Experiential Travel in Africa

Experiential travel is an approach to traveling which focuses on experiencing a place by connecting with its history, people or culture.  TravelDew is a website where leaders in experiential travel are invited to share their stories, insights, and unique perspectives.  I was recently interviewed by the folks at TravelDew about the African experiences we offer at GrassTrack Safaris.  I copied it here but you can see the original at TravelDew’s website.

GrassTrack Safaris invites guests to experience the wilderness of Africa.

GrassTrack Safaris is an adventure travel company founded in 2010 that offers authentic experiences of the African wilderness. Dan Hopkins, owner of GrassTrack Safaris spent his vacation and spare time building the foundations of his travel business while employed as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry.  He’s traveled extensively through Central and South America but he finds he can’t stay away from Africa, having been on nearly a dozen safaris.  He first traveled to Africa in the mid-1980’s with Charles Darwin’s great-grandson, Quentin Keynes.  These were bare-boned “expeditions” during the waning years of apartheid and before the travel industry in Africa started to boom.  On each of these safaris, he’d spend 6 weeks exploring southern Africa, camping beside the roads, and sleeping in the bush without tents.  However, his most memorable safari was when he and some friends drove a land rover from Nairobi to Johannesburg.  The vast herds of the Masai Mara, swimming in Lake Malawi, and hearing lions roar outside his tent convinced him Africa was an amazing destination he wanted to share with others.   These early trips serve as his inspiration for the types of safaris he offers clients: a unique, off-the-beaten-path, African wilderness experience.  He works with operators who provide an authentic taste of wild Africa and his safaris will appeal to any adventurous traveler looking to experience wild animals in wild places.

Dan studied ecology at Paul Smiths College in the Adirondacks and zoology at the University of Montana.  In Montana, he indulged in his love of fly fishing, photography, and hiking in Glacier, Yellowstone, and “The Bob”.   He worked a for a few years as a fisheries observer in the Bering Sea, Alaska, then headed to Colorado State to complete a Masters degree in zoology and genetics.  He worked as a researcher at the Univ of Colorado Health Sciences Center and during his spare time led natural history hikes for the Denver Museum of History and Science and his local Audubon Chapter, attended Leadership Training with the Appalachian Mt Club, and became certified in Wilderness First Aid.  Having hiked, backpacked, and fished all over the West, he headed back to New Hampshire to start a biochemistry PhD at Dartmouth College.  A doctorate just wasn’t his calling, so he completed a Masters degree in biochemistry instead.  He started work as a research scientist for Merck, Inc in Lebanon, NH, continued traveling and building his business.  The research job ended in 2015 and he now dedicates all his time to GrassTrack Safaris.  He has led safaris to Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa and also works with Seattle-based Evergreen Escapes assisting clients in designing their African safaris.

How do the experiences you offer at GrassTrack Safaris give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of southern Africa?

GrassTrack Safaris offers both lodge and camping safaris, their comfortable mobile camping safaris are the quintessential African experience.

I strive to ensure my clients are well-informed about the history, cultures, and conservation issues of their destination before they depart on their trip and while on the ground in Africa.  I’ve led safaris for a local adult continuing education organization (Osher@Darmouth in Hanover, NH).  As part of this program I designed and taught introductory courses on Botswana and Namibia to educate those joining my safaris about the history, geography, and natural history of the places we’ll visit.  My goal is to give my guests some background on the people and wildlife they’ll encounter.  I’ll bring in guest speakers as well (one of my Botswana guides visited New Hampshire to speak with my class).  For clients not joining my private safaris, I’ll send them book lists, book chapters, and articles on various topics to provide some extra reading beyond the guidebook.  Once they are in Africa guests will have access to superb, local guides and staff who give my guests a unique perspective on their cultures and daily lives.  If time permits, we visit local schools, villages, or orphanages our operators support.  With my connections on the ground, guests have enjoyed private talks by lion and wild dog biologists, one of the directors of Africat in Namibia, and various local people.  One of the most powerful talks was by a woman employed at Damaraland Camp in Namibia.  She joined us for breakfast and spoke with our group about Namibia’s Conservancy Program.  She described her how her life has changed since the Conservancy began and how conservation in Namibia works to the benefit of both wildlife and local people.  My guests tell me these talks and the pre-trip education have given their safaris a new dimension and a new perspective on Africa.

How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?

My first trips to Africa were all independently organized camping safaris.  I felt a deeper connection to the bush while camping so I started my company to share this connection and introduce an alternative to expensive, lodge based safaris.  Initially, I offered only mobile camping safaris since I believed this was the best way to experience the wilderness.  However, I realized not everyone wants to camp in the bush!  I began working with operators who offer lodge-based itineraries yet share my goal of providing a unique, wilderness experience.  Though I prefer to camp, lodges can offer exceptional experiences as well.

What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?  Please explain why.

I feel the private talks I arrange for my guests are very important in enhancing their safari experience.  I’m a scientist by training so I know the demands of research and giving up a few hours of your time to speak with strangers is truly generous.  Also, the amount of organizing and behind the scenes work it takes to provide comfortable camps deep in the remote bush.  At the end of a day’s game drive when our guests arrive back at camp the tents are up, sundowners are ready, and dinner is prepared.  It looks simple but there’s lots of effort behind the scenes to make it all come together.

What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in a GrassTracks Safari?

GrassTrack Safaris are all about wildlife. Searching it out, learning about it’s natural history and behavior, exploring for game with the palpable anticipation of a thrilling wildlife encounter around the next bend. GrassTrack Safaris are all about wildlife. Searching it out, learning about its natural history and behavior, exploring for the game with the palpable anticipation of a thrilling wildlife encounter around the next bend.

The idea of camping in Africa may sound daunting and even dangerous when in fact, it’s safe and very comfortable.  I think people have an image that our camping safaris will involve lots of work carrying gear, pitching tents and sleeping on the ground.  When in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Comfortable beds, large tents, excellent food, and an attentive staff who do all the chores makes our camping safaris an incredible adventure.  When combined with being in the bush for an extended period of time while surrounded by wilderness and abundant game, it’s truly a unique experience.  Where else can you fall asleep to the distant roar of lions under a blanket of stars?  If every guest stepped beyond their assumptions of what a camping safari is, they could enjoy an amazing trip of a lifetime.

What is one piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of the experiences you offer?

Without a doubt, binoculars.  Africa has an abundance of colorful birds and even if guests are not birders binoculars will certainly maximize their enjoyment of the wildlife.  Besides, when there aren’t many animals to look at there are always birds.  Binoculars are also exceptional for watching game, which frequently is far from the vehicle.  When animals are close to the vehicle binoculars can bring out amazing details: the intricacies of an elephant’s trunk as it drinks from a waterhole or ox-peckers grooming a buffalo.  You don’t need to spend a fortune but try to avoid small, compact models.  A decent, mid-range pair is fine.  I bought a pair of Eagle Optics in the early 90s and still use them.

What is one travel trend that really excites you?

There seems to be a move away from exceedingly luxurious safaris and more toward a safari that provides guests with an experience of Africa.  People I speak with are looking for a safari that is experiential and they are not overly interested in high-end accommodation.  They’re looking for an authentic experience and a safari where they can meaningfully connect with the wilderness and local people.  I’m working with operators who do just that: provide comfortable lodging but also add more variety to a safari than your standard game drives.  For example, we take guests to visit local Himba villages in Namibia and get out of the game vehicle to track animals on foot.  I’m also seeing more emphasis placed on conservation safaris and programs that benefit local people who live on the borders of the national parks.

What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?

GrassTrack Safaris also arranges custom safaris specializing in wildlife photography instruction, safaris centered on wildlife conservation, walking safaris, birding safaris, horseback riding, and canoe camping. GrassTrack Safaris also arranges custom safaris specializing in wildlife photography instruction, safaris centered on wildlife conservation, walking safaris, birding safaris, horseback riding, and canoe camping.

Be present and in the moment.  Realize you’re in Africa and there will be long drives and rough roads, dust, and heat.  All this is part of the experience!  Have an open mind about where you are, what you’re seeing, and try to minimize your expectations.  For me, travel is an opportunity to leave your daily life behind and immerse yourself in a new environment.   I recommend disconnecting from email and internet distractions.  This is easy on our camping safaris since there is no internet connection but may require a little more discipline in many of the lodges.

What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?

I frequently give talks at libraries and other organizations in my local area and throughout the US.  I try to provide audiences with a taste of what our safaris are all about and at the same time discuss the natural history and ecology of the wildlife they’ll experience, conservation issues, and general history and culture of southern Africa.  I also work closely with clients to ensure they’re getting exactly the trip they’re looking for.  When they return I’ll get feedback about their safari, the guides, accommodations, and their general experience.

What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?

I feel my passion for Africa gives me the motivation to work hard building this business.   I truly enjoy sharing my experiences with others and I derive immense satisfaction helping guests plan their safaris and hearing their stories when they return.  I frequently travel to Africa to scout out new itineraries and operators so I have the knowledge and connections to organize unique safaris.   I’m always learning something new!

Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.

I was with a group on a Botswana mobile safari and we were nearing the end of the trip.  We were camped at the western end of the Chobe River in a beautiful cluster of trees overlooking the floodplain.  After a day of game drives, we arrived back at camp and enjoying our sundowners.  Herds of zebra were beginning to move off the floodplains and past our camp, heading up into the bush.  The sun had set and lit the dust clouds in an amazing golden light.  We were watching the scene unfold when one of my guests began tearing up in response to this beautiful scene.  This is exactly the reaction I hope all my guests experience!

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