Hailing from southern Africa but now living in Devon, husband and wife team Trish and John Berry formed Zambezi Safari & Travel Company some 21 years ago. Phil Clisby discovers their story
What was it like growing up in Africa?
Trish: Free, organic, warm, sunny, no shoes on my feet and always having a lot of adventures along with my two brothers and friends. Rhino were everywhere you looked in those days and elephant used to raid our campsites for oranges.
John: Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, we had big blue skies, wide spaces, freedom to play, get scratched and dirty – simply tremendous fun. Boys and girls used to grow up quickly in southern Africa in the 70s and 80s, assuming responsibilities early on. Many of us never quite grew up, though, preferring to work like captains and play like pirates.
How did you two meet?
Trish: I was 17 and studying in Durban. We went out on a blind date arranged between our two faculties. John was dressed as a monk with a full-face mask, so I didn’t actually know what he looked like until a day or two later.
John: I met this amazing creature having tea between lectures. She was wearing shorts made from an old army mattress cover and preferred bare feet. Trish showed me her family farm in Zim a year later and that sealed the future.
What inspired you to get into the travel industry?
Trish: We moved to Lake Kariba to join my parents’ engineering firm in 1995 but soon realised Zimbabwe had a great safari industry – and we wanted to be a part of it. At the same time the Internet was starting up, and John registered www.zambezi.com and built a website on a dial-up phone line. John held a talk to tell the local Kariba people about emails and websites. Most thought he was mad, but two of them approached us to partner with them in their two safari camps. We started marketing the camps, combined with Victoria Falls and the Lower Zambezi, and from there we expanded until we were selling safaris to Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We performed the first-ever online credit card transaction in Zim and owned an email server that lived at the bottom of our bed, which serviced the Zambezi Valley safari camps. It used to click and clack all night, drowning out the sounds of the bush.
What is your favourite place in Africa?
Trish: Zimbabwe will always be close to our hearts, but Zambia comes a close second. Then there’s the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, Mahale Mountains in Tanzania, the Lower Zambezi. How long have you got?
John: Katavi, just after the biggest, wildest storm sometime in November.
What’s on your bucket list?
Trish: The Danakil Depression on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border springs to mind, along with Chad.
What has been your best experience?
John: Being a silent guest around a Himba elder’s fire, hearing his people’s life story. His simple and uncomplicated life had truly connected him to the land.
What has been you most memorable safari encounter?
Trish: We did a three-day walking transect of the Loango rainforest in Gabon looking for new places for our clients to travel to. It was tough going, with a scarcity of food and water after the guide left our supplies on the transfer boat. A truly unforgettable, unique adventure. Only 20-odd Europeans have ever made the same journey.
Any amusing incidents?
John: Listening to a kid visiting the Luangwa explain why the guys in camp were so much better than her mom and dad and everybody at home. Then mom asked if the Victoria Falls were turned on at night or do we only do that in day time. I think the kid was right.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
Trish: We never get tired of sharing our passion for Africa and hearing how much our clients have enjoyed the experiences we’ve sent them on.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Trish: Being behind a computer when we could be outdoors.
What particular challenges have you faced?
John: Political chaos in Zimbabwe in 2000 forced us to move the business to the UK at very short notice. We lost 70 per cent of our business in four months. It taught us to spread our wings elsewhere: into East, Central and southern Africa. Our team now operates in 21 countries across Africa.