Nella Nencini-Hutchings is not your typical bush pilot. A California native, who lived in Italy, her appreciation for wine runs deep, to the point that she’ll stash rare vintages in the tiny cargo pod of her 185 Cessna to share with wine-loving clients. While she can talk in depth about the incredibly rare Grévy zebra and the African wild dog—one of her favorite animals—her PhD is not in zoology or ecology, but in Italian Renaissance theater.
Fifteen years ago, Nencini-Hutchings was making olive oil in Tuscany when her marriage unraveled. She promptly bought a one-way ticket to Kenya, got her pilot’s license, and purchased a 185 Cessna called 5Y-BAD. She’s been exploring the bush like a modern-day Beryl Markham, the storied British-born Kenyan aviator, ever since. To date, she has flown about 750 hours, covering approximately 100,000 miles around Africa.
Nencini-Hutchings is the first to admit that the idea of launching Tin Trunk Safari was daunting. “I’m not a third-generation safari family, and I’m not a guy,” she says. But her worldliness, attention to detail, and female perspective in a male-minded field have made her business a success. On social media, she uses the hashtags #notjustgamedriving and #notonestory because she strongly believes a safari experience is not about driving around in a Jeep to view wildlife and sip sundowners. Her adventures range from galloping alongside giraffes on horseback to visiting the Rendille tribe in northern Kenya. She also encourages guests to relax on the deck and let everything soak in on a deeper level. “So few guides, especially the younger, male macho guides, do that,” she says. “Their mentality is let’s get out there. But I know what’s it’s like to live out of Africa and the stresses my clients face back home.”
Nencini-Hutchings has personally experienced each of the 100 camps and lodges in her portfolio. A tour of a property won’t suffice. “I need to know what it feels like to wake up in a lodge,” she says. “A place might look totally luxurious, but it’s important for me to see if the staff love what they do, if they will take the extra time to ensure my guests are taken care of.” Her client dossier goes way beyond dietary restrictions and arrival times. Two to four phone conversations and more than 50 emails transpire in the planning of an average trip. Each person, even kids (she’s taken 187 on safari), fills out a “my travel style” document. Questions, such as “What does luxury mean to you?” and 1 to 10 rankings of statements like “Would you swim in a river with hippo poo?” or “My idea of heaven is a pool and a good book” are very revealing, saysNencini-Hutchings. The result is that her clients see Africa in an exceptionally curated, off-the-beaten-path manner.
Most of Tin Trunk’s business is word of mouth, with between 30 to 40 percent of clients being repeat customers. “I like to think of us as the little secret you hear about through friends,” says Nencini-Hutchings. While she’s expanded her geographic reach from Kenya to Tanzania, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, and South Africa, she’s committed to keeping her company small, averaging 15 to 20 trips a year. “I want to personally design every trip but also be there to hold my client’s hand while they peek over the edge of their comfort zones,” she says. “If my clients say I had a ‘great trip,’ I feel like a failure. They need to say that their whole life changed.”