The Wilderness Way – a brief history

May 25, 2011 Trip Reviews
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Wilderness – from humble roots to 70 stunning destinations 

(please click on the above link to view the video that premiered at Indaba 2011)

A brief history of our roots and development

Wilderness Safaris had its formal beginnings in Botswana in 1983. Two experienced overland safari guides, Colin Bell (a South African) and Chris McIntyre (a New Zealander), had been working in the remote, wilderness reaches of the country since 1977 and by the early 1980s had decided to strike out on their own. Their reasons for taking this plunge were as follows:

1) They wanted somehow to ensure that the financial benefits of their safaris flowed to Botswana and its people and ensured the sustainable protection of the country’s wildlife areas.

2) They wanted to offer authentic safaris with integrity that catered for people as passionate about nature as they were.

At the time most professional safari outfitters in the photographic side of the industry were not based in Maun, did not pay tax in Botswana, employed mostly ex-patriots and sourced their supplies in neighbouring South Africa. Bell and McIntyre wanted to change this and accordingly registered a Botswana company and based themselves in Maun, south of the Okavango Delta.

In retrospect this approach was logical and today forms the cornerstone and central tenet of ecotourism the world over, but in the early 1980s it was a ground-breaking philosophy that set Wilderness Safaris apart.

What also set this young company apart was their pursuit of the specialist market. Bell and McIntyre were themselves competent naturalists, but over the years they had worked closely with the region’s pre-eminent ornithologists and popular bird book authors. As a result they actively pursued the bird watcher market and offered specialist safaris to the Okavango Delta and surrounding wildlife areas of northern Botswana in search of the special bird species of the region: Pel’s fishing Owl, Wattled Crane, African Skimmer and others.

It was out of this focus that the company’s logo was born. The African Skimmer is the only representative of its family in Africa and its feeding (they skim the surface of large rivers using their unusual bills to catch small fish) and breeding biology (they nest on seasonally exposed sandbanks) requires the existence of pristine ecosystems; places where natural flood cycles are not interrupted by manmade dams, and waters sullied by erosion or pollution. These were the areas that Wilderness Safaris were interested in operating in, and where proceeds from safaris could be channelled towards funding the conservation of these habitats, and so the logo was designed around this species.

In the beginnings of the company’s history, only mobile safaris were offered and only in Botswana. By 1985, Bell and McIntyre and new partners like Russel Friedman (a well-known natural history book dealer from Johannesburg) had decided to branch out into establishing tented camps on exclusive sites in these wildlife areas where they could base their overland trips and in between these trips also support fully-independent travellers with custom, tailor made itineraries.

As a result, the lodge operating side of the business was born and in 1985 the first two permanent tented camps were developed, Xigera in the heart of the Okavango Delta and Xaro in the Okavango Panhandle. Jedibe in the permanent swamp area of the northern Delta followed in 1987 and in 1990 the company was offered Mombo, a little known camp on the then boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve on the northern tip of Chief’s Island. It was in an area that had been heavily hunted, but the potential was there and within a few years of photo-safaris having replaced hunting, Mombo rapidly developed an enviable international reputation. This was achieved mostly through a phenomenal wilderness landscape with many remarkable experiences, including exceptional wild dog viewing, but also very good viewing of other large predator species in a spectacular setting into which plains game streamed once it was clear that hunting was no longer practiced there.

Over and above word of mouth endorsement, international media, such as National Geographic, really started to publicise the Botswana experience, as well as the Mombo brand and the camp became known as one of the finest wildlife viewing locations on the African continent! Wilderness Safaris’ custodianship of Mombo, including overseeing its incorporation into the expanded Moremi Game Reserve in the early 1990s and reintroducing black and white rhino into the wild ten years later, confirmed that our principles, values, ethics and business model could make a substantial contribution to sustainable socio-economic development for the future of Africa’s wild places.

This coincided with growth in the Botswana business of Wilderness Safaris reaching a point where some individuals working within the company were ready to explore new regions. This was something that had been suggested many times by repeat guests of the company and it was logical that Wilderness Safaris begin to broaden its footprint.

Dennis Rundle established an overland safari business in Namibia with the first lodge opening in 1993. Patrick Boddam-Whetham opened the first South African lodge in 1993 and Chris Badger and Andy Eggington used the same model to expand into Malawi in 1994. Brian and Lindi Worsley followed suit in Zimbabwe in 1995 and Zambia came on board in 2000. In 2003 we opened North Island in Seychelles and 2012 will see formal operations begin in Kenya and Congo (Brazzaville).

Over time our reputation and operating experience enabled us to successfully tender for prime leases in key areas in all nine of the countries in which the company operates allowing us to today offer an unrivalled suite of camps and concessions in southern Africa, and, in turn, contribute materially to their on-going conservation.


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