Understanding the Real Africa: A Conversation with Brad Hansen
I love conversing with GeoEx’s trip leaders. Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Bill Jones, who leads GeoEx trips to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria; trekker extraordinaire Bart Jordans, who has been leading GeoEx trips to Bhutan since 2000; and photographer and Himalaya expert Manoj Sharma, who leads our trips to mystical Ladakh. These conversations are precious and inspiring; they always recharge my wanderlust with a renewed sense of our planet’s varied riches and wonders.
Most recently, I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing renowned Africa explorer and leader Brad Hansen. South Africa-born Brad spent his youth in the wild. After studying agriculture in university, his sense of adventure led him to the conservation-oriented Field Guides Association of Southern Africa and a decade-long career in guiding and tracking. He has since guided across the entire African continent. For GeoEx, he will be leading upcoming trips to Chad, Congo and CAR, and Tanzania.
Brad’s vast experience has resulted in his working on a number of extraordinary expeditions, including a trek to the Great Rift Valley, which covered the geographic trench from start to finish; the world’s first circumnavigation of Africa by Land Rover, a journey that covered 34,000 miles; and other world’s-first adventures that he recounts in our conversation.
I hope you enjoy our interview!
Don George: When and how did you decide to become a trip leader?
Brad Hansen: It began with me taking family holidays to the bush when I was as young as I can remember. I always wanted to sit next to the guide and hold the spotlight, and I hung onto his every word. Kids grow up with all sorts of ideas for their future careers; some want to be a fireman, policeman, astronaut, sportsman, etc. I just knew that I wanted to spend time in the bush and share in something that I found to be nothing short of extraordinary; I wanted to be like that guide who inspired me on my first holidays.
That’s a fantastic childhood dream! What motivated you to take the steps to make that your career?
We all know it’s not easy to take the decision to follow your dreams. One has to be brave and step out of their comfort zone and, simply put, TAKE THE CHANCE! I was lucky to have two great mentors: One of them showed me the life I wanted to follow, and the other coaxed me into taking that chance.
Before I took the chance, I had a house, car, and job with brilliant growth potential. When I made the decision, all my colleagues and friends commented on how lucky I was to be headed to the wilds of Tanzania, spending all that time in the infamous Serengeti. But then I realized that it’s not luck, and someone calling it luck undermines the bravery it takes to make a decision like that and follow your dream.
It wasn’t easy to leave my comfort zone—but people made it sound like it was going to be easy and that it had been handed to me. The best things in life are earned, and I want to encourage people that if there is something that you’d like to do, then be brave and step out of your comfort zone–life is too short to sit back and wait for your dreams to come true. You have to make them come true.
I agree with this 150 percent! After you made this decision, how did you gain experience as a trip leader, and where have you have led trips and for how many years?
It all started in 2004 and I have never looked back. I did the usual studies to pursue a career as a guide in Africa, but I was always jealous of the guys who had the experience, because textbook knowledge is one thing, but there is no substitute for time in the field. At the end of the day, the animals don’t read the same books as me. It’s a great feeling to know that I have put in that time now, but I am under no illusions—I still learn every single day!
In terms of places and countries, there are a lot and I don’t want to rattle off a list of countries, but I count myself lucky to say that I have spent a lot of time in southern, eastern, central, and northern Africa. In addition to that, I have the great privilege of having been and still being a member of a small group of explorers that has been led by Kingsley Holgate for the past 18 years. Kingsley is Africa’s most traveled man—he has explored each of Africa’s 54 countries.
He took me under his wing (or rather, very large gray beard) and made me part of the team, and over the years we as a team have managed to explore Africa in ways I could never have imagined, with world’s-first adventures such as a journey to the geographic center of the continent deep in the Congo Basin rain forest, a circumnavigation of the continent by Land Rover following the outside edge, and many other wonderful journeys of discovery.
That sounds exhilarating, and it’s also excellent preparation for leading trips throughout Africa. To your mind, what are the qualities of a great trip leader?
Well, a great trip leader has to have passion and curiosity, but those aren’t all! People have this idea that if you’re a wildlife guide, you need to have this vast knowledge of the land, fauna, and flora. That is absolutely true, but if you don’t have a love for people and a genuine interest in listening to them, then you might as well send guests on safari with a robot that simply recites the scientific names of animals and trees. A great trip leader, a great wildlife guide, has to love people as well as nature.
I love that! What are your goals in showing your travelers the places you love?
I am so proud of and passionate about Africa and I just want people to see her and understand her. This is not just about looking at all the pretty things because we must never forget that Africa is an absolute dichotomy—it’s all good and all bad wrapped into one mysterious enigma. My goal is to help you understand and see Africa, the real Africa. We think that in these modern times, the age of discovery is over—but that is not the case! I don’t care how many times you come to Africa, you will be surprised, you will learn and discover something every day, no matter how much time you spend here. It’s my goal to help you see that.
That’s wonderful! And it leads me to ask a corollary question: For you, what are the rewards of leading trips?
I am a sucker and frankly a big softy! I can act tough all I like, but I can’t stop myself from tearing up when I show someone something for the first time and hear and see their reactions. It makes me personally very emotional. I have to admit there are so many moments on trips that I have to take deep breaths, stare at the horizon, and compose myself, because I get completely choked up when I see the joy that people take out of new discoveries. It is my greatest privilege to experience this with so many travelers.
What’s a favorite story that shows the effect a good trip leader can have on a trip?
I am going to answer this as if it was my story—it’s just easier to tell it that way—but please keep in mind that this is not my story, but rather the story of another guide. However, I will never forget the message of how much responsibility we have as trip leaders:
Leading a group where a particular guest seemed rather withdrawn and emotional, I was naturally worried and asked myself: Was I doing something wrong, was the person on the wrong trip, what could I do? All these questions continued in my mind as the guest seemed so distant, no matter how much I tried to engage. I decided to give the person space but assured the guest that I was there if there was anything that I could do. Toward the end of the trip, this guest shared with me that due to financial restraints (as a result of the recession), this guest’s life partner could not join the trip that they had saved for over many years and that had been their dream trip to take together. Instead of canceling the trip, the guest’s partner had enjoined him/her to take the trip, make notes, and live the dream and adventure for them both.
I learned a great deal when I heard this story, and I think I grew up a great deal in hearing it, too. Yes, those of you who have traveled with me know that I am lighthearted, full of nonsense, naughty, enjoy practical jokes, and all the rest—but I understand that for many travelers this is a trip of a lifetime, and I take that responsibility very seriously.
What’s your favorite experience in the places where you lead GeoEx travelers?
I’m sorry to have to say this, but truth be told, I simply can’t answer that. Africa is so varied and immense, I genuinely can’t answer that. It’s the people, the culture, the sounds, the smells, the freedom, it’s everything—they are all my favorite experiences!
What’s your best travel memory?
Reaching the geographic center of Africa—Finding the Heart. This was without a doubt the toughest but most rewarding adventure of my life. The truth is, we were lucky to survive. Again, we think in this modern age that the days of exploration and discovery are over, but that is simply not the case. As part of Kingsley Holgate’s expedition team, we decided that it was only fitting to go to the geographic center of the continent since we had already seen the southern, western, northern, and easternmost extremities. But when we approached the Royal Geographic Society and asked for the definitive coordinates, it came to our attention that nobody knew where the center was! Can you believe that in this day and age there was no beacon or monument to depict this site?
So, working with a number of organizations and some clever algorithms, we determined the coordinates. This could so easily have been on the side of a road or in the middle of a village, but fittingly for Africa, this point lay deep in the Congo Basin rain forest in the Republic of Congo. Perfect! So our little band of brothers set off on a three-month adventure to place a beacon at the Heart Of Africa, a place where it’s highly unlikely any human being had ever laid a footprint.
Wow, I just got goosebumps hearing that! I can easily understand why you would be passionate about an adventure like this. What makes you so passionate about leading trips for GeoEx?
Because I love to share and I love meeting people just as much as I love observing animals.
Do you have any last words for GeoEx travelers who might want to travel on one of your trips?
Bring a sense of humor, a spirit for adventure, and a bag full of curiosity. In all seriousness, I have worked with so many travel companies over the years, but the level of detail, planning, and execution on a GeoEx trip is second to none. I don’t say that lightly. It has been a great pleasure for me to lead GeoEx trips for the past 15 years. Come and join me on a trip to Africa, be it in Chad, Tanzania, or wherever, and you will see and feel what the dedicated team of professionals from GeoEx do behind the scenes. I am the lucky one who gets to take you on the ride!
Lastly, I would like to add that more than ever, we need to protect Africa, its people and natural wonders, and the best way to do that is to come and visit—because if these wild spaces don’t pay, then they don’t stay! So, please come!
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To find out more about GeoEx safaris with Brad Hansen, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.
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Do you have a question for Brad Hansen about his adventures across Africa? Or a favorite travel memory you’d like to share? Please add your comments below. I always love hearing from you!