“I find the most incredibly exciting and adventurous thing to do and couple it with luxury.” Kenya, 1960s
With Camera and Cash
Geoffrey Kent Reshapes the Modern Safari
(But Where Is Abercrombie?)
By Jack Smith
In East Africa there is a line that divides the wild from civilization. It is an electrified fence that rises ten feet high from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and runs for miles into the jungle. It is intended to keep the game – zebra, rhino, giraffe, and predators – out of the city and conversely, the people out of the jungle. There are a few, however, who feel quite at home on either side of this line. But no one more so than the man sitting next to me in the pilot seat, the remarkable explorer, conservationist, and entrepreneur Geoffrey Kent.
A native Kenyan, graduate of Sandhurst and former captain of the Prince of Wales’ Windsor Park polo team, at the age of 16 Kent traversed Africa from Nairobi to Cape Town on a motorbike, a zigzag trek of 5,000 miles, spending nights in the wild with nothing but the stars for shelter. “I have never worried about overnighting in the wild,” said Kent, as our bush plane cruised over Kenya’s Mara River. “In my 20s I usually used a small camp bed, over which I hung a mosquito net from the nearest tree. It was a practice I’d learned from my father. As he always told me, no animal – be it elephant, lion, or hyena – would challenge the netting. For some reason the animals found this arrangement very forbidding and gave me a wide berth.”
Menace sometimes came in other forms, however. “I was 13 when the Mau Mau rebellion took place and of course they were all Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya. I probably met many of the Mau Mau as we worked our farm, since it lay in the heart of the Kikuyu country.”
After several of the Kent family’s friends and neighbors were killed, their parents moved the boy and his sister, Anne, to a safe haven in Nairobi. “It was rather bleak, having just a small garden to tend after the vast slopes of the South Kinangop where we grew up.”
Ironically, for farming families like the Kents, it was peacetime that had the more enduring impact on their lives. It began with British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous – or infamous – 1960 speech in which he proclaimed the “Winds of Change.”
The way the British government explained it, despite the fact that the settlers had put down the rebellion, colonial rule could not go on and there was no way of slowing the move to independence and expatriation of property that was wafting across the continent. To the Kents and the other farmers who’d spent their lives plowing the African soil and sowing their fields, however, no matter how lofty the rhetoric, what it meant was, their land was about to be taken away from them.
Facing the prospect of being a farmer without any land, the young Kent assessed his situation. He knew the wilderness and the people of Africa, both white and black – indeed, he
Geoffrey Kent’s parents Colonel John Kent and Valerie.
spoke Swahili before he could speak English. He was a dead shot, quick on his feet, and affable, with a magnetic personality. He most likely could have succeeded in any corporate setting, but in 1962 he joined with his parents to found safari guides and outfitters Abercrombie & Kent.
“Clients sometimes inquire as to the whereabouts of Abercrombie, since he’s rarely seen,” said Kent as our plane dropped lower over the Masai Mara. “That’s because there is no such person. He’s a figment of our imagination. But we wanted our company to have two names instead of one. It would sound more substantial. Abercrombie had a nice “upper crusty” ring to and it was the first name in the Nairobi telephone directory, so we went with that. And the nice thing about having a non-existent partner is, if anyone complains, he tells them, “That’s Abercrombie’s department, and he’s out right now.”
Complaints couldn’t have been too frequent, as the small family enterprise soon earned a name for its luxury amenities and reliability. But no matter what the situation, he never forgot his father’s words: “Whatever happens, keep your wits about you and act as if you saw it coming all along.”
This advice came in handy when a small party of safari-goers, with the younger Kent the lead, was crossing a moonlit border from Kenya into what is now South Sudan. The client was a friend, Heath Manning, a polo player and developer from North Carolina, who was taking his young bride, Bootsie, on her first safari for their honeymoon. Besides the Mannings and Kent, the travelers included Jorie, Kent’s first wife and business partner; Liam Lynn, a professional hunter; and a support staff. The trip was intended to relive old times and celebrate the fading traditions of the hunting safari. “Nowadays people are surprised to hear that I was a hunter but it was once our way of life,” said Kent.
Geoffrey Kent as a child “driving” with his father and sister in Africa.
Indeed, it took years of disciplined apprenticeship to become a professional hunter. The professionals didn’t just hunt, they maintained their concessions like private parks and kept them free from poachers. They often built schools and clinics for the tribes within their concessions. “They were charismatic men,” says Kent. “Movie stars and royalty were in awe of them.”
But with increasing numbers of animals populating the endangered-species lists, it was clear that the day of the shooting safari and the Great White Hunter was coming to an end. Even the ritual hunts that had defined tribal cultures for centuries were now being legislated out of existence. But tradition—especially family tradition—was tradition and so,
with the teenaged Geoffrey’s fifteenth birthday approaching the hunting party packed up the family’s Land Rover for the boy’s first elephant hunt. On the ride to the hunting grounds he silently reviewed everything he knew about the elephant from having grown up in Kenya. “The elephant doesn’t react like the buffalo—he’s very shortsighted—but he can think fast,” said his guide, Masai Mara’s game warden Lynn Temple Boreham. In the thick bush where the elephant usually spends his days, his dusky-gray hue is a deceiving camouflage. The trick after you’ve spotted him—even if you want to move away—is to move in close. “He’s so heavily armored that the hunter needs a really heavy bullet, which is accurate only at a very short distance. Then, if the elephant spots you approaching, he’ll lift his trunk and give out a trumpeting sound that will send chills down your spine. Then you’ll be stampeded, and it will be all over.”
After hours of stalking in the scorching July sun, Geoffrey’s trackers spotted a large male elephant through the tall grass drinking from a river. “Remember what I’ve told you,” said Boreham. “If he sees you and you have to get down, just sit. Do not lie on the ground: that gun will recoil against you so hard you’ll never shoot again.”
Kent inched forward, so close there would never be time for a second shot. Kent bit down and steadied the gun against the crook of his armpit, aiming for a heart shot from the side and, slowly, squeezed the trigger. Oh, no, he thought, terrified. He had pulled the trigger too fast. He felt his finger freeze around the trigger as the big pachyderm stumbled forward and then crashed down like a huge boulder almost at his feet. Now he was horrified. Not because he’d just come close to being crushed but because he’d just killed the most magnificent beast he’d ever seen. He hurled the gun to one of the trackers, heartsick, the cordite now choking his nostrils. From somewhere he heard the pro calling him, his words now hollow: “Well done, Geoff!”
Then and there he made a vow to himself and to Africa: If he ever shot an elephant again, it would be with a camera—not a gun. By 1975 he had given up the hunting end of the safari business altogether, forsaking rifles for cameras and adopting the slogan, “Go hunting with a camera, not with a rifle.”
It was a long way from Nairobi to the Royal Military Academy in Surrey, England, but word traveled fast along the telegraph of schoolboy gossip. It hadn’t taken Kent’s aristocratic classmates at Sandhurst long to conclude that the wide-eyed young newcomer was a Jomo from Kenya.
It was hard to say what made him a Jomo, but the way they said it, it wasn’t something any of Sandhurst’s young sophisticates wanted to be. Maybe it was his wardrobe, Kent thought. After all, the other boys’ clothes were made by Turnbull & Asser, the most prestigious tailors on London’s Saville Row. Kent’s wardrobe was strictly rustic, off the shelf, hanging loosely on his thin frame. For that matter, throughout most of his teen years back home in Kenya he rarely wore shoes. That was more his style. But as his father reminded him, before he could give his permission for his son to enroll in the military academy there was just one more test the senior Kent expected his son to undergo: the ascent up Kilimanjaro.
Geoffrey Kent, a new SR member, playing with Prince Charles as Captain of the Windsor Park Polo Team.
In his mind, the boy had scaled that ominous, snowcapped precipice a hundred times but this time would be for real. The climb would begin at a point where Kenya bordered Tanzania, three hours south of Nairobi, and there he joined 19 other climbers and their guide, an ex-military man named Major Stroud. Most people, explained the major, took the Tanzanian route up the mountain, as it was easier. But Stroud was going to take them the more rigorous way up, as if just getting up the mountain was too easy.
At almost 20,000 feet above sea level, with three volcanic cones, Kilimanjaro was the highest mountain on the continent and the tallest freestanding mountain in the world. What’s more, climbing Kilimanjaro was not the kind of thing anyone might tackle willy-nilly; it was mandatory to climb with a licensed guide and have porters carry your equipment. This sustained the local economy while assuring the safety of the climbers.
The way up led past a variety of hazards; lower slopes were thick with lion, leopard, elephants, and buffalo. Higher up the fauna gave way to the ubiquitous risks of frostbite and altitude as the neophytes followed Stroud three steps at a time, pausing for air. Every time Kent looked around it seemed the group had shrunk. This was not his imagination; of the 20 who started, only six would make it up and back down again. Even making it to the summit didn’t mean the rigors were over. As the major reminded his charges, three-fourths of the trekkers who reach the summit suffer from some form of severe altitude sickness. Once they’d made it up the mountain there would be no easy way down.
“A lot of it is pure instinct.” Abercrombie & Kent climbing expedition on Mt. Kilimanjaro.
After days of seemingly non-stop climbing, they came within arm’s length of the summit. At the edge of the mountain they poked their heads through a layer of clouds that stretched out all around them. Two hundred miles away they could see Mount Kenya. Deep within the Loitokitok Crater, there were shapes like statuary frozen in place for millennia. Once returned to Nairobi, his climb completed, Kent’s father met him with a terse welcome home: “Now you’re ready for Sandhurst.”
There was much about his time at the military academy that Kent enjoyed—the challenge of orienteering, the weekends spent racing his MG roadster across the British countryside, and the evenings spent in London in the company of flirtatious debutantes—but what he especially liked were the uniforms. Their khaki jackets and sharp green trousers appealed to his Kenyan sense of color while his standing as captain of the Sandhurst polo team made his classmates forget they’d ever called him a Jomo.
His first station after graduation was Aden, a British outpost near the southern entrance to the Red Sea. It was in the midst of an insurgency against the British and the troops’ job was to keep it all from getting too much out of hand. Aden was followed by a post in Bahrain before landing in the sultanate of Oman, where major deposits of
oil and natural gas had been newly discovered. But there was more than mineral rights to commend Oman, a mysterious country that was once among the wealthiest in the world. It was also one of the world’s least accessible.
Oman was isolated from its Saudi neighbors to the west by the Rub’ al-Khali, the world’s most vast expanse of sand, a place where dunes towered 600 feet above the desert floor. Rub’ al-Khali translated to the “Empty Quarter,” a suitable name for a place so seemingly devoid of life. Farther north lay another wasteland, the Umm al-Samim, which translates aptly to “Mother of Poison.” This was an expanse of salt marshes that could, like quicksand, ensnare the unwary traveler and suck him to its sticky, briny depths. Given the hazards of the country’s geography, the soldiers received their provisions by air lift.
The sands of the Empty Quarter also concealed the ruins of the Lost City of Ubar, an ancient metropolis where, thousands of years ago, a substance more precious than gold—frankincense—oozed from its trees. In antiquity, frankincense was used from Rome to China in birthing and burial ceremonies. In the oldest biblical times, the Queen of Sheba burned the resinous crystals to entice King Solomon with its aromatic vapors, and globules of frankincense were found in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. In the New Testament, frankincense was one of the gifts the Magi brought the baby Christ.
But by the mid-20th century this country that once was so prosperous now struck Kent as nothing short of medieval. The country’s ruler, Sultan Said bin Taimur, who had ascended to the throne in 1932, was a capriciously oppressive monarch. A tyrant who condoned slavery as tradition, Taimur also publicly executed people who appeared in his dreams. Under Taimur, it was forbidden to ride a bicycle, wear sunglasses, carry an umbrella, or listen to the radio, transgressions which were punishable by flogging.
Given Taimur’s paranoia and dislike of all things foreign, it is difficult to understand why, in 1958, the tyrant sent his teenage son and heir, Qaboos bin Said, to England to be educated at Sandhurst. There the heir to the throne became fast friends with the one-time Jomo, Geoffrey Kent. Four years later, Qaboos graduated and returned to Oman where the sultan, fearing a coup, had his son imprisoned in the royal palace in Salalah. His imprisonment didn’t last long; with the aid of British Special Forces the heir to the throne overthrew his father and exiled him to London. Once ensconced on the throne as absolute monarch, Qaboos began making changes. A few years later, at
Abercrombie & Kent 25-day round-the-world tour by private jet.
the invitation of the young monarch bin Said, Kent returned to Oman with his friend the Prince of Wales to play polo and see for themselves a country whose citizens now enjoyed free health care, universal education, and modern roads, airports, and seaports.
Meanwhile Kent’s own military career was not without distinction. He’d been tapped to serve as aide-de-camp to the legendary British officer and war hero, General John Frost. It was a tough assignment, and would normally go to a captain, not a lieutenant, said his commanding officer, Colonel Woods, but Kent possessed one characteristic that would stand him in good stead with the General – the Kenyan’s two-goal ranking in polo. “Frost has a passion for two things – polo and detail.”
Upon their first meeting, the General said little to counter his reputation. “One thing you’ll learn about me, Geoffrey,” he said,” is that I’m a stickler for detail, and I need you to be one too.”
“Whenever one of my operations succeeded, it was always as a result of careful planning. It’s a British principle of war: time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”
“A really good idea—which is visionary thinking—has no marketing plan, has no sales plan. You know what you’re inventing but you can’t do a plan because you can’t compare it to anything.”
With that, the General and Kent laid out their itinerary for the next few days to come: first the two of them were scheduled to leave Malta at the end of the week to visit King Idris at his palace in Tobruk. From there they’d head to Benghazi to visit the general’s regiment. “There should be a gap of three minutes here between our taking leave of the palace, walking down the steps, and driving off in the car,” said the general. “What should happen in those three minutes?”
“Well, General, while you’re saying good-bye to King Idris, I shall be fixing your flag to the front of your car.”
“Very good, Geoffrey. And how long will it take you to fix the flag?”
“I should allow one minute, General.”
“Very good; write that in. And the remaining two minutes?”
“You should have a private conversation with the king’s private secretary.”
And so it would go, day in and out, with Kent scheduling their activities and then recording them precisely. It wasn’t long before the young officer decided to spring a surprise on the General. As Kent had noticed, Frost enjoyed his time off back at the HQ with a chilled martini and so he devised a plan. One afternoon while still in Malta, he visited the office of the Royal Electrical and
Mechanical Engineers with a request: would it be possible to design a mobile refrigeration unit that could be connected to a truck generator?
They could and so, with Kent laying down the specifications, the engineers built a portable generator to power a miniature freezer and a fridge. This they stocked with gin and cold smoked salmon, which they presented with great ceremony to the General.
The General was deeply impressed. “Goodness, Geoffrey,” he said. “Now, even in the desert at Kufra Oasis we’ll be able to enjoy a good drink. I have to commend you. Very well done.”
But as General Frost eventually admonished him, it would take more than Kent’s inventiveness and polo skills to succeed in the British army. In fact, as the General and his wife advised him over dinner one night, Kent was almost too clever to be a career soldier. “Oh, you’d be great in wartime but in peacetime you’d be bored,” said the General. “And just from watching you play polo it was clear how much energy you have.”
Further, while his experience with heavy tanks may have earned him the esteem of his fellow soldiers, it came at a price—he was losing his hearing.
Geoffrey Kent in front of the Garni Temple, Armenia.
The young soldier listened politely to the General and his spouse, but he already knew where he might find the appropriate line of work. Some of his neighbors back in Kenya were already prospering as guides, drivers, or safari hosts, and his father knew the sights and geography of the region better than anyone, having been the first to map the route from Kenya to Nigeria, and he was already beginning to make a good wage from American travelers who tipped generously. What’s more, the younger Kent already had a few ideas of his own.
Once back home his first move was to call his old army engineer friend and ask him to retrofit a 4x4 truck for mobile refrigeration similar to the one he had built for General Frost. Then, instead of economizing on tents, beds, and furnishings, as one might expect a start-up safari company to do, he ordered the best quality tents, china, and silver for his camp. Kent then color-coded the tent’s poles and mortises for rapid assembly before coaching his workers on how to set up his camp in less than two hours. The tents went up and down, up and down, until his crew were exhausted from the drill.
After a week’s time, they’d all learned how to erect four tents the size of a double living room, cover it with a groundsheet to keep out bugs and beetles, and cover it with a beautiful rug. The tents were lit by electricity, although mosquito netting gave it all the look of authenticity. Nonetheless, his father, from whom he’d kept his project a secret, was furious. “Dad’s friends at the Muthaiga Country Club, home to the Nairobi business establishment, had gotten wind of my expenditures and they were skeptical, to say the least,” recalled the younger Kent, forty some years later. “They’d already named a drink after our family’s radical new venture: “A&K on the Rocks.”
What Kent’s competitors were overlooking was, A&K was planning to target a specific market—Americans. And more than any other nationality, Americans loved their martinis, gin and tonics, and beer cold. And now they could get it, even deep in the most remote stretches of the jungle, and they were willing to pay for it. With their luxury tents, gourmet cuisine, and bar stocked with top-shelf drinks, what the former soldier was offering was more than a trip into the jungle to look at animals—it was a total luxury experience.
A wary leopard keeps watch from a tree branch in a Game park in Botswana, photographed on an A&K tour.
Since the company’s founding, the concept of the safari has continued to evolve and A&K’s modern “mobile camping” tents bear little resemblance to those of the past. The spacious, veranda-fronted tents at the Lewa outpost are made of heavy-duty canvas, with waterproof floors and large arched windows made from netting. Each tent is furnished with two full-size single beds with side tables, a dressing table with a mirror and washbasin, and an en-suite shower and toilet.
Even more posh are permanent camps like Sanctuary Olonana, with its canvas-walled apartments, spa, and spacious restaurant and bar where the “river horses” splash and bellow in the river below.
That’s the way it might have been the night he and his pal, the British actor Richard Burton, were sitting by the fire on the Mara, when a buffalo came charging into the camp. There were three lionesses at its heels. “For a moment it looked as though all four animals would end up in our laps,” recalls Kent. “Burton threw himself to the ground and hollered, “God, Geoff! I can’t look!”
: A luxurious mobile camping site in Kenya.
Kent upended the dinner table, their martini glasses splashing and shattering to the ground in the chaos. Meanwhile the lionesses had teamed up to wrestle the wailing buffalo to the ground, finally ripping the big beast apart at the foot of their fire.
As for the movie star, he remained behind the table until the chaos subsided. Slowly they peered over the makeshift barrier to watch the ferocious predators slinking away and the buffalo carcass crackling over the fire. Now Burton chuckled and turned to Kent. “Geoff, if I bring Suzy
(his wife) here, will you do that again?”
“Do what again?” asked Kent, incredulous, “Would you set up that scene again?”
He turned to marvel at the lions now making their way far off into the bush. “Suzy would just love it.”
Kent had to explain to him that what he had just experienced wasn’t a movie. “On the contrary,” he said with a laugh, “Out here, everything is real”.
Kent’s life took on a new reality when, in the early 1970s, he met and married Jorie Butler, of the Oak Brook Butler family, a strikingly attractive platinum blonde who was, like Kent, a licensed pilot and this country’s first ranked female polo player. Her business acumen and coaching skills made it possible for Kent to make a name for himself both on the American polo circuit and in business, and she was there by his side when, in 1978, the Abercrombie & Kent polo team became the first to win both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Gold Cup in the same year. “We had a wild ride,” says Kent. “For quite some time, I felt as though together, we could rule the world. She helped me take Abercrombie & Kent from Africa to America and most everywhere beyond.”
A lioness and her cubs hide in the grass, Kenya.
It was great while it lasted; even after their divorce, Jorie remains on the board to oversee the company’s philanthropic and conservation efforts.
In 2010 Kent married Otavia Jardim, a Brazilian model, who works closely with him to develop the day-by-day itineraries for the Inspiring Expeditions he leads to remote destinations like Palau, Lapland and Antarctica. Along the way the two have become international celebrities with the paparazzi making much of the 39-year age difference between the two when, in 2017, the Brazilian-born model gave birth to a pair of twins. Kent refused to rise to the bait, saying, with a laugh, “I like being around young people, it keeps me young.” In the early days, Kent recalls, A&K took people places where you couldn’t drink the water. “Now, we take them to luxury spas and super villas via super yachts and private jets. More than ever, we’re bringing our clients the best the world has to offer.”
Of course, some safaris are more exciting than others. His safari with the Mannings—and the encounter with some two dozen Turkana warriors, for instance, was downright hair-raising, and among the most memorable.
The warriors—members of a nomadic people who inhabited stretches of arid desert around northwestern Kenya—were an eerie sight in the glare of the headlights, naked but for armlets, legs painted white from knee to thigh, and armed with spears, machetes, and knives. Kent ordered his three safari vehicles to stop and, during a seemingly cordial moment, made small talk with the Turkana chief in Swahili, the lingua franca of the bush. When Kent indicated that his party was lost, the chief told him to follow his lead. To do otherwise would have been an insult, so the drivers reluctantly
Geoffrey Kent with guests in the Amazon.
lined up in single file. For more than an hour the three vehicles lumbered over the dark savanna until, much to their passengers’ surprise, they found themselves on the path they had been looking for.
Kent thanked the chief and expressed his gratitude with a tin of tobacco—highly coveted in the bush—and with that the Turkana moved off into the darkness. Their departure, however, was a ruse; before the trucks could get up to speed, the warriors had circled back, beating on the vehicles’ windows and swarming over the fenders and roofs in an attempt to break in. The passengers beat them back with rifle butts while the drivers mashed the gas pedals to the floor, sending the vehicles lurching back and forth until they finally plowed through the Turkana’s scrum and accelerated far down the trail, a hail of spears and war clubs following in their wake.
Four decades later, unscathed by the incident, the dapper Kent remembers Bootsie’s words before she and her husband, finally a safe distance from their assailants, turned in for the night: “Hot dog! This sure is some honeymoon!”
Giraffes cross the road in a Game park in Kenya.