MIDDLE HADDAM — “It’s almost like you’re on a different planet. The fact that the animals are in charge, you’re a guest there and you realize that pretty quickly. This is their habitat. This is their world, and you’re visiting,” said Pierre Faber, co-owner of Classic Africa, a safari company that custom designs trips to southern and eastern Africa.
“That’s a very different feeling from what you’re accustomed to if you’ve grown up in the developed world so it’s a very powerful experience,” he said. “People fall in love with it. A lot of our clients are very well traveled and almost all of them will tell you that it’s the most amazing trip they’ve ever taken so far.”
Some clients have come back 10 times or more and the company continues to find new places for them to explore, said co-owner Margaret McCutcheon Faber.
Their clients have no shortage of destinations — the company offers safaris in nine countries: Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Rwanda, Mozambique, and the Seychelles.
Most want to see the wildlife, Pierre said, and the predominantly savannah habitat in southern and eastern parts of Africa supports the highest level of mammalian diversity on earth.
Pierre said he and Margaret work to tailor the experience to the client’s desires, which can also include an urban experience, perhaps in Cape Town, or a beach experience in Seychelles or Mozambique.
“But broadly the majority of people that we work with are going first and foremost for safari and it’s those countries of southern Africa and East Africa where we focus on where they go to see the wildlife,” he said.
Africa and Oxford
“From an early age I developed a love for the African version of wildlife,” said Pierre, who grew up in South Africa and whose family vacationed by traveling into the bush.
He became a wildlife veterinarian and planned to specialize in wildlife fishery medicine, but his path diverged when he won a Rhodes Scholarship to attend University of Oxford, where he earned his doctorate in business administration.
“At that point, this is in the early 90s, South Africa was just emerging from apartheid and there was a whole emerging concept of ecotourism globally … It was just a very, undiscovered part of the world,” he said. “There were phenomenal natural resources there and ecotourism was this emerging industry and so I thought I have this scientific background and I’ll get a business degree and then come back and work in this emerging ecotourism industry in southern Africa.”
Margaret grew up in Middle Haddam about a mile from where the couple lives with their two sons. She attended Connecticut College and transferred to New York University where she studied cultural anthropology and art history. A few years later, while managing a field station in Yungaburra, Australia, she received news that she had been accepted to Oxford where she earned a Master of Studies in ethnology and museum ethnology and a PhD in cultural anthropology.
Margaret was a rower but the athletics team at Oxford needed discus throwers for an upcoming varsity match versus University of Cambridge.
“They needed throwers, and I was strong at the time so they recruited me and Pierre was my coach, so he had to teach me how to throw the discus in two weeks,” she laughed. “I decided he was kind of nice so I gave up rowing and transferred over to throwing events in athletics. We became weightlifting partners and the rest of that was history.”
For her field work, Margaret traveled to Madagascar a number of times and Pierre visited her from South Africa.
“I was planning to become a professor of anthropology incorporating history into it and archaeology, so I had a different path in mind. But we started and I knew he was interested in ecotourism and I was certainly interested in the cultural aspects of Africa and so we thought it might be a good match,” she said.
Pierre said it was obvious to both of them that they had a strong connection to Africa.
“We both had an interest in different elements of Africa and we wanted to do something together. We wanted to follow our passions but also do something where we could work together and create something together. And that’s where Classic Africa was born,” he said.
Cost and conservation
The biggest challenge of a safari is traveling to Africa, which can entail 16 or 17 hours of flying time on a direct flight, Pierre said.
“Once on the ground, there are very few challenges particularly because of the types of places that they stay. When you arrive at the airport, someone meets you and from that point you’re hosted every step of the way,” said Pierre. “It’s expensive. You’re paying a lot of money, but you’re very well cared for, you’re very hosted.”
The level of dining is a highlight for many clients, said Pierre.
“The chefs put a real effort into the food and the presentation, the wines. Farm to table is popular right now and especially with safari camps in more remote areas. It’s a much more sophisticated experience that people are expecting. A lot of people have in mind sort of eating over fire, but most of the camps have their own gardens and they have highly trained chefs often with international experience,” he said.
Safaris are expensive, Pierre said, but some of the funds go toward conservation.
“For the governments of Africa, the natural resources are a very valuable asset from which they generate revenue. For the local people, it’s important that the wildlife is a benefit to them because when you’re living alongside things like elephants and lions, it is very hazardous and it’s very difficult to be a farmer adjacent to a wildlife area,” he said. “So it’s important that the animals being there is worth more to the farmer than the animals not being there.”
He said there are a number of stakeholders in support of conservation in African countries and it was important that the local people benefit as well as the government of the country.
“That’s something that we have to help people understand in terms of why safari is so expensive, that there are a lot of constituencies that depend on safari and conservation, and the contribution that your trip is making towards conservation,” he said.
Pierre said he travels twice a year to check on the safari sites.
“For example, in a few weeks, in April, I’ll be heading over to South Africa and Botswana on a reconnaissance trip. It’s important that we have experienced all of the innovations and all the properties because whatever we recommend to our clients, it’s important that we’ve personally experienced it and seen what it’s like so that we can match people to places,” he said.
Before the pandemic, the company worked with about 400 clients a year and business is slowly starting to return.
“Basically, pretty much around this time last April, all the countries of Africa shut down or went into lockdown. They started emerging in July or September. So, from the second half of last year, the countries were open for people who wanted to travel,” he said. “We’ve had a handful of people who have traveled since then.”
The abrupt shutdown last year was difficult and most clients wanted to postpone. This year a handful of new bookings have appeared and the company is now working about two months in advance.
“For the first time since the pandemic began, we have more clients that may want to travel. We’re starting to see that, barring unforeseen circumstances, we’re turning a corner,” he said.
As more people are vaccinated, countries may drop testing requirements, which will make travel between countries in Africa easier.
“Hopefully by the peak of summer season we won’t be dealing with these challenges so much, but right now every time you move from one country to another, you’ve got to get a test,” he said. “It’s definitely an additional complication that we’ve never had to deal with before.”
Education and growth
“Our philosophy with conservation is basically summed up with ‘conservation for education’ so most of the projects that we support are focused on resource research or educating the local people,” said Pierre. “The strategic thinking there is that the more people that recognize the value of wildlife, the more likely they are to protect it.”
The company donates a portion of annual profits to conservation and community projects in Africa, focusing currently on elephant migration in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.
Classic Africa also offers a scholarship program to help high school students in Zimbabwe pay for their education since high school there is not free. In addition, the company funds four annual postgraduate scholarships for African students at Oxford’s Linacre College.
Over the next five or 10 years Pierre said the company will continue to offer the same high quality trips it has been known for since 1999, with some potential for expansion.
“More and more people have heard about the forest becoming a more established type of vacation so I think there is definitely growth potential,” he said.
Margaret said she has worked to create a handmade experience for guests and plans to maintain an individual level of attention to detail.
“We create their travel documents with leather bound books and I’m tying everything up with raffia and using a fountain pen, so everything is curated and has that handmade kind of approach,” she said.
She said she is hoping to stay small and hands-on enough that the client is always dealing with the owner.
“We spend a lot of time with it because attention to detail is extremely important, so everything has to be perfect,” she said.
All photos are courtesy of Classic Africa