Elizabeth Fong, one of the founders of a Singapore-based travel agency, The African Specialist talks about the origin of their experiential startup that aims to share their passion of Africa, inspire the human spirit and transcend the cultural boundaries.
The pivotal event that triggered the birth of The African Specialist was one of our adventures in Tanzania, renowned for housing Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Wild Prevails
It is said that the Serengeti inspired The Lion King and it is easy to see why. Within minutes of driving to our lodge, we came close to large herds of Wildebeest, Zebras and Impalas. Over the next couple of days, we embarked on a number of game drives to which we managed to witness – a pride of lions hunting down a wildebeest, rare leopard sightings, vultures chasing cheetahs from their meal, and a herd of elephants frolicking in mud. Evenings were then spent next to campfires, sharing stories of our adventures with kindred spirits.
We had animals visiting us at night too. At one point, there was a Hyena stationed outside of our tent; ready to mark his territory right on the flap of our front door. At this point, you might expect us to be angry (because who wants animal pee on our front door) or even afraid (since it’s a wild animal) but to be honest; we were more bemused and trying our earnest to get a ‘selfie’ with the animal instead which eventually scared it off. Others spoke of elephants that went past their tents and it was a pity that we missed it all as we were all fast asleep.
It was all very exciting, catching sight of all these majestic creatures in such close proximity, but I do believe there is the other side of the coin as well. For instance, during a sighting of big cats along the savanna, there were so many jeeps surrounding the animals that they looked rather trapped. Hordes of tourists were snapping away at them and it did feel like Hollywood – where the animals were the celebrities and tourists the paparazzi’s. We wondered if this affects the integrity and the welfare of the wildlife in the reserve.
I approached Shef, our local guide about this and he was concerned about it too. We were told that guides like him feel the pressure to deliver, sometimes on unrealistic expectations from the tourists themselves (there are some who carried long checklists of animals sightings that they have to accomplish). Thus, to fulfill these ‘wishes’, many guides cut corners to ensure that their clients are satisfied. For what it’s worth, the satisfaction of the tourist is what drives the livelihood of the guides. As such, the ones who lose out are the wildlife in the reserve.
The Locals, Our Friends
Another noteworthy experience was our visit to an authentic Maasai village. The Maasais is a proud and independent semi-nomadic tribe, known for their fearsome warriors and unique culture. Upon arriving, we were warmly invited into their homes. In addition, we joined in on bouts of activities that include singing, eating and basically sharing about our own personal life stories. We also managed to witness a spectacular ‘jumping dance’ called the Adumu – a coming of age ceremony for the warriors in the tribe. It definitely wasn’t an anthropology trip but more of a personal connection between friends.
During our trip, we also got along really well with our guide Shef, so much so that he introduced us to his family and friends. We learnt that he has two sons with the elder son currently studying to be an engineer. This was when we realised that even though we come from two completely different cultures, we share similar dreams and aspirations
At the core, all of us believe in travel that inspires the human spirit and transcends cultural boundaries. We believe travelling should be about seeking unique experiences, interacting with locals, and making a difference. When we are back in Asia, we realized that it is hard to find an Asian outfit that could offer this, and so, along with Shef and his friend, with their 20 plus years of expertise in the travel industry, we decided to take matters into our own hands. The seeds of The African Specialist were sowed.
The African Specialist has since expanded to other parts of Africa. Our explorers have played Djembe with musicians in Zimbabwe, explored the deserts of Namibia, chased the great migration in Kenya, and taught children in South Africa. It is a whole new world out there, waiting to be discovered.