Western Morning News safari feature
As Zambezi Safari & Travel prepares to celebrate 21 years in the African safari business,
Philip Bowern from the Western Morning News met up with owners Trish and John Berry to discover what drives their passion…
Not many Zimbabweans who left the country as a result of the activities of the African dictator Robert Mugabe have much to say about him that is positive.
But in a bizarre way the ageing leader, responsible for presiding over what many see as a cruel and murderous regime, did John and Trish Berry, Chris Worden and Craig MacRae founders and owners of the South Devon based Zambezi Travel and Safari Company, a favour.
John and Trish, running a successful safari business in Kariba realised the Mugabe regime was turning distinctly ugly. As pioneers of the Internet revolution and with a database of clients and funds open to potential seizure by the regime – plus two young children to worry about – they knew they had to get out.
They escaped and found themselves in Modbury, South Devon, partly chosen because the man who handled their computer server in California had a home in Ugborough, South Devon. John said: “We were also looking for somewhere rural, somewhere close to the coast and somewhere with good schools for our children. South Devon fitted the bill.”
The business has grown and Zambezi now has clients worldwide who book their African safaris. But any international travel business feels the heat of global events more keenly than many other companies and low points for the Zambezi Safari and Travel Company have included 9/11 and, more recently, the Ebola crisis.
Today there’s a growing trend in taking more adventurous holidays and Zambezi is well placed to tap into an expanding market. Increasingly the company is attracting clients from closer to its South Devon base. A recent competition to win a safari to Zambia in association with Andy Hogg at the Bushcamp Company and the Western Morning News saw a record number of entries received by the paper.
The range of safari options is wide, catering for everyone from those who want a glamorous “Out of Africa” experience with luxury accommodation and a very high level of service to those ready to, literally, paddle their own canoe down the Zambezi River.
John said: “We can offer remote areas, very good game watching opportunities and the top guides. It can be adventure – but not budget adventure and not ‘roughing it’. We attract a lot of specialists and a lot of wildlife photographers.”
Rafting on the Zambezi is a favourite for those who really want to get close to African wildlife.
“It appeals to a special type of traveller – young adventurers,” John said. “There is really zero risk – but it feels extreme. People love it.”
Another speciality for the company are canoe safaris down the magnificent Zambezi River.
“As part of the safari we offer a three-day trip on the lower Zambezi. It is wide, placid and there are large pods of hippos. The river is in a broad flood plain and the views are excellent because of the tall trees with not too much ground vegetation. You will see big game – elephants, buffalo, antelopes – and it is very good birding country.
We use excellent canoe guides in a party of a maximum of five canoes. We camp on the islands in the river, you put your oars up to support a mosquito net and sleep out.”
There is an alternative version of the same trip, where the camp is set up on the river bank in advance before the travellers arrive.
For those who are looking for a more luxurious safari experience Zambezi’s permanent tented safaris where guests stay in a camp are very well established. Safari camping is a million miles away from huddling under canvas in a damp field that the activity sometimes conjures up. Trish said: “The camps are built on wooden platforms for parties of six to eight. Each has a bedroom with an en-suite bathroom. You can go out on game watching walks, getting up at 5.30am and staying out for four hours to meet the animals going down to the water. “You will come back around 11ish for a big brunch and a siesta and then about 4.30pm you can go out again until about 8 or 9pm to catch the nocturnal animals coming out then it is back to camp for very important sundowners – and dinner.”
There are many more options for travellers – which can be tailored to suit the client. From witnessing the great wildebeest migrations on the African plans to getting up close to mountain gorillas, virtually every option for wildlife watching is possible.
But underpinning it all is the team’s African roots – almost everyone who works for Zambezi Safari and Travel Company – in the UK and in Africa – has connections with the continent. As John says: “The Zambezi team has strong African roots from growing up and travelling across the continent. You can depend on our intimate knowledge to turn your journey into special, long last memories.
“We have a broad range of tailor-made safaris and adventures along the course of the mighty Zambezi River and then well beyond into the remotest corners of East, Central and South Africa.”
With clients from the UK, Europe and the US as well as in Africa, Zambezi is now finding face-to-face contact is important again, often making use of satisfied customers to tell new clients about what’s on offer. “It has almost come full circle,” said Trish. “The Internet is now so crowded we are increasingly finding people want a more personal service.”
Trade shows in Britain and in the US give the couple a chance to meet clients and potential clients, Zambezi are regular exhibitors at the London Adventure and Travel Show (23/24 Jan 2016), the Destinations Show - London (4-7 Feb 2016) and the Annual Rutland Bird Fair in August. The team are familiar faces at various Point-to-Point meetings throughout Devon.
Social media plays an important part within the company and Zambezi now have 11,000 + Facebook ‘likes’ keeping the company and what it offers in the public eye.
It’s a fast-changing picture but one where experience counts for a lot.
Since the Berry family left Zimbabwe the situation has improved dramatically for visitors with several staff still working in Kariba on their behalf. Trish and, with frequent visits to Africa to keep up-to-date on safari options and ensure clients are getting the very best experience.
But home is now definitely Devon, Trish and John live in a 200 year old farmhouse just inside the Dartmoor National Park which they share with rare breed sheep, guinea fowl and loads of errant pheasants. And, to make them feel at home they regularly hear the lions’ roar from nearby Sparkwell Wildlife Park!
“You can take the African out of Africa,” said John, “but you can’t take Africa out of the African.”
Courtesy of Western Morning News.
Follow Philip Bowern on Twitter @wmorningnewsman