Style and Lifestyle

Julie McIntosh: Pearls of Wisdom after 30 years on Safari

This year The Classic Safari Company celebrates its pearl anniversary – that’s 30 years of creating remarkable holidays in some of the most wild and wonderful corners of our planet.

It’s safe to say that through the decades we’ve learnt a thing or two about what makes a safari sing. So in this, our thirtieth year, we’re sharing our pearls of wisdom, starting with an interview with founder Julie McIntosh. Reflecting on her time since The Classic Safari Company was conceived ‘over a few too many whiskys in Botswana’, she divulges her favourite places around the world, the people who have inspired her and the best safari camps in Africa. She shares some funny stories (cabin crew giving up on a flight to Mali among others) and some lessons well learnt along the way.

Read on and join us as we embark upon the next thirty years!

How was The Classic Safari Company founded?

Over a few too many whiskys in Botswana, my father and an old school friend, David Hartley decided it may be a good idea to open up an Australian office selling bespoke safaris to Africa as well as representing David’s Okavango Delta camps, Tsaro & Xugana. We started operating under the name ‘Hartley’s Safaris’ selling African holidays to a really small number of clients, mainly friends and family, with whom we had a strong one on one relationship. The way we did it was really key and completely unique at the time – it was all tailormade holidays and we didn’t use any brochures whatsoever. One of the first clients we sent away was Bryce Courtenay just around the time that he had written ‘The Power of One’. It was an exciting time as everything moved so quickly and I had the naïve confidence of youth!

Tell us about your time in Zambia

In the early 90s I visited Tongabezi near Victoria Falls which remains one of my favourite lodges today. There I met a man named William Ruck Keene. He captivated me. I invited him to Australia, we got engaged and married, and then we travelled back to the Lower Zambezi in Zambia where we built Sausage Tree Camp and Old Mondoro together. He sadly passed in a car accident way before his time, but that short period we shared together was incredible. He was such an extraordinary man – a visionary, quintessentially British, funny, adventurous, and willing to take on anything…his impact on Zambian tourism and the people of Zambia remains significant to this day.

How have your experiences shaped your ability to create amazing holidays for?

My parents have always had a passion for the African bush. We’re South African but my family and I left Africa in the 70s to travel to Brazil, then the US, and then finally to Australia where we settled. Being so far away meant we were denied access to African safaris regularly however on every visit back we’d hit the bush. I also had a post university trip which was life changing because I was young, carefree and liberated in Zimbabwe. I canoed the Zambezi with the legendary guide, Rob Shattuck, worked on an Operation Raleigh expedition and fell in love with a very handsome, blonde South African kayaker. I think it was at that moment that my heart was forever lost to Africa.

I always came away from Africa feeling earthed, rejuvenated and happier for the time spent in nature, as well as the warmth of the African people you encounter. Trying to share this joy is the motivation behind our whole tribe at The Classic Safari Company.

Which is your favourite place in Africa, South America and India? What makes these places your favourites?

In Africa it would be Sausage Tree Camp in Zambia. It holds such emotion for me and visiting makes me very nostalgic, but I also just love its location on the Zambezi with its forests, oxbow lagoons and free movement of wildlife across both sides of this river. Its a paradise.

In South America I’d pick Torres del Paine in Chile. It’s an extraordinary place with immense sculptural rock formations that make it almost unearthly.

In India, the Johar Valley. Its high, remote, full of colour from flowering rhododendron forests and has a sense of majesty from the towering Himalayan peaks.

Which hotel/lodge/camp knocked your socks off – why?

San Camp in Botswana. Its in the Makgadikgadi which is a vast, ethereal salt pan. There’s a quote that I really like from one of the first outfitters ever to host safaris there in the late 80’s. Its goes ‘Makgadikgadi? I asked what was out there, and they said ‘Nothing – only idiots go there.’ I thought fine, that’s the place for me.” That just sums it up for me! The people who set it up are a little bit mad in the best possible way – eccentric I suppose. It’s quintessentially classic, stylish and totally in keeping with the natural environment. Its stunning. Hat’s off to the designer Catherine Raphaely.

Name a place that surprised you – why?

Tsavo in Kenya. I’ve been travelling to Kenya for well over thirty years but I only made it to Tsavo this year! Its huge – around the size of Israel – and I joined a trek called The Great Walk of Africa that went from west to east, following the great Tsavo river for over a hundred miles. Walking that far, often in silence, is quite meditative and being out in the wild on foot for a number of days exposes you completely to the wild. Your sense become attuned and you notice details that would otherwise pass you by. I loved the murmurations of the huge flocks of quelea birds and the big tusker elephants which are incredibly rare these days for obvious reasons. I felt like I’d been exposed to whole new part of Africa I never know about. It’s very special.

What is the biggest misconception about Africa? India? Latin America?

Africa: it’s dangerous
India: it’s difficult to travel in
Latin America: it’s inaccessibile

Are there any people in the industry (alive or passed) that have particularly inspired you?

There are many but here are some of my favourites:

  • Will Ruck Keene – my late husband – for his vision and ability to design some of the best safari lodges in Africa (Tongabezi, Sindabezi, Sausage Tree Camp) that still have legacy to this day
  • Beks Ndlovu of African Bush Camps – for his intelligence, insight and wisdom (wiser than his years) and ability to motivate people creating one of Africa’s leading safari outfits. His safari lodges are also among the best in Africa.
  • Iain Allen of Tropical Ice, who outfit The Great Walk of Africa – anyone that can pull off a 100 mile walk over 12 days and continuously top one up with great stories of life, conservation, movies, books and current affairs, is pretty amazing.
  • Garth Thompson – for his enthusiasm and willingness to share his love of Africa with all
  • Colin Bell – for his vision for the wilderness and conservation, and always being the eternal optimist even in the face of darkness.

Would you choose a safari on foot or on horseback? Why?

Tough question – I’m actually blissed out doing either. I love the horses for the terrain you can cover and for the chats you can have en route with friends. I love the walks for the connection with nature and the endurance and sense of achievement that they can bring. Can I choose both?

What’s the key to experiencing culture as a tourist in an authentic way?

Go with a smaller outfit that has a real (rather than forced) connection with the local culture. Travelling on horseback is particularly real as you are with those managing animals and there is no real pretence about that.

Have you had any bad travel experiences?

Being stuck in Accra Airport, Ghana for 36 hours and missing my cousin’s spectacular Zulu engagement party along with Christmas.

Any funny travel experiences?

On the same trip as the Ghana disaster I was flying from Bamako, Mali to Accra in Ghana, where I got stuck, and the entire team of flight attendants just gave up and sat down and joined the passengers for the flight. Somewhat amusing, if a little alarming!

What has been the key to TCSC’s success over 30 years?

I think sticking to our ethos of offering tailored trips into nature’s paradises. There’s always a temptation to expand and diversify, especially when things get tricky, but I think staying true to our roots has paid off. It’s also down to our team of travel specialists – our tribe! They’re well educated and professional and GREAT at what they do because they have so much personal experience. Most of them have been with us well over ten years – many for far, far longer – and you just don’t get that anywhere else.

What’s been the biggest change in travel generally over that time?

Social media and the need for instant gratification created by it. It has destroyed the joys of discovering a destination slowly and the ability to see everything through a lens before you even leave your armchair has compromised the element of surprise. It also takes tourists to places they may never have gone, just to get ‘that photo’, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it keeps the hordes away from the places we like!

The travel industry has seen many challenges over the years including 9/11, Covid 19, financial crises and so on. What has been the biggest challenge how did you navigate it?

COVID 19 by far. It’s destroyed livelihoods, created emotional stress and changed the world forever. We’re still navigating it – it’s enduring and relentless.

Any lessons learnt?

Stick to your reason for being.

What 3 items are always in your bag wherever you go?

Battery pack & charging cables

Any tech you really recommend?

Our phones are our connection to the world so that along with everything you need to keep it working

Is tech on safari (or on holiday generally) a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion? Why?

It’s a good thing if managed well and used with the consideration of others around you. That is no noise, no talking in public spaces and not using it unless in your own space. It kills conversation otherwise.

Any airport tips? Any sneaky ways to get access to lounges/upgrades etc?

I enjoy wandering an airport. I always fly economy so I don’t get lounge access apart from maybe with my Amex Card, but I don’t mind because I love just being there and people watching!

Any top tips for travellers?

Stick to the Southern Hemisphere. Its a lot less populated so its where you find the best, most remote wilderness that is largely intact in its natural state.  Travel is a lot less stressful due to less tourism demand and everything is just generally much less busy.

What is the future of travel?

Busy! People certainly seem to be itching to get away and make up for the time we’ve lost over the last couple of years. There’s also a big focus on mutigenerational travel – grandparents, parents and kids all going away en masse. They take over an entire camp (especially the sort that only sleep 8 or so people) and have all the guides, chefs, staff and vehicles all to themselves. Its a great way to travel if there are a few of you and often it works out far cheaper than booking multiple hotel rooms.

If you only had one trip left, where would you go?

Road trip through Southern Africa. Hands down. Carefree with the wind in my hair, just like the good old days!


See you out there.

Ella Collins

Ella Collins