You can thank the Brits
“Now we stop for breakfast,” our sturdy guide Eric announced. He steered our safari vehicle off the dirt road leading through the preserve adjacent to Kenya’s Amboseli National Park and onto the vast expanse of grass.
Our group of six had risen before sunrise for some prime wildlife viewing time. It didn’t hurt that the morning light made it easier to snap a great photo of Amboseli’s famous elephants on parade with the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.
Now, more than three hours later, the full strength of the sun was upon us. Most of the wildlife had retreated into the shade to pass the hottest hours of the day. Our vehicle ambled along the savannah, weaving through thickets and flat-topped trees that were the namesake of the Tortilis Camp where we were staying. We craned our necks searching for perhaps a lion relaxing under cover.
That’s when I spotted some familiar faces standing under a tortilis tree. Staff from the camp, including a cook wearing a tall white toque, were standing behind a table draped with a red Maasai shuka. There were made-to-order omelets, yogurt, cereals, fresh fruit, and juices like orange and passion fruit.
Farther in the distance, there was another table draped in a similar tablecloth. It was surrounded by chairs and set with leather placemats, plates, silverware, and platters heaping with muffins and pastries. To the right was a transportable fire pit warming nearly all the fixings of a full English.
This is bush breakfast—it goes way beyond the quick croissant and a cup of coffee poured from a thermos that I had anticipated. It’s an almost embarrassingly lavish affair that, quite surprisingly, can be set up in under two hours with a team of about four to six. The site is chosen in advance based on a combination of factors like scenery and shade. Some food is prepared in advance and the workers then pack the vehicle and head out.
At Tortilis Camp, bush breakfasts are designed to surprise guests after an early morning safari drive. They usually get at least a cup of coffee or tea before leaving camp before dawn and then a few hours later they’re refreshed with a full spread of eggs, sausage, bacon, toast, and grilled tomatoes.
Whenever there’s a grilled tomato in the morning, you know the British must be involved. The full breakfast is perhaps England’s most beloved culinary export, and it’s actually a product of Victorian times. As the reach of British colonialism expanded to different countries, more and more dishes were added to the breakfast table. (In other words—as you know—colonialism was good for the British palate, but not always so great for the colonies.)
During the Victorian era, it was a ritual of the upper class to enjoy a huge breakfast before grouse or fox hunts with all the trappings—silver, crystal, china, and huge table having with a variety of dishes. The British also enjoyed these extravagant meals before big game hunts in East Africa that became popular during the same time period. They eventually evolved into today’s safaris.
Tortilis Camp general manager Johan van Eede explains, “The beginnings of the bush breakfast tradition would be hard to pinpoint, but its origins lie in the mobile luxury safari camps of yesteryear.” The safari as we know it today was in development even before the English formed British East Africa in 1877. The word, originally linked to Arabic, means “journey” and it started appearing in the English language as early as the 1850’s.
Although hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, the first safari-goers were in search of a lion carcass or elephant tusk to bring home as a trophy. The roots of the modern day safari and the typical routines they follow can be traced back to William Cornwallis Harris, a novelist and British colonial army officer who recruited groups to head into the African wilderness to observe animals. He designed the modern day schedule of rising before dawn, partaking in an indulgent dinner complete with wine and cocktails, and of course, a hearty breakfast.
Safaris grew even more luxurious during the early twentieth century. In White Hunter: The Golden Age of Safaris, Brian Herne describes the trips organized by British hunter Denys Finch Hatton. His guests were spoiled with walk-in tents, fine bed linens, clean laundry, cold cocktails, and tables set with silverware, crystal, and fine china.
Finch Hatton was eventually portrayed by Robert Redford in the film Out of Africa, bringing the idea of “safari chic” and all its stylish hats, sundowner cocktails, and bush breakfasts to a wider audience. Some safari camps like Serengeti Serena Safari Lodge in Tanzania even market their bush breakfast as “the real Out of Africa experience.”
However you feel about the colonial hangover that is bush breakfast—and it’s fair to feel not-so-great— eating al fresco, under a tortilis tree with the threat of a leopard dropping out of it, with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro in the background is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And the breakfast is pretty good, too.