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Azura Retreats are synonymous with style, comfort and exclusivity. With only three properties dotted over the Eastern side of Africa, you will have to search far and wide to find resorts with more flair.
When owners, power couple Stella and Christopher Bettany decided to switch from pinstriped suits to beach attire, a dream was born.
Their idea was simple – find something so remote that you have no alternative but to relax entirely, was fraught with ‘where should we start looking’. Hailing from the incessantly chilly British climate and after numerous visits to Mozambique, they recognised the enormous potential of this undisturbed jewel off the East Coast of Africa. For them, establishing a resort in Africa was a no-brainer; Stella loves diving and Christopher loves fishing; they were always going to start with the islands.
“The Mozambique Minister of Tourism put us in touch with Gabriel, our local partner to be, who needed to upgrade his backpackers to a 5-star tourism establishment,” Stella recalls. “After many challenges and countless visits to find the ideal location, we comprehended the significance of an island location and somewhere with community goals, like building a school before starting construction on the hotel.”
Their perseverance, clever business plan and a signed agreement in place, saw the foundations being laid for their very first property – Azura Benguerra in 2007, followed by Azura Quilalea in 2011.
Things don’t always go according to plan when starting a business, especially one involving construction in such a far-off setting that you eventually have no choice but to manufacture your own bricks. “The logistical challenges are enormous,” Stella remembers. “The most important part is to acquire a site and have the right paperwork to start operating, which is usually a two year process due to consultations with the community and dealing with different levels of government. Coming from the banking world, we like to do things by the book. Building and operating remotely come with huge obstacles. At Azura Benguerra, we made all our own bricks – everything came in by boat, apart from sand. In all our properties we have to create our own power and water before we even get started.”
Community involvement is a core aspect at Azura and rather than bring in outside contractors with no benefit to the local community, they trained the local islanders in vital building skills which will enable them to find new employment in the booming construction industry going forward. They built Azura by hand, using just one cement mixer and one truck in the construction – with everything other than sand for the building coming in by fleets of local dhows to aid the community. The wood that was used came from sustainable sources, the window frames and doors were made locally, the roofing jekka obtained from local women who Azura established in their own business to supply them.
With two Indian Ocean Island properties faring swimmingly, they set their sights further into Africa – to be more specific the untouched jewel of Tanzania.
“We were looking for somewhere to twin with Azura Quilalea, as so many of our clients have the desire to do a bush and beach holiday,” says Stella. “Selous is the closest game reserve to Quilalea that ticks all the Azura boxes. It is the oldest game reserve in Africa, older even than Kruger National Park and a Unesco site. Due to its limitlessness, it provides a sense of space and isolation on safari which is very rare to find in this day and age. I think it’s priceless. We looked at several new opportunities, but fell in love with an existing camp in a remote area of the Selous, where we could create a very private game safari experience. It had the blueprint to be an Azura, with spacious villas and private plunge pools, and an amazing location overlooking the hippos of the Great Ruaha River. I love space. A feeling of being totally on your own with Africa. With no camps nearby, and a vastly varied terrain to discover, that’s exactly what you get at Azura Selous, plus we are predator central with our lions and wild dogs. My children loved the guides, who are just brilliant with kids. They see themselves as mini-guides and spend hours chatting away with them, before falling asleep to the sway of the Land Rover and being gently carried back to their beds by the guides. They begged us to buy it and make it an Azura.”
The African country of Tanzania has always been on my bucket list. Not only because of the animal attraction, but for the liberation of one’s mind when met by the overwhelming expanse of wilderness. After an extensive renovation at Azura Selous followed by an invitation to visit, I start preparing for the trip.
Packed and raring to go, I board the plane from Cape Town International Airport, winging my way to O.R. Tambo International Airport. A delay at the airline causes a ripple effect, landing me at Dar Es Salaam over an hour late. Thankfully the Auric Air flight has not yet departed and the friendly pilot and two very irate co-passengers have been waiting for us. The Cessna Caravan is our transport from Dar Es Salaam to the Sumbazi Airstrip and in the capable hands of Captain Ehrard Opperman, we set off over Tanzania.
I occupy the seat next to the pilot and am awe-struck by the enormity of the 56,400 square mile landscape that is all around me. The sun is setting over the escarpment and 55 minutes later, we land to a very warm welcome by the Azura Selous team.
The reception at the lodge is even happier; everyone greets us with smiling faces and friendly handshakes. Our guide for the duration of our stay is Vitus, our hosts are Kashimili and Hassan and my housekeeper is Witness. After a debriefing of the facilities at Azura Selous, I am shown to my Villa, Villa number 6. The very luxurious tented dwelling has a feature entrance and is elephant themed. My large bedroom is to the left with a view of the river and is exquisitely furnished in shades of white, green and beige.
My bathroom is to the right and the stone finishes add to the ‘letting the outside in’ element. The double vanities overlook the Ruaha River and from my glass enclosed shower cubicle with Hans Grohe amenities, I hope I am able to spot a hippo frolicking in the distance during the daytime.
It is time for dinner and tonight we dine overlooking the river. With a choice of cream of pumpkin soup or feta and spinach parcel with walnut cream sauce for Starters, Main course consisting of Grilled local fish with pineapple relish, deep fried calamari ball, red pepper emulsion, julienne greens, pumpkin puree or Grilled lamb chops, caponata vegetables, onion puree, fondant potatoes and jus and Dark chocolate tart for dessert, it was a delicious evening to say the least.
After dinner, we relax in the lounge area where you can end the evening with your drink of choice while uploading pics on Instagram, Facebook or just checking your e-mails.
The Askari (Maasai warrior) is waiting to escort me to my room. You are not allowed to wander around on your own after dark or before sunrise as chances are you might encounter an animal in camp. Not sure who would get the bigger fright!
After a cleansing shower, I retire to my turned down bed with the dropped mosquito netting and the ceiling fan cooling the room down. The sound of the river lulls me to sleep and before nodding off completely, a hippo grunts, sending me to dreamland.
We are scheduled for an early morning game drive and once my Askari has walked me to the game drive vehicle, we depart to see what we can find. The radio communication between Vitus and Joseph sounds very animated and at that very moment, I wish I can understand Swahili. We spot a ground hornbill in the bare branches of a tree, a colourful lilac-breasted roller and an Impala ram.
Suddenly Vitus tells us to ‘hold on’ as he speeds up the vehicle, intent on getting us to where Joseph has directed him. He turns the corner and slams on the brakes. The pungent stench fills the early morning air. Then we see the first one and hear the sound of bones breaking. It’s a pack of African Wild Dogs feasting on an Impala they had just killed. There’s a skirmish as they fight for the last morsels and before long, the vultures swoop in and make their presence known.
Breakfast is set up next to the Ruaha River and from my seat I can see the mother hippo walking about on the exposed sandbank, with a baby hippo following her. Glass jars filled with fresh fruit covered in yoghurt and granola is served as well as frittata, sausages and juice.
As we head back to the lodge, the sky is littered with the impressive wingspan of a variety of scavenging birds. A loud squeal pierces the air and then we see them again – the Wild Dogs in playful mode while some are trying to sleep off their meal.
Back at the lodge, it is time for lunch in the Wild Dog restaurant. The menu consists of mixed salad bread with boerewors paté, tomato gazpacho, beetroot, brie & roasted red onion salad, fish cakes with coleslaw and lemon tart.
‘Time at leisure’ has me taking a stroll to my room, where in the heat of the day, I want to try the outside shower, but instead opt for the private plunge pool with its refreshing water. It is wonderful just lounging in the water, enjoying the facilities Azura Selous has to offer.
In the early evening, we make our way to the riverbanks for sundowners. Kashimili opens a bottle of the owner’s French bubbly and ‘cheers!’ are exclaimed as we watch the last rays of the sun sinking into the horizon.
Dinner is on the deck next to the pool and the food is once again delicious.
After a good night’s sleep, we depart on our morning game drive. As the sun makes its appearance, the statuesque shape of a Baobab tree is offset by the moody sky. We spot the usual suspects – Impala, Wildebeest and the beautiful Masai Giraffe. A bush breakfast is followed by a hearty lunch at the lodge after which we are free to do as we wish.
A sudden torrential downpour makes everyone scurry for shelter, but the sound and smell of the rain reminds me of the Toto Song ‘Africa’, in which they sing ‘God bless the rains down in Africa’. Time for a siesta I decide. I wake up at 05:40 am, oblivious to the fact that I had slept right through the fishing expedition and the surprise dinner. Silently ‘kicking’ myself, I decide to join the morning boat excursion on the Ruaha River. After a quick shower and a radio request for an Askari, I am told that the boat cruise is no longer taking place and a walking safari is on the cards for the morning.
Disappointed, I sulkily plonk myself down on the lounge cushion while Vitus embarks on his walking safari. Fifteen minutes later, he returns and between Swahili words, all I make out is ‘Simba’. “Let’s go!” he says, followed by “hold on”! Twenty minutes later, we see him – the strangest looking male lion, sitting on his own with what resembles a mohawk. These are the Masai lions and they don’t grow a full mane because of the climate. He gets up and as we follow him, he leads us to his brother who is lying fast asleep in the dry riverbed. They both start walking away, but not before looking us straight in the eye. What a rush!
It is time to pack up and head back home. The ‘bush taxi’ flies over and as the entire staff waits at the Land Rover to bid us farewell, I quietly wish that I could stay a little while longer.
Thank you to Lucy Mussett from Nicky Arthur PR for all the arrangements and Azura Selous for hosting us. Views expressed are the author’s own.