We talked to the co-founder and managing director of Sun Destinations about his life and how he set up his business
t was while living in Dublin that Brett Thomson had the idea to start a tour operating company. Raised in KwaZulu-Natal, he had travelled to the UK after finishing university, where he worked in finance, firstly in London, before relocating to the Republic of Ireland. Originally devised to sell golf safaris, he set up Sun Safaris in 2002, running it in his spare time – often working into the early hours – while holding down a full-time job.
“I was living in Ireland and the Irish love golf, and South Africa was a very hot destination at the time,” says Brett, who is a keen golfer himself.
But it wasn’t until 2005 that “things started happening”, he says. The call to return home became strong and he headed back to Cape Town to run Sun Safaris full time – and the business really took off.
Three years later, together with Courteney and Cecilia Blunden (owners of Africa on Foot, a bush camp in Kruger), he set up Sun Destinations, a company that handles the marketing and reservations for a portfolio of camps and lodges.
Initially, a shareholder in Africa on Foot, Brett recalls how the idea came about. “Our neighbours asked us to open and run a camp for them and, hence, nThambo Tree Camp was born. In addition, in a personal capacity, I was handling the marketing and reservations for Umkumbe Safari Lodge in the Sabi Sand. Together we decided to bring all the camps under one marketing and reservations banner and, as a result, Sun Destinations was created.”
Over the past nine years the company has added a few more Kruger properties to its portfolio and has also spread its wings into neighbouring Botswana. “From the beginning, we have always been very keen to be associated with affordable bush camps, but yet still deliver a first-class safari experience,” says Brett. “We seek out camps and lodges offering something different to the standard safari experience.”
But it’s not just the properties that are important. There is another key factor in the equation: “We are also a very small, tight-knit team that really enjoys each other’s company, as well as being genuinely passionate about the bush. This is reflected in our work, where each person feels that this is ‘their company’ and takes ownership of their individual role,” he explains.
“Our company ethos is that we are all family orientated and authentic people, which is also reflected in the atmosphere at our camps. We really don’t mind getting up for work on a Monday!”
The organisation’s primary fields of operation centre on South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Botswana. “My first opportunity to be involved in a safari camp was when I met Courteney and Cecilia, who had recently opened Africa on Foot. So that is how the Kruger camps started. As for Botswana, in my agent capacity with Sun Safaris, I had sold the country as a destination (as well as visited it). So, I guess, I was confident in marketing camps in these two destinations because I understood how they were sold.
“But in terms of appeal, I love the high-octane predator sightings that the Kruger offers and then the pure wilderness of Botswana. Tuskers Bush Camp in the Kwatale Conservancy, for example, is 365,000 hectares. That’s five times the size of the Sabi Sand and there is only one camp. That’s proper wilderness!”
While Kruger is renowned for great-value safaris, Botswana is considered to be one of the most expensive destinations for a safari, which would seem to conflict with a vision of offering affordable bush camps. “From my experience in Botswana, the costs of running a camp there are significantly higher than what they are in, for example, the Kruger,” Brett explains. “Obviously, the government of Botswana has also focused on low volume and high cost in order to protect the environment. But there are plenty of affordable options – you just have to look a little deeper as opposed to at the traditional well-known brands out there. There are also overland mobile camping options to be found at decent rates.”
He adds: “There are many local Botswana guides that offer good value, so people wanting to visit, who have not won the lottery, just need to spend more time looking for the affordable options – they do exist.”
Well travelled, himself, Brett has taken in the delights of Mexico, Brazil and Europe, picking out Rome as a particular highlight. But southern Africa is where his heart is. “I have travelled to all the major parks in southern Africa and, to be honest, it is too difficult to single out one destination [as my favourite] because they all have something unique about them. I could perhaps offer my top three: these would be Kruger, Mana Pools and Hwange. I tend to enjoy the drier scenery in the bush and I am determined to live in a private Kruger reserve when my children are out of school. I just need to convince my wife!”
The Sun Destinations www.sundestinations.co.za portfolio represents some of southern Africa’s most coveted, yet preserved wildlife areas, with a careful selection of authentic bush camps and safari lodges.