Carrie Hampton meets the tourism entrepreneur
character like Brett McDonald comes along in only six per cent of the population. But I knew he was a maverick of the safari industry long before the Jungian personality test he took (as a bit of fun) revealed as much.
While the dictionary defines a maverick as an unorthodox or independent-minded person, the test sums him up as a risk-taker with the potential to get himself into dangerous situations, because he’s too eager to push the envelope without applying judgment.
“This means I basically go around creating chaos!” he laughs.
From this ‘chaos’ he has created 14 tourism products in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and previously Uganda and South Africa. All are somehow associated with water: houseboats, floating restaurants, day-trip cruisers, transfers and logistics, or luxury riverfront safari lodges.
Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe and the Chobe-Zambezi river confluence (where Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Botswana meet), is Brett’s main territory. And within this watery realm Brett dreams up his new projects, plunging in, he admits, without fear of failure or the common sense to see his shortcomings.
“It’s bloody-minded determination and stubbornness that gets me to the end of a project.”
The personality profile says that “Ingenuity helps this type of person achieve a high degree of success at anything which interests them. However, they get bored easily and place no importance on detailed, maintenance-type tasks.”
Brett laughs again, acknowledging, “I’m in the business of creating not operating. I hate the mundane – don’t ask me to make sure the bills get paid!”
Take the Zambezi Queen houseboat (pictured above) cruising the Chobe River, or Chobe Water Villas lodge on the Namibian banks of the same river (pictured below), both of which he imagined, built and saw to fruition, but once completed left them to his business partners to run.
Luckily, he has a very efficient manager running his tour operating business Flame of Africa, and at home in Kasane, Botswana, his wife Jacqui is the calming influence by his side. “She must have the patience of a saint,” he confesses.
The nature of these things means projects don’t always go to plan; like in 2017 when his 33-metre long, 8-metre wide houseboat African Dream was transported atop a huge lorry from Harare to Botswana to cruise the Chobe River, but was refused entry. Not a fan of bureaucracy, he simply had the lorry turn around and make its way to Lake Kariba, where the African Dream now cruises out of Kariba Town.
Chatting to Brett is like being caught up in a whirlwind, because his mind leaps from one topic to another and one story to the next. Like how he had to dive beneath a hovercraft in Lake Kariba’s crocodile-infested waters to fix a hole, or how a game capture helicopter he was in crash-landed, or when the speed boat engine failed on a trial run to navigate some huge Zambezi rapids and they went spiralling down backwards.
He was hit by a train in his Combi camper (don’t ask!) and hit by a bus while on a motorbike (smashing his hand, so he can’t play guitar any more).
Clearly Brett’s a survivor. He might have had an even closer shave with death if he’d been at home in his Harare Safari Lodge in 2000 instead of visiting Cape Town, when Zimbabwean war veterans claimed they would “hang him by his feet and cut off his head with an axe.” They took his farm, and he lost everything overnight.
His is a rags to riches story, rooted in a happy but disruptive childhood moving frequently between Zimbabwe and South Africa. “As a teenager we lived in a caravan park with a swimming pool and mini-golf and I thought how sad it was that other kids only got to come on holiday here once a year. I didn’t realise we lived in a caravan because we were so poor.”
It’s this sense of optimism that has shaped Brett’s outlook on life.
As a big-picture kind of man he’s a concerned supporter of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) concept, which he says holds the future of the region in its hands. He’s all for more action and less talk to get the wildlife corridors and tourism UniVisa fully established to open up free movement for both, but the bureaucratic nature of KAZA drives him mad.
Having recently launched the Chobe Explorer day cruiser and with another luxury houseboat, the Zimbabwe Dream, taking to the waters of Lake Kariba in late 2019, what’s left to do?
Brett says he’s only got one more big project in him and that it will be his last grand gesture. “I’m in pursuit of excellence and it hasn’t happened yet,” he says.
Having visited most of his safari lodges and houseboats, I point out that they are already top quality. “Yes, they’re good,” he says, “but they are not perfect.”
What’s this last defining project to be, I ask? “I’ll know it when I see it,” Brett says with a grin, “and I’ll do it alone!” True to type, his personality test has him summed up: “an enthusiastic, charming, risk-taker, living in a world of possibilities, with a strong need to be independent and a great resistance to being controlled.”
I look forward to seeing what Brett McDonald’s last great gesture will be, but my guess is he will still slip in a couple more projects before the grand finale comes along!