Trip of a lifetime: Talking travel with Geoffrey Kent
The CEO of Abercrombie & Kent discusses his Kenyan upbringing, his lifelong passion for conservation and the importance of a hot dinner
I first became interested in travel aged 16. I was asked to leave my school; they didn't allow students to have motorbikes and I was caught with one. I had a big argument with my father about it. A few days later, I got on my two-stroke motorbike, told him I was leaving and headed off.
In Nairobi, I bought a tarpaulin and a sleeping bag from the Salvation Army and built a frame for the bike to carry petrol on one side and water on the other. I also bought some biltong, put my food in the helmet (we never actually wore helmets in those days), bought a Shell map and off I went, eventually riding all the way to Cape Town, more than 3,000 miles away. Apparently, I was the first person to make the journey by motorbike. When I got there, I managed to sell my story to a South African newspaper and got paid enough to sail back first-class to Mombasa.
My parents and I started Abercrombie & Kent in 1962, after Kenyan independence forced us off our farm because of our anti-hunting philosophy. Other safari outfitters relied on hunting to feed their guests, but we were the first to introduce refrigeration in the bush. I worked with an engineer I knew from my days in the army to build a cold box into an old army Bedford truck. It all started quite modestly – there were no ambitions to take over the world, we just wanted to keep the refrigerated truck running so our ice wouldn't melt and the meat wouldn't spoil. I knew the secret to making someone feel at home in the middle of nowhere was a hot dinner and a cold drink – simple as that.
Today, we offer unexpected luxury in exotic places, with local experts on hand every step of the way. It sounds easy enough on paper, yet bringing it to life requires unceasing effort, impeccable standards and a refusal to settle for second best.
As a native Kenyan, I'm proud that my country outlawed hunting in 1977. I remember when I turned 15, my parents arranged for me to go on a hunt, which was a rite of passage for young men in Africa in that era. I tracked, shot and killed an elephant. From the moment I watched the most magnificent beast I'd ever laid my eyes on fall, I was heartsick and made a vow to myself and to Africa that if I ever shot an elephant again, it would be with a camera – not a gun. That experience profoundly affected me, and changed the course of my life.
Our industry adopted a 'Safari Code of Conduct' to protect wildlife from harassment, and has been a pioneer in developing private land conservancies – a model for the rest of Africa. This aim also carries through to the charity I helped found. In 1982, we got together a group of friends, including Richard Leakey, Jim Fowler and George Plimpton, who were concerned about poaching and the hundreds of tracks crisscrossing the Mara. We formed Friends of the Masai Mara, which ultimately grew into Friends of Conservation.
Initially, our goal was to monitor and provide security for the endangered black rhino, whose numbers had precipitously fallen to just 11 individuals due to rampant poaching. Today, rapid population growth is the greatest challenge facing Africa, with farms encroaching on the wilderness areas that wildlife populations require.
At Abercrombie & Kent, we work in partnership with local communities to protect and preserve the cultures, wildlife and ecosystems in the countries where we operate. We are committed to integrating sustainable practices in a triple bottom-line of environmental, economic and social responsibility.
GEOFFREY KENT is the CEO of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent and, alongside childhood friend Dr Richard Leakey, founded the charity Friends of Conservation. The two will be in conversation at the event 'Out Of Africa – The Kenya Boys' at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on 27 September, with proceeds going towards the charity. You can purchase tickets at eventbrite.co.uk. abercrombiekent.com; foc-uk.com