In the early 1980s, Mark Nolting was a young man who wanted to travel. He went to Africa, stayed for a time, did some writing. He met Alison, from Zimbabwe, who would become his wife. And he started to come up with a plan.
More than three decades later, and you could say Nolting has figured out what he wants to do with his life. Established in 1986, the Africa Adventure Company is today based in Fort Lauderdale but brings people from around the U.S. to Africa and provides them with information on their journey. The company’s a one-stop shop for African travel. There’s the travel book Africa’s Top Wildlife Countries, currently in its ninth edition. There’s the African Safari Field Guide. There are maps. And at the heart of it all, there are the safaris. Fully planned and coordinated with teams across the continent, they offer trips to at least 14 countries in Africa, with more frequently added. Their glossy safari planner includes options such as the “16-Day Galloping Gnus Safari to Kenya and Tanzania,” the “11-Day AAC Plains and Primates Safari to Kenya and Rwanda” and the “16-Day Iconic Visions Safari to Southern Africa.” And those are just a few of the suggested safari programs. Prospective travelers fill out a substantial questionnaire; bespoke travel plans are also on offer.
Mark Nolting believes his business offers clients something that’s getting harder and harder to find. The world has in so many ways become smaller and more attainable. More manageable. More paved. That’s great in many ways, but not all.
“There’s very few places in the world,” Mark Nolting says, “where you can go and have an adventure.”
But creating adventures is the Nolting family business. Miles Nolting, the older of Mark and Alison’s sons, recently joined the company; earlier this year he was in Ethiopia scouting locations and meeting potential partners for potential new destinations. But he’s been preparing for a career in African travel for some time. “My first safari, I was 18 months old,” he says. “And my brother was even younger than that.”
Non-Noltings might not be as quick to sign up babies and toddlers for safaris, but the Africa Adventure Company deals with all sorts of clients. People who first traveled with the Noltings years ago now come back with their children and grandchildren. Their business model has never been based much on advertising – this is a word-of-mouth-based, repeat and referral business.
They also see themselves as being in the education business, in a way. People have worries. Travel to, say, Botswana can be complicated in a way that a 10-day coach trip to European capitals is not.
“This is a big component of our role – we provide information so that people know what they’re getting into,” Miles Nolting says. “It takes a lot for people to get encouraged to go somewhere and not much to get discouraged.”
Once travelers hit the ground in Africa, they’re with local guides and service providers, most of whom the company has worked with for years. It’s a sustainable, job-creating situation for local communities, which is something the Noltings care about. Tourism and conservation also go hand-in-hand as a thriving tourism industry requires a cared-for natural world.
“Tourism is the engine that drives conservation,” Nolting says. “That’s where the heart is for a lot of the people we work with. If you don’t do this, it could be gone in a snap.”
And practically speaking, that relationship with locals means travelers get knowledgeable, on-the-ground help and guides. Just because something’s an adventure doesn’t mean the logistics can’t be taken care of.
Over the years, the Noltings have also heard plenty of variations on the “Is it safe?” question. Again, they try to educate.
This is a vast continent filled with vast countries and often, people’s concerns based on troubles they’ve heard about is tantamount to not wanting to visit Yellowstone because you’ve heard parts of Los Angeles are dangerous. Beyond that, well-publicized “dangers” are often not dangers that are actually going to appear before the average traveler. Mark Nolting gets that if someone has read about, say, the Ebola virus, a place where it exists might not be the first destination on your travel calendar. “Well, to get Ebola,” he says, “you’ve got to walk into a village where they have it, walk up to someone who has it, then hug them and kiss them.”
Beyond that, this is another area where local knowledge comes in handy. There are some real risks, not least because on safari you’re out in actual wild nature, not a theme park. You want guides who know their stuff. And experienced guides do know what they need to, including when situations with the local wildlife are potentially hazardous. “You don’t have an opportunity to get in trouble,” Mark Nolting says. Adventures are never entirely risk-free, but local knowledge goes a long way towards mitigating risk. The company is always straightforward about what various trips involve.
Over the years, Mark Nolting has heard from plenty of people who want to plan the “trip of a lifetime.” He’s helped create itineraries for people who think they’re doing their big, once-in-a-lifetime trip to Africa. However he also finds that once they’ve gone one time, that “once-in-a-lifetime” stuff gets replaced by questions about what other trips there are. It’s an experience that gets in the blood.
“Before people go, they don’t really get what it means,” Mark Nolting says. “Once they’ve been, they get the big picture. You’ve got to be there – you’ve got to smell the smells, hear the sounds, have the adventure.”