In celebration of Thomson’s fortieth anniversary, we sat down with Thomson co-founders Rick and Judi to hear stories from the early days of their careers, and how those formative experiences shaped them.
Congratulations on 40 years of Thomson Safaris! How does it feel to have reached this milestone?
Judi: It feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time, but it feels good.
Rick: Never did I picture that we’d be sitting here 40 years later talking about it!
Can you tell me the story of how you two met?
R: We met in Kenya, where I was guiding at the time. Judi’s company wanted to offer safaris, so she came to learn about it and understand it. I happened to be guiding her safari. That was the first time we ever met.
Why did you decide to run a safari company together?
J: When I was in the seventh grade, I did a research paper on poaching in Kenya. I was so devastated by what my research proved to me that I decided I needed to see some of this wildlife in my life. Later on, I ended up in East Africa, and it really spoke to me. We could actually save this incredible wildlife, and witness and be amongst it.
R: I was an automotive engineer by trade. That’s how I ended up in East Africa. And when I went to Tanzania, my God, it was just magic. You could be in the Serengeti for days at a time and never see another vehicle. The wildlife populations are just extraordinary.
What was it like growing Thomson with the budding adventure travel industry?
R: In those days, adventure travel was a very, very new thing.
J: I was in Boston with advertisements suggesting that perhaps going on a wildlife safari in Tanzania would be far more wonderful than sitting on a beach. We had this mantra, “A change is better than a rest.” I thought people were really going to want that. And they did.
What was the learning curve like for the first couple safaris?
R: Tanzania was difficult to operate in. The stores didn’t have much to sell. Most of the hotels were owned by the government, and things were difficult for these lodges. You’d arrive and find no lights work in the room. They couldn’t get lightbulbs, toilet paper. If you did find a bottle of beer, it probably didn’t have a label on it. And if you were very fortunate, it would be cold.
We learned we had to take lightbulbs and toilet rolls with us because we needed at least one lightbulb to work in each room. When we left the next day, we would take them with us because we needed them for the next place.
We quickly learned the best way to send our guests home with a big smile was to control all these aspects. We started running these trips with sleeping bags, small tents, eating around the campfire and being totally self-sufficient. We became this mobile safari unit that had the freedom to go anywhere.
J: This became one of the foundations to who we are today.
What stories do you have from the early days?
J: Sunday morning at 4 a.m., KLM flies into Kilimanjaro airport. Once a week. So our safaris either have to be one week long or two weeks long. You remember that?
R: I haven’t forgotten, because you have left out a very important element.
J: What is that?
R: At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, my alarm would go off, because I had to wake up and go to the airport to meet the guests!
J: I forgot about that! The other thing was that there was not a lot of food in Tanzania–meat and potatoes, but not a lot of breakfast food. We came up with this great idea that we’re going to give them granola. Americans love granola, and I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so I think people only eat granola for breakfast. I would go to the store every Friday and get bag loads of granola. I’m talking pounds and pounds and pounds of granola. I put it in these yellow duffel bags. We go to the airport and tell the guests we have something we want them to carry. So they’re all going to Tanzania with duffel bags filled with granola.
You used to be able to camp on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater. What was that like?
R: It was idyllic to be down there. You wake early in the morning and get out there before any of the vehicles came down from the lodges on the Crater rim. That’s what we did for years and years.
J: It was a real highlight.
R: And then they stopped it. I personally think the lodge operators were feeling the pinch, that there were too many people in the Crater that they thought should be in their lodges. So that was it. It’s never again been opened.
Can you tell me about meeting the Maasai?
J: Our relationships with the Maasai people are unlike anybody else’s. After 40 years of being with our friends, it resonates with us just how symbiotic our relationship is. It all began when we first went to Lake Natron.
R: I got to know a couple of guys there. One of them was Marius, another was Samwell. They still live at Lake Natron in a very traditional way.
J: They always came to see us at our camps that were miles and miles away. They’d appear walking toward camp, and we’d go, “Oh my gosh, here comes our old buddies.”
The Maasai women became quite important to me. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language, we tried so hard to share what we were about and who we were. We would go off on these long walks together and they would take my hair ties and wrap it around their heads.
Forty years later, we’re having conversations together. What is childbirth like for you? What is it like to be a wife amongst many wives? What is it like to raise your children today? It goes on and on, and this relationship is much deeper than it had ever been before.
Judi, what was it like being a woman in the adventure travel space?
J: When I went to Tanzania, it was very clear that I was not invited into anything as a woman. If I asked a village chairman, “What do you think about bringing schools into your community?” he would look at Rick and answer the question. No eyes on Judi. No answer to Judi. It was always Rick. Today, they’re working on it. I call them out now.
R: So guess what? We now have a female president of Tanzania.
J: I’m going to see her because she will answer me, I’m sure. And I can talk to her.
What are your strengths, individually and together?
J: I have a big bicep.
R: People want to know, “How the heck can you two work in the same office all those years?” Judi’s all about sales and marketing, and I’m in Tanzanian operations. Sometimes I don’t see her in the office during the day. Our roles are quite separate.
J: I’m the person who is trying to help figure out what we look like and feel like on the ground. And Rick makes it happen. I listen to our guests…so we take that and decode it. I then say to Rick, “The way the beds are set up in the tent, maybe we should scoot them the other way, because it’d be an even better view. People really want to see this, the sunrise or the sunset.”
What hasn’t changed in 40 years of safaris?
J: When Rick took those first trucks out with all the accommodations and all the food and all the fuel, we went off the beaten path. We went to remote areas and found places we loved. The bottom line is this: we’re about wilderness. We want to take people into wilderness areas and give them a wilderness and cultural experience they wouldn’t get anywhere else.
R: The thing that hasn’t changed is the wildlife. About 30% of Tanzania is protected land. The Serengeti is the same as it was 40 years ago.
J: As we went outside the national parks and went into new areas, new communities, we realized that the tourist dollar was not reaching them. We felt obligated to make sure that tourism benefited the communities that we went to. And we have done that. There’s a non-profit organization I co-founded which is Focus on Tanzanian Communities (FoTZC). We make sure that wherever we are on the safari route, that the local community benefits, whether it’s through schoolhouses, empowerment of women, deep wells with solar powered pumps, teachers’ houses. That’s something we’re dedicated to. We only work with local guides.
And of course we love Tanzania, but we’ve been traveling the world with our kids since they were very young. I think that global perspective is what led us to found our family travel branch, Thomson Family Adventures. There’s so much to explore, and families deserve an educational way to see it together. Rick and I also started operating treks on Mt. Kilimanjaro and took over Gibb’s Farm, an award-winning eco-lodge on the slopes of Ngorongoro Crater. My daughter and I also took over management of AdventureWomen, which runs active adventure travel for women. It really runs in the family.
What do you see for the future of adventure travel?
R: Tanzania is still in its infancy when it comes to travel. We can talk about Selous National Park or Nyerere National Park. There’s Mahale Mountains, where there’s more free-ranging chimps than anywhere else in the world. Mount Kilimanjaro. Eight-hundred kilometers of coastline (497 miles) completely untouched. Tourism is going to be huge one day.
J: There’s so many places that we can take our guests. I am waiting to hear that they want to go to these new places, and we will go there. And I’m sure that Rick will operate it and make sure it happens once they say, We want to go.