What It’s Really Like To Manage A Safari Camp — An Interview with Peter and Kate Kenchington

Images and post courtesy of Wilderness Safaris.

Peter and Kate Kenchington are the dynamic duo managing Kings Pool camp in Botswana’s Linyanti area. Both were born and raised with African roots in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where they spent many family holidays in the bush. As Kate puts it, “Visitors call it ‘going on safari’ but for us safari was never a word, it was just a holiday, because holiday always equalled safari.”

The couple met at school when they were just ten years old and remember writing love-letters to each other and holding hands on the bus. But like many childhood sweethearts they eventually lost touch. After leaving school Kate studied advertising in Cape Town and then moved to London. Peter joined the British army where he became a tank commander and served for 11 years. In 2007 the couple reconnected via Facebook and moved back home to Africa. Skip ahead and they are living a beautiful, life in the wild, working for Wilderness Safaris in Botswana. As idyllic as it sounds, managing a camp is not for the faint hearted!

Rachel Lang: Tell me about your decision to move to the bush…

Kate Kenchington: As a newly married couple, we thought, ‘Let’s have an adventure!’ We had absolutely no formal hospitality experience so along with our CVs we sent a third document saying, ‘This is who we are and this is what we offer – Peter loves single malts, I love the winelands, we’ve met the queen, we can drive 4x4s, we’ve travelled to 36 different countries, we’ve eaten in Michelin star restaurants, we’ve grown up on farms and so we know how to get vehicles in and out of mud and sand.’

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Peter Kenchington: We didn’t completely realise it at that time but experiencing these things was very, very important in relating to guests, especially in the Premier Camps. Kate can talk to them about the wines, or about their time in Spain, and speak a bit of Spanish to them. I can talk about what I experienced diving in Belize, diving in the Baltic, Cypress, Germany, Poland. There is always some common ground between us and the majority of guests who come through.

KK: I worked in investment banks in London so I can relate to the whole corporate thing which is great because we get a lot of financiers coming through so I chat to them about the markets, and Peter can do a star talk, or talk about army technology or photography or theoretical physics, or . . . those are the kind of conversations that we have around the dinner table. So being able to relate to our guests has been important.

RL: So why Botswana?

KK: For me, it was always the romanticism of the Okavango – a place I had seen in Attenborough films and dreamt about.

RL: And has being here lived up to your expectations?

KK: It has been amazing. It’s a life that’s hard to explain to people though; managing a camp is definitely a life of extremes, you have extreme highs and extreme lows. And when the highs are high, it’s amazing! And everyone goes ‘Oh, you’ve got such an incredible job’ but you work your tail off. I’m a hard worker by nature but I have never worked as hard as I have out here and it is unrelenting. Seven days a week for three or four months at a stretch.

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PK: Long hours! It’s 15 hours a day almost constantly.

KK: We live in an amazing place, but there are highs and lows. You can have a really draining day and the next minute wild dogs will come running through camp and kill an impala right in front of you!

PK: The downside of our job is that we often have really amazing guests but they are only here for two or three nights and then they are gone.

RL: Do you have times when guests seem to be unrealistic about their safari expectations?

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PK: It’s a five-star experience but sometimes people don’t always realise what goes into it. Unlike a zoo, we can’t drive guests to a kill that has just been laid out for them!

RL: You seem to both really embrace particular animals and seem familiar with the wildlife around camp…

PK: These animals are our neighbours.

KK: So we are always spying on the neighbours! You get to know what everyone is doing…

PK: Like the baby squirrels in the dining room, and the starlings. We have been on leave so I only saw that the starling chicks were out and about a couple of days ago. And the croc, I hadn’t seen him here for a month before we left to go on leave, and now here he is. We watch him pop up to sun himself or snap and miss a fish and then sink down again. I would like to see him get some lunch; he has been missing a lot.

KK: We call this massive croc Submarine, he likes to hang out with his girlfriend across the bank, it’s not that easy to see from here but there is a tuft of grass and that’s where they chill out. That is normally only just above the water and they cruise around little channels around the back there, then cut back and lie in front of that grass. It’s their favourite place to sun themselves in winter.

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KK: In spring you start learning the warthog families and get to know who lives under which guest tent. There are some sub-adults walking around now who were born under the deck of Tent 7. We always have to warn the guests, ‘If you hear scratching under your deck, nothing is coming to eat you, it’s just the warthogs!’ There are also some teeny tiny ones around now. Obviously none of the warthogs is tame and you don’t pet them, but they have grown up around us and are comfortable in our presence so you can walk pretty close to them. And then we have one leopard that spends a lot of time coming through camp. We had quite an intense experience with her recently … we had a rare night off one evening and we had just got home and Peter jumped in the shower…

PK: I heard this noise on the metal roof of the carport and it sounded like something heavy. Straight away I knew something was going on. I turned the shower off and said, ‘Kate, what’s that?’ and immediately the guinea fowl in the leadwood above our house exploded out of the tree.

KK: Meanwhile I pulled back the curtains to try and see what was going on. We have a security light outside so I could see bits of bark dropping off the tree just in front of me. I decided (against my better judgment) that it would be a good idea to go outside and shine up into the tree. As I put my hand on the door handle to go outside, a leopard jumped from the tree to the roof and down on the ground, right in front of my nose! Luckily I hadn’t actually opened the door yet. I pulled the curtain closed and called ‘Peter! It’s a leopard!’ and he came skidding out of the shower to come and see. She wandered around outside our house and then walked off. Since then, every night when I get home, (before I even get out of the vehicle), I am shining up into the trees!

RL: Wow. What an amazing encounter! So to change the topic a bit, how would you describe your managing style?

PK: I suppose what we both strive for is what we call ‘effortless elegance’. We treat the camp as if it is our home and we just happen to have nine spare rooms. So what we are trying to go for is a relaxed ‘home-like setting’. I think it adds so much more value to have interaction between the guests and the staff. That’s why we try to encourage the big tables. I mean, we had several different couples come in August and they clicked like they had known each other for years! They had never met before and they had such an amazing time together, which we helped to facilitate.

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KK: I think one of the nicest compliments we have ever had from a guest was that ‘every night felt like a dinner party at Peter and Kate’s house.’ We want to give our guests the most incredible, memorable, luxurious experience, but also make them feel part of the family.’ I may be a bit biased but having lived and travelled around the world I have to say that not many places have the same kind of warm hospitality vibe as we do in southern Africa, we are very lucky.

RL: Well that’s exactly how I have felt being here so you are doing a wonderful job, well done!

Written and Photographed by Rachel Lang, Wilderness Safaris Blog Contributor. This article has been reposted in partnership with Wilderness Safaris. See the original here.

2016-11-16T22:19:48+00:00