Call of the Veld
THE LAST thing anyone wants is for African safaris to go the way of so many popular holiday choices, with everyone visiting the same attractions, staying in the same places and having the same experiences. Fortunately, Jose Cortes is determined to make sure that doesn't happen.
Cortes is co-founder of Asia to Africa Safaris (www.atoasafaris.com), a company that provides clients in Asia with customised tours of a continent whose tourism frontiers expand every day. There are a lot of undiscovered spots - and Cortes is trying to discover them. He built the company while working as a banker in Hong Kong, then quit his day job and moved to South Africa, where he now spends his time focusing on a business that is a lot more fun than shuffling numbers.
Based in Cape Town, his job largely involves dealing with partners - more than 300 of them, most of them safari camps and other providers of accommodation. Not that he gets out into the wilderness quite as often as he'd like. 'When I moved here, I got really excited,' he says. 'I thought I'd be in the bush once a month. But sadly I have to run the business.'
For most of the company's existence, though, Cortes was an investment banker - not the sort of job that usually leaves people with the time and energy for moonlighting, let alone running a labour-intensive, rapidly expanding business. He worked in Manila, New York City and Hong Kong, eventually for Lehman Brothers - and when that bank went the way of all inept speculators in 2008, he decided to focus on the safari business.
Asia to Africa started in the mid-1990s with just two people, when Cortes was working at JP Morgan in Hong Kong. 'The guy sitting next to me on the trading floor had just come back from a trip to Africa, and I could tell he was really blown away by it. So I just copied what he did,' he says. 'But I thought: how do I book this? At that time, the internet was very young, and I booked by e-mail through a Johannesburg travel agency. I had a sense that they were legit, but they could just have not turned up at the airport, and I'd have lost US$10,000.
'I went on that trip, and it was the best thing I'd ever done. Then I thought I'd do it as a business - to fill a market gap, but also to do something I enjoy.'
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, the company's biggest market is Hong Kong, with the Philippines and Singapore next, and the profile of its customers has gradually changed. 'When we started, 80 per cent of the clients were expats. Now, 70 per cent are locals,' he says. 'Couples from [the West] often love as small a tent as possible, close to the ground, but Asian people prefer luxury. It was a challenge to get people to part with that amount of money without coming back with a Hermes bag; you spend HK$50,000 and come back with only memories.'
The most important thing, then, is to make those memories unique and extraordinary. That can be hard in the more touristy parts of Africa.
'People in Hong Kong often think that if you're not going to Kenya, it's not a real safari,' says Cortes, whereas in reality a lot of other African countries can offer a far better experience. 'If you want an unadulterated safari, Botswana is where you go. It's like the Bhutan of Africa - it's still pretty undiscovered. I'm constantly looking for things that'll blow people away, whether it's cage diving in South Africa or camps in Congo-Brazaville.'
The latter is something he's working on, largely because of the Central African nation's population of lowland gorillas. In Rwanda and Uganda, the most popular places to see gorillas, he says, 'you spend US$2,000 to see them for an hour. We found this place in Congo where there are lowland gorillas, 30,000 of them, and you can hang out as long as you like. You want something different, something that no one else has done? This is it.'
In general, says Cortes - quickly adding that he's never had a client contract malaria or face an animal attack - people can be a little overly anxious about the supposed dangers of Africa, a vast and diverse continent where danger is the exception rather than the norm. Malaria, bugs and kidnapping, he adds, are the most common concerns.
And 'while we try to go the last mile for clients', he adds, sometimes they make requests that simply can't be fulfilled. 'One guy was celebrating his anniversary in Botswana and wanted to take flowers with him, which could mess up the entire ecosystem. And you know, we have all kinds of amazing flowers in Botswana.'
Little Kulala, Namibia
Located near the world's largest sand dunes in Sossusvlei, these eleven climate-controlled, thatched and canvas chalets each have en-suite bathrooms and showers set on wooden platforms to provide maximum airflow.
WOW: Bedrolls can be moved to the rooftop to sleep under the stars from a private platform.
Saruni Samburu, Kenya
Perched on a hill in the Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, which covers 95,000 hectares, this camp has six suites open to the sky. It also boasts a wellbeing centre and swimming pool, and there are several game-viewing waterholes on site.
WOW: Sign up for the professionally guided drawing safari, for those who want to embrace their inner artist.
Vumbura Plains Camp, Botswana
Vumbura offers two camps in the Okavango Delta, each with seven luxury suites that are built on wooden platforms and fully equipped with large, comfortable bedrooms, lounges and salas. This camp also offers land and water activities, with a great diversity of habitats and wildlife.
WOW: Each room has its own private plunge pool.
Cottars 1920, Kenya
Located in the southeast of the Maasai Mara and bordering the Serengeti and Loliondo reserves, this camp lies within an 8,900 hectare exclusive concession area. The Cottar opened in 1919, and 90 years on, it still captures the romance and elegance of a 1920s-era safari. There is a team of professional guides led by owner Calvin Cottar to enhance your private walks and game drives.
WOW: Each tent has private dressing rooms, bathrooms, livings rooms, main bedrooms and private verandas.