For New Zealand native Rick Thomson, cofounder of Thomson Safaris in Watertown with his wife, Judi Wineland, a career leading high-end safaris all began with lawn mowers.
“As a kid, I used to love fixing lawn mowers,” says Thomson. “I’d buy old ones, fix them up, and make pretty good pocket money.” After attending Auckland University of Technology, Thomson started fixing cars for rallying.
“The British Mini was beating Jaguars and bigger cars and I spent 10 years in the motor trade.” Next came a job in Papua New Guinea managing a Nissan [car] plant, followed by a stint refurbishing a sugar mill in Iran. When that job ended, Thomson moved to London and found work in a transmission repair facility modifying former Ministry of Defense vehicles for trans-African travel.
“We’d get these old dogs and have to fix them up — put in seats and water tanks. It was fun work and paid well. We’d go from London to Nairobi — these were more like cargo trips, about 3-4 months — and everyone in the group was pitching in.” From Nairobi, Thompson would drive back to London. Eventually, he was running safaris in Kenya and then Tanzania, which is where he and Wineland exclusively base their safaris. Their company, which they founded in 1981, (and later renamed Thomson Safaris), now offers other adventures.
Thomson, between safaris, sat down in his Watertown office and shared what makes Tanzania so special.
Q. Why do your safaris operate only in Tanzania?
A. We wanted to be Tanzania experts. Kenya is a huge industry, very successful, but commercial and touristy. Tanzania offers a more rewarding and authentic experience, since it’s years behind Kenya. It doesn’t have the infrastructure and hotels or mobs of people. Tanzania is like a secret place with Zanzibar — the famous Spice Islands — miles of untouched coastline, the Selous Game Reserve that few people visit, Mahale Mountains National Park with the largest group of free-hanging chimps in the world, Serengeti National Park, and Ngorongoro Crater — the floor is 102 square miles and is the most densely populated area for wildlife in East Africa.
Q. What makes Thomson Safaris different from other outfitters in Tanzania?
A. In the US market, when you book a safari with somebody, they usually contract with a tour operator in that country. When people book with us, they’re using our on-the-ground folks and our lodges.
Q. What are clients least prepared for?
A. Overall, we know what people need and prepare them really well. But they aren’t prepared for the abundancy of what they see. They’ve seen Africa on TV and they think they might see a lion or an elephant. Instead, they see herds of them because Tanzania is so rich in wildlife.
Q. How do you divide your time?
A. I used to do three trips a year, but now I do two, each for one month at a time. If I’m not on safari, I’m getting e-mails from African-based managers and business that are dealing with day-to day-issues, like finances. Africa is seven hours ahead of the US, so I often work at home. This morning I was on the telephone dealing with our insurance renewal.
Q. Biggest challenges of job?
A. Tanzania is one of the world’s poorest countries, so employing staff is a challenge. Education is an issue. When we’ve found someone who has finished high school, you need to meet them to see if they will fit with the team.
Q. What keeps you motivated after all these years?
A. It’s a lot of fun to be involved in such an obscure business. I meet all these people, I’m not in a tie and suit, and I’m putting smiles on people’s faces.
Q. Favorite African animal?
A. The warthog. They’re curious and their tails look like radio antennae. They’re also pretty vicious and have really ugly faces. But they’re endearing.
Q. Strangest African dish you’ve eaten?
A. There is this particular soup made with offal. I can’t eat kidney or liver, even at the best of times.
Q. What could Americans learn from the Tanzanian people?
A. Acceptance of differences. It’s pretty profound.
Q. Beyond Africa, what are your top travel destinations?
A. New Zealand, Mongolia, and Turkey.
Q. What’s next?
A. Judi, our two daughters, and I have recently acquired another business called Adventure Women [global trips for women ages 30 and older].
Q. Your role?
A. Stay out of it!
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