SMOKESILVER TRAVEL / AUTUMN/WINTER 2016 / ISSUE FIVE / NOTES MAGAZINE
Simon Wilson Stephens was 25 and working for Merrill Lynch in London when he was asked to get involved with building a safari lodge in Uganda.
This is his story
Simon, tell us a little bit about yourself – background, education, work history
When I was only 3 years old there is photo of me camping at the top of the stairs with my teddy bear – I was always looking for adventures despite being brought up in Hertfordshire, just outside London. I was extremely fortunate to have a private education where I was taught geography and geology by a wonderful man called Dave Fielding – he inspired me to look at both the physical and human world surrounding us, especially beyond these shores, and discover how things happen and for what reason.
You clearly have a passion for Africa – how did the love affair begin?
In September 1995 I was working at Merrill Lynch in London and decided I wasn’t cut out for The City. I decided I wanted to live abroad and work outside. A friend of mine who was brought up in East Africa was passing through the UK. We were playing golf in Norfolk when he asked me ‘do you want to come and build a safari lodge in Uganda?’ I said ‘yes’ and was on a plane 6 weeks later to Africa.
What made you decide to make a living out of sharing your passion with others?
For over 20 years I’ve been fortunate enough to live, travel and work in the Africa Travel Industry. I’m passionate about Africa and have always wanted to encourage people to go there and see for themselves what an extraordinary continent it is. Africa is the last remaining continent where you can see such a variety of spectacular wildlife. If we are to help conserve these animals we need to encourage tourism to these countries. Without tourism there is no income generated for conservation and very little incentive for local people to protect their wildlife.
You live in and operate from a village in North Norfolk – is this your home area or did you choose to settle here?
I was born in London, brought up in Hertfordshire, but have always visited Norfolk at weekends and on holiday as it’s where my father comes from. In a way it’s my spiritual home and with modern communications as a travel company we can be based pretty much anywhere in the UK.
Do you find any parallels between North Norfolk and Africa?
Definitely. Both have big blue skies, wide open horizons and at times can be both wild and wonderful.
Do you think of Smokesilver as a holiday company, travel agent, event organiser, or something different?
We’re classified as a tour operator as we are ATOL bonded and design bespoke itineraries for people that can include every detail of our clients' holidays. The international and domestic flights, all transfers, accommodation, guides, special events etc… But we like to call ourselves Africa Travel Specialists. We work with safari companies in Africa that know their countries or specific destinations like the back of their hands. It’s remarkable what they can make happen out in the middle of nowhere in Africa.
Where does the name Smokesilver come from?
A Smokesilver is a 16th Century Silver Coin. Landlords used to make their tenants supply firewood to them in return for lodgings. Then a coin replaced the firewood for payments of rent and it was called Smokesilver.
Give us an idea of the range of trips you organise.
The trips we design to Africa vary enormously as there’s so much choice now in Africa when it comes to safaris. Like an architect we start with a blank sheet of paper and then gradually having spoken in detail with our clients, build an itinerary which we think will suit their interests, style of travel and of course budget. From honeymoon couples, family groups with several generations travelling to Africa old hands. Going on traditional safaris to see the migration in East Africa, Victoria Falls & the Okavango Delta to more adventurous walking safaris and specialised safaris where you can ride for days on horseback, canoe down the Zambezi or swim with dolphins in Mozambique. ››
Do you have a typical client, or a wildly differing clientele?
Our clients vary enormously from people travelling to Africa for the first time to clients who come back to us regularly and ask for specific types of safaris. For example we have a father and son who travel every year to Africa for a week's motorbike safari heading out into remote off road wilderness areas with specialist motorbike guides. One of the common characteristics is that many of our clients have a genuine interest in wildlife and community conservation. As well as seeing the animals in their natural environment they are interested in learning how the wilderness areas are protected.
Do you think you can organise something for everyone or do you have to be a particular type of person to enjoy a Smokesilver experience?
We take pride in the fact that we know Africa like the back of our hands and can tailor trips to fit a clients needs and wishes. Inevitably the budget can be a constraint on whether we can recommend an itinerary but we’ll always point the person to an alternative choice where we know they’ll be well looked after.
Do you cater for people of all ages and abilities?
We’ve arranged safaris for families with children aged as young as 5 to adults in their 80s. In fact on several occasions we’ve arranged trips for families with 3 generations travelling. The key is for people to have an open mind about travelling to Africa and then us sending them to the most appropriate destinations and lodges. If people are looking for a specific activity, say horse riding, we take great care in ensuring they go on a trip that matches their experience and ability.
What is the accommodation like on your trips? I know some people who would be concerned that rather too much roughing it is involved.
This is the most common initial questions we get from people who are new to travelling to Africa. The safaris we organise are all to lodges and camps that have comfortable beds, en-suite bathrooms with hot and cold running water, flush loos, exquisite food and levels of service that goes way beyond the hotels you stay in in Europe. People return astonished at the comfort levels and friendliness of the staff that they have been looked after by.
What about someone who thinks they know the country quite well?
There’s nothing more fulfilling than sitting down with a client who’s travelled with us on several occasions and them asking us “Where do you recommend we go next?” There are so many extraordinary wildlife destinations in Africa to choose from. But it’s exciting when we start talking about visiting countries like Uganda to see the rare Mountain Gorillas, Zambia to go on a walking safari, Ethiopia to trek in the Simien Mountains or go on a mobile sea kayaking safari down the Indian Ocean coastline in northern Mozambique.
If you were organising a trip for yourself, where would it be and what would it involve?
If I was only allowed one more trip to Africa (which I hope never arises) I’d have to spin a coin between (a) heading back to Semliki Wildlife Reserve in Uganda where I lived and worked for 4 years to walk with the wild chimpanzees there or (b) go on a safari to Katavi National Park in western Tanzania ending up on the shores of Lake Tanganyika at Mahale National Park which has the most peaceful freshwater beach I know. ››
What for you are the primary reasons for visiting Africa?
To get away from the rat race here in the UK and spend time in the world’s most natural wilderness – the African Bush. I haven’t come across an environment anywhere else where you feel so connected to your natural surroundings. You feel totally ‘down to earth’. With local people who are extraordinarily kind and passionate about their neighbourhoods. Whether that’s a village on the edge of the Masai Mara or a remote coastal location.
Would you consider emigrating permanently to Africa?
I’ve lived in Uganda for 4 years. I’ve done a 6-month expedition by bicycle and kayak retracing one of the explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s routes across East Africa. 3 years ago I spent a year running an eco-lodge in Kenya. Now that I have 2 small children my wife, Juliane and I have decided to be in the UK for the time being running Smokesilver from here, but who knows what may happen in the future. We may return one day to live there if the right opportunity arises. I didn’t grow up in Africa but I have many friends who have brought up their children in Africa. Despite perceptions children have a much greater sense of freedom growing up in Africa than they do back here in the UK & Europe. So who knows we may head back out there at some stage. I’m a great believer in keeping the door open.
What are your three travel essentials?
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