As part of Women's History Month in March and International Women's Day on the 8th, we are conducting a series of interviews with interesting and inspirational women in travel. From adventurers to conservationists, guides to rangers, there are some amazing women out there, and here's what a few of them have to say..
The second in our series is a wonderful Kenyan woman called Verity Williams. Working in a notoriously male-orientated industry, she started guiding on private safaris in the 1980s, winning over clients and making an impact. She has since gone on to become the owner and manager of the beautiful Sabuk Lodge in Laikipia, Kenya. We talked to her about her achievements and challenges in the safari world.
What did you do before guiding? And why did you want to get into it?
I worked for the E.A. Tourist Travel Association, then the East African office in London, both in administration and tourism. Then I worked in the Ker & Downey safaris office, as well as running the office in Abercrombie & Kent. When we left Nairobi, I used to help at times in lodges throughout Kenya, such as Lewa Downs, and organise correspondence for small safari companies – I was always moving with my children if it was holiday time! One morning, when my three children were at school and my husband Dave was on safari, I simply decided that I wanted to get involved with the guiding side. It was in that moment that I began to gather all the necessary permits to enable me to become a guide and it went from there.
What sort of obstacles or criticism did you face when you first started?
When I had everything sorted, I went to the general manager of Ker & Downey safaris, and asked him if it was possible he give me some work taking out and guiding photographic safaris. He said “What? A woman?! I suggest you go and ask the minibus companies to work as a courier and be driven around by a driver instead.” It was like putting a red rag to a bull, as they say. I tried this for a short time, but eventually one of our good friends asked me to help as an assistant guide on his safari, driving my own safari vehicle. I was then asked to help on a Ker & Downey safari by one of the guides – at first the general manager said no, but then agreed. He obviously asked clients what they thought, and after that I was given the green light. He then asked me to take out many safaris!
How and why did you become the owner of Sabuk?
One of my safari clients, who had been out five or six times with us, said that he really enjoyed Kenya and would I perhaps like to purchase a place there with him. The perfect opportunity arose when Sabuk Lodge came on the market – I suggested that he come and look at it. He of course loved it and we bought it together. The rest is history!
What do you love most about your job as the owner of Sabuk? And what has been your most memorable moment or encounter?
I enjoy the wildness of Sabuk, together with all the different, exciting activities that we can offer – bush and bird walks, camel assisted walks, horse riding, swimming, tubing and fishing in the river, as well as game drives. I have encouraged and taught my laikipiak/turkhana/watha safari guides so that they can take out our guests. I also really enjoy meeting lots of different, interesting people.
Are there any downsides? And what has been your biggest challenge?
These days we have had quite a few non-aggressive issues with tribes from the north trying to come in with their herds of livestock. As a result, we have had to employ more ranger scouts so that we can conserve the land for wildlife.
Do you have any plans to stop guiding?
Not really. I still take out a few safaris in Kenya, but looking after Sabuk is pretty time consuming.
Where do you stand on conservation? What are the main threats you have noticed?
Laikipia is a very important conservation area for wildlife, especially for endangered species like the Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, greater kudu, klip springer, as well as elephants. Sabuk is on the migratory route for elephants and other wildlife species – we want to encourage as much conservation as possible.
Is there anything you can recommend to travellers to help with conservation efforts?
It is very important for travellers to keep coming to Laikipia, and other wildlife areas, so that we can put money back into the region to help conserve the wild animals. Tourism is exceptionally beneficial for not only Laikipia but Kenya too.
Is there anything you would like to see more, or less, of in the safari tourism industry?
One of the great advantages of coming to stay in Laikipia is that you do not get the congestion of tourists like in the Maasai Mara. I think that the Kenya tourism minister, together with the Kenya wildlife services, is now trying to regulate the numbers of tourists in one area so that tourists can feel and enjoy the wildlife, and country, like we used to be able to before.
What inspires you?
The beauty and wilderness of Africa, especially Kenya, with its diverse scenery, species of game, birds, culture, all found in such a small area.
What are you most proud of?
Being able to show people the true experience of safari life in Africa, and for them to be able to enjoy and appreciate it too.
How do you hope to inspire others?
Luckily, these days it is easier for women to be accepted in safari life. The general manager said to me when, at last, he was encouraging lots of tourists to come with me on safari: “You, as a woman, have to try to be very good, knowledgeable, interesting, and fun – even more than the others.”