African Safaris Ltd was founded on a passion for Africa, by Claire Vial; an experienced wildlife photographer, zoologist, and author of more than 60 international children's books. Claire's passion for the continent, its wildlife and people, started at a very young age through reading books and watching wildlife documentaries.
In 1993 Claire bought a one-way ticket to Botswana where she lived and worked as a wildlife conservationist volunteer for Conservation International in/around the Okavango Delta, for 2 years. Armed with a point-and-shoot camera on arrival, she quickly realised an SLR was needed to capture Africa’s wildlife. Teaching herself photography, Claire was living her dream – in Africa with a camera. Finally returning to New Zealand in 1997 she started writing and illustrating non-fiction children’s books, on a variety of animals.; whilst at the same time she started African Safaris Ltd and began taking small groups to Africa on safari.
Since Claire’s first trip to Africa in 1993 she has spent the last 20 years travelling and working in Southern Africa and East Africa. Using her extensive knowledge and experience, Claire still loves to share Africa and leads two safaris to Botswana and Kenya/Tanzania each year. The highlight of taking small groups to Africa is to give people an opportunity to experience some of Africa’s last great wilderness areas; and to feel, smell and touch Africa – Claire’s second home. 'When you are in Africa and you are watching a lion hunt, it is very challenging and emotional to put into words what you are feeling at the time; what you see, what you smell, what you hear. Like myself, many people have found a wonderful connection with Africa and there is a lot of truth in the saying that Africa gets under your skin and into your blood. Karen Blixen put it very well by saying "You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” And, I hole-heartedly agree with R. Elliott who said “If you can only visit 2 continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice.”
Tracy van der Merwe
Tracy grew up in Tauranga and then like many Kiwi’s do, at the age of 19 she ventured off to the UK for the big ‘OE’. With a love for discovering new places and a passion for horse riding she worked and travelled in various areas. Being based in England for work - sometimes with horses and sometimes not, then travelling within the UK and also out into neighbouring countries and further afield. During that time though, she worked towards her British Horse Society exams, which were a far cry from Pony Club days at Otumoetai.
Then after 7 years in England, an opportunity arose to work for a horse safari operator in South Africa. So with bags packed and her dog following on a later plane, off she went. This was to be the start of an adventure in Africa that lasted 11 years. She later obtained her Botswana Guides Licence and guided on horseback in the incredible Okavango Delta, then moved to Namibia for two years and guided rides across the desert, and in between there were times guiding in various locations in South Africa. The admiration for Africa was set.
There is a saying that once you have the sand of Africa in your shoes you will never leave. And it was nearly the case for Tracy. But after having some incredible ‘once in a life time’ moments' as a Horse Safari Guide, she decided to head back to the UK to work for In The Saddle, who specialise in Horse Riding Holidays all over the world. From here she continued to see parts of the world from horseback like Jordan, Israel, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Australia and even back here in New Zealand.
However, the call to come home to New Zealand on a permanent basis was ringing loud in her ears, so in October 2012 she returned to Tauranga. Her passion for Africa and horses has never ceased and recently she has had time working at Mt View Sport Horses and also volunteered regularly at the local Riding for the Disabled. She is also a trained equine specialist in the EAGALA model of Equine assisted therapy.
More recently she has swapped the horse riding for mountain bike riding, which has opened up a new avenue of how to see Africa - from the back of a bike.
Tom and Ellie
Originally from South Africa Tom and Ellie are now loving their new life in the Bay of Plenty, with Tracy. She got them as puppies on the same day, from a farmers market, so they think they are brother and sister - although they are not at all similar in breed – Ellie being a Rhodesian Ridgeback and Tom a whippet terrier cross. They are now fairly well travelled, and have clocked up quite a few air miles, having gone from South Africa to England and now here to New Zealand. They have some pretty good stories to tell the other dogs that they come across on their walks, like how to avoid baboons, what fun it is to lollop around in the snow, and now how swimming in the sea is a favourite summer activity. They are definitely dogs who enjoy the warmer climate and can be seen sneaking onto the sun lounger when Tracy isn’t looking.