Owner of Explore Africa Adventures
Making your passion your occupation
Alot of people dream about swapping a corporate cubicle for a life of travel and adventure, but few actually do it. Martin Slabbert, however, did what many people only allow themselves to dream about. A few years ago, he purchased the well-known Explore Africa Adventures safari company and changed his life completely. These days, he’s always on the road, travelling to some of the most beautiful spots on the African continent. While this life has its own challenges, it’s not a decision that he’s regretted for a second. Having paid his dues in the corporate world, he’s now living the dream. Leisure Wheels spoke to him about his dramatic career shift. Can you give us a bit of background on yourself? I was born and raised in Bloemfontein. After military service in 1982 and ‘83, I joined the SABC in Bloemfontein as a sound technician. I met my wife Magda there, got married, and relocated to Pretoria in 1987. We subsequently moved around quite a bit, but we eventually settled back in Pretoria in 2002. How did you end up taking over Explore Africa? During holidays, I was always travelling through Africa of my own, and I was interested in hearing from other people. I wanted to know where they had been, how they had done it and what they would recommend in terms of the dos and the don’ts. Overland travel was a passion for me. I met Andre van Vuuren, the previous owner of Explore Africa, at a social event organised by mutual friends. I spent quite a bit of time chatting to him and asking him about all his adventures. As we continued to talk, it became clear that he wanted to sell the company. I realised that this was my opportunity. After 19 years of corporate life, it was a real no-brainer: I had to buy it. A week later, we shook hands and the deal was done.
Where and in what did you first learn to drive? I was privileged to grow up on a family farm in the south-western region of the Free State. My first driving experience was with a Fordson tractor, but I later upgraded to a 1972 Hilux. At the age of 15, I had my first run-in with the law. I was driving on back roads, obviously without a licence, and I was pulled over. I eventually passed my driving test in my mom’s Datsun Pulsar, in 1982. What do you drive today on your trips, and how has it been kitted out? To travel overland through Africa for prolonged periods of time, you need a well-kitted vehicle. Currently, I drive a Hilux D-4D, which has been fitted with an Alu-Cab canopy, roof-top tent, 60-litre water tank, long-range fuel tank, builtin kitchen, a freezer for ice and meat, a second fridge for other food, a dual-battery system, replacement bumpers, and a raised suspension with LAS Profender shocks. What’s your favourite spot in Africa?
It’s difficult to say, since there are so many amazing places on the continent. As I travel and adjust guided trips to keep them fresh, I discover new places that I love. If pushed to name a couple of favourites, though, I’d mention Senga Bay on Lake Malawi and Lakeshore Lodge on Lake Tanganyika. Both are spectacular. Have you ever had any close encounters with Africa’s wildlife? Yes, I was chased by elephant in Zambia no less than three times, and I was told that four female lion once investigated my tent at Buffalo Camp in North Luangwa Park with such intensity that the others present were genuinely worried that the lion would try to pull me from my little cocoon. I don’t remember this incident, since I was fast asleep, but I was told that my snoring sounded exactly like a warthog, which was why the lion were so interested. Andre van Vuuren, the previous owner of Explore Africa was there, and he tried to divert their attention and chase them away. Any other scary situations you’ve found yourself in? I once ran out of ice in Tanzania, that was very scary. What’s been your most memorable experience since taking over Explore Africa? My first experience of wildebeest crossing the Mara River during their great yearly migration, undoubtedly. We plan our annual Serengeti trip in such a way that we maximise the chances of seeing this river crossing, but nothing is guaranteed. It takes about a year to plan, and it’s a long drive to get there, so seeing this amazing event was overwhelming the first time I got to experience it. Being able to provide that once-in-a-lifetime experience for clients was just an amazing feeling. It made all of the effort worthwhile.
What advice do you have for people when it comes to overland travel in Africa, especially north of our borders?
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Also, once you cross the Limpopo, leave all your negative ideas at home. Africa is not South Africa. Africa is an experience: feel it, see it, hear it. The people work hard, are friendly and want to please you. Embrace that and be friendly. Do not expect Engen stations in Africa, clean ablutions, worldclass service or credit card facilities. Just travel: mix with the people and buy food from the local street vendors. If you go with an open mind, any trip through Africa will be a memorable and rewarding experience. What crucial items don’t you ever leave home without? Apart from the obvious things like passports and cash, I take old-fashioned maps of each country I will travel through. Other crucial items include a GPS unit, MP3 player, braai grid and ‘white gold’ (toiletpaper).
Martin Slabbert is the owner and operator of Explore Africa Adventures, which offers self-drive guided trips into Africa. Before purchasing Explore Africa, Martin worked as a sales manager for Nampak. The Nampak job was the last in a string of corporate gigs. When Explore Africa went up for sale, he decided to pursue his dream and hit the road.
Main: Explore Africa’s special campsite on the Mara River in Serengeti. Note the wildebeest in the background wanting to cross the river. Opposite page, top: Martin’s love of overland travel started years ago with a bike trip to Lake Malawi. Opposite page, bottom: Wild camping, getting ready for another braai.