I mentioned a while ago that we were going on a Kenyan safari later this year, organised by a lady I have known for decades. Our friendship dates back to when we were both horse-mad 14-year-olds, living in Nairobi.
Our paths and lives diverged ten years later, when we both married. I went to live in England, she stayed in Kenya for some time, and it was about then that we lost touch, too many moves, too many changes of address. I heard Vivien was living in the United States with her new husband, but couldn’t find any way to contact her.
It was thanks to the Internet that we eventually made contact again in 2002. I was reading something about Kenya horse racing, and lo! there was Vivien’s name as a committee member of the Jockey Club of Kenya. She had had a long history as a successful show jumper and winning lady jockey, and thanks to the article I was able to get in touch with her and rekindle our friendship. She was living back in Kenya by then.
In 2004, when we set off with our dogs on a round-France trip which I wrote about in my third book, Travels with Tinkerbelle, it was Vivien who came to look after our animals and house here in France. During the time we spent together, she set me on fire with tales of the Kenyan safaris she was running, but I doubted we’d ever be able to afford to go on one. However, the unexpected happens sometimes, and when we were lucky enough to benefit from a windfall we decided to ‘live for the day’ and treat ourselves.
I asked Vivien how and why she set up her safari business, AsYouLikeItSafaris.
Susie: What first gave you the idea of starting a safari business?
Vivien: Born, raised and educated in Kenya, I love the country, and I love the animals. I was married, with children and living in Connecticut, USA., having emigrated there in 1977. There came a time in 1989 when my then husband suggested I go back to Kenya and get it “out of my system” for a year, on the condition that I worked. Being an airline pilot, he was able to commute. I had a friend who had often asked me to run safaris, so that is the path I chose and have followed for the last 26 years.
Susie: How did you come up with the name of your company?
Vivien: I wanted it to be “classy”, and say exactly who and what we are. A company which customizes safaris for our clients with the emphasis on comfort, quality, safety, adventure and fun. One morning my lawyer called and said, “I am in a company-forming mood. What name do you want?” Without hesitating, it just came to me, “As You Like It…and you better add (Safaris) Ltd”. He asked, “And second choice?” “None, it has to be As You Like It. Shakespeare, class, and specific!”
Susie: What about your staff and back-up team?
Vivien: We started small, and remain small; it is the only way you can give personal attention to each and every person, each and every safari. The core team is Ernest Kamara, my driver guide, who was with Brian Nicholson for 14 years, before I “inherited” him when I bought Brian’s camp; and of course myself, who also learned so much from Brian.
Backing us up on the ground are AYLIS representatives Herman Shadeya and Philemon Ochieng.
Herman is very experienced marketing professional who has travelled widely throughout Africa, the USA and Europe. A trained airline business specialist,he joined the AYLIS team as CEO at a time of intensive restructuring to achieve maximum efficiency in service delivery, as focus shifts to the customer as the employer in our business.
Philemon Ochieng was born, raised and educated in Kenya and has a degree in Tourism Management. Before bringing his expertise in the tourism and wildlife sector to AYLIS he worked in the Kenya National Museums, Kisite Mpunguti Marine reserve and Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Here’s the whole team at work:
Susie: What are the essentials to ensure a successful safari?
Vivien: Above all, driver/guides who can co-ordinate their team work to find the animals. Safety and comfort are paramount, and your driver/guide will make or break your safari. It upsets me to see ignorant drivers, clueless regarding animal behaviour, or operators just in it for the money. I am in this business to share the wonders of this magnificent country and its wildlife with those who dream of a safari, who need to get it right first time and be able to send money to someone they can trust to come through with what is promised.
Susie: When I used to go camping as a child, it was with a huge heavy canvas tent held down with ropes and wooden pegs. The lavatory was a hole dug behind a bush. I think it’s somewhat different now?
Vivien: Very different! Clients demand a high level of hygiene, including flushing loos, comfortable beds, excellent cuisine, plenty of ice, guaranteed security, hot showers, and that is what we provide. You are going to love your 4-day stay at the Little Mara Bush Camp!
Susie: Kenya has had bad press regarding security. What are your views?
Vivien: Political and tribal squabbling is not unique to Kenya. Look at the USA, the Mid-East, Asia. Kenya is the most stable Third World Country in Africa. The people are hard-working, friendly, and just wish to get on with their lives; educating children, feeding families, milking cows, and growing crops. Most of the trouble reported by the media came from Somalia, and was confined to territories far from the “safari circuit.” Somalia has recently confirmed the death of the Al-Shabaab commander, Yusuf Dheeq, in a US drone strike south of Mogadishu. This has helped to return peace and stability to the region.
Susie: Where are you based?
Vivien: At the moment I operate between the United States and a small office in Langata. I go to Kenya to make all bookings personally, organise vehicles and drivers, talk to the lodges, check on road conditions and set up a team to handle ground work while I’m back in the USA. And of course I lead all the safari groups myself.
Susie: Bearing in mind that groups are made up of people from different backgrounds and different countries, what do you think makes a successful blend on safari?
Vivien: A mutual sense of adventure; the patience to observe, and a sensitive tour operator who can shift people around to create a good social mix, so that in the evenings everybody can relax and enjoy the camaraderie of discussing their day while enjoying dinner together.
Susie: Have you any funny stories to share about things that have happened on safari?
Vivien: Many! In about 1992 I was drawn into the late Brian Nicholson’s camp as a caterer. Brian was one of the legendary “White Hunters,” who was Chief Game Warden in Tanzania for 26 years. He always said that no one ever came to his camp and did not see a lion.
One weekend a couple came, and after two days of game drives with Brian had not seen any lions. On their last afternoon, Brian was confident they would find a lion.
We went on our last game drive and towards the end, still no lions. We were heading to the last area where we might find them, near bushes and a ditch. Who the patron saint of “lost things” is I am not sure, but St. Stephen has always answered my prayers. If ever I lose something, it is to him I pray. I said to Brian, “Shall I pray to St. Stephen?” And he nodded sceptically, “Well. If you think it will help.”
So I prayed, “Please, please St Stephen, please let there be a lion when we get round that bush.”
We bumped slowly around the corner, and standing there in all his glory was the biggest, most handsome elephant you could ever see!
Brian, wagged his chin with its rather soft, loose jowls, just like a wildebeest. “I think St Stephen is confused!” he said.
Susie: If you had to choose only one place to visit in Kenya, where would it be?
Vivien: The Maasai Mara Game Reserve. The richest reserve for wildlife in the world. No two game drives are ever alike. You will always see something different, no matter how many times you go out.
Susie: Can you promise me I’ll get to cuddle a real baby elephant?
Vivien: As well as a visit to the Hope Streams Academy, an educational project for deprived children that we promote and support, we will be going to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage. You should have plenty of opportunity to cuddle one or more of the resident elephants like this one.
Susie: I can’t wait!
Susie: What are your other interests when you’re not leading a safari?
Vivien: I love my Welsh Corgi, Pippa and going for walks with her. I love dancing, enjoy cooking, travelling, writing, riding and swimming. I follow the progress of several elephant orphans I “adopt” at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Elephant Orphanage, and am an active supporter of animal rights issues.
Susie: Thank you, Vivien, for your time. I am SO looking forward to our forthcoming safari!