Wanderlust: Life is a Safari

 

Wanderlust: Life is a Safari

Geoffrey Kent, the founder of Abercrombie & Kent, the world's foremost luxury travel company may have documented his life's adventures (his book, Safari, is out) but he's got so many stories he's yet to tell, starting with the truth about Abercrombie

By Rohit Nair

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Published: Thu 17 Dec 2015, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 18 Dec 2015, 10:37 AM

"There is no Abercrombie," says 73-year-old Geoffrey Kent, founder, chairman and CEO of the company he founded in 1962. "People always write to me and put 'PS: Give my regards to the Abercrombies', and I always get a good laugh. No, there is no Abercrombie," he says. "Only Kents," and he bursts out laughing. "Actually, I find it quite annoying now - I should have thought about it earlier - which is why I'm starting Geoffrey Kent Tours!" He chuckles again and sips on some Turkish coffee that he's happily dunking Turkish delight in, while he waits for his pick-up to the airport at the Burj al Arab. But 53 years ago, Geo-ffrey couldn't even have imagined he would be touching so many lives through his game-changing travel philosophy, let alone staying at an iconic Dubai hotel. How could he? He was just getting out of service with the British army.

Geoffrey was born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and grew up on a farm in the Aberdare Highlands of Kenya, 8,700ft high, surrounded by big cedar forests, a river overflowing with trout, big game animals and very few people. "I learnt Swahili before I learnt English because most of my friends were from the Kikuyu tribe. We grew up riding horses without shoes, and shooting guns; generally tough." When he was old enough to go to school he was shipped off to boarding school in Nairobi, but he already had the bush way of life down to a tee. "It's awful to talk about it now, but we used to go hunting, shooting monkeys, birds and what have you, always keeping a watchful eye for elephants and buffaloes. I was 10 when I learnt to drive my father's Land Rover." When he was 15, Geoffrey shot his first elephant that changed his attitude towards animals. "I was so horrified by what happened that I vowed I would never hunt again. If I was going to shoot, I would do it with a camera," he says, which is the nexus really of Abercrombie and Kent's safari experience of 'shoot with a camera, not with a gun'.

GOING FOR GOAL:Geoffrey recalls playing one of the best polo matches of his career in India, seen here, where he is about to score
While in school, he had figured out a way to get elephant tail hairs without shooting or harming them - more of his bush pedigree coming to the rescue - and turned them into jewellery. "To find out how I did it, you'll have to read my book," he interjects. "An Indian businessman gave me a dollar each for my wares, and I made quite a bit of money selling at Nairobi market," he adds, money that went to buying a motorbike. "We weren't allowed to have motorbikes - and I love motorbikes - and we weren't allowed to have girls on motorbikes. I did both, so I got expelled." So what did the rebel do? He hopped on his motorbike and rode from Nairobi to Cape Town - a 5,000-mile, two-month journey he was the first in the world to complete.

"My father was livid when I came back home. He said, 'Son, you need a career.' And I said, 'I already have one; I'm a businessman.'" But his father had other things in mind. "'I've got a career for you. It'll be great. You can shoot all you want, go hunting, ride horses, jump out of planes.' I was curious about this magical place, so I asked him where this was. 'It's called the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst', he said, 'and that's where you're going.' So I was put on a troop plane and shipped off to Sandhurst at 17." Geoffrey had never been outside of Africa before.

Not knowing a single person in this academy made it hard for Geoffrey to make friends. "There were all these posh kids from Eton and Harrow, and I was just this kid from Africa. No one would talk to me." But there were two others who were terribly out of place - Landon, from Namibia and al Said, from Arabia. "No one would talk to them because they weren't posh kids either. So the three of us banded together and became the best of friends during our time at Sandhurst." When Geoffrey was 20, he returned to Kenya, after having served in the army in Aden, Yemen, before going to Bahrain and on to Jebel Akhdar, Oman. Timothy Landon continued to serve in the army, while the other boy became, in case you haven't figured it out by now, the Sultan of Oman - His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said. This is where you pick your jaws up from the floor. Years later, the three friends had a touching reunion - "It's wonderful story and it's all there in the book," says Geoffrey, smiling.
Upon returning to Kenya, Geoffrey found that his parents had lost their farm and, on a gamble, decided to form a travel/safari experience company based out of Nairobi. "I had £100 in my pocket. So it was really just a whim of mine, but I knew that there was a right way to experience the beautiful wildlife of Africa, and it wasn't hunting trips. But for that, you'd have to take fresh fruit and food with you, and for that you need refrigeration," he adds. That's precisely what A&K set out to provide when it was formed in 1962.

"We wanted to be on the top of the phone directory, so we thought of naming the company Aardvark, but that would have been terrible to illustrate and create a company logo. I met a pilot named Abercrombie, and at that time Abercrombie & Fitch was a famous sporting goods store. So we called ourselves, Abercrombie & Kent." It would be months before A&K got it's first client, however. "You try finding a client in the middle of Nairobi with 100 quid in your pocket and a company with a made up name!" he says, breaking into laughter.
Back in 1962, the only way Geoffrey could keep tabs on the business world was by reading Time magazine. "And what I learnt was that the richest people were the Texans. They were easy to spot too - big cowboy hats and cowboy boots. So I camped out at the only starred hotel in Nairobi, with a milkshake and a newspaper, waiting for a Texan to show up." After two months, and nearly giving up, in walked a loud American man - 6'3" and a giant cowboy hat. Geoffrey had found his first client. "I said I would plan a safari trip for him - back then safaris were 30-days long - and quickly chalked up an itinerary. I estimated it would cost $3,200. But I thought he would laugh at me if I told him the price. So, when he asked me how much the safari was going to cost in his booming voice, I blurted $2,951. He asked, 'is that all?' And I said, 'Each!'"
By 1967, a few short years after A&K officially started, Geoffrey turned the company into a luxury travel service, and soon began spreading to other parts of the world. "I couldn't stay in Nairobi anymore. I knew I had to leave and make my own destiny. Especially after my parents lost the farm, I felt like a buffalo with a 357 bullet in its hide. So I moved to Rhodesia, then to South Africa, then Egypt, then India, I'm still moving. I'm always thinking of a new idea, a new plan. Always asking what's next," he says. By 1972, A&K opened its first office in London, followed by an office in the US in 1976. "China was the big milestone for me. Do you want to know how I got there?" He doesn't even wait for a response and starts talking about how Africa had only one communist country: Ethiopia. "My sister, luckily for me, was born there. So I argued with the Chinese officials to grant me a visa because I was born in Ethiopia too, although I was born in Zambia. Eventually, they granted me a visa to go to China. I spent 67 days there, more than any other tourist had spent there before." The Chinese were only too glad to grant Geoffrey the licence to bring in individuals on tours. "That was a huge breakthrough for me."
Of course, while all this was happening, Geoffrey never gave up on his passions, like riding horses. He played polo professionally, and is a world-renowned champion polo player - captain of the Rolex/Abercrombie & Kent team, winning the US Open twice, the US Gold Cup, the Cartier International and the World Open Championship. "I met Prince Charles in Florida and he asked me to come captain the Windsor Park Polo Team, and I did. Polo helped me network with wealthy and influential people; who would be potential clients," he says. "I'm a bush guy - that helps me find exciting new places to explore. The logistics of setting up tours comes from my training at Sandhurst and my clients came through polo. it all worked out in the end."
Geoffrey's book, Safari, is a collection of delightful stories just like these. "My wife always says I tell too many stories, and she's tired of hearing me repeat the same stories over and over again. I used to keep a diary for everyday of every place I went to. I had volumes and tomes that covered entire walls. One of my friends told me to put it all into a book, and that's what Safari is - a collection of all my memoirs."
Today, Geoffrey is just as driven as he was in his rebellious teenage years. "I always like to be the best. When I was a polo player, I always won. I hate taking no for an answer. I'm also still a boy - I love my toys, helicopters and planes and boats, bikes.," he says. "The moment you have a runaway success, you stop working. That's not me. I wake up every day thinking it's the day I'm starting my company." The issue he's most passionate about now, and emphasises he has always been, is conservation. "The only way we can save animals is by bringing in tourists and getting them to pay for licences to visit wildlife parks, which all goes towards the community and helps preserve those areas. The money should go to conservation instead of to travel and tour companies." He was particularly appalled by the incident with Cecil the Lion earlier this year. "I wrote to The New York Times and Time magazine and I even had a long discussion on Twitter. Cecil had a collar, and the shooter had binoculars and he shot it with a bow and arrow; the lion lived for 40 hours before he was finally killed. Just horrific that it happens in this day and age."
When he's not launching his book and championing conservation efforts, he's planning the next big getaway. "I get excited about ordinary people enjoying something extraordinary. I've always wanted to take normal people to the outer reaches of the world and make them feel totally safe and comfortable. I really want to start a tour of remote Pacific Islands - a small expedition ice breaker, fitted for a small group of about 20-25 people - like Togo, Palau, etc. Also western Mongolia. That would be some trip!"
rohit@khaleejtimes.com 



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