By Kathleen Retourné (What Does the Giraffe Say)
A visit to a casino in South Africa changed Steve Roberts life forever. But, not for the reasons you might think…
Steve was working as an accountant for a logistics company, which moved copper from Zambian mines. Then, a chance encounter with a safari guide while playing poker, resulted in a total over-haul of Steve’s life and African Safari Experience was born.
“We had a break [from poker] and asked everyone what they did. And, one guy was a lawyer, farmer etc. and it got to a really cool guy on the end and he said ‘I run a safari company’ and I thought that is what I want to do,” Steve said.
While he admitted that starting a safari from scratch was difficult, Steve has never been happier in his career, and the company recently celebrated its fourth anniversary.
“I think, for a lot of people, you get that African bug and you can’t get rid of it. You just want to be out there. There is something special about Africa,” he added.
Together with his Zambian busines partner Constance Bwembya Sampa (Connie), Steve hires local guides to use their knowledge of the country’s wildlife and to provide an authentic travel experience to guests.
Having experienced the behaviour of some international companies taking profit from a country and not giving back to local communities, Steve was adamant that African Safari Experience would do things differently.
“I think it is important to have that social responsibility. If you are earning profits from a country, then I think it is important to give back as well. My busines partner Connie and myself have always been passionate about that,” he explained.
African Safari Experience offer cultural tours as well as taking visitors to the local market and tailors. A safari with them is not just about the animals, but also about the local culture.
“There are 70 plus different tribes/languages in Zambia, and it is fascinating. Zambian people are some of the friendliest in the world and are very proud – and rightly so – of their history. It is great for us to showcase that,” he enthused.
The organisation also tries to help community initiatives, most recently it supported Baobuyu Learning Centre by promoting and raising funds for a bore hole. Click here to find out more.
When clients are on safari it is important that everyone gives the animal respect. This is their territory and animals are in charge and things can change quickly.
One of Steve’s favourite experiences was when he took clients to Chobe, Botswana – a country which boasts a third of all of Africa’s elephants. While they kept a safe distance, the elephants decided to take a closer inspection.
“We were on game vehicle and the elephants were crossing the river onto the land and going straight past us. One of the elephants – the matriarch – came up behind vehicle and sniffed us and its trunk was millimetres from my face. Just testing us out, seeing who we were and making sure not a threat and then they moved on. You have to sometimes have nerves of steel, but we always felt safe in the environment with the guides we have,” he said.
Despite spending months at a time in Zambia, Steve said he never tired of the walking safari. The concept originated in Zambia by a pioneer called Norman Carr back in the 1950s. It was used to drive income away from hunting and towards photography tourism. This not only helped conservation but provided jobs to local communities.
As part of the walk, African Safari Experience provide visitors the chance to visit the white rhinos, the only place in the whole of Zambia where you can see them in their natural environment.
These rhinos are protected by rangers 24/7 and are free to roam their protected area.
“We are very proud of them in Livingstone. We only have nine in the whole country which is very sad,” he said. “It is an amazing experience and you can get up-to 10 metres away in a controlled environment and [rhinos are] one of the big five… and it is helping to give money back to conservation.
For visitors in Livingstone, no trip is complete without a game drive in the UNESCO Work Heritage site Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. But, due to the large amount of game in the park, it is unfortunately a target for poachers.
To combat this, African Safari Experience teamed-up with the local government and park authority to conduct snare sweeps.
“[Snares] are cruel things. There is a wire attached to a tree with a loop on the end of it and then animals running in the bush can get their feet or their neck caught in the traps and it is a slow,” he said.
As the economy has been hit by Covid-19 poaching, snares are increasing. Steve has therefore increased the sweeps to two times a week. He also set-up a Go Fund Me page to try and increase funds for those taking part in the sweeps.
“A lot of people have donated which, not only goes towards us running it, but gives back to the community as we have locals who help us, and they are not earning anything at all at the moment because of Covid-19. So, it is an opportunity to employ people and remove snares at the same time,” he explained.
In these difficult times there is an understanding at why people are driven to the desperate measure of poaching. It is hoped that through ongoing education efforts the community will understand how looking after their wildlife heritage will also help them
“The more animals that stay alive for longer the more clients come out, and the more revenue will go back into the tourism industry and will keep people’s jobs going for longer. That is one of the messages we are trying to get across,” he added.
Life in lockdown
Zambia is slowly starting to open its borders to tourism, but tourism in general will remain at a level far lower than pre-Covid virus.
In Livingstone, tourism accounts for around 90% of employment and as the industry has been decimated it will take some time to get back to normal. While Steve said his heart goes out to those who have been affected by the horrendous disease, he hoped that this pandemic could be used to press the “reset button”.
“Maybe it is an opportunity for us to think about how we can best protect the environment and how we can do what we can for conservation. Or how we can care a bit more about other people. How we can think more about what we can do to make sure that things like this do not happen again. And, how we best protect ourselves,” he said.
“It is also an opportunity to look at the sustainability factors too, what we can do about plastics, litter and all those things as well. I think it concentrates the mind when you have that much more time on your hands on your time to think about things.”
For those travelling with African Safari Experience, then the trips would not be so different to what the organisation previously offered due to most tours being private. This, he hoped, would give clients more confidence.
It is difficult to know when things will start to get back to anything close to normal. While tourism operators are desperate to operate, caution still needs to be executed to stop a second spike.
“The good thing is we are off the beaten track. Zambia is called ‘real Africa’ and by that you are really in bush and go on safari and not see any other clients at all for a long time… That can give confidence to people they can come out to somewhere where they will not be part of the maddening crowds, he said.
The desire and the will to see wildlife in its natural habitat remains and hopefully once things have “settled-down” tourism will return, he added.
If you want to find out more on how to ensure the trip of a life time, click here to read Steve’s top tips.