The adventure began on a short flight between Zanzibar and Kilimanjaro, aboard an old-fashioned DC, with its twin props evoking nostalgia for a simpler time and an urge to read the safety instructions with unusual thoroughness. Touching down in Tanzania, its arid landscape and high-rise free horizon are the most immediate testimonies to the country’s otherworldly charms.
Set predominantly in Eastern Africa, although with parts of this large country also stretching into Southern Africa, Tanzania is bordered on the north by Kenya and Uganda, with the Congo to the west, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique to the south and the Indian Ocean to the east. Its claim to be the very heart of Africa is hard to dispute.
From Kilimanjaro airport, the drive westwards sees us head to Karatu, our ultimate destination. Not highly regarded for its investment in infrastructure, the region’s roads are far from easy on any vehicle’s suspension. Either side there are vast expanses of open plains, with the land so arid dust devils are our constant travelling companions, rising skywards as if the earth itself was trying to escape the dry, dusty conditions.
As we pass, small herds of cattle nod in our direction, ever hopeful that one of their clearly rare feeds is on the cards. Only slightly better fed, the Maasai shepherds steer their charges from water source to water source, something of a navigational feat in a country with an average annual rainfall of just 1,148mm.
Heading into the highlands, a gradual change appears in the scenery. For the first time, greenery appears on the horizon. By the time the end of our journey approaches, the desert plains have given way to trees and forested bush land. Our ultimate destination – a secluded coffee farm – lies in Karatu, bordering Mount Ngorongoro and its famous crater.
The farm, the Shangri-La Estate, was established in 1920 and sprawls across some 1,200 acres. This unlikely setting is home to the Ngoro Ngoro Mountain blend, one of Tanzania’s – if not the world’s – finest coffees.
The farm has been owned and operated by Christian Jebsen – a member of the same family that founded Jebsen and Co, the Hong Kong-based marketing and distribution company – since 1992. Today, the farm boasts an impressive 400,000 coffee trees, as well as 50 acres devoted to avocados, five acres to wine (a relatively new venture), 90 acres of grassland and a further 575 acres reserved for forest and game corridors.
The farm employs 40 full-time employees, taking on an additional 150 casual workers on a seasonal basis, swelling to a further 250 coffee pickers during the prime picking season. The farm nursery has 25,000 seedlings ready as replacement plants, with cuttings of almost every imaginable type of coffee plant at hand, although Bourbon and Blue Mountain coffee beans are the staple here.
Touring the farm, it quickly becomes clear just how much work and time goes into producing coffee. From tree to satisfying cup, each bean will have passed through five sets of hands before even being roasted.
Of course as a working coffee farm, all of the Shangri-La’s guests are invited to try their hand at roasting their own coffee, something that can be enjoyed after a long day learning the intricacies involved with creating the perfect blend. Few will leave the establishment without gaining a new respect for this esoteric process and a renewed love for the perfectly cultivated bean.
With the farm occupying land that would otherwise be a wild and natural habitat, every effort has been made to maintain harmony with the surrounding natural world, an endeavour that has seen the estate gain the endorsement of the Rainforest Alliance. The farm also plays a key economic role in the life of the surrounding towns, providing jobs for many of the local women, with a female-only pickers’ camp allowing many of the region’s ladies to have a degree of financial independence from their husbands – something of a rarity in many traditional African societies.
The Shangri-La has also built its own kindergarten, ensuring that mothers can stay employed even when there are young children to factor in. It also supports the nearby Mlimani Smawe Secondary School by providing materials, books and even volunteer teachers in the form of altruistic European students who are keen to give a little back to the wider world.
Visitors holidaying on the estate are offered a choice of accommodation. The most luxurious option, the Guest House (or Samaki Tatu, meaning “three fish” in Swahili) is a newly built residence, complete with five double rooms, all provided with en-suite facilities and the kind of ultra-modern conveniences you might reasonably expect to find in a five-star hotel. Complete with a swimming pool, service staff and a chef, staying at Samaki Tatu is certainly one of the most comfortable ways to see Africa.
Virtually wholly self-sustainable, all of the food served is from the farm itself, all provided by its 10 cows, a dairy and a cheesery. There are also 30 head of cattle, the same number of pigs and a two-acre vegetable garden.
As you relax by the pool, the well will, in all likelihood, be visited by a number of its regular patrons, be it a herd of elephants, a baboon troop, a few stray deer and even the occasional lion or leopard. Separated by only a rudimentary stone wall, it is nigh on impossible to imagine a more immersive stay in truly natural Africa. The spectacle of these majestic beasts as they loom out of the forest to visit the well at dusk is truly a sight to behold. In fact, it’s well worth the journey alone.
Of course this being Africa, while a tour of the farm is all well and fine, your stay would not be complete without a good old-fashioned safari. Luckily, the farm is surrounded by national park land – the Serengeti, the Manyara National Park, the Tangire National Park and the Ngorongoro crater. The farm offers various packages that offer a range of safaris, including a two-day excursion to the Serengeti National Park.
Whichever national park you opt to explore, you are guaranteed a truly African adventure, complete with free-roaming zebra herds, wildebeests by the hundred, scampering baboons, the grandeur that is the African elephant, giraffes, bathing hippos, lions and literally hundreds of different species of birds.
One of the more impressive safaris, though, has to be the journey around (and within) the Ngorogoro crater. One of the greatest natural spectacles in the world, the crater is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site and has also been deemed to be the eighth wonder of the world.
From the comfort of the farm to the adventure of the African safari, a trip to Tanzania and the Shangri-La Coffee Farm offers all the comforts of luxury travel with the unforgettable sights and experiences you can only find in Africa. Of course, this is just one of the many adventures to be had on the world’s most beguiling, compelling and mysterious continent. But, then, no one said you could only go once.