Vehicle parking garages, staff accommodation roof tops, warehouses and storerooms all coated in solar panels, which charge banks of batteries with rich watts of super solar energy. Just in case, there is a backup generator, which appears to have only run during the early construction phase of the lodges and is drawn upon after long cycles of cloud cover and rainfall, which in this part of the world is seldom, if ever.

And so, satisfied with Mpingo Ridge I moved on to check out the other lodges to make sure that I wasn’t being shown a staged property while the rest sucked power off the grid and churned out plastic waste faster than a monsoon river in India.

Mto wa Mbu is a slowly sprawling village just beyond the shores of Lake Manyara and in the shadow of Ngorongoro, the ancient extinct volcano. It lies on the road that connects the Tarangire with the southern Serengeti and probably sees every vehicle that is headed to the safari Mecca from Arusha. It doesn’t enjoy much of the tourism economy as the vehicles passing through seldom stop and if ever, it’s to find a potty or for a tourist to claim a coveted Maasai blanket or hand carved figurine. Behind the main road are rice paddies, maize fields, industrious wood workers, banana breweries, plantations with over 25 varieties, and slowly built handmade homes, transitioning from the mud and dung clad structures to cinder block and zinc roofing.

In these dusty streets lie the heartbeat of Mto, seldom seen and felt by the traveller. Once again Lemala’s hand can be noticed. The blue three-wheeled tuk tuks have a Lemala sign and carry a driver and guide. These vehicles do not belong to Lemala, but they do to Mr Sunday, whom I like to refer to as the mayor of Mto…

This is a special story… the original guides were young women, living in squalor, and encouraged to improve themselves joined Mr Sunday as fledgling guides in training. Their purpose, to escort tourists around the backstreets of Mto showing off the vibrancy of the village while diving into Tanzanian community culture. I was escorted around by a guide, who spoke softly, wasn’t that confident and was continually prompted by Mr Sunday; she was new, nervous at sharing her knowledge with a foreign audience, but she was proud and stood upright and dressed smartly. Nine months later I was privileged to join her on a tour through Mto with a group of travel trade members learning about East Africa. Her demeanour had changed, her confidence was palpable while her repertoire was virtually unblemished. The flower had bloomed and while she had grown her colleague, Mary Chopin, had grown even further.

The Sunday group now employs eight guides with three more currently in training. Thirty-five ladies are employed to manufacture banana boxes, of which Lemala has purchased 4462 boxes, generating an income of $13,387 for the enterprise over the past year.

Lemala works with Mr Sunday, not just assisting with tourists on his tours, but also developing guides beyond the dusty streets of Mto wa Mbu. Mary passed muster and was scooped up by Lemala to join their in-house training programme. A year long immersion into the fundamentals of the Serengeti ecosystem, insights into guest empathy along with safari skills required by the modern field guide and today she is Lemala’s first woman guide successfully plying her newly learnt trade from the Nanyukie Tented Lodge in central Serengeti.

One would think that the story ends there… well it doesn’t Lemala continues to innovate, striving to reduce its footprint and create a better environment for its stakeholders and shareholders alike. The opportunity to take a disadvantage and turn it into something good and beneficial prevails.

Think about the other safari companies that aren’t as diligent in addressing the issues such as single use plastic, which gets dumped at Lemala’s Lodges when guides pass through. Instead of sending the trash out those plastic bottles are recycled and turned into composite materials, most commonly school desks that are donated to the communities occupying the marginal areas around the parks where Lemala is invested. To date 75 school desks have been distributed to Chief Lubolu and the Nainoanoka (Ngorongoro) community, with more to follow.
Words – Warren Green / Pics – Lemala

Read the story in Responsible Taveller digital mag HERE