“If you were to go on an African safari and only bring home one picture, what would you want it to be?”
This is the question Tom LaRock, owner of Safari Professionals in Winston-Salem, N.C., asks any potential traveler on first meeting. He plans trips for everyone, from the dedicated adventurist to the tentative traveler, the wildlife enthusiast to the schoolteacher. Every trip is different, custom-made from beginning to end. He operates in seven different countries, including three in East Africa – Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda – and four in Southern Africa – South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia. Each has different secrets to unlock, from the desert to the jungle.
To LaRock, Africa is a passion cultivated since childhood. When he stepped off the plane for the first time onto the continent he had read about for so many years, he felt at home. The pictures came alive. LaRock, 66, and his wife, Elaine, recently celebrated 25 years of leading African safaris and hope for another 25. They have worked to bring that same magical experience to others, taking into account their desires and budgets.
‘SOMETHING TYPICAL TOURISTS DON’T WITNESS’
Carolyn Carlton-Lowe traveled to Kenya with a group of 20 women for 10 days in September 2010. As they drove from the historic Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi to the
William Holden Wildlife Foundation in the bush of Africa, she witnessed a day in the life of Kenyans. She watched women washing clothes in a creek surrounded by an electric fence to protect them from large animals. “It was something I don’t think typical tourists get to witness often,” she says.
Many of the women Carlton-Lowe traveled with were educators, and as they walked through the local school with tin roofs and dirt floors, they realized how much they take for granted. The children and teachers at the school were grateful to be there, despite having few supplies. Carlton-Lowe said it was fulfilling to interact with schoolgirls who were surprised to see so many female attorneys, doctors, lawyers and teachers traveling independently. The experience was so vivid that some of the women still donate to the Holden Foundation.
‘PROFOUND AND ALMOST STARTLING’
But an African safari wouldn’t be complete without animals. Doug Shouse traveled through Kenya and Rwanda in June 2011 with his wife and daughter. They and Carlton-Lowe’s group both stayed at the appropriately named Elephant Bedroom Camp while in Samburu. Carlton-Lowe recalled these surprisingly silent giants visiting this rustic but luxurious camp every night, often going undiscovered until morning.
‘IT IS UNIQUE AND CANNOT BE EXPLAINED’
Beyond the plains where Africa’s “Big Five” – lions, elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards and rhinoceroses – roam lives a giant of a different kind. As Shouse’s family was led deep into the jungles of Virunga National Park, which is over the Rwandan border into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his guide radioed in to the trackers in the field. After two hours of intense hiking, he found himself 10 feet away from a group of 18 gorillas.
“Safety was surprisingly not an issue,” Shouse says. “I was never concerned. Even when the silverback beat his chest I knew it was just a demonstration of his dominance. Our guides really knew what they were doing, so I was never worried. It was just so incredible to be so close, I really didn’t think about anything else.”
Shouse’s family even got to know the primatologists at the Dian Fossey Foundation.
For both Shouse and Carlton-Lowe, witnessing hunts out on the plains was a humbling experience.
Carlton-Lowe recalls watching a lion mother hunt multiple times, with one charge merely a bluff, or a “play kill,” as her guide called it. “Seeing the hunts was profound and almost startling to observe as a ‘civilized’ person,” she says. “It brings you back to what really goes on with our food that we are so out of touch with in cities.”
Shouse’s family toured the Serengeti, also known as “lion country,” where they, too, watched the circle of life. Lions came in to feast on a dead hippo, picking down to the bones and leaving the rest for hyenas and vultures. Nothing goes to waste in the African bush.
“Africa was everything I expected it to be, but at the same time it is unique and cannot be explained. It’s just an adventure you have to experience yourself,” he says. “Tom and his partner organization, Origins Safaris, did an amazing job of planning the perfect African experience.”
As Carlton-Lowe described dancing with Maasai warriors, she said she got to experience so much more than she thought she would. “I wish more Americans would travel to Africa. It truly is an eye-opening experience.
A former intern for Safari Professionals, Tara Easter graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in biological sciences. She’s now spending time in Portland, Ore., and is working toward a career in wildlife conservation, which she hopes will lead her back to Africa.
A HOW-TO ON AFRICAN SAFARIS … AND A DEAL FOR BOOMER READERS
Tom LaRock’s Safari Professionals, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been custom-tailoring African safaris for 25 years.
A few details if you want to plan a trip:
-Each safari is customized to meet the personal needs, interests and expectations of travelers. In addition, LaRock says, a personalized safari is often a better value than pre-determined safaris offered by other companies, who must fulfill occupancy agreements with their suppliers in Africa.
-Costs vary, based on length of stay, season, location, accommodations and number in party. Most travelers pay between $500 and $1,000 a night per person, double occupancy, LaRock says. Air travel usually costs between $1,300 and $2,200.
-Safari Professionals charges each person a$400 planning fee, credited toward the safari price.
-However, the company has agreed to cut the fee to $200 for BOOMER readers mentioning this article.
-Most safaris are designed eight to 12 months before departure date, though last-minute travelers can be accommodated, as well.
-Accommodations are usually in permanent-tented camps and lodges located close to scenic beauty and wildlife. They have electricity, complete bathroom facilities and, in many cases, Wi-Fi. “Think of the permanent camps as having private 3-, 4- and 5-star hotel accommodations with canvas walls,” LaRock says. Travelers are given local contact information should they have questions or need immediate assistance.
For more on Safari Professionals, call 800-779-2146 or visit Safariprofessionals.com.
— BY TARA EASTER —
— PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY OF TOM LaROCK, SAFARI PROFESSIONALS —