This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, autumn 2019, issue 110
Founder, chair and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, Geoffrey Kent, talks adventure, sustainable tourism and unique experiences all travellers should experience at least once…
Your business Abercrombie & Kent has been founded on a sense of adventure. What defines an adventurous spirit in a traveller?
While many who travel are thrilled to simply be in a foreign country, our guests seek a deeper knowledge and appreciation, an experience of a more profound nature that expands their understanding of the world. They are experience seekers; educated, active, accomplished with an intense curiosity about other cultures.
As people are more active and healthier later in life, they have the time and physical ability to undertake more adventurous journeys. We are seeing a dramatic increase in people who want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to celebrate a milestone birthday… most often 40 or 50.
When looking back at your own adventures, starting with being the first person to ride their motorbike from Nairobi to Cape Town at age 16, can you explain what adventure has taught you about yourself and also the world?
I’ve learned that the glories of professional and social success can’t compare to the rush of achieving personal quests against nature. It adds another dimension to life. My goal is to provide modern-day adventurers with an opportunity to conquer nature instead of the boardroom – a rare experience that transforms their belief in what is possible and the obstacles they can overcome.
For those who have never been on a safari in Africa, how does the experience change a traveller?
Safaris were the original form of experiential travel, an opportunity to explore pristine wilderness and see extraordinary wildlife, while also meeting people pursuing a traditional way of life.
It’s hard to express in words why going on safari is so rewarding. The landscapes are spectacular, and the wildlife is amazing, but for me the most satisfying part of the day is sitting around a campfire with a cold drink and sharing stories. Life there is so much more elemental with nature unfolding in front of you every day.
Since hitting the road on your first adventure in 1958, what modern technologies do you now personally embrace to ensure memorable adventures and what traditional practices or rituals do you still swear by?
I always carry a satellite phone to stay in touch with A&K’s more than 55 offices around the world. The iPhone photos I post on Instagram replace the diary I once kept.
At the end of each day, I always look forward to sundowners, a chance to relax at the end of the day with a cold drink and share stories, reminiscing about the wild Africa that once existed everywhere but is now so much harder to find.
How is A&K staying at the forefront of ethical and sustainable tourism?
I started A&K with the idea of “shoot with a camera, not with a gun” and recent events have made it clear that in order to protect Africa’s endangered wildlife, we must build partnerships with local communities. There is a growing recognition of how tourism can protect wildlife and at the same time benefit the local population.
Which destinations in the next five years would you recommend to travellers who want to venture where few have been?
An ideal destination for safari-goers who relish the thrill of discovery and want a more active safari experience. Though relatively unknown outside Africa, Zambia offers a diverse range of environments with prolific wildlife. Walking safaris were pioneered here; if you have only seen animals from inside a vehicle, you will find walking with big game a thrilling experience. Night drives are also a specialty and the best means of seeing some of the more elusive nocturnal species, including leopard.
Travellers seeking to go to the ends of the earth should look no further than Antarctica. This is a destination of extremes: the weather is unpredictable, the distances long but the experience nothing short of remarkable. The best way to experience the breathtaking landscapes and the wildlife – unaffected by the presence of humans – is on a small luxury expedition ship equipped with Zodiacs for close-up access to fjords, glaciers, and bays bigger ships can’t reach.
The rarely-visited Brazilian Pantanal is home to the largest (and healthiest) population of jaguars on earth. It’s a massive floodplain that I recommend visiting at the end of the dry season, when getting around by land is easier and animals – such as caimans, marsh deer, capybaras and, most exciting of all, the stealthy jaguar – are more abundant.
There are few places in the world where you can feel the sense of vastness and isolation found in the breathtaking landscapes of this rugged land. Go off the grid surrounded by majestic mountains, glaciers, lakes, and the Serrano River (which makes for a thrilling Zodiac ride)!
Which A&K Philanthropy projects are you most proud of and what are some new focus areas you hope to work on in coming years?
I urged Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to set aside Bwindi Impenetrable Forest as a national park to protect the remaining gorillas in Uganda. Last year guests at Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp spent more than $1 million dollars a year on gorilla tracking permits, money which directly benefits the local economy and encourages community members to cooperate with park authorities to prevent poaching. As a result, the population of gorillas in Bwindi has increased from less than 300 to more than 400 – almost half of the gorillas surviving in the world today.
At the same time we have not ignored the human side of the equation. Our guests have contributed more than $1.5million to transform what started as a clinic under a tree into Bwindi Community Hospital, a fully-fledged regional hospital, serving over 40,000 patients annually. As recently as 2006, there was no testing for HIV/AIDS, no education and no treatment available. More than 40% of the children died before the age of 5 from malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis andAIDS. With improved access to healthcare, infant mortality has been reduced by more than 50%.
SafeWater for Schools in the Kenya’s Masai Mara
In 2017, AKP started the Safe Water for Schools Initiative to ensure clean water for Maasai students. The programme brings the LifeStraw community filter, a high-volume water purifier designed to deliver safe drinking water, to schools surrounding the Masai Mara. The filter’s hollow fibre purification technology converts contaminated water into safe drinking water by removing a minimum of 99.9999% of bacteria, 99.999% of viruses and 99.99% of protozoan parasites. It prevents waterborne diseases common in Africa, such as diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, worms, and cryptosporidiosis. To date, AKP has delivered clean drinking water to more than 7,000 students in 11 Maasai schools.
Bike Shop Programme in Zambia
Bicycles, which provide a necessary mode of transportation as well as a livelihood, are also playing a role in enhancing lives. Beginning in 2015, Abercrombie & Kent offices in the U.S., UK and Australia have teamed up with local partners to send thousands of used bicycles to Africa. When each container arrives, it is converted into a bike shop that employs five local women, who repair and recondition the bikes in order to sell them or rent them out. Today the first shop generates enough income to be self-sustaining and also contributes to local social causes such as the sponsorship of school fees for orphans and contributing toward the costs of building a maternity ward.
Through A&K Philanthropy, bikes in Nakatindi, Zambia (near Victoria Falls) were also given to local healthcare workers, enabling them to visit four times more patients, and to students graduating from the local primary school, so they could ride 11kms to the nearest secondary school. The promise of a bicycle was an incentive to graduate.
AKP has also provided seed money to start similar bike enterprises in Mfuwe, Zambia; Kasane, Botswana; Babati, Tanzania and Bwindi, Uganda. Each is run by five local women, trained to sell and repair bikes and run the business.
What are your top five adventure activities you’d recommend all travellers aim to experience at least once in their lifetime?
Each of us collects experiences throughout our lives that speak to who we are as human beings. These experiences reflect our taste – and signal our aspirations. Your travels are an investment in building your own ‘Experience Portfolio’ that reflects what inspires you and what you care about.
Why go now: Few areas on earth are as remote and untouched as the Northwest Passage. Steeped in history and rich in wildlife, a voyage to the Canadian Arctic offers a once-in-a-lifetime adventure very few people have experienced.
How to go: Travel alongside experts on the history of exploration, marine mammals, ornithology, geology and native art, as well as a Photo Coach. Learn from Zodiac drivers who are experienced field naturalists with close-up views of wildlife and geological wonders. Guests cruise aboard exclusively chartered, all-balcony ‘LeBoreal.’
GK Travel Tip: ‘Think of this as a semester at sea with university-level courses in history, marine biology, geology, and much more, offered in the field on a luxury expedition ship. The opportunity to visit remote villages and meet local Inuit people is especially rewarding. Observing their traditional way of life and learning how they survive in the often-harsh Arctic environment is unforgettable.
Find out more: The Northwest Passage
Why go now: It’s difficult to find anywhere in Europe where it’s possible to escape the crowds. This is one example, especially when you travel off season, to see a more authentic side of Scandinavia.
How to go: Sample an extraordinary range of winter experiences including a cruise on an icebreaker, overnighting in an ice hotel and sleeping under a glass dome to watch for the Northern Lights from the comfort of your bed.
GK Travel Tip: I led an expedition above the Arctic Circle earlier this year and everyone described it as ‘the trip of a lifetime.’ Pictures simply do not do justice to the experience of losing yourself in this vast landscape.
Find out more: Finland
Why go now: Luxury travel has arrived in Rwanda with high-end lodges, camps and hotels opening. One&Only Nyungwe House, located on the edge of the Nyungwe Forest in the mountainous southwest, opened in October 2017 alongside ancient rainforest, within the lush green expanse of a working tea plantation. One&Only Gorilla’s Nest is scheduled to open later this year. Located near the village of Kingi, it is in the foothills of the Virunga Volcano range. In addition to a gorilla trek, guests can also see golden monkeys and visit Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Camp. Singita Kwitonda Lodge is set to open in August 2019 on the edge of Volcanoes National Park.
How to go: Travellers are drawn by the chance to see critically-endangered mountain gorillas in the cloud forests of Parc National des Volcans. But there is much more in Rwanda. The chimpanzees and canopy walkway in Nyungwe Forest are not to be missed. And Lake Kivu is one of the most peaceful and tranquil places in East Africa.
GK Travel Tip: Rwanda is where the abundant wildlife and verdant landscapes of the West African jungle meet the East African savannah.
Find out more: Rwanda
Gobi Desert, Mongolia
Why go now: Rugged Mongolia is an adventurous destination where travellers can experience nomadic life in a vast landscape still relatively untouched by modern life. The country offers an authentic look at life ‘off the grid.’
How to go: The Gobi Desert lies in the remote area between the Siberian wilderness to the north and the Tibetan Plateau to the south. However, travellers will not sacrifice luxury for adventure on [the A&K Mongolia journey]. Settle in at a comfortable ger camp, a luxurious take on a traditional nomadic dwelling. The night sky is awe-inspiring and an astronomer will be on hand to lead an evening of stargazing. Visit the Flaming Cliffs, accompanied by a local palaeontologist who describes the extraordinary dinosaur finds (including the first dinosaur eggs). Attend the extraordinary Golden Eagle Festival and meet the famed golden eagle hunters.
GK Travel Tip: Nothing rivals the Golden Eagle festival, the traditional contests of horsemanship and the thrilling competition of the Kazakh hunters and their eagles. Award-winning photographer and author Palani Mohan accompanies our journey and adds incredible insights having visited the region five times before.
Find out more: Gobi Desert, Mongolia