WHAT WORKING IN AFRICAN SAFARI TRAVEL IS LIKE: A CONVERSATION WITH PEARL JURIST-SCHOEN





Pearl and I are soul sisters. As eager anthropology undergrads, we lived and breathed different cultures, travel, tourism, and learned what questions and observations we should make when in new places. Pearl has worked at a tour operator, Extraordinary Journeys, for the last 3 years, which specializes in African safari. Here's her take on her experience working in travel, conservation, and what makes Africa such a mystifying destination.



What do you do?

I work for a safari outfitter. We sell custom safaris to Africa and now a few select destinations beyond Africa that offer a similar wilderness experiences.


What’s the usual response when people hear that?

People usually get really excited because most are somewhat intrigued by travel and mystified by Africa in particular. The immediate follow up question is if I get to go on safari myself.


And do you?

I do! We all get to go on an annual inspection trip, so that's definitely a perk of my job.


What do you do on a day to day basis?

My job in particular is to work directly with clients who want to go on safari. They come to us with a trip inquiry and then they get assigned to to a sales person. I get to know my clients; figure out the experience they want to have; and then design a custom itinerary based on their interests, needs, travel dates, and budget. This includes everything from flights to accommodations, guides, ground transfers, park fees/conservation fees, and day tours. I string it all together and book it for them! There’s a lot that happens after they pay their deposit and commit to their trip, but the bulk of my job is in the initial planning process.


Why do you think Africa is so mystified?

It's a continent that people are exposed to mostly from a Planet Earth/Nat Geo perspective. A few natural landmarks and the wildlife in particular are so iconic, yet most people could identify only a few countries on a map. People know so little about Africa, how to get there, what to do, and how to do it. They see it as exotic, wild, and off the grid.


What brought you to be interested in travel in the first place?

I studied Anthropology in college with a focus on tourism and its effect on local culture. And on a personal level, I’ve always loved travel so there was an obvious appeal there.


After I graduated college, I lived in Tasmania, Australia for a year and came back in love with that destination and wanted to work in travel to send people to Australia. When I was looking for jobs, I struggled to find an outfitter that sold Australia, but I found a boutique company that focused on Africa. I didn't know anything about Africa at the time, but I’ve learned and experienced a lot and have become passionate about conservation and the wilderness, which is a huge part of tourism in Africa.





A leopard enjoying some very fresh game.



What excites you about African travel?

There’s a direct correlation between conservation and tourism - one really cannot survive without the other - and you need the support of the local community for the system to thrive. When the community sees wildlife as more valuable alive than dead because they work in eco-tourism, then everyone benefits. Oftentimes it takes actually traveling to Africa to realize that and to feel passionately about it, so I try not to force it on anyone if they’re not already engaged in that way before they travel. But I love to make that plug when I get the chance!


How often is conservation part of the conversation with the people you work with?

It's not part of every conversation or even most conversations when you’re simply trying to put an itinerary together and make a sale. Sometimes it’s a selling point or talking point, but in general the day to day feels more removed from that greater good.


Do you partner with people who have the same values?

Yes, absolutely, and that’s what makes the industry so inspiring.


In regards to human culture, village visits, ethnotourism, the "wild villager" as a stereotype that drives money because people want to see this different life. What are your thoughts on that type of tourism attraction?


People often want to have a “cultural experience” and see something that is supposed to be tribal and authentic. We really try to avoid the contrived experiences where you go to a village and watch people sing and dance and then get persuaded to buy something. Sometimes it can just be so staged!


There are certainly exceptions to that, and not every village visit is contrived. Many of the lodges we like to use are heavily involved in the communities where many of their employees are from. They’ve established certain community projects that are partially funded by the guests’ nightly rate, so it can actually be really special to visit a school, for example, that you are inadverently funding! And it’s up to the lodge to determine how one can visit the community without disrupting it, so we are very careful about which lodge/camp offer a fair and ethical cultural experience.


I have often found that some of the most authentic and uncontrived cultural experiences are had with your guide. You don’t need to go visit a proper village to have unstaged exchanges with a local person, plus your guide is so accessible and you already have a trusting relationship. (They can also ask you questions about your culture!) For instance, in Kenya, you may have a Maasai guide who isn't wearing any traditional garb but he takes you to his village to meet his family and learn about their lifestyle. If you show true interest, people will want to share their lives with you and be willing to have an open discussion about what is traditional and what impact globalization and technology is having - they’re not frozen in time like some people imagine.





Pearl at Ngorongoro Crater.



What are the top 3 things you wish people could know about African travel/tourism?

  1. Given the rate at which the populations of so many species are declining, the wildlife might not be here forever. They’re facing poachers, unpredictable weather, deforestation, and aggressive droughts and floods. It’s really sad!

  2. Safaris are expensive. International and domestic airfare as well as park fees can really add up. However, there are ways to be smart about it and keep those costs as low as possible, and you certainly don’t need to stay in only 5-star luxury properties! There are a lot of really fun and affordable accommodation options that can be rustic and fun and still offer great service and food.

  3. It's somewhere that everyone should experience if they can. There’s this vastness, remoteness, and this magnetic allure that I haven’t experienced elsewhere yet. Once you go, you feel that any news about Africa suddenly pertains to you, and you feel invested in an entire continent by visiting once. It's powerful.


What’s your favorite place to travel?

Well we are talking about African safaris, so I think I have to say Africa! It's not necessarily somewhere I want to live, but I love going to the bush for 2 weeks, not having cell service and just be out in the wilderness. It’s completely different than my life at home so the escapism is really enticing.


What’s your short wishlist of places to visit?

Botswana and Zambia are on my Africa list, and I really want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Outside of Africa, I want to go back to Tasmania for the Three Capes, and I’d love to see the Himalayas and go to Patagonia. This job has certainly made me more drawn to nature experiences!