African safaris have sparked the imagination and adventurous spirit of people around the world for generations. While popular culture media portrayals have often focused on the wealthy elite from bygone eras, clad in colonial-style outfits and standing proudly with their trophies, safaris have greatly evolved over the last few decades, yielding broader accessibility and a more beneficial impact on the local communities. Two Southeastern alumni and Hammond residents, Ryan and Kimble Barker, are now making it their mission to further these positive trends.
Their inspiration for achieving this was first sparked in 2006. As a college graduation present from his parents, Ryan and his father Kimble set off on an adventure that would change them both forever. “When I arrived in Tanzania, it felt like I was home. I got chills. I still get chills thinking about it,” said Ryan.
The father and son duo instantly fell in love with the remote beauty of the place and with the local culture. “Community, togetherness, is so important to the people. They really take care of each other,” Ryan said. He knew that he wanted to one day find a way to help give back to the local people he found so genuine and welcoming.
It was a personally enriching experience that they believed everyone should have. Kimble noted that his favorite part of Tanzania and the business that they would go on to start together is “becoming a small part of another world; a world completely different than I was born and raised in. To experience first-hand the lives of the Tanzanian people gave me a look at another culture that has left me a different, better person.”
Eleven years later, Ryan (the director of Chappapeela Sports Park) and Kimble (a retired Hammond Police Department officer) still couldn’t shake the pull that their time in Tanzania had on them. They invited Said Hillary Kambelenje, their 2006 Tanzanian safari guide who had become a lasting friend, to visit. Talking one night, Ryan and Said decided to combine their strengths to create their own Tanzania safari company. When Kimble heard of the idea, he was immediately in as well. Tanzania Adventure Tours was born.
With Ryan and Kimble handling the business side while remaining in Hammond and Said leading the tours within Tanzania, the three began a soft launch of their venture later that year. In June of 2018, the budding company fully launched.
Part of the Barkers’ concept for Tanzania Adventure Tours is customization. In addition to meeting wide-ranging budgets, this makes it possible for everyone to have a trip tailored exclusively to them. Currently, Tanzania Adventure Tours offers three pre-set packages at different price points. Those who want to create their own unique itinerary with the help of the Barkers, though, are always welcome to do so.
There’s no surprise that the activity travelers are generally the most excited about is encountering majestic animals in the wild. Guide Said steers visitors through the parks and preserves, including Serengeti National Park, in one of the company’s reinforced vehicles. Animals to look out for are zebras, elephants, wildebeests, buffaloes, hippos, giraffes, antelopes, gazelles, kudus, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, lions, and much more. There are over four million animals in Tanzania, including 430 species and subspecies. This is in addition to species counts of approximately 1,000 for birds, 60,000 for insects, 100 for snakes, and 25 for reptiles and amphibians.
Witnessing these animals in their natural habitats goes hand-in-hand with the thrill of venturing through unspoiled lands, secluded from the rest of the world and the trivial worries of modern society. This is one of Kimble’s favorite things about Tanzania. “Being in places so remote that you’ve lost track of the compass points (N, S, E and W). So isolated that you can’t see the edge of the savannah even with binoculars. To imagine living in this environment not just today but in the prehistoric past. Mind boggling!”
While being in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a dozen lions might sound a tad terrifying, one of the company’s top priorities is safety. The vehicles are designed to withstand impacts while also allowing for open visibility, but Ryan noted that visitors should not be worried about the animals. “You’ll often see Massai people walking through the grass with a big cheetah in the tree next to them, and they’re not concerned at all. It all comes down to as long as you respect the animals, they’ll respect you.”
Ryan also readily gives credit to guide Said as one of Tanzania Adventure Tours most unique assets. “Said has over 26 years of experience leading safaris. He’s a people person and very knowledgeable. He can tell you facts about everything, all of the animals. But he’s also very in tune with the earth and gives the traditional explanations and stories.”
Said leads visitors on a wide selection of activities. Looking for nocturnal animals on night drives below a sea of shimmering stars, hiking across and camping on an active volcano, watching crystal blue waves gently lap white sand while relaxing on Zanzibar Beach, and floating over breathtaking vistas in a hot air balloon are just a few ways travelers can customize their experience. For locales, Arusha National Park, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti National Park, and Tarangire National Park are top destinations.
And of course, there’s the food. All tours come with full food service provided, even while out in the wilderness on drives. But to cater to true foodies, there are a variety of local gastronomical experiences that can be enjoyed—from fine dining at The Rock Restaurant, an enchanting eatery comprising an entire tiny island, to learning about (and chowing down on) traditional Massai food, prepared as it has been for generation upon generation.
The Massai food experience can also be part of a whole day of immersion in the local culture. Getting to better understand the local people and their way of life—learning from them—by spending time with a designated tribe is one activity that Ryan highly recommends to all travelers. For those who do like to go behind the scenes, exploring a beer brewery, banana plantation, and coffee plantation is also on the table.
But before you get ready to pack your bags, you’re probably wondering what an excursion like this will cost you. The perception of safaris as the sole domain of only the very wealthy and well-connected has indeed lingered. Ryan mentioned that he’s met many people who have going on a safari at the top of their bucket list, but then admit that it’s something they will likely never be able to do—until he tells them the actual cost.
Although luxury expeditions that can reach the tens of thousands are certainly still available today, the average cost for a one week safari is now $3,000-$3,500, and Tanzania Adventure Tours offers a starting price far below that for a seven day excursion, all inclusive with the exception of airfare from the US to Tanzania. Despite the distance, flights to Tanzania can sometimes be cheaper than to Europe, even as low as $500.
So while many want-to-be-adventurers still might have to pinch their pennies for a while to go, safaris have become, and are still becoming, increasingly open to broader numbers of people. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, there were 6.7 million visitors to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in 1990. By 2012, there were 33.8 million.
This broader ability to see firsthand other parts of the world and cultures benefits more than just the travelers. Sub-Saharan tourism receipts totaled $36 billion in 2012. The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates that a total of 3.8 million jobs could be created by the tourism industry in SSA between 2012 and 2022.
“Already one in 20 jobs in SSA is in travel and tourism,” explains a 2013 report from The World Bank on “Tourism in Africa: Harnessing Tourism for Growth and Improved Livelihoods.” “With incomes rising, SSA countries’ poverty rates declined from 59% in 1995 to 50% in 2005. Given this scenario, the World Bank concludes that SSA could be on the cusp of an economic takeoff, much like China was 30 years ago, and India was 20 years ago. Tourism is one of the key industries driving the current change and tourism could be a transformative tool within this takeoff,” it concludes.
In addition to this economic and job growth, visitation and income from tourism also helps support antipoaching efforts. As well as allowing dollars to flow into local governments, which can aid in increased legislation and patrols, people who live near the parks have come to recognize the economic advantage of conservation for continued tourism. In February of 2018, Hamis Kigwangalla, Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, announced that by 2022 there will be no poaching in the local national parks and reserves. He stated that “Through collective responsibility, we will be able to eliminate poaching. Wildlife is among major tourist attractions in the country; therefore, we must protect our heritage for sustainable tourism development.” When you book a safari today, the only thing you should plan on shooting animals with is a camera.
But the Barkers have personally taken their belief in giving back one step further. To further help the Tanzanian people that they felt a kindred connection with since their very first visit, they have also launched Enrich Tanzania—a nonprofit, sister organization to Tanzania Adventure Tours. The nonprofit’s goal is to “help Tanzanians enjoy the basic opportunities that we take for granted every day. Important projects include providing a clean, year-round source of water, a more affordable and accessible basic education for their children, and the chance to move from basic subsistence living to a future of limitless possibilities.”
Their first major project, currently in process, is to build an early learning center in a small village in Arusha. As public early childhood education does not exist in Tanzania, the Barkers identified this as a significant need for the local residents. Holding undergraduate and graduate degrees in education, along with a background that includes teaching and coaching at Hammond High Magnet School, Ryan has found a perfect way to combine his passion for Tanzania with his experience and skills to help others.
Land has already been secured, and once the doors open, the center will serve up to 150 local children, ages 3-6. Part of the project includes installing a well to provide clean drinking water for area families and the school itself. The last phase of the project will be to create a safe playground for the school and area children. It’s this nonprofit work—helping positively impact and create greater opportunity for the local people—that is the most rewarding aspect of the entire endeavor for Ryan.
Far from the popularized safaris of the past, an expedition today can create a symbiotic benefit for local residents like those in Arusha, animal populations, and visitors—with unforgettable experiences that can spark inspiration and personal enrichment. Kimble’s closing advice for current Southeastern students and alumni reflects on the importance of such an experience: “The world is a big diverse place. It’s full of people far more interesting than you realize. Experience it. ALL of it if you can.”
By Sheri Gibson. Images courtesy of Tanzania Adventure Tours.