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Paul Oliver Safaris - History of Oliver's Camp

History of Oliver's Camp

By Paul Oliver

I first visited Tarangire in 1985 and completely fell in love with this land of elephants. They dominated the landscape of rolling acacia clad hills, eroded rocky outcrops and open grasslands that seasonally become impassable swamps. It looked so untouched and only a few people seemed to know just how this ecosystem worked.

I was determined to learn as much as possible and there is no better way than to live there for a few years deep in its wilderness. But greater than my desire to learn, was the desire to help stop the terrible poaching going on at that time. All across Africa I had seen it, dead elephants, hundreds, thousands of them - why?

Here in Tarangire I decided to try and make a small but hopefully an exemplary contribution to help in solving one of the root causes of the problem which I had come to believe was sheer and frustrating poverty amongst local villagers. The economy of Tanzania was flat, few options seemed viable or open to either myself or these communities. But first I needed to listen and learn and to experiment with a few ideas.

Thankfully in 1989, a total world wide ban on the trade in elephant ivory halted most of the poaching, but what would take its place? Perhaps old fashion protectionism?

I hoped not. Or could photographic tourism once again become a major income generating business and perhaps now a fresh and more holistic business that shared tourism revenues with the people that lived close to this park? Today many safari operators are doing just that -working with village communities to further conservation goals- and that is wonderful and a real change of attitude in conservation has taken place here in Tanzania since, but in 1990 no one, it seemed, was doing it.

After a few years of holding talks with and gaining the support of, Local village and District level leaders, National Parks and Central Ministry officials, and receiving the support of many Wildlife Societies and concerned safari operators, I opened a small bush camp on the Park’s Eastern Boundary in 1992.

I called it Oliver`s Camp. Why? Many people have asked me that question, but in truth I thought that it was an easy name to remember and as I was already fairly well known at the time as a safari guide to the parks of Northern Tanzania- it seemed that the name could only help get the camp known.

Oliver’s Camp Kikoti, 1992-2001 Oliver’s Camp Kikoti, 1992-2001

Support came from all sides and notable a few Kenyan based guides named Alan Earnshaw, James Robertson and Alan Binks booked in the first groups, also the MD of Abercrombie and Kent, Sandy Evans supported the camp and bookings increased every month there after. It was up to me and my partners at that time, Jim Howitt and Leslie Jaffe to cement the reputation being gained and enhance the activities and catering on offer. We set to work and invested in mobile and fly camping equipment and open style vehicles and better storage for food supplies. Before long the food served, thanks to Leslie, was truly first rate and Jim and I had most of fun exploring for new mobile and fly camping sites, cutting rough and simple vehicle tracks in wild places and really getting to know the area like no one had done before.

The Village Councils started to earn good money for development projects, the very first time that they had and the Tarangire National Park saw that we were helping to build good relations with local communities and promote sustainable land use practises outside the park. Heady days indeed ! People started to take notice, ecotourism societies wrote about us, anthropologists studied the social implications of the camp and incomes generated and we hosted Community Conservation study groups from Kenya and elsewhere. Meanwhile Tanzania’s National Parks were embarking on a brave and ambitious nationwide planning exercise, which when completed would really help to curb unwise development inside the parks. I was asked to contribute to this planning exercise and I learned a great deal by doing so.

Oliver’s Camp Kikoti, 1992-2001 Oliver’s Camp Kikoti, 1992-2001

Tarangire was becoming well known and by July of 1995 had started to receive more visitors. The demand for beds was rapidly increasing and as the park authorities had now banned anymore large development inside the park, there was only one place that demand for beds could be met- outside the parks boundary!

Overnight it seemed, during the 1996-8 period camps and small lodges sprang up close to the park. Today these camps outside the park total nine different ones and a few have done very well indeed. Both Tarangire Tree Tops and Kikoti Camp opened up reasonably close to Oliver`s Camp. My quiet days in this part of the Tarangire bush were over. The tracks so lovingly cut by Jim and myself became well worn bush roads and the secret walking areas I had enjoyed since 1990 were, well - no longer secret!

[kitoti_1992-2001_.jpg]Oliver’s Camp Kikoti, 1992-2001

I think it dawned on me, one morning, that a change of location was needed, when on a walk with guests, I came upon a newly cut track which led to another track that I had cut years before, and at that junction on a baobab tree a sign post to another camp had been roughly nailed. Also that same week safari drivers lost and trying to find the new and successfully marketed safari camps kept coming in to my camp to ask directions ! What to do next? Jim and Leslie had moved on and I did feel quite alone and directionless during that period of uncertainty and, dare I say growing competition. It was at this time that I first met Marina (Tati) Blattler.

We were married two years later ( another story ), but the support Tati gave me during those uncertain times was key in helping me to raise my efforts and look for a solution for the camp and a return to a wilderness setting far from other operators. Tati and I fell in love and her determination to succeed and skill of running the camp freed me up and helped me to be positive again.

The solution came in November of 2000 in London of all places, at the World Travel Market which was then held at Earl’s Court. I was chatting to the, at that time, Director of Tanzania’s National Parks and explaining my frustrations of not being able to offer a truly wild and exclusive safari for my guests. He in turn was explaining that walking safaris were now seen as a priority for Parks to experiment with and that Parks sought an experienced operator to pioneer them in Tarangire.

Well, it didn’t take us both very long to come up with a plan!

I thought long and hard about leaving our site of over 8 years and the fact that we had raised over eighty thousand dollars for the village communities and that others could now continue that income generation helped me to decide. A chance to move into the vast wilderness zone of Tarangire to conduct walking safaris in some of my favourite areas was just too good an offer to pass up. So I wrote the walking safari proposal to National Parks and also checked out site options. By June it had been agreed that we could move into the Park and after a few meetings on the sites from which to operate and just how we would conduct the walks, all was finally decided by the first week of September. Little did we know that in a few days time a horrible terrorist attack in New York was destined to almost destroy our future income.

Cancellations on booking came thick and fast, but we had committed to the move and it would be a costly move. Cash flow was a real concern. A cost effective plan would be to just run the present camp on half staff and move once the tourists started to come back. Tati and I pondered the decision , we knew that without a new product when the visitors started to return we would be just another camp amongst many , albeit Oliver`s Camp, outside the park and once busy again, would we have the time to move? Timing as always came into play. It was now October 2001 and six whole weeks lay ahead without a single booking, go into debt ?

Why not, it wouldn’t be the first time! We went for it.

That six weeks of cutting tracks and sites for the tents, moving the 50 tonnes of equipment, of laying 70 tonnes of sand on the path ways and tent places, of planning the layout of the camp and also writing to inform all our contacts was nothing short of serious hard work on no budget at all. The loan of a 7 tonne 4wd truck from Gary Strand really helped. Thanks Gary. By the first week of December we were 75% ready , then the panic sets in, all the details, why do we do this to ourselves? The first guests arrived on the 21st of December and they had a wonderful time. Phew, we had done it. How much debt were we in ? An embarrassing amount!

Tarangire receives more visitors in the dry season that is from July to October even though the Park is so very beautiful from the New Year to the beginning of March. We were facing a long period of lower than normal income and the cancellations because of 9\11 were still there. We asked our 20 staff to go on half pay and to a man they agreed and I guided 3 Serengeti safaris with hardy returning British groups who were very happy that tourist numbers were down ! They had the Serengeti almost to themselves. The reduction in salary overheads and those three safaris just got us through financially until June of 2002.

Another bonus came around this time in the form of real extra manpower and investment in equipment. Joining Tati and I were two young British chaps with a lot of bush experience. Jo Anderson and Marc Baker acquired more vehicles for our operations, upgraded our computing capacity both at camp and in the Arusha office and helped tremendously in reorganising our whole company. This was much needed help and our season got off to a new and regenerated start.

I had been writing up a storm about the walking safaris and I also went to explain our new product to anyone that would listen. Bookings looked better for the coming year and our confidence soared again. Meanwhile we were working out the walking safari guidelines with National Parks. These guidelines include firearms usage and storage, wilderness first aid training, designing new walking routes, training of Parks Rangers, training of our guides with big wild animals and a whole host of other details like how much water to carry for a walk with 5 guests and two guides of 4 hours, when there is no cloud cover, which first aid items were needed on a 3 day walk and just how many muffins and cookies would I eat?

We all enjoyed this period and a firm and positive working relationship with National Parks developed. And we were the talk of the town once again.

Tati and I also obtained another vehicle and we started to build a new office in Arusha. The good times were back and the interest in Oliver`s Camp and the walking safaris was extremely positive. Bookings just got better and better. And the wildlife viewing was amazing.

Old friends returned and safari operators and overseas agents took another look at Oliver`s Camp. We were original again, pioneers again and this time we were sure of no other camp opening up next door as this part of the park only allowed for one low impact facility in the General Management Plan.

The 2003\4 season started well and more and more guests were booking a walk in the usual off-season in Tarangire. Walking in the July- October period was exceptional and as we opened up new routes and worked out more fly camping options these walks became some of the most satisfying safari experiences I have ever had. It had become very busy in the Parks of Tanzania, record numbers of visitors were seen and in fact some parts of some parks were being over visited . Guests seeking a real get away safari, alone in the bush with the freedom to walk were enjoying our product but still we needed to generate increasing revenues for National parks. Our budgets didn’t allow for serious overseas marketing or some of the upgrading of facilities that agents now demanded of bush camps.

So we sought marketing and investment partnerships with others and by far the most harmonious offer came from our old friends that had helped Oliver's Camp in the very beginning in 1992.

Alan Earnshaw and James Robertson of Sokwe introduced us to Asilia Camps and Lodges and ideas ran amuck !

We formed an alliance with both Sokwe and Asilia and finally had 99% of the details worked out by the end of September. Now we were part of a group and workloads could be divided up, marketing budgets were in place and improvement and expansion funds were available. It was time for a serious show of consolidated products at the World Travel Market in November of 2004.

As I write this short history of my camp, Oliver`s Camp Tarangire, I look back over 15 years and am amazed of how far Tanzania has come. Tarangire is now a very healthy park, its elephants are experiencing a baby boom, tourism is supporting village communities and helping to fend off poaching all over the country.

We are still a long way from substantially reducing that root cause of frustrations and conflict with wildlife, the poverty was still there, but we have come very far indeed! Tourism is playing an increasing role and providing more and more revenues to help find the best ways forward. We will not save every last piece of bush, every species of African wildlife or reduce poverty everywhere in Tanzania, but we are all getting better at deciding and funding the moves that are possible !

I thank all the people in Tanzania National Parks, The Ministry of Tourism, the many village and district leaders that have shown support to our cause and the safari operators, agents, my past and present business partners and the many individuals, to many to mention, in helping Tati and I to realise the current success and positive future of Oliver`s Camp Tarangire, and long may it continue. Asantani Sana !

Paul Oliver
December 2004.