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« Sleepless in Switzerland | Main | Sty in the New Forest »

Kenya cowboy

Geoffrey Kent is the founder of Abercrombie & Kent, the bespoke experience-led holiday company, which turns 50 this year. He talks to Douglas Blyde about motorbikes, bonobo monkeys and inventing the elephant hair bracelet…

Dinner by Abercrombie & KentI invented the elephant-hair bracelet aged 16. With my earnings, I bought a Triumph Speed Twin and a Steyr-Daimler-Puch. But motorbikes weren’t allowed by my school, and they threw me out. I was studying Arabic, with a scholarship to Brasenose, Oxford; my father had me down for Shell. Instead, I became the first person to ride from Nairobi to Cape Town. It took one day to plan, but nearly four months to enact.

My furious father wouldn’t give me the money to return, so I sold my story to the Cape Argus for the boat back. When I arrived, triumphantly, at Mombasa, my father carted me to the Mombasa Club, ordered a pink gin, and told me that in two weeks I’d be going somewhere that would cure me forever: The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.

Safari adventure with Abercrombie & KentWhile at Sandhurst, I went to North Yemen, Aden, Bahrain, Oman and Libya, where I became Assistant Division Commander to Major General John Frost, the hero portrayed in A Bridge Too Far. He taught me to do things perfectly with ‘great taste and style’, like the expedition to Kufra Oasis. We had to have ice, so I worked out how to bring it into the desert.

I founded Abercrombie & Kent with my parents when Harold Macmillan gave his great speech about the ‘winds of change’, signalling Kenya’s return to Africa. My generation lost our farms and needed to start anew. I made up ‘Abercrombie’ to ensure I’d be at the front of the Yellow Pages. It also sounded grand (and I could always blame ‘Abercrombie’ if things went wrong!) The concept was simple: we’d bring ice and fine foods to a mobile camp. Instead of hunting with a rifle, guests would shoot with a camera.

Geoff Kent, founder of Abercrombie & KentI opened a tiny office at The Grand, Trafalgar Square right above the Kenya Tourist Office. I told them to send people up, where my guides could impart knowledge and sell them a safari. Then we opened in the States. Americans seemed scared of everything! I wrote in my diary: ‘The most dangerous thing an American does is run an amber light going to work’. But they loved adventure, so I put in logistics to take the danger out – build a ship or put in an airstrip. Our holidays spread to Antarctica, China, Southern Sudan, and Ethiopia.

This year marks our 50th year. We have 50 offices and 2,300 employees. Not bad for an army educated, Kenya cowboy! I never let my people go, like an elephant herd. I still travel 300 days a year, a fearless pioneer looking for the next opportunity. Despite the bullets, I went to explore Juba in South Sudan five weeks ago.

My next project concerns man’s nearest relative, the bonobo monkey. Bonobos share 98.6 per cent of our DNA. Few have seen these great apes, deep in the Congo. I’ve sent wildlife filmmaker and old friend Alan Root, to find them. Unlike aggressive humans, they’re peace-loving, free-loving, friendly hippies. The Congo’s not quite Hyde Park; we’ll work out how to put in an airstrip, fly in a camp (including an ice machine), then take our first clients…