Disconnecting in Africa

3rd July 2024

By Sam Peters, Planted Co-Founder

You don’t have to be the parent of twins or a high-flying city banker to feel like time is constantly against you.

With technology increasingly pervading our day-to-day lives, and money often too tight to mention, the pressures of daily life seem to come at us from all angles.

And as our connection to technology accelerates so too, it seems, does our disconnection from nature, from family, from time.

With quality time amid friends and family harder to come by, we all seem fatigued by the invidious creep of technology into our lives.

So what, if anything, can we do?

One local businessman, Ted Archdale, managing director of Semley-based travel company Africa Odyssey but at heart a born-free adventurer, believes he has the answer.

‘We are so reliant on being connected and those platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Linkedin seem have taken over our lives,’ Ted explains from a coffee shop next to his office in Semley on Dorset/Wiltshire border.

‘Even as we speak my phone is buzzing. It’s like a drug. I look at my phone in the morning. Look at the headlines on the Times newspaper app, check my emails. We have an overnight operations watch which I check as soon as I get up at 6.30am.

‘I get in trouble with my wife who says I shouldn’t look at my phone for the first two hours in the morning. But I have to.    

‘When you go to the African wilderness you have got no choice. Even when there is wifi in the camps for operational reasons I prefer not to tell people.

‘A lot of the feedback we get from parents is that the first day was a total disaster and the kids hated it. Then, within a couple of days they were all playing card games and talking to each other again.

‘Grumpy teenagers come out of their shells and are out making bows and arrows with the Masai warriors or playing Uno with their family. Safaris bring families together.’

Disconnecting in Africa

© Nomad Tanzania 

We’re speaking in early March over a coffee in this pretty but intensively farmed pocket of rural England.

It’s sunny, but apart from that it’s a far cry from the vast open plains of the Serengeti, epic channels of the Okavango Delta or the Tanzanian bush, where Ted recently returned from a 12-day safari, where he spent two days hunter gatherers from the Hadzabe tribe.

The primary focus of the trip was to establish the viability or otherwise of taking clients to watch game in truly remote locations, well away from the main tourist routes. And it proved a resounding success.

‘I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days right down in the south of the Serengeti ecosystem. It was basically the perfect place for me. A very wild spot near Lake Eyasi where the Rift Valley comes down. The scenery is incredible. I averaged about four or five hours sleep a night but by the end of the trip I had never felt so zen in my life.’

Born in Edinburgh, Ted subsequently moved south to the Cotswolds, when his father became headteacher at Cheltenham College Prep School. His spirit of adventure and love of the outdoors came naturally from a young age.

‘We suddenly had a house on these massive grounds with no one else around for eight weeks every summer. I spent my whole time outdoors making bases, tree houses and flying across the lake on a zip wire.

‘Holidays were generally spent walking in Scotland or camping around France or Spain. I can remember being in this tiny cottage in the middle of nowhere. It was this typical Scottish scene. Low cloud, peaks above the cloud, rushing rivers. It just felt so wild. I can remember thinking ‘this is incredible’.’

Subsequent trips to India, South Africa and the Himalayas followed while at university, but it was his first trip to Botswana, guided by a friend who was born there, which truly opened his eyes to wilderness.

Disconnecting in Africa

© Asilia

We camped around the Okavango Delta and caught fish for our supper. Wrapping them up in leaves and cooking over fire in these really wild spots. It was a fantastic adventure.’

After graduating a brief stint working in the City, somewhat predictably, proved short lived.

A job with a gap year adventure company soon led to a junior role with Africa Odyssey, which was owned and run at the time by Marc Harris, who founded the company around the turn of the century.

That was 14 years ago, and Ted has since risen through the company, promoted to managing director and taking charge of the company in 2022, when he relocated his young family from London to the Nadder Valley.

Today, with offices in London and Semley, Africa Odyssey takes around 600 discerning guests away each year, largely to East Africa, ‘where my heart is’ according to Ted, and has carved a respected niche a highly competitive market. Their Unique Selling Point?

‘We feel an enormous responsibility to ensure our guests have the most incredible experience. For us, it is not just about making sure they are staying in the flashiest lodge, guaranteed to see the Big Five one morning. It’s about the journey, experience and knowledge you take away.

‘The guide is probably the most important person on the trip. We go out to all these camps, experience them ourselves and only choose camps where the guiding programmes are absolutely exceptional.

‘The guides are trained up and often work as assistant guides or waiters. They stay with the company for a long time and keep absorbing information all the time.

‘When you go on safari you spend from sunrise to sunset with the guide and that is what makes your trip.

‘Going on safari is a learning experience. It’s not just see a cheetah, say ‘wow’, take a photo and move on.

‘It should be about talking about the species, learning how it’s adapted to its surroundings, learning what it predates on and why. The guide might know that actual cheetah, when it last had cubs, where it tends to hunt.’

Archdale hesitates when I enquire about his most memorable experience in Africa. Not because he can’t think of one, but because there are so many.

‘Walking safaris to me are the best way of really seeing Africa. When you’re on foot you discover and learn a lot more than you ever could in a vehicle.

‘On one trip to Zambia we took a walk one day along the Luangwa River. It wasn’t intended to be much more than a recce to understand the land, where the camps were located and, if we were lucky, spot some rare birds.

‘The riverbed was dry and sandy and at one point I remember stumbling down the bank. As I picked myself up there was this lion cub, maybe six months old, just a few metres away from me. It probably hadn’t encountered too many people. The rest of the pride hung back but the cub was just super inquisitive and kept running up to me.

‘It was just me, a guide, a ranger and a pride of lions on the dry riverbed on the last day of the season before the rains came. It was utterly magical.’

Masai in Serengeti

Ted accepts an African safari holiday is not for everyone. Notwithstanding the often eyewatering prices, it takes an adventurous spirit to venture into the relative unknown.

‘The trips cost a sizable amount of money. They’re basically an investment. And your return on investment is memories. I don’t think you can put a price on that.

‘Holidays are the best time to create memories because everyone is together, in tune and not distracted by anything. Irrespective of seeing animals, some families will choose safari again because it provides a chance actually be a family, sitting around a table together.

‘People need to experience that disconnection to genuinely slow down. Where else in the world can you have that sense of being essentially cut off?’

Ted Archdale, who admits with a grin he is ‘constantly seeking the ultimate sundowner spot’, is convinced no other experience can rival connecting with nature in the African wilderness.

‘You could be lying in your hammock having an afternoon siesta or reading a book on the banks of the Zambezi River. There’s a breeze and the mosquito nets are flowing. You turn over and suddenly realise there’s a herd of elephants just next to you. Minding their own business moving into the water.

‘For me it’s those moments when you’re not looking for that leopard in the tree when things just happen around you. It gives you that feeling ‘this is wild’. There’s no guide with you. You’re with these animals on your own.’

In our technologically obsessed world Archdale and his team, intentionally or not, are educating tourists not just about the value of nature conservation, but also the value of disconnecting.

‘When people go gorilla trekking I always say, ‘if you possibly can, go twice’. The first time you get there, you only have an hour, you’re on the ground with a silverback and there’s all this excitement and a flurry of photos, selfies, videos.

‘But if you can possibly afford it, go a second time. Leave the camera behind and have that David Attenborough moment. Just lie on the bamboo floor amongst the gorilla family. Enjoy the moment. Take the pressure off.’

Archdale’s yearning to be back in the wilderness, a cold bottle of Tusker, Okavango Kingfisher, or whatever the local brew may be in his hand, staring out across the African plains, is tangible.

I could listen to his stories for hours. And it’s clear, as we talk, he has plenty to tell.

‘On my last trip every night for 12 nights I could hear lion and hyena. On the last night at five in the morning we had a leopard in the camp. People might be quite worried about that before they book but it’s only once you get out there that you understand how it all works safety wise.

‘At nighttime when you’re back from a game drive and want to have a shower and freshen up before dinner, you wait at your tent and flash your torch and an Askari, a Masai warrior, will arrive and escort you, having scoured the bush. 

‘You are under canvas in the middle of a huge wild area but as long as you follow the rules you are as safe as can be.’

In a world increasingly concerned by humanity’s footprint upon it, long-haul travel, notably flying, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Getting to Africa from Europe or North America by any other means is next to impossible.

While Archdale makes no attempt to promote his business on sustainability grounds, his passionate defence of eco-tourism is compelling.

‘We focus on selling experiences but every camp we sell has a park fee, of which a big chunk goes towards conservation. Everything you pay is helping conservation.

‘A lot of lodges are forward thinking and have banned plastic bags and bottles. Some airports now they will check your bags because it is illegal to bring in plastic bags. Kenya, Rwanda for example.

‘Poaching remains a massive problem in Africa. People think it was bad in the 1980s but it is still horrendous. By having guides driving guests around these parks you are helping to stop poaching through employment and education.

‘Everything is aimed at the environment and ecotourism. I don’t feel comfortable stating ‘we are an ecotourism business’ because you have to take an unsustainable flight to get there. But you can’t be in this industry and survive without caring deeply about nature and the environment.’

Another big ‘no’ in the safari industry is failing to be prepared for any eventuality. And that is precisely where Africa Odyssey comes in.

‘I say to the guys ‘when things go don’t go perfectly to plan, that is our time to shine’. We pride ourselves on our network on the ground and being able to pick up the phone and call the right person in any eventuality. We have had a number of referrals from clients who’ve been so happy with the way we responded and solved their problem they have recommended us to friends and relatives.

‘If you want things to go wrong in Africa, just turn up at the airport and hire a Land Rover. If you want things to be perfect, stress free and with a priceless return on your investment, then come to us.’

If you insist, then.