South Africa-born Colin Bell landed his first job as a safari guide in Botswana in 1977—at a time when, in his words, “a cold beer came out of a wet long sock, tied to the side mirror of the Land Rover and cooled while hanging in the breeze.” In 1983, he co-founded Wilderness Safaris, which has become one of the most successful specialist safari companies in Africa. Colin sold his stake in the company in 2005 and went on to co-found Natural Selection Safaris. In 2013, Colin co-authored Africa’s Finest: The Most Sustainable Responsible Safari Destinations in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands—a book about the good and the bad effects of the tourism industry—and more recently he wrote The Last Elephants, an important work calling for the protection of elephants and their habitats, in Africa and beyond. Colin’s wife, Heather, was born in Zimbabwe and has spent most of her working life in the safari industry.
Here, Colin talks about conservation in Botswana, his move from Wilderness Safaris to Natural Selections, what he’s looking forward to on the Insider Journey to Botswana he is hosting in November and more.
You landed your first job as a safari guide in 1977. How has the industry changed since?
Colin Bell: “In those days, it was literally rough and rugged. We had those series III Land Rovers with the bounciest shock absorbers and spring you’ve ever known. Seats were straight pieces of wood with little covering. There would be nine people in the Land Rover, all there for two or three weeks, no fridge, living out of the back of a trailer with 25 liters of red wine in a plastic container on the roof—and off we went. We always had a headache in the morning, not realizing that the wine in a black plastic container in the sun would get rotten and boiled. A cold beer came out of a wet long sock, tied to the side mirror of the Land Rover and cooled while hanging in the breeze.
Since then, it’s become an extraordinary and well-oiled machine that is able to get people from one end of the planet to the other remarkably quickly, efficiently and comfortably. We are able to go from one end to the other, and the tourism industry has been remarkably efficient at seeking out the best places and making it wonderful to be there. The amount of drives we had over long distances just to get to a place—Johannesburg to the Okavango Delta took three days—by the time you got there, you were covered in sand, grubby and smelly. Today, you can leave the States and in just 48 hours be watching lions on the plains.
I think it has changed for the better. It’s much more experiential once you’re there; the hardships are gone but the level of enjoyment is just as high.”
You co-founded Wilderness Safaris in 1983, which is now one of the most successful specialist safari companies in Africa, and then you started Natural Selection Safaris. What drove this evolution?
CB: “What a remarkable journey. I was in the hot seat as CEO for 25 years, and I sold my shares to the staff all those years ago because I needed a change. 25 years was a long time to be in one spot. We had the privilege of writing two books, one about the good, the bad and the ugly of the tourism industry, and one about the elephants. Then we started Natural Selections almost by accident! I had lunch with a friend of mine who had also left Wilderness, and he had shares in a lodge. I had promised the community that I would do well for them, develop a lodge for them, and we sat there and said, ‘Well, one lodge on its own can’t be profitable—you’ve got an overhead, you’ve got a market, you have to be in all the key markets every day.’ So we got together and started Natural Selections. Within a very short period of time we found we were being offered very extraordinary pieces of real estate, and today we control well over two million acres of prime, pristine, wonderful land filled with wildlife—and with communities as the prime beneficiary. We take 1.5% of all our revenue and put it directly towards conservation and community causes, and that gives us great pride. We created jobs; we employ over 700 people, and the training we give to local communities is all a part of the Natural Selection recipe, which we are all very proud of.”
Our Insider Journey to Botswana takes place in November. Why is this month such a great time to visit the country?
CB: “This year, November 2023, guests will do an Insider Journey to the Okavango Delta. The reason we’ve chosen November is that the first flush of green after the dry season starts to come out. We have a completely different system of weather in Botswana, where we get winter drought—absolutely no rain from April through the end of October—and so at the end of October into early November, we get that first little bit of rain that turns everything green, but we still get the concentrations of wildlife of the dry season. It’s my favorite time of year. What better time to go host a group of Indagare guests around Botswana?”
What experiences are you most excited for on the upcoming Insider Journey in November?
CB: “For me, I love being in these wide-open spaces, in private concessions where it’s just us. We’re away from the public, and we take guests into these remarkable big areas and enjoy nature as if it’s the Garden of Eden from centuries ago…and it is still the Garden of Eden. One of the particular highlights I love is the time we will spend at Hyena Pan’s underground viewing dugout. It’s the only waterhole for kilometers and kilometers, and all the wildlife (elephants in particular) hang around these waterholes, almost as if they’re going to the pub with friends. We sit around in complete safety, with elephants within a meter of us, and it’s like we’re part of the herd. We watch them interact and how they behave, we see how the hierarchy of elephants shows who gets the best shot at the cleanest waters. We watch them scratching, sidling up to the others, how they share water with each other; we’re part of the herd for the whole afternoon. It helps set the tone for the trip.”
How is Botswana unique, compared to other safari destinations like Zimbabwe?
CB: “Botswana has got the best private concessions, which I don’t think many countries have. It has these large treks of land, for which the safari companies have to pay hefty lease fees, mainly to communities, which ensure that the land is valued by the local communities. So these massive private concessions have very little people—there’s no overcrowding of tourists, no congestion like you see in other parts in the world. On our Insider Journey itinerary, we are visiting three totally different areas, and they’re all private. We will have an extraordinary time enjoying the Garden of Eden and witnessing the most wonderful wildlife sightings.”
You most recently wrote The Last Elephants—a book which calls for the protection of elephants in their habitats. Can you tell us more about the book and the meaning behind it?
CB: “Our little book on elephants was a collaborative effort where we got experts from around Africa to write about their particular areas. We collaborated, we edited and we created a book which was published by Smithsonian—who only publishes a handful of books a year, so we were very privileged to have them as our U.S. publisher. One of our goals was to bring together a lot of the stories from all around Africa, because I think the elephant world is very much living in silos; the folks in East Africa don’t really know what the Southern Africa folks are doing and so on. So the book brought all these areas together, and there was a whole lot of scientific papers translated into reader-friendly words with photos by some of the best photographers in the world.
The mission of the book was to get it out to as wide an audience as possible, so it sold for just over $20, which is remarkable for a book of its size and thickness. We cut back all the royalties to do this. After it was published in the States and Europe, and then the U.K. and all around the world, the big treat was towards the end, when the Chinese publishers picked it up. The Chinese have been the biggest consumers of ivory in the world, and it’s their consumption which drives poaching. So to have a book like that, which describes all the different issues going on in Africa, published in China, I think will start to help turn back the clock on the poaching of ivory. It will help people understand that ivory tusks don’t just fall off the ground, and that if you have one in your hand, it means an elephant had to die.”
When it comes to conservation, why is it important to travel to Botswana?
CB: “Well, I think the better question is, ‘Why is it important to travel to Africa?’ African governments have a lot of spending priorities. There’s a lot of poverty, and money needs to be spent on housing, education and health. Conservation is way down on the list of getting a voter to vote for a particular politician, unless that politician is thinking of tomorrow and the particular people in his constituency. So wildlife conservation generally falls down the wayside when it comes to funding parks and management in Africa. Tourism has stepped up to be the main driver in providing jobs and for providing the funds which go to help manage these areas. As the saying goes, ‘Conservation without cash is merely a conversation,’ and we need cash. The beauty of traveling to Africa is that every traveler is a good conservationist, purely by traveling. Often we get asked, ‘How does a person help conservation in Africa?’ The answer: Go on holiday! By going on holiday to Africa, you are now providing the means for people to earn a living off wildlife, and that in turn helps them to start to love and protect wildlife. It also provides the funds through the park fees, which are generated by your visits. Just get on a plane and visit.
And why Botswana in particular? They’ve set aside nearly 40% of the country for conservation, most of which is with communities as the beneficiaries. So when you visit Botswana, not only are you enjoying these wonderful wide open savannas as they were almost 100 years ago, but you are also making sure that you are preserving these wonderful open savannas. One of the key ways to protect these areas is to have a low volume, high tariff policy—a fewer number of people traveling so the impact is lower, but the price is higher. This is the best for conservation, so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”
What specific obstacles towards conservation exist in Botswana today?
CB: “Everybody saw the ravaging of Covid-19. It was the most dire situation, and we are very proud at Natural Selection that we kept our staff together. We repurposed them; a lot of our guides spent a lot of time walking every day in the bush. One of the ways you became an expert guide is by spending a lot of time on foot. You get to learn the moods of the animals—you can creep up to animals and creep away without them even knowing you’re there, and that takes time and skill. So we were very fortunate in Covid that we kept our staff and kept them busy. We also had to go and make sure our neighbor community partners weren’t starving—so we donated nearly one million meals to our partners, and that in turn helped make sure there was no dire starvation. With no or little starvation, there was little need to go and poach to keep food on the table for the family. What we also learned was the more we looked after our community partners, the more they looked after us. Our relationships have improved so much more since Covid.”
Could you tell us about your book that’s coming out early next year?
CB: “It’s a collaborative effort, like The Last Elephants, but about lions around Africa.”
What wildlife sighting makes you the most excited while on a game drive?
CB: “I love watching animal behavior. I’m not good at just cruising around, ticking off an animal and moving on. I love starting with elephants and watching their behavior with lions, leopards—the behavior of one animal among another.”
Is there a fun fact about Botswana that you love to share with travelers?
CB: “I think the one great acknowledgment that finally came to being was that the Okavango Delta became the 1000th UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were very proud when that happened.”
Do you have any travel rituals—for when you are in Botswana, or traveling in general?
CB: “All I try and do is mimic the behavior of the animals: be busier in the early morning, mid-day they have a siesta and they get busy again in the afternoon.”
How would you describe your current “travel outlook” or philosophy?
CB: “I think Covid was a great leveler for all of us. What it has done for appreciating nature-based travel has been extraordinary; we have seen a surge in interest to visit Africa. Every person on this planet came from Africa, so when you go back to Africa, you feel at home. It’s very much a part of the reason why, once people have done their first trip to Africa, they keep coming back.”
Must-have items in your carry-on on a trip to Botswana?
CB: “First of all, a small pair of really good binoculars are crucial. Cameras are fantastic, but binoculars are so important. They don’t have to be massive chunky ones; I carry small ones that fit in my pocket—they’re there all the time, for any second that I see a bird, a leopard or anything around me. For me, binoculars, a comfortable pair of walking shoes and comfortable clothing are must-haves. This is not a fashion show; in Africa, you just come and be yourself. Come and enjoy the Garden of Eden.”
Join Colin in Botswana…
About the itinerary: The ultimate destination for a picture-perfect safari, Botswana is home to some of the most spectacular wildlife-viewing in Africa—and few times are better to visit than early November. The beginning of the “green season” is the time for wildlife migrations, when it is possible to see an exceptional number of animals on the move—with some of the best chances to see many migratory birds. On this once-in-a-lifetime safari, you will be guided by safari legend Colin Bell for thrilling drives through the bush and activities that support elephant-conservation programs. Plus: Stay at three fantastic luxury safari camps.