Mention the group African Bush Camps and the picture that is conjured up is that of the most incredibly pristine camps dotted over such off-the-beaten track parts of Africa that having anything constructed there seems like a miracle.
When you are born on the outskirts of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and spend your formative years in the bush, ingraining your passion for wildlife and conservation, you know you are destined for illustrious things.
Upscale Living magazine spoke to Co-Founder and African Bush Camps CEO Beks Ndlovu about what is takes to make a difference in the already saturated safari scene in Africa.
Eleven camps dotted over Africa – Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia in the short span of 12 years. That’s a wonderful achievement. What were the challenges you faced in the beginning?Raising, funding and managing it whilst you are on the ground, where you do everything can be extremely testing. It was a steep learning curve, but it was exciting and results were evident almost right away. Like any new kid on the block, you need to prove yourself and knock on doors for business. This can be a tiring process and one where you have to build a thick skin and understand rejection. The industry as ever has always been competitive and the biggest challenge can be trying to win buyers over amidst other business relationships and years of loyalties that may exist with other camps.
Talk us through the process of acquiring a camp – how do you decide on a site, the concession; how intricate is that process – surely it’s not just a ‘find and build’ concept?
My first nine camps where all green fields. I identified areas that were special to me during my guiding days. I set out to tender for them and in some cases, propose to the authorities and land owners that there is an argument for sustainable utilization of those areas. I am a firm believer that anything that makes sense around economics, social and environmental will be considered. When I have identified the area, then it’s been an experience where I’ve camped there. I could visualize what an epic guest experience would be, using the unique features or attributes of the area. It is an intricate process of designing a camp, taking into account your environmental foot print and how the guest experience can gel with the design so that you achieve a healthy balance between the two. The last two sites, Thorntree River Lodge in Zambia and Bumi Hills on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe found me, I didn’t find them. This happens after a number of camps where opportunities present themselves and thankfully I now have the luxury of exploring and often turning down opportunities that I know will not suit the brand.
What sets your camps apart from others?
Our locations are stunning, however this is something many camps can boast about too. The design of the guest experience; focusing on the guides and staff being the key performers makes our camps very special. I am thankful for my years of experience, running camps and guiding to be able to impart that understanding of what it takes to create that special guest experience.
I know it’s like asking which of your children is your favorite, but I have to ask – do you have any favorite camps and why?
Yes, I find myself thinking that each of the camps is the best at the time of staying, and this changes over the season. I have a very soft spot for the Zambezi Valley, Mana Pools. It’s more about the landscape and the area than it is about the camp. I don’t think there are many places as beautiful as Mana Pools, particularly the Kanga area.
How hands-on are you?
I am very hands on and involved in all aspects of the business; it’s important for me. I have good teams and a partner who manages the operations extremely well and we are able to cover each other.
What has attributed to your success story – starting out as a safari guide at the age of 18 to having a major business venture at age 29.
With the experience of being “organically grown” as we say, I learned all the aspects of safaris and what it takes to create the ultimate guest experience. I have been able to personally apply those learned things into the business. As a result of my experience, my staff and industry people around me trust me and this also means we have been able to attract good people. I always talk about being an employer of choice where the magic of the team draws people to want to be part of that magic. I have always sought the counsel of wise and experienced individuals who came before me, therefore I spend a lot of time listening to others that I have a huge respect for and this has helped me hugely. I have a saying that why pay school fees when it has already been paid for by others.\
Now, at the age of 41, what are the benefits you are reaping from such an incredible venture?
For me it’s always been about creating a solid business that supports conservation and has a direct impact on the livelihoods of people around us. The rewards and benefits of having this venture is seeing the result and the impact we have had in conservation and rural communities. It really is about creating a legacy that allows future generations to take stock and want to continue to do even more for our heritage.
I read you still do private guiding on request?
As I answer this question, I am flung back home after an incredible six days on safari in Mana Pools. It’s not very often I get to guide these days, but when I do, it’s like a re-birth of passion and excitement. I liken it to a little boy who re-discovers a room full of his favorite toys.
The ethos of African Bush Camps?
Designing and crafting a truly authentic African wildlife experience using some of Africa’s best people. Ensuring that we achieve a healthy balance between being economic and environmentally aware. The remote locations being an under-the-canvas experience that take people back to basics, yet providing a comfortable and romantic bush camp feel.
Could I call you a Safari Visionary?
I am thankful that I am surrounded by partners that share the same values and visions that I have.
Exciting happenings / camps in the future?
I am excited about developing Nyamatusi Camp in Mana Pools that will open at the end of this year. It is going to be in the unspoiled Nyamatusi Wilderness of Mana Pools.
| Photographs courtesy of African Bush Camps