The Eternal Optimist Of The Serengeti
Once a City boy in London, Mr Bas Hochstenbach has braved gun-toting rebels to rejuvenate East Africa’s most far-flung reserves
An empty Serengeti plain in January. The sky falls dark with an approaching storm, a grove of fever trees appearing silver against the blackness. Birds gather for cover in the canopy. Warthogs dart into their holes. Then the rain begins to fall, the first of the heavy drops throwing up sun-scorched dust until puddles form on the earth’s surface.
Mr Bas Hochstenbach, 39, suggests that, rather than turn back to camp, we continue in the storm. He wants to reach the region’s giant kopjes – weather-scoured protrusions of granite that pimple the plains of East Africa. Water falls off my clothes in cupfuls while my hair, drenched, sticks to my cheeks. “I’m an optimist,” says Mr Hochstenbach, his smile an unspoken challenge that I should, perhaps, ignore the horizontal rain.
I’m here, in Tanzania, to report on one of Mr Hochstenbach’s many ventures, a tented camp called Namiri Plains, which opened last July. It’s the 15th of 16 such places in East Africa that are owned and operated by Mr Hochstenbach’s safari company, Asilia Africa. And it wasn’t meant to be here. The eight elegant tents – erected in a forgotten corner of the seldom visited Seregenti National Park – were originally designed for a camp in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park, which is currently undergoing development after being devastated by civil war and poaching from the mid-1980s onwards. This camp, planned in partnership with philanthropist Mr Greg Carr (who has pledged $40m over 30 years to protect and rejuvenate Gorongosa’s wildlife and environment), would have been the area’s first high-end offering. But it was forced to close a week before its planned debut, in August 2013, as rebel forces took up arms again. This, says Mr Hochstenbach, was “the biggest disappointment of my professional life”.
“I loved that place,” he says. “I walked it, flew over it and camped in the emptiest parts. I could see the hope of restoration, not conservation, which suggests keeping something in its current state, but the chance for improvement. The plan was to reintroduce the mega-fauna, bring in tourism, create jobs, then with success, pay off the debts and create a real economy underpinning the park for the long run.”
It’s clear that “optimism”, in Mr Hochstenbach’s case, doesn’t quite cover it. In fact, his dreams, while ambitious, are also pragmatic; more than just a guide, adventurer or opportunist, he is someone who knows how money works, where to find it, what it can do in the context of his ventures and the areas they bring him to. He is also a man who gave up on one life to pursue another, a relatable figure for anyone who’s spent time staring wistfully out of the office window.
Mr Hochstenbach was born to a marketing manager and a schoolteacher in Leidschendam, a suburban town in the flatlands of Holland. Aside from caravanning trips to France with his parents, his childhood was without international travels, until he graduated with flying colours and joined McKinsey & Co, the leading global management consultancy company.
“I did the typical City boy routine,” he says. “I worked hard. I made a fair bit of cash, I threw some parties, and I spent it. I lived between New York, London and Amsterdam. But something wasn’t right. I was hungry for adventure — not some courageous act of physical endurance, but to apply the strategy and business I knew I was good at, and work in adverse circumstances in parts of the world that needed development.”
In January 2004 Mr Hochstenbach swapped offices on Jermyn Street for a modest home in a local Tanzanian neighbourhood. He and his girlfriend (now wife) lived on a combined budget of US$100 a month. “Mary and I used to argue about spending a dollar to swim in the pool at a local hotel,” he says. “Living in Africa made me realise the bed that made me happiest, then and now, was the simplest one, with little between me and the wildlife.”
It was in this spirit that in 2004 Mr Hochstenbach went into business with Mr Jeroen Harderwijk, an ex-investment banker also based in Tanzania, co-founding Asilia. They built and purchased camps in some already popular swathes of East Africa. But they harboured ambitions to use tourism to open up less well-trodden areas, places that visitors might consider marginal, but that contained vital and endangered ecosystems. In 2004, this included going into the Lamai Wedge, a remote northern area of Tanzania’s Serengeti.
“The last tourist to leave before we arrived had been threatened at gunpoint,” says Mr Hochstenbach of this early venture. “Although it was national park, this roughly 2,000sqkm sector was recovering from a lawless decade. Authorities were overwhelmed by poachers. There were bullet holes at the main ranger post. On our reconnaissance trip, we saw hippos with arrows sticking out of their skulls. At night we saw the fires from poacher camps. But it was also enormously inspiring – to travel an area of true wilderness where there were no roads whatsoever.” One year later, Asilia opened Sayari Camp, a cluster of 15 tented suites arranged to echo the landscape of the nearby Turner Hill. A decade on and the Lamai Wedge is considered one of the most fashionable zones of the entire Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
It is this push into edge-of-the-map territories that makes Mr Hochstenbach interesting, as well as the fact that his financier’s mind for a profitable bottom line is genuinely tempered by a healthy dose of Dutch liberalism. Asilia has thus far proved successful – Mr Hochstenbach now lives in Cape Town with his wife and two children – but he is prepared for things to go wrong, as with Mozambique.
“Trouble in Africa can happen in the most unexpected of places,” he explains. “All camps – including ours – are struggling to survive in the very place where safari was born, in the Masai Mara in Kenya, with tourists keeping a wide berth because of misplaced fears of Ebola and terrorism.”
Yet Mr Hochstenbach doesn’t easily give in. In 2016, Asilia will open a second camp in Ruaha, a remote and overlooked 20,000sqkm national park in the southern Serengeti, which struggles with poaching and access difficulties. These challenges will in part be assuaged by a multimillion-dollar deal with another silent investor, signed up by Asilia in early July, who will be pushing into the worst of the poaching areas outside the national park’s boundaries.
“The continent’s crucial wildlife areas need economic models to prosper,” says Mr Hochstenbach. “We are not claiming to be lonely pioneers – there are more companies that try good things in important areas – but we are now of sufficient size to make things happen on a large scale and for the long term.” It is a vote of confidence that a company such as Asilia gives to forgotten parts of Africa, which also resonates with communities. The first time Mr Hochstenbach stayed at Sayari, everything was stolen from his tent by poachers. But through the course of the night, lodge staff hunted down the perpetrators. “My possessions all came back to me by sunrise – even my toothbrush,” recalls Mr Hochstenbach. “It was a critical moment. The community realised the risk we were taking and wanted to protect it.”
I ask him what’s next. “I have a soft spot for the Cameroons and the Congos, but if I’ve learnt one thing from Gorongosa, it’s the more I fall in love with Africa, the more I have to manage my passion for what might be realistically achievable. Still, I remain an optimist.” He also remains well dressed – perfectly shaven, outfitted not in the usual African khakis, but slim-fitting trousers and a dark Armani T-shirt, the only sartorial concession to his adopted home a single silver band worn on his wrist. “It’s made by the Datoga people who live around Lake Eyasi in Tanzania. They sell their handiwork for next to nothing,” he says. “This bracelet reminds me of how much work goes in to just surviving on this continent. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt along the way, it’s that it’s all too easy to romanticise Africa.”
Mr Hochstenbach’s camps and lodges in Africa can be booked through asiliaafrica.com.