Impossibly vast, immeasurably ancient, and breath-takingly beautiful, Africa has long enchanted visitors and tourists with its outstanding natural beauty and character. The region is a sublime melting pot of culture and history – a sensory overload for travellers fortunate enough to experience it, but the biggest draw for tourists remains the safari tours that show its world-famous wilderness destinations and rich animal life in all their glory.
Nomad Adventure Tours, one of the oldest and best-regarded safari tour operators in the Southern and East African region, is a name which may be familiar to Endeavour readers. Through its knack for innovation and ability to bend with the winds of change, Nomad has shown thousands of satisfied customers all that is best about this remarkable continent for 20-years. We revisited the company to find out more about the secret to their success, and an exciting new partnership with Toyota which will see the company become the envy of the sector.
In a world where the hand of man can be seen and felt at every turn; where nature in its most raw and unspoiled form is retreating on all fronts before the relentless and irresistible march of human progress, magnificent African landscapes like that of Serengeti National Park and the Okavango Delta stand as bastions of the natural world. Certainly, they are a valuable and accessible reminder that life doesn’t begin and end in the sprawling cities and urban centres where so many of us live and work.
For a tourist who has never before seen the early-morning sun rise over the horizon of the Masai Mara, or the sight of giant herds of wildebeest, thousands-strong, stretching almost as far as the eye can see; who has never felt the heat of the African sun on their skin, or experienced the sounds and smells of its unspoiled wilderness, the experience of leaving the hustle and bustle of urban life behind to head off on safari can see them leave a different person at the end of it all.
This ability to inspire such change is, in Alex Rutherford’s view, one of the parts of the job that makes the rigours of running one of Africa’s leading safari tour operators worth it:
“If you’re running safari tours for 15,000-20,000 vs. 500 people that are paying 10x more, I’ve found that the wealthy guys tend to be a little jaded with the majesty of the world. We’re talking about people who can afford to travel anywhere, and who’ve seen and done most of it.
I’m more into the guys who’ve never been into the wilderness, for example, who come from South Korea and who’ve never been out of the city and end up in the middle of the Namib Desert. They start crying because they’ve never been alone or exposed to that level of openness and silence – they go home changed completely.”
Since he first established Nomad Adventure Tours in 1997, Alex has utilised his passion for adventure and love of Africa to show travellers what makes this land unique, and take them on a long and winding journey across up to 14 countries to see with their own eyes some of the most spectacular sights they will ever gaze upon. Each year, the Nomad team travels an average of two million kilometres over more than 1000 tours a year, offering packages that take their customers across the length and breadth of sub-Saharan Africa.
From serene journeys across the landscape of the ‘Garden Route’ in South Africa to epic treks into the mountains of Rwanda or Uganda, home of the Mountain Gorilla – a critically endangered species despite the urgent conservation efforts that have been implemented to protect them, Nomad’s varied and expansive itinerary options means that there is something for everybody, whatever their tastes and whatever their budget. And as of this year, this expansive array of scheduled tours and itinerary options now includes the option to fly down to the South African coastline and take to the waters, as Alex explained:
“Most people don’t know this but South Africa is one of the diving hotspots of the world, specifically for apex predators – the sharks, the whales, the dolphins, the seals that are abundant in South African waters.
We’ve now launched this year on a scheduled tour basis, incorporating our land tour products with diving – we call it the ‘Big 5 and dive’. Customers taking this combined package see it all – starting at the Kruger National Park where they go game driving and all of that before they then fly down to the coast and dive in South Africa’s pristine waters. This tour package is unique – there’s nobody else doing it like we’re doing it. It’s a new package so it’ll take a bit of time to bed in like all new products but it’s a valuable addition to our portfolio of tours.”
It is this ability to meet the needs of an incredibly broad clientele, and deliver customised tour options, that has acted as one of the key drivers of Nomad Tours’ success over the past two decades. Travellers who choose to see the sights of Africa with Nomad Tours come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak – in any one tour, a group can be made of people aged from 18 to 80 and be any of a dozen different nationalities, and hail from all walks of life.
“We really accommodate a huge and varied cross-section of the market. The campers are often younger, they’re on a budget and they’re not afraid to rough it a little. The mid-range guys tend to be a little older and prefer a little more in the way of creature comforts, such as a roof to sleep under, but are looking for something that isn’t overly expensive, then there’s the older, wealthier clientele who don’t want to camp anymore and expect a degree of comfort.”
Catering to their needs in this regard is essential, and so too is ensuring that Nomad’s team delivers a superior customer experience that will see customers fall in love with Africa, and catch the safari bug to the extent that they come back again. Much of this responsibility falls onto the shoulders of the company’s tour guides – individuals who, in Alex’s words, are ‘the priest, the doctor, the lawyer, the friend, and the commander’ of each and every safari tour. On a multi-country tour there are a thousand different variables to consider and a thousand different dilemmas and challenges that could be faced, relating to the climate, the food, the vehicle, and maintaining a healthy group dynamic. It is a delicate mix, and the tour guide must take control of everything with professionalism, decorum, and friendly and engaging manner.
For this reason, Alex has been careful to choose tour guides based on their capacity for lateral thought and their temperament, as opposed to qualifications background – people can be taught to drive and to cook, but good character is something that people come with. This approach to recruitment extends to the wider Nomad Tours team, as Alex was keen to highlight, and judging by the company’s track-record of success, it is an approach that which has been vindicated:
“Pound-for-pound my team are top-drawer people – exceptionally good staff. The workloads can be huge, the hours can be long, but that’s the nature of tourism. It can be a high-stress environment. If you have the right people, you get staff retention, and then you have the meat and bones of your company in place.”
Last but not least, innovation has played an integral part in Nomad Tour’s continued presence at the front of the industry. Whether the company is mapping out the most exciting, visually striking safari tour routes that rival companies have yet to find, or designing overland-diving hybrid tour packages – an afore mentioned industry first, Nomad Tours has achieved longevity and a formidable reputation amongst its peers because of its ability to stay ahead of the curve. Indeed, the most exciting development to emerge from Nomad Tours since we caught up with the company last year surrounds an ambitious partnership with Toyota which is on the cusp of coming to fruition – one which will further cement the company’s status as an industry trendsetter.
“As of January next year we’ll be launching five Toyota Hino 4×4 custom-built trucks which will be the first of their kind in the tourism industry worldwide. The vehicles we’re building are exceptional – they will provide true 5-star travelling for our customers. There’s individual aircon, there’s toilets, there’s individual electronic safes, reclining leather seats – endless luxury for a safari tour. They are top, top of the range.
They will be a more expensive option for our customers, but not exorbitantly expensive – we’ve capped the number of people to 12. They will be for people who want a more bit more space and a bit more privacy, a little bit older, perhaps not that keen on the camping thing anymore. It’s a new product, and it stands alone against what’s currently in the market. I think from a Toyota perspective it’s going to be absolutely phenomenal because we’ve been busy designing the vehicles and they will look a million dollars – these brand new Hino models will be completely new, and something that everybody will look and think “wow, I want one.”
This new concept of 4×4 luxury overland travel will allow Nomad Tours to reach out into a luxury market, centred around less people, more comfort. The technical innovations of the new Hino, such as seats that will be able to swing from forward-facing to side-facing – perfect for game driving, where customers will want to have their own private window that faces outwards – are as-of-yet unheard of in the industry, and will help make the customer experience of seeing Africa that little bit more special.
Even for a company so accustomed to change and excitement, these are heady times for the company. As Alex himself admitted, Nomad Tours has reached the zenith of what can be achieved through what it was doing before. However, through his ability to adapt to a changing marketplace, not to mention an ever more demanding clientele, new horizons have opened up for man and company – a testament, certainly, to what can be achieved when you go about business with great passion and love for what you do.