Continuing our occasional series of interviews with inspiring travellers, today we are really delighted to have the opportunity to share the work of Matthew Wilkinson, founder of Safaritalk, one of the web's most active wildlife and environment communities for those with a passion for Africa.
Matthew has been devoted to the running of Safaritalk since setting it up in 2006, and we asked Matthew about his love for Africa, the vibrant Safaritalk community, and his thoughts on how to be a responsible safari tourist.
What is Safaritalk and what was your motivation for founding it?
Safaritalk is an initiative highlighting wildlife conservation, environmental protection and community initiatives in Africa, and which promotes responsible and ethical safari tourism. Following a trip to Tanzania, during which I spent time with a Maasai family, I returned home and decided to pursue the idea of a forum which would bring together safari tourists and NGOs involved in wildlife conservation.
It was my aim to provide a discussion platform for such organisations to promote their work, which otherwise might not reach a public audience. And so, after some development, Safaritalk was launched.
What is your vision for the Safaritalk community?
My intention when launching the site was to create a concerned community of ethical travellers - directly connecting them with wildlife and community organisations, and those working in the field.
Safaritalk unites people with a shared interest: members have travelled on Safari together, or realised that they met round a campfire twenty years ago, and have been out of touch until joining the forum. Safaritalk dinners and informal “get-togethers” provide a great social aspect and meeting up with famous members such as author Tony Park at book signings are something to look forward to.
It's also about inspiring confidence to write your own Africa story, such as member Twaffle, who related her wonderful tale of growing up in East Africa during the 1960s, using the old slides her father had taken to illustrate it. Until now, she’d rarely shared those reminiscences, but Safaritalk provided her with an appreciative audience who enjoyed every word. We plan our trips together, sharing advice prior to leaving, recommendations on where to go, what to see – learning from the experience of others who have cut the trail before us.
Tell us about your first trip to Africa - was it love at first sight?
It was 1993: a trip to see family in South Africa which included a 5 day self drive to Kruger. As with any dromomaniac, sleep was impossible on the overnight flight. I recall being the only one awake on a half full aircraft, unable to contain my excitement, watching the sunrise over Africa through the window, a pinpoint of light suddenly illuminating the curve of the horizon. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.
What advice would you give to travellers seeking an ethical and responsible safari experience?
With such a diverse group of people contributing to Safaritalk, the “behind the scenes” knowledge about ethical practices and issues is incredible and the most important piece of advice our members offer, especially to those new to the wonders of safari life, is to always ask questions.
As far as ethical choices are concerned, the majority of operators are taking social responsibility seriously and in planning your safari, research the lodges and camps you wish to stay at.
Visit operator websites and see what green credentials your chosen accommodation has. Ask questions: where is the water coming from and is it extracted and used in a conservative manner? How is waste dealt with and disposed of? Do local people benefit from the camp and the conservation area in a real and tangible way? Safaritalk has many discussions examining these issues and some strong views about sustainability are expressed.
It's quite easy for anyone researching a proposed trip to post their itinerary on the forum and have experienced members comment on their choices and perhaps, if necessary, offer alternatives.
In Kenya there are safari camp operators who have a significant investment in ethically conducting their business. It used to be quite difficult to find such operators but with the internet it has become much easier to research each camp and find other people who have visited recently and who can answer questions. Consequently it's now much easier to find eco-friendly businesses to support.
Another style of safari popular in the Laikipia district of Kenya is a walking safari, some using camels as support vehicles. Such a trip causes a much smaller impact on the arid environment, and allows the clients to spend more time understanding and learning about the wildlife and the wilderness it inhabits.
And what about first-time visitors seeking a once-in-a-lifetime trip?
Many first time Safari tourists choose South Africa as their destination with its excellent tourist facilities and infrastructure. So many options abound, but for those who choose a safari as a once in a lifetime experience, (especially if somewhat limited by time) there can be no better choice than the Sabi Sand Game reserve, with a number of accommodation choices offering a well-oiled system that churns out great big-five encounters.
However, for the more adventurous traveller seeking a unique experience, rather than the safari “norm”, one must do a walking safari, as offered in Hluhluwe Game Reserve, (KwaZulu-Natal) and Kruger National Park.
To experience nature one really needs to be on foot accompanied by a great and knowledgeable guide. When the walk begins, breaking camp and heading out in the morning, the feeling is quite amazing - knowing that there could be anything around the next corner. You’ll learn so much walking with an experienced guide, as their knowledge of the bush is unparalleled.
For those who choose to visit Kenya, no one would want to miss out on the Masai Mara, and our members have found that you can visit this area and have a quiet, wild and private safari, away from the crowds and confusion. Many of the areas around the Reserve have developed into conservancies, run in conjunction with local Maasai communities.
The success of these conservancies and the strict rules about the number of tourist beds allowed means that each individual traveller gets an amazing experience. Many of our members have used camps in the Mara North Conservancy, for instance, and this enables them to combine walking through the wilderness, with sensitive off roading and to visit the Reserve and Mara Conservancy which adjoin the Mara North.
Another vote winner is the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy where tourist numbers are also restricted so that it never feels crowded and the conservation and community work is at iconic status. The rhino breeding programme is immensely successful and both white and black rhinos can be seen in abundance.
Lewa is host to the headquarters of the Northern Rangelands Trust which is a community led initiative overseeing more and more traditional lands being turned into wildlife friendly areas along with small ecologically sound lodges run by some of the local Samburu and Maasai.
Finally, what do you consider to be the biggest misconception about safari holidays?
Not all safari options are as expensive as you might think. Safaris can be expensive but considering that normally everything is included, from transport to all meals and drinks, you will probably find it reflects quite competitively with other holidays where incidentals can build up on a daily basis.
For instance in South Africa, the cost of a self drive Kruger Park safari, factoring in car hire, fuel, park fees, accommodation and food, (self catering or eating in the restaurants) is far less than staying in any of the reserves and concessions bordering the park. The experience won’t be exactly the same, granted, in terms of luxury, quality of accommodation, food and so forth, and you’ll be limited to the road network in your car, but with some prior planning, you’ll still have a tremendous time, be able to see a plethora of wildlife and bring back many memories.
Self driving also appeals to families, as sometimes young children are not catered for in some of the high end lodges. With a self drive, you can set your own pace, plan mealtimes and menus accordingly, immerse your kids in a wilderness experience, and the look on their faces at seeing their first elephant in the wild is priceless…
And I always say this when someone is looking to go on safari: don’t forget to spend some time planning. Preparation can be enjoyable, especially if sharing it with other likeminded people. The best advice I can offer is to look through the Safaritalk trip planning and trip report forums because the experiences and information there are extensive.
Header photo: Zebra at Mbirikani Group Ranch near Chyulu Hills in Kenya. Photo credit © Kenneth K. Coe. Editor's note: Thank you to all the photographers who allowed their stunning images to be used in this post. For more beautiful shots of Botswana from Johan De Bondt, visit www.skimmerblog.com. More work from Kenneth K. Coe can be found on The Nature Conservancy site, and more of Hilary Hann's photography can be seen in her portfolio.
Virgin Atlantic flies to five African destinations - Accra, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg and seasonally to Cape Town. For more information and to book flights, visit www.virginatlantic.com.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.