Private jets, elite lodges, haute cuisine and watching the perfect sunset – luxury safaris and bespoke experiences can cost anything from $20,000 to $350,000.
My greatest experience was standing in the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana, which, as far as you can see in all directions is absolutely flat and white. Then the sun goes down. All of us have seen beautiful sunsets, and then there’s the glow and all of us have seen that. But then, there’s a kind of… grey pause. And then, the real sunset begins. It lasts for 35-40 minutes. The entire sky starts changing color and then the sun is long gone. But the sky lights up with all these fabulous colors that keep shifting all the way around you. We watched it every night,” says Christopher Beach, an American tourist describing a moment on his R3 million ($208,700) tour around southern Africa in May 2018.
This trip – a bucket list-adventure for the group of six friends and partners – was guided by tour company Luxury Africa Destination Management.
A 19-day excursion, this one-of-a-kind experience included private planes, luxury lodges and a full immersion in the sweeping landscapes of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.
How is ‘luxury’ defined?
Is it a five-star stay at the Ritz-Carlton in New York, or a meal from a top chef at an elite restaurant?
For many top-tier, elite travelers today, ‘luxury’ isn’t about caviar and diamond-encrusted cutlery.
‘Luxury’ in travel has changed from a garish display of wealth to one about experiences, privacy, and unique memories all bundled into one bespoke package.
As Angama Mara Lodge co-founder, Nicky Fitzgerald, with decades of experience in decadent travel and top-tier lodges in southern Africa, explains: “There are different opinions of luxury. In the end, the stuff is just the stuff, and if you have enough money, anyone can have gold cups or build a beautiful lodge. But experiencing good game is unique, and having a talented guide and caring staff take the experience out of the ordinary. Luxury is bespoke care for each person. Luxury for the super-elite is watching the perfect sunset, and seeing the Milky Way from bed.”
The sunset on the Makgadikgadi salt pan in Botswana was such a luxury experience for Beach.
“It is more than a poetic experience. It’s a life-changing experience,” he says.
A regular traveler, he is the retired President and Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Society in San Diego. For over 40 years now, he and his partner have traveled annually to Venice. A few years ago, Beach and his sister went on National Geographic’s 24-day ‘Around the World by Private Jet’ trip (costing a minimum of $82,950 per person and including destinations like Easter Island and Marrakesh). “[My partner and I] say to everyone – people know that we’ve spent 40 years traveling and we say to everybody – you have to trust us. [A trip to southern Africa] is the most transcendent travel experience of your life. I went on the National Geographic ‘Around The World By Private Plane’ trip a couple of years ago and it was great and it was first-class and all of that… But going on a safari exceeded anything we’ve ever experienced.”
According to Virtuoso’s annual Luxe Report, a luxury trip advisory service, “the desire for unspoiled natural beauty is continuing to motivate travelers”.
Their 2018 forecast listed Africa as one of the top five must-take trips. They said in the report: “From culturally-rich South Africa, which is also 2018’s top adventure destination, to the wilds of Botswana and Kenya, and to the souks of Morocco, Africa is one of the world’s most diverse continents. Virtuoso’s advisors say a safari is an integral part of the African experience, particularly with wildlife preservation a priority for today’s sustainably-savvy travelers.”
Though Beach doesn’t consider himself ‘rich’, his trip on the continent was certainly in the upper echelons of tourist budgets pouring into the continent.
As the Southern and East African Tourism Update website writes: “Millionaire tourism in Africa has been on the rise for several years. In 2016, a study by a Johannesburg-based research institution found that in a period of 12 months, around 43,000 individuals with net assets of $10 million or more visited the continent for a holiday.”
Stats SA backs up the importance of all tourism in South Africa: “The tourism sector directly contributed 2.9% to South African gross domestic product (GDP) in 2016.”
The lure of the bush and a chance to experience a complete immersion in landscapes unseen in the West, not to mention close encounters with animals, are hugely appealing to international visitors. Says founder of Famba Famba Tour Design Specialists, and winner of Gauteng’s Lilizela tourism award, Valentino Meirroti: “The tourism industry is growing. There is a growing market for luxury travel as air travel becomes cheaper worldwide. The super-wealthy are spending less money on material things and more on unique experiences.”
The private villas, the haute cuisine, the sundowners, and the private jets aren’t the draw cards for the super-elite traveler, Meirroti explains. The biggest appeal for these luxury tourists is the chance to experience the raw beauty and these special moments in relative privacy.
Angama Mara Lodge, a 30-sleeper villa is perched on a hill overlooking Kenya’s Maasai Mara, with these needs in mind. In peak season, during one of the world’s most phenomenal sightings – the Great Migration – guests will pay $1,650 per night per person. The lodge’s co-founder Fitzgerald, describes: “We have a heart-stopping view from our position over the valley. We’re absolutely packed in high season. We’re very, very high-end and visitors find that visiting us on a safari tour and witnessing the Great Migration at such close quarters is a huge highlight.”
Beach describes it as well: “This is like being on earth millions of years ago in the garden of Eden. You are invisible in your jeep. The animals ignore you. They are acclimatized to you. You’re not a threat, you’re not something to eat.”
Patrick Siebel, founder of Luxury Africa Destination Management, has a whole business built around creating bespoke, luxury tours.
Most people using his services spend a minimum of R300,000 ($20,877) for two weeks, but on his most opulent trip, six people spent R5 million ($348,000) on a 15-day trip. He says he has serviced, amongst others, Russian oligarchs, American businessmen and CEOs, and super-wealthy families.
Says Siebel: “Last year, I had a guy, he wasn’t even planning to visit South Africa I guess. But he had a super yacht with the tallest mast in the world. While he was here having their main sail fitted on, he ended up going up to Johannesburg and bought a whole safari camp. Fascinating people.”
This type of travel is also falling into the enlarging wellness travel industry.
This billion-dollar section of luxury travel feeds another, equally important part of the luxury traveler’s needs – relaxation and enrichment.
Skift quotes Joss Kent, CEO of andBeyond: “Health and wellness are an increasingly larger part of travel, but these can mean different things to different people. We’re seeing that guests are traveling, not to escape their daily lives, but to enrich them.”
Fitzgerald agrees: “It seems outrageous but people who like luxury travel have more of an issue with time than money. Some guests have no clue what they paid for their accommodation. There is so much money for people to do beautiful travel.”
Meirroti adds: “Our guests appreciate exclusivity, and a combination of complete relaxation while having a unique experience. People are happy to spend money for a bespoke experience that is well-organized and guided by knowledgeable guides.”
Perhaps Beach says it best: “When I travel to Africa, I want a place that is private, private, private, and you walk out in the morning and you are the only person in the world looking out over a vast horizon. It feels like you’re in Discovery Channel. And though African safari costs are some of the most expensive trips I take over the world, they are life-changing.”
- Samantha Steele
Executive Travel: Reneilwe Letsholonyane’s Manchester
The 37-year-old South African soccer midfielder says he could move to the English city for its sense of serenity and calm.
South Africa’s former national football player Reneilwe ‘Yeye’ Letsholonyane started playing in the streets of Soweto but his fame has often taken him beyond the soccer pitches of South Africa.
Also a fashion entrepreneur and co-founder of the newly-established ShaYe lounge, the veteran midfielder recounts the indelible memories of his most recent holiday to Manchester with his wife, sports presenter Mpho Letsholonyane.
“In the off season of 2018, I had just gotten married. I personally love Jay-Z and my wife loves Beyoncé; and they were having their On The Run 2 tour in Manchester; a major city in the northwest of England.”
READ MORE | Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
Letsholonyane had also always wanted to go to Paris, a major European city and global center for art, fashion, food and culture, so flew to Manchester via the French capital.
The newly-weds spent a few days in Paris and thereon proceeded to Manchester for the concert, flying Air France on both sectors.
“Funnily enough, the economy class on Air France is not as squashed as the economy class on South African Airlines. You’d expect an uncomfortable flight, but that wasn’t the case. There was enough room to stretch your legs and recline your seat,” says the footballer.
Upon landing and clearing customs, a shuttle was waiting for the two to be chauffeured through the city to their hotel. The 40-minute drive was what the 37-year-old says he enjoyed the most. It made him reflect and draw comparisons between his home country and Europe.
At the age of 23, Letsholonyane’s professional career had kicked-started, but it was in 2008 that he joined one of South Africa’s biggest teams, the Kaizer Chiefs Football Club, for an eight-year stint.
READ MORE | Executive Travel: NaakMusiQ’s Dubai
Receiving the call to represent Bafana Bafana for the 2010 World Cup was a moment he recalls vividly.
“We were at camp, and told to check out from the hotel and go home. We were to find out from the media, like other citizens, if we had been selected to play. I remember I was in the streets and didn’t want to focus on the media because I was nervous, panicking and excited.
“My parents broke the news to me, but there was more cheering in my hometown and outside my parent’s home. A soccer pitch and jersey with my number and surname were painted in the streets.”
It was a moment that led to fame and more travels. He flips back to Manchester, gushing about the city’s architecture as he was equally captivated by the serenity of the city and its mild-mannered people.
“The standalone houses are the kind you see on television, with no walls. People that side don’t seem to be worried about burglaries. It seems like the crime rate is low. It’s quiet and it’s the quiet that I like. I remember saying to my wife, ‘I could stay here’.”
Letsholonyane admits to seeking alone time to think and ruminate.
Ironically, for the footballer, the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert was in the home of a football club.
Like all tourists, the couple traveled to Etihad Stadium, the home of Manchester City Football Club, where the musical extravaganza was to take place.
“We were told to use the train; luckily, it was a five-minute walk to the station. We got there but the people around us showed us what to do and where to go. We got off at a station, only to find out we had to wait for another train and it was packed. Then I started thinking about the hassle of getting into the stadium,” he says.
Letsholonyane and his wife dribbled their way through busy subways in Manchester to watch their favorite musicians on stage.
“Getting to Etihad Stadium was a pain-free experience. We got there early and people were idling outside. We went straight in and got seats in the front. There was no opening act, just the artists’ music playing.
Then the lights went dimmer and dimmer.
“It was time, we were about 10 meters away, and we saw them closely. Then it started raining. You’d think people would run for cover but no, people were just enjoying themselves. It was two and half hours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z and an experience never to be forgotten,” he says.
It was well after 1AM when the couple reached their hotel. “There was nothing that made us uncomfortable about walking the streets of Manchester at night. It felt like day.”
The night ended with rain, rounding off a day so different from playing under the hot African sun in the soccer fields of South Africa.
No Longer In The Wilderness
Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.
For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.
However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).
But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.
In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.
“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.
She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.
“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”
Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”
Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty.
Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.
The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”
According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.
Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.
“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.
Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.
By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.
Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.”
The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.
Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.
“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.
Executive Travel: Mpho Popps’ Ghana
The 32-year-old South African comedian traveled to the West African country for some eye-opening experiences.
South African comedian, actor and entrepreneur, Mpho ‘Popps’ Modikoane, is a frequent traveler but ask him about his happy place and he says it’s a little corner of Africa named Ghana.
He has traveled overseas before, but it was his travels within Africa that opened his eyes to the magic of the continent, and made him realize that all Africans have the same stories and are essentially the same.
“It’s just these borders we were brought up [in that] we don’t take the time to learn about each other’s cultures and share each other’s stories,” says Modikoane.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of countries over the years and early on in my career, I was in the US. A few years ago, I went to Canada for the annual Just For Laughs international comedy festival and these places are amazing, but traveling in Africa has been the most eye-opening for me.”
Modikoane’s career kick-started in 2009 on the reality TV show, So You Think You’re Funny? His growing audiences haven’t stopped laughing since.
With fame, came the chances to travel. His very first trip to West Africa was to Nigeria on Arik Air two years ago, when he flew business class.
“I don’t know what it is about us [black people], but when we don’t have things, we don’t see why it’s necessary – we don’t understand why we have to pay R30,000 ($2,000) for a seat, a leather seat,” he says, chuckling.
He goes on to elaborate with his trademark wit: “The seat is reclined all the way, we are drinking champagne in glasses; I didn’t even know there were glasses on planes…. Even forks and knives. And in business class, you don’t get shouted at by the attendants for reclining your seat four centimeters back, never! Even the magazines are not the same – we get business magazines and informative magazines. We even have a food menu with pages.”
That was his trip to Nigeria when on the ground, he was impressed by the hard work of the locals, the hustle and bustle of the streets and everything from bikes and Maybachs driving past him.
However, Ghana was his most memorable destination where he stayed five days.
“Ghana just looks beautiful and is next to Nigeria and they have this feud going on about who makes the best jollof rice and after tasting both, I have to give it up to Ghana,” says the comedian.
What he also loved about Ghana was its orderliness, and the warmth of the people.
What impressed Modikoane was that the people did not wait for the government to give them handouts and opportunities; the locals were willing to work hard to find them.
“The people there work outside of their work, have a business outside of their job and that’s the one thing I’ve come to realize about traveling in Africa. We [South Africans] are sitting in the land of opportunity but we are not working as hard as those from other parts of Africa. That is the magic of going to these places and spending time with other artists or musicians who also may have [on the side] their own clothing store, a restaurant, a barber shop…”
Modikoane juxtaposes his experiences in Ghana and South Africa, making various comparisons in the ways people conduct their lives. “When you go outside of South Africa, you see the Africanness of our continent. We South Africans have the modern, western element and live with white people in our communities and our country is not fully ours, but there, it’s theirs. Their heritage is rich, their culture is rich.”
And the most important part about visiting the rest of Africa for Modikoane?
“They make you feel like a celebrity,” he chuckles again.
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