When he was 19-years-old, Peter Allison left the Sydney suburbs for a year of trekking around Africa. Partly following his nomadic spirit, and partly chasing the desire to be surrounded by animals, Allison spent six months backpacking before he committed to a bartending gig at a South African safari lodge. Twenty four years later and he’s the sales and marketing manager at Natural Selection Travel, hoping to bring safaris back to their roots; the style of safaris he first experienced. “I think the focus swung away from the greatest offering of all, which is, always going to be outside your accommodation,” says Allison on the rise of luxury safari camps that began attracting distinct customers seeking artificial luxury rather than focusing on the actual, and natural, luxuries of African wildlife.
Having previously worked at Wilderness Safaris as the Head Safari Guide and Camp Manager, Allison thrived on fostering the human and animal connection he experienced and encouraged on so many of his tours. “I like people to see the similarities between ourselves and other species rather than the differences,” he says on his safari style. And so Allison encouraged this type of introspection for six years, from Zambia to Kenya to Botswana, until he left to publicize his message on a grander scale, beyond African borders.
Through his satirical novels “Whatever You Do, Don’t Run,” “Don’t Look Behind You,” and “How To Walk A Puma,” Allison recorded his years of guiding safaris in both Africa, Australia and South America as a dedication to his admiration of wildlife. All three of his titles portray animal encounters through Allison’s eyes as enchanting, mystical and humbling interactions with species that many of us have never come eye-to-eye with. And although he published three titles revolving around animals, Allison couldn’t stay away from African wildlife; therefore, he returned to where it all started–only to realize so much had changed.
Currently a year into his position at Natural Selection Travel, Allison is able to enforce his love for animals through the brand’s tagline of “safaris with character,” as he’s watched the agency grow to include tours in some of his favorite African destinations; Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia.
“Namibia is like the Baskin Robbins of deserts; with so many flavors. Dunes shift from gold to red, wildlife turns up where you least expect it,” explains Allison on the bewildered hotspot he happens to consider as one of his favorite places. “When you see a single animal crossing a sea of dunes, it is as marvellous as a million wildebeest jumping a river.”
As Allison continues to grow with the brand, it is his passion for the animals as well as eco-experiential travel that inhibit him to maintain such distinct getaways, from the company’s roots at Meno e Kwena Camp in Botswana to the most recent addition of the Hoanib Valley Camp in Namibia as the first 100 percent solar operated resort.
We caught up with Peter Allison to chat about Natural Selection’s most recent venture, as well as what it means to be a part of such a committed community of individuals, and of course, to live among the wild.
Tell me about your journey that took you from bartending at a safari lodge in South Africa in 1994, to leading safaris throughout the continent, to joining Natural Selection.
My career is perhaps a perfect example of the worst decisions leading to the best adventures. I’ve been very fortunate to have the progression you outline, but the constant thread (and what drew me to Africa in the first place) was a love of animals. Over time this has evolved from just wanting to see them, to wanting to know more, eventually a desperate urge to be part of something that helps save them, which is where Natural Selection came in. I was honored when asked to join the fledgling company, as it was founded not just by people I consider friends and mentors, but men and women that have already achieved a lot in terms of protecting wild places. If that all sounds very serious it is. In between all that is gin. I am very fond of gin also…
In a prior article, you mentioned you aren’t philosophical except for when you’re in Serra Cafema (the Wilderness Safaris camp in Namibia). Do you still feel this way? And if so, can you explain what makes you feel this way in this part of the continent?
Absolutely – Namibia as a whole has that effect. It’s so easy to overuse words like ‘awesome’ — Namibia is a place where again and again you will feel true awe. There are so few places left in the world that make you realize just how tiny you are, just how tiny anyone is, and while that can be frightening it is also incredibly refreshing. Standing on the Skeleton Coast you realize that no matter what decisions you make and how important they seem, or just how large your problems might seem each and every day, that tide will roll in and out on that merciless beach. There’s a lot to be said for places that are so beautiful (Namibia is the supermodel of nations, without a bad angle) yet so harsh.
Following this question, what makes Namibia different than safaris in Kenya or Botswana? Is it the landscape? The interactions?
Namibia has a bit of a problem. It is on the wrong continent. Because it’s in Africa so often I hear people begin a description with an apology – they’ll say ;it’s not about seeing lions, or elephants, or other big wildlife…’ instead of apologizing for Namibia it should be shouted what it is – I personally think it is more like Antarctica than it is like its neighbours (Botswana to the east, South Africa underneath). The landscape you mention is achingly beautiful, but so dry you are sure nothing could live there. So when you see a single animal crossing a sea of dunes it is as marvellous as a million wildebeest jumping a river.
How are you blending your newest camp with Natural Selections into Namibia’s landscape? And how will the camp reflect the essence of Namibia?
Our next camp will be Hoanib Valley Camp, which is 100 percent solar operated. The roof peaks look almost like dune crests, but what I like most is that there is so much to do. Most people think a desert must be monotonous, but Namibia is like the Baskin Robbins of deserts; with so many flavors. Dunes shift from gold to red, wildlife turns up where you least expect it, prehistoric remains of tribes we know almost nothing about intrigue along the coast, and living cultures like Himbas and Hereros show that there are many ways to adapt and survive.
What philosophy (or philosophies) is Natural Selection rooted in? How do they reflect your own philosophies and beliefs?
First, and most importantly, we believe that ecotourism has a huge part to play in the preservation of land for wildlife. It’s not the only cog by any means, but a vital one. Every time we (or the companies like us doing similar work) are successful we show a government the value of wild land, and prove that a living animal is worth more than a dead one, unmined land worth more than the brief lure of a one off payday. To put our own money where are mouths are we give 1.5 percent of turnover to conservation – we don’t even look at profit until that is deducted.
Beyond that, we support research projects in the areas we operate in and partner with local communities wherever possible to ensure they too are benefitting from wildlife. As a company vision it couldn’t be more neatly aligned with what I believe! All I want at the end of each day is to feel like I have put in more than I have taken out. I also want a gin, but often run out.
What are some of the notable conservation and sustainability efforts that Natural Selection implements? And how do you encourage guests to adopt these efforts during and after their trip?
We’ve recently taken over an area that, until now, has been used for trophy hunting – making a success of that as a photographic venture will hopefully convince other land owners that lions look better at a waterhole than they do as a grimacing head over your fireplace. We are also partnering with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, as there is little spoken of crises occurring with giraffe numbers across the continent. Perhaps most important of all though is the effect that we hopefully have on tourists. If people leave our safaris loving Africa just a fraction as much as we do then they will surely want to help preserve it.
How have you seen safari travel change over the past 20 years in Africa? What is one of the biggest challenges you face as both a safari agency and tour guide as a result of these changes?
Huge changes! I think the most obvious shift has been the almost infantile pursuit of very mundane luxury. Some companies do white glove luxury beautifully well, other attempts look like a Toyota Corolla with racing stripes. It just isn’t a comfy fit. There’s a market for all levels of luxury in a camp but I think the focus swung away from the greatest offering of all, which is always going to be outside your accommodation. No one travels halfway around the world for a solid gold bidet (or whatever else is in vogue these days) – we aim to impress people with a herd of 50,000 zebras. They don’t have that at home.
What is one of the most important things you want visitors to understand about the wildlife as well as their experience when they check into your camps?
Only one? It varies from species to species, I’m a nightmare to get talking about wildlife as that tap never runs dry! Personally, when I guide I like people to see the similarities between ourselves and other species rather than the differences. If you leave a safari realizing that an elephant may look very different to you (you’d hope so) but has a rich emotional life, family connections, rivalries, the same soap opera if an existence we think of as ours alone, maybe you will relate that much more to them. All guides, though, have their own style, which is so important as you don’t want camps to feel like a fast food chain, the same one after another.
What do you think is the biggest connection between people and animals? And how are you able to emphasize this through your camps and the work you’re doing?
As we bring research into species, perhaps lesser known than the usual draw cards, (lions, elephants et al) and make people excited about meerkats, warthogs even, they see what a rich web the environment is and how important each layer is. That includes botany, soil and so on, but a good guide (and I feel ours are very good indeed) will measure their guests before digging that deep. Conservation is like medicine, everyone knows it is good for them but you have to coat it in a lot of sugar to make people want it.
From befriending packs of cheetahs to having a leopard in your living room, what is one of your most moving experiences you’ve had with an animal or animals?
Perhaps the luckiest I have been was to spend years in one place in the Okavango, and to get to know individual animals and realize they had characters just as we do. It was better than television to see how their lives unfold, how they survived, had young, and of course at times seeing them die.
How did you learn to connect with Africa by using all your senses, without harming the environment or wildlife? And, now, how do you encourage guests to do the same?
Great question, there is so much bias towards sight in all the language we use around a safari but most of the time if you are ‘looking’ for a leopard you should be listening. They are so good at hiding (it is what they do for a living) that odds are you won’t find one nonchalantly strolling in the open with a neon arrow pointing at them. Instead, listen for the calls animals make as they pass, it is a language you learn. But don’t trust squirrels. Squirrels are idiots.
We have started something new with our guide training where we ask our guides to imagine taking a guests on safari who is blind. What would they do differently? Then once they have done the exercise we ask them to take those lessons and do the same for all their guests!
Photos courtesy of Natural Selection