Meet Jim O’Brien

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We find out how the founder of Native Eye developed his passion for exploring off-the-beaten-track places. By Phil Clisby

The travel bug bit Jim O’Brien as a young child, when a schoolteacher introduced him to the books of Willard Price, in which a couple of teenagers travel the world collecting animals for their father’s zoo.

“It sounded exotic,” says Jim, “and I’d always been interested in wildlife as well.”

While this passion may have waned during his teenage years, “it always stayed with me”, he says, “and when I left university that curiosity about the world began to reassert itself.”

He first headed to Africa 20-odd years ago on, he sheepishly admits, a package holiday to The Gambia. But his love for Africa was piqued. “I knew The Gambia wasn’t representative of [Africa] and I wanted to see more.”

Subsequent trips to West and North Africa saw him fall into the travel industry, initially working as a tour leader to the likes of Egypt, Morocco and the subcontinent, before settling into more office-based roles for a couple of tour operators.

But with an overwhelming passion for getting well off the beaten track, Jim decided to “pursue my own interests” and, in 2013, set up his own company, Native Eye.

A love of chaos
When we talk, he has just returned from an inaugural trip to the Congo. The quest for more adventurous destinations is evident in the excited tone of his voice. “I like the mess and chaos of places like that,” he enthuses.

Jim thrives on exploring lesser-known corners of the world where, he says, “there aren’t so many tourists or well-established tourist trails, and where you can see traditional culture at its best – Africa is still a place that you can do that.”

In seeking out new destinations to offer, Jim, together with his local partners, will recce a place, establish relationships with local tribes and gradually work out what is feasible as a travel experience.

“A good example is the Wodaabe people in Chad,” he explains. “Every year we take a group to the Gerewol Festival. We established a relationship with the sultan of the Wodaabe in that area and he is happy for us to come and visit during the festival.

“It is just ourselves that are going there – 20 to 30 people as opposed to 200 to 300. We’re massively outnumbered by the Wodaabe, but we fit in quite nicely and don’t feel like intruders.”

Conscious of the impact that visiting seldom-seen places can have, Jim emphasises that “it’s important not to flood them with visitors”.

It’s these well off-the-beaten-track, small group tours that Native Eye specialises in, taking travellers to places that larger operators wouldn’t consider because the numbers, for them, don’t stack up and because of the difficulty in arranging such trips.

But this doesn’t deter Jim. “It demands a lot of suffering and a lot of hard work,” he laughs. “But the rewards are massive.”

Raving about Africa
His affection for the continent is clearly evident. “I love Africa because of its juxtapositions – you can see everything there,” he says. “You can see the best and the worst, you can see all of human nature, the landscapes are incredibly diverse, there’s always going to be something that surprises you and, if you travel with the right frame of mind, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

With a chuckle, he adds: “They have ways of doing things that make no sense to us. I find that quite entertaining.”

Chad is Jim’s standout country. “I fell in love with the deserts,” he says. “There’s a really wild, untamed feel to it – there are no roads and a scattered, semi-nomadic population. You get a sense of exploration there that is difficult to find anywhere else these days.”

It is this desire to truly get under Africa’s skin that can throw up the most incredible experiences. On a trip to southern Cameroon, Jim attended a Bwiti ceremony.

“The whole village came out for it,” he recalls. “They had this sort of temple set up and all of the villagers were dressed in white and red robes and they’d painted their faces white. They lit fires in the temple and they took this psychoactive root and there was drumming, swaying, dancing and singing all night long – it was the closest thing to a rave I’d been to since I was 16.”

But, as with any traditional happening, there was a purpose to it. “It was all part of a healing ceremony for a young girl that they said was possessed by spirits. At the end of it, they laid her down in this specially prepared depression in the ground, lined with herbs, and then they disemboweled a goat over her.”

Only in Africa, one feels. “Africa is by far the most exciting continent there is – it’s got everything,” he concludes.

Native Eye specialises in small group adventure tours and tailormade trips to unusual destinations and traditional, often tribal, cultures.

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