A safari tour with Abercrombie & Kent // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Zebras survive a crossing of the Mara River, the site of the annual wildebeest and zebra migration. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
The task was simple enough. All the zebras had to do was swim across a short stretch of the river. And, though they have a bad reputation, the nearby hippos were uninterested in interfering. Most were idly submerged in the water, some allowing the sun to warm the top of their head. The real threat lurked lower.
In large and cautious groups, the zebras seemed to assess their chances of a safe crossing. Standing for what seemed like hours, they waited at the lake’s edge. Finally, as though stirred by an invisible checkered flag or a silent alarm, they took their chances, awkwardly kicking through the water before ascending stacks of uneven rocks. After a successful crossing, most zebras immediately trotted onto greener pastures — the whole point of the pilgrimage.
But one zebra decided to swim back. In our best National Geographic narrator voices, we contemplated its motives — perhaps the zebra was wanting for a friend or family member left behind? Then a dark shadowy mass, like something from the television show “Lost,” darted through the water toward the zebra, who was now chest deep in the river. It was not a smoke monster, but worse: the prehistoric criminal — the crocodile.
For the next half-hour, my Abercrombie & Kent (A&K) safari group looked on, dumbstruck by this natural drama. We rooted for the zebra but quickly realized we had no impact on its fate. Somehow summoned from their invisible posts, more crocodiles soon appeared.
Luckily, our own crossing of the Mara River went a bit smoother. We boarded a small pontoon boat powered by just one man, who willed our group across the Mara using only his strength and a rope tied to each side of the river. Once at our destination, Governors’ Camp, we sampled local cheeses and giggled at on-site baby warthogs while a camp guard studied the adjacent open plains for signs of big game.
Many would say this kind of comfortable, immersive experience would not be possible if it wasn’t for A&K. Founded by the Kent family in Kenya in 1962, A&K is largely credited with pioneering the leisure safari category. And though his parents retired in the ’60s, founder Geoffrey Kent is still CEO and chairman, and A&K is still committed to offering white-glove experiential travel. But that doesn’t mean the company hasn’t evolved.
A&K has expanded into a global tour operator, with a staggering 52 local offices around the world. For an idea of the company’s destinations, just check out @Geoffrey_Kent on Instagram. One of his most recent gigs — escorting a fleet of ambitious bucket-list warriors all around the world via private jet — beautifully captures the development of the company.
A&K is still offering classic wildlife safaris, but repeat clients can also board a private jet and journey throughout the entire African continent; sail Myanmar on Sanctuary Ananda; take an expedition cruise in Antarctica; or discover Sri Lanka, A&K’s newest destination with its own local office.
Experiential travelers can also drive their own Land Rover in Australia, Botswana, Britain, Morocco, Namibia, Scotland or Tanzania — with the comfort of GPS; the support of Land Rover Experience Instructors and a tour director; and the perk of being part of a convoy with two support cars.
So I wondered: Is it still worth it to take a safari with A&K? What sorts of changes have happened since the early days, when the company was the first to provide ice and caviar in the bush?
“When I began, safaris were something only the wealthiest Americans could afford,” said Kent during a company meeting. “Africa was considered a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, so visitors wanted to see all of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia on one 30-day trip. Outside the cities, there were few hotels, so we set up tents. At the end of the day, the most important thing was to find a ‘shower tree.’ You needed a sturdy branch at the right height to support a 3-gallon canvas shower bucket.”
Back then, beds were cots a few feet from the ground, draped in mosquito netting. Tents were fussy affairs, requiring about 100 poles, which were color-coded to simplify the process. In the morning, a basin of hot water was set outside the tents for shaving and washing. The group shared one toilet, mounted on a box over a pit lined with lime. Safaris took place in old Land Rovers with sliding windows and seats mounted sideways, facing one another.
“Since my philosophy was ‘Don’t shoot with a gun, shoot with a camera,’ we could not rely on hunters for fresh meat,” Kent said. “Instead, using the experience I had in the desert with the British military, I worked with an army friend to design a refrigeration system that made it possible to have fresh meat, fruits, vegetables and unlimited ice in the bush. That’s how A&K became known for providing unexpected comforts and amenities in remote destinations.”
Today’s safari product has kept up with the times. All tents — whether mobile or part of a permanent camp — have private en-suite facilities. Mobile tents have full-size beds, sewn-in floors and a veranda. Driving is only done when it is the best way to get from point A to point B. Otherwise, there are private planes that take off from open fields. I will never forget our flight from Samburu to the Mara: instead of grumpy airport staff, we mingled with a Samburu oryx and a Masai giraffe.
Then there are A&K’s safari vehicles, which allow everyone to get a 360-degree view, as well as free Wi-Fi access and outlets to charge up to four different devices. The days of sharing safari footage when you return home are over — post an Instagram video of elephants surrounding your safari car, and you’ll receive comments from friends while you’re still in the bush. That is the meaning of luxury today.
But the best things about safaris are timeless. During the quiet moments preceding sunrise after our wake-up calls, we would savor moments in nature over tea and cookies — that is, if an enterprising monkey didn’t have other plans for our morning treats. We looked forward to game drive after game drive, each one yet another opportunity to see something that we had never seen before. To my group, and most others who have a safari on their bucket list, the experience is completely novel — a time to disconnect from man-made madness and reconnect with the rhythms of nature.
And tech innovations can’t replace exceptional service. When a company expands, dedicated founding staff may be replaced with passionless workers, or employees get stretched too thin. A&K, however, has managed to maintain quality throughout its growth with a focus on creating local offices and hiring excellent, long-term guides and tour directors.
On my trip, most guides had more than 20 years of experience, and all were from Kenya. They weren’t simply familiar with the terrain; some could even identify animals by name. One day, while observing a cub trying to make a kill as his elders watched on, our guide shared when the cub was born and then recounted the history of that specific pride. He had been observing them for years.
What’s more, the guides were enthusiastic and always had an insightful and patient response to each of our questions and requests. According to Marett Taylor, vice president of sales for A&K, the company hires guides and directors who are intellectually curious, care about knowing their clients and are motivated to improve their job skills.
Our tour director, Maurice Oyamo, consistently provided context and shared special knowledge with the sophistication of a professor, his former occupation. For all our questions, we never received a canned, surface-level answer. Instead, we got beautiful responses constructed in a way that was sensitive to what we knew and how we learned. Coupled with Kenya’s wildlife and dreamy landscapes, I felt like I was living my dream of learning onboard The Magic School Bus with Ms. Frizzle.
Of course, being paired with Oyamo might not have been a totally random match.
“I often get involved in trying to pick just the right fit of tour director for our clients,” Taylor said. “When I have someone very academic, I’ll pick Maurice. When we get families, we have a guide, John Niva, who is an epic soccer player. He’ll organize soccer matches in the afternoons for the kids.”
A&K’s Kenya guides are not just book smart and personable — they know how to hustle. When a few of us in our group requested a visit to a Samburu village, which was not part of the original itinerary, Maurice went to work. Like the Maasai people in the south of Kenya, the northern Samburu are nomadic pastoralists. They now tend to stick around a given area longer due to schools, but they still aren’t the easiest to reach.
Maurice knew that one of the waiters at Samburu Intrepids, our accommodations at the time, would be able to get in contact with the chief of the village camped outside the nearby Samburu National Reserve. He also knew that this chief and his tribe spoke English well and loved sharing their culture.
According to Taylor, customization happens — not just on FIT trips, but also during down time on Luxury Small Group Journeys and Connection Group Journeys, so long as guides have enough notice. And because the guides are locals with contacts throughout the country — including the A&K office staff in Nairobi — it all feels comfortable. Even getting on my knees and crawling through the entrance of a Samburu family’s small and very simple hut wasn’t awkward. I was struck by how warmly we were embraced by both the Samburu and the Maasai.
“We have had a relationship with the Maasai since the 1970s,” Taylor said. “They welcome our guests as though they were their own.”
This was especially true at my favorite property that we stayed at: Sanctuary Olonana. The tented camp is on the tribe’s land and is co-owned with and staffed by local Maasai.
“It’s symbiotic,” Taylor said. “We lease the land, but the Maasai get a certain percentage of each bed night. This camp is theirs. They feel that way; they act that way — it has ease. It’s a subtle thing. It’s very important to have that agreement so it feels natural.”
This is especially true for A&K’s Western travel agents, who are the most discerning about insider access, authenticity and philanthropic and green elements of the company’s trips, according to Taylor. Lauren Vassiliou, an agent based in Austin, Texas, loved Sanctuary Olonana for these reasons.
“It warmed my heart feeling the community spirit and knowing that travel can make a difference,” she said.
Taylor believes that without the local staff, insider cultural experiences would feel like they had been contracted by someone in the U.S.
“In Russia, it’s a Russian contracting with Russians trying to find the right family for a home visit,” she said.
Local offices also choose how corporate revenue is spent for philanthropy efforts. But perhaps the most important thing local offices do is control quality. This means that when the host of a boutique hotel changes, A&K’s local staffers are on the scene, investigating how the change might affect their guests’ experience.
During my trip, I visited the Nairobi headquarters for A&K’s Kenya and Tanzania operation, which among other duties manages a fleet of safari cars that resembles a car dealership. The local office also manages the emergency hotline, something I unfortunately test drove later that day.
When I couldn’t get on my 2 a.m. flight from Nairobi to South Africa, I was feeling a little like that zebra: totally alone and vulnerable. I was amazed to find someone awake and empathetic on the other line. I was even more surprised when Daniel, one of my former guides, was there to pick me up. I didn’t have a phone, but he had told a friend of his — a cab driver he knew was at the airport — to look out for me. That man found me and called Daniel, who was circling the airport for me. Daniel was smiling, even though it was so late, and our trip together was technically over.
“We always say that the first and last impression is everything,” Taylor said. “It makes you realize why you booked with A&K.”