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Journeys: Adventure of a Lifetime

  • Jack Smith

The year was 1974, and a small party of safari goers led by the flamboyant Geoffrey Kent had just crossed the moonlit border from Kenya into what is now South Sudan. Kent was the chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent, a young outfitter gaining renown for its luxury safaris. His client was a friend, Heath Manning, a polo player and developer from North Carolina, who was taking his bride, Bootsie, on her first safari for their honeymoon. Besides the Mannings and Kent, the travelers included Kent’s then wife and business partner, Jorie; Liam Lynn, a professional hunter; and a support staff. The trip was intended to relive old times and celebrate the traditions of the safari. An ambush by some two dozen Turkana warriors was not part of the plan.

The warriors—members of a nomadic people who inhabit stretches of arid desert around northwestern Kenya—were an eerie sight in the glare of the headlights, naked but for armlets, legs painted white from knee to thigh, and armed with spears, machetes, and knives. Kent ordered his three safari vehicles to stop and, during a seemingly cordial moment, made small talk with the Turkana chief in Swahili, the lingua franca of the bush. When Kent indicated that his party was lost, the chief told him to follow his lead. To do otherwise would have been an insult, so the drivers reluctantly lined up in single file. For more than an hour the three vehicles lumbered over the dark savanna until, much to their passengers’ surprise, they found themselves on the path they had been looking for.

Kent thanked the chief and expressed his gratitude with a tin of tobacco—highly coveted in the bush—and with that the Turkana moved off into the darkness. Their departure, however, was a ruse; before the trucks could get up to speed, the warriors had circled back, beating on the vehicles’ windows and swarming over the fenders and roofs in an attempt to break in. The passengers beat them back with rifle butts while the drivers mashed the gas pedals to the floor, sending the vehicles lurching back and forth until they finally plowed through the Turkana’s scrum and accelerated far down the trail, a hail of spears and war clubs following in their wake.

Four decades later, apparently unscathed by the incident, the dapper Kent remembers Bootsie’s words before she and her husband, finally a safe distance from their assailants, turned in for the night. “She said, ‘Hot dog!’  ” he recalls. “  ‘This sure is some honeymoon!’  ”

This gets a big laugh from his audience. As they are all aware—that hair-raising incident aside—no one has done more to make the modern-day safari a worry-free experience than Geoffrey Kent.

Since 1962, when Kent’s parents founded Abercrombie & Kent, the company has enjoyed a loyal following, some five score of whom have gathered here at Kenya’s posh Muthaiga Country Club to join the charismatic tour operator for a celebratory 50th-anniversary luncheon. The celebration will continue the next day with Kent and me, along with two of his guests, taking the hour-long flight from Nairobi to the Laikipia Plateau, where we will search for Big Five game and inspect the latest in mobile safari accommodations. From Laikipia we will head to Sanctuary Olonana, a camp of 14 spacious tents with wooden floors, four-poster beds, and private verandas overlooking Kenya’s Mara River.

The ultimate Abercrombie & Kent safaris, however, are scheduled for next year, when two parties of 40 guests will explore the African continent by private jet. From March 2 to March 20, and March 20 to April 7, the groups will visit seven countries, coming face-to-face with rare mountain gorillas in Uganda and marveling at the Great Migration in Tanzania, where Kent will personally host the travelers for three days. They will explore the 700-foot sand dunes along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and, in Zambia, witness the spectacle of the Zambezi from a deck hanging over the river and take the “flight of the angels” helicopter tour over Victoria Falls. The two once-in-a-lifetime tours will, respectively, commence and conclude with the epicurean delights of the Cape Winelands in South Africa.

“Traveling by private jet brings an entirely new level of comfort and convenience to an African safari,” says Kent, now 71, who is also hosting an around-the-world journey next October (see “The Planet by Private Jet,” page 136). “Roomy business-class seats allow guests the opportunity to stretch out and relax between destinations, and a bar stocked with premium brands, along with a well-chosen wine list, provides the finishing touch.”

A dedicated flight crew will travel along with the guests, learning their preferences and helping to make the journeys first-class affairs from start to finish. One person who will not be making the trips is Abercrombie. “People always ask about Abercrombie,” Kent says as we climb into a bush plane for the flight to Laikipia. “The truth is, there is no Abercrombie. I thought the company’s name sounded more upper-crusty with two names instead of one. I picked a first name that started with A so prospective clients would spot us right away in the phone book. Also, if people complained about something I could say, ‘That’s Abercrombie’s department. He’s out right now.’ ”

It was not just the company’s name that distinguished A&K from the competition. From his earliest days as general manager, Kent offered amenities never before seen in the bush. “I’d tell safari goers, ‘Why deprive yourself of the luxuries when I offer ice cream, caviar, and a bar with top-shelf liquor?’ ”

When A&K started in the safari business, there was no way to preserve food or keep ice cold in the bush. So Kent commissioned an army pal to devise one, based on the old Bedford trucks he had used in the military. “For the first time, safari clients could have ice in their gin and tonic,” he says.

Despite his emphasis on luxury—he also served Champagne and gourmet cuisine in stemware and china he had expropriated from his mother—Kent never lost his focus on adventure. Indeed, he was born to explore, the son of landowners in Kenya who at the time of his birth were on safari in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). He grew up on the family farm in the Aberdare Highlands of Kenya, where he was as much at home in the bush as his Kikuyu and Maasai contemporaries were. He spoke Swahili before he learned English, and at 16 he became the first person to make a solo trek from Nairobi to Cape Town—a two-month-long journey by motorcycle that covered 5,000 miles.

It seemed foreordained that Kent would follow in his father’s footsteps, serving with distinction in the British military in far-off territories, then returning to Kenya to captain the country’s polo team and take over the family estate. But following the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s and Kenya’s subsequent independence, the Kents’ property was repatriated to Kikuyu ownership. Bereft of their estate, the family founded a small safari agency and made Kent—recently returned from service as a tank commander in Malta, Bahrain, and Kuwait—its chief guide.

In the early days of A&K, some of the company’s safaris were of the shooting variety. “Americans are sometimes shocked to hear that I went on shooting safaris, but we all did,” says Kent as our plane touches down and comes to a stop next to a waiting Land Cruiser. “It was part of our culture, and the most admired men of that time were the professional hunters. Those were the great white hunters of legend; Hollywood stars idolized them, tycoons were in awe of them, and poachers trespassed on their hunting grounds at their peril.”

Indeed, a strict code of ethics prevailed among the hunters, who trained for four years under licensed professionals, then spent another three years as interns before being subjected to a rigid test. Once licensed, the hunters were expected to maintain their concessions, often building hospitals and schools for the local peoples. They knew every pride of lions, every herd of zebras and elephants, and every watering hole where they hunted. “More than trophies, what the white hunters offered was a taste of a life like no other,” says Kent.

But with increasing numbers of animals populating endangered-species lists, it was clear that the day of the big-game hunt and the white hunters was coming to an end. Even the ritual lion hunts that had defined indigenous cultures for centuries were now being legislated out of existence. “When I led that safari into the Sudan, I knew it probably would be my last shooting hunt,” says Kent as our Land Cruiser rolls into the company’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy camp on the Laikipia Plateau, where we will spend the next two nights. “By 1975 I had given up the hunting end of the safari business altogether, forsaking rifles for cameras and adopting the slogan, ‘Go hunting with a camera, not with a rifle.’ ”

A&K’s mobile camp at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy highlights another of Kent’s influences on the modern-day safari. For decades, traditional safari tents, known as manyaras, were awkward affairs, with as many as 100 poles bristling like a thicket for support and tarpaulins spread on the ground to keep occupants dry. Setting them up could take hours, and the result was a rustic shelter with spindly cots draped with mosquito netting and paraffin lamps for light. In the morning, safari goers made do with a basin of hot water set on a table just outside the tent’s entrance. Guests would share one toilet—a seat mounted on a box over a pit lined with lime—and a “shower tree,” or a sturdy branch at just the right height to hang a 3-gallon canvas bucket filled with water. 

A&K’s modern “mobile camping” tents bear little resemblance to those that once dotted East Africa. The spacious, veranda-fronted tents at the Lewa outpost are made of heavy-duty canvas, with waterproof floors and large arched windows made from netting. Each tent is furnished with two full-size single beds with side tables, a dressing table with a mirror and washbasin, and an en suite shower and toilet.

More extravagant are permanent camps including Sanctuary Olonana, with its canvas-walled apartments, spa, and spacious restaurant and bar—where Kent and I watch hippopotamuses splash and bellow in the river below. Such luxuries have become commonplace throughout African game reserves, from Kenya’s Maasai Mara to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Indeed, A&K today is certainly not alone in offering an upscale experience in the bush. But the company’s leader, after more than a half century of safaris, is still pioneering new frontiers.

Kent’s clients will see the majesty of the modern-day safari reach new heights during A&K’s private-jet trips through Africa next year. Guests on the excursions will undoubtedly enjoy hassle-free journeys, but on the off chance something does go wrong, Kent has this advice: “The only thing you can do is keep your wits about you,” he says, “and act as if, whatever is happening, you saw it coming all along.” 

The Planet by Private Jet
In addition to its private-jet safaris through Africa in March and April, Abercrombie & Kent has announced an around-the-world journey hosted by Geoffrey Kent himself. Scheduled for October 2014, the 26-day trip (reserved for 50 guests, priced from $105,000 per person) begins on the Amazon, in the two most stylish cruisers on the river. A subsequent visit to Easter Island includes a demonstration of haka pei (downhill sledding) and a walk among the moai, the island’s famous statues. After a relaxing stop in Samoa comes an anthropological interlude with the Huli people in Papua New Guinea followed by three nights in Bali, during which guests can see Komodo dragons and take in the kecak fire dance. In Sri Lanka, a stay at the Amangalla resort includes shopping for some of the country’s famed blue sapphires. Madagascar brings lemurs and a ylang-ylang distillery before the journey heads for a mobile tented camp in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. A final fete in Monaco sends guests back to their homes from Geoffrey Kent’s adopted one. Travel throughout is via a chartered Boeing 757 jet. Abercrombie & Kent, www.abercrombiekent.com  —Jeff Anderson

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