Meet the pioneer of luxury safari travel

The existence of high-end safaris can be attributed to this man, Geoffrey Kent. 

Robert Chilton February 14, 2016

Geoffrey Kent invented the luxury safari in 1962 when he and his family founded Abercrombie & Kent.

Born in Kenya, Kent has travelled to all corners of the globe, getting into numerous scrapes along the way. His travelling tales are laid out in his latest memoir, Safari. 

Which is your favourite part of Africa?
We operate a camp near the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which I love. It’s completely eco-friendly and is built from 260,000 Coca Cola cans, which make the stuffing of the wall and are then plastered with mud.

What are some of your favourite animals you’ve encountered?
I love meerkats, they’re so sweet. But they’re also very weary; you have to lie or sit there very still. They’re looking for high ground, usually an ant hill or a termite mound, so you become the high ground. They climb up on you and have a look around. I wear a hat because otherwise it can be ticklish.

And what animals do you dislike?
Camels smell, they bite, and they’re uncomfortable – but they’re amazing machines. 

What was life like on your first luxury safari trip?
I designed the first luxury mobile safari camp in 1966. I devised a refrigeration system that worked in diesel trucks. Before that it was just canned food. Refrigeration meant good food and it enabled us to enter the luxury market. 

We had a wardrobe, electric lights, and a freezer in the camp. We slept on proper beds and mattresses, with crisp sheets. 

What was your first big adventure?
When I was 16 I was expelled from school, and my father was enraged. Life became impossible on the farm. One day I lost my temper and told my father I was going to drive from Nairobi to Cape Town, which was 5,000km, a journey nobody had ever attempted.

I bought a Daimler Puch 250cc bike in Nairobi. I packed biltong and raisins, and I made elephant hair bracelets that I sold along the way to finance my trip. It was very dangerous because there were wars going on. 

Were you nervous?
No, but I did crash after about four hours. I skidded, the bike toppled over and the hot exhaust pipe landed on my right arm and burnt it very badly. I saw a farm in the distance and drove in. I stayed with these strangers, Mr and Mrs Knieb, for a month and worked on their coffee farm while my arm healed.

I then finished the journey, which took three months. I was the first person in world to do that trip and I felt euphoric. 

How did you return home?
When I reached Cape Town I sold my story to the Cape Argus newspaper and with that money I returned in a suite on a luxury Italian cruise ship called Africa. I reached the dock at Mombasa and my father was waiting for me. He was so angry he sent me to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England ten days later. 

What have you learned about yourself and your fellow man on your travels?
I always saw that when you travel you learn much more about yourself than the world. When you’re alone you become resourceful and you can get along and communicate with anybody. In Papua New Guinea there are some of the most secluded indigenous people on the planet.

I came across a guy in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (see pic). These people fight all the time and cannibalism is rife, but I found them to be very nice. 

What are the essential items in your kit bag?
A satellite cell phone; a kikoy, which is a sarong from Kenya and is really versatile; a Rolex watch and my iPhone. I always used to take a Nikon camera but now I just use the iPhone. I never wear sunglasses, I can’t see properly with them.

What was the scariest moment on your travels?
I was once asleep in a camp in Botswana when I woke up to this growling noise. At first I thought it was a lion, but then I saw it was a hyena, one of the deadliest predators in the world. It had bitten its way through the screen door of my tent and its head was stuck in the door. It was either going to eat me alive or leave.

I threw a heavy coffee table book at it. Eventually, because it was stuck, the hyena had no choice but to walk backwards and disappear into the night.

Any other scrapes?
I remember the undercarriage on a small plane wouldn’t operate properly in Egypt – Elton John was on that flight too. Once a hippo tossed me out of a boat. But the worst accident was playing polo, I ended up in a coma. 

Where haven’t you been?
I haven’t been to Mongolia. I’m putting together an expedition to the highlands of western Mongolia and Nagaland this year. I can’t wait. 

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