Once out of the clutches of our farm’s stable grooms, my childhood was like an African Lord of the Flies. My parents had no control. I seldom wore shoes, spoke fluent Swahili and, from the age of three, was taken riding on our family’s farm in Kenya’s Aberdare highlands. It was completely natural, a fantastic life.
Every day was horses, guns and hunting. At five I was given a Diana air rifle and shot the mousebirds that ate our vegetables; by the age of 12, I had a Mauser .256. It’s terrible to say, but we hunted everything we could, including colobus monkeys. There was just so much out there. I’d go to the plains around Mount Longonot for Thomson’s gazelle, impala and guinea fowl and spent my summers at Lake Baringo shooting crocodiles and selling their skins for handbags.
I was sent to a Nairobi boarding school, but life hardly changed. We all kept horses—polo was my major love. Everyone wanted to join this fabulous safari company called Ker & Downey and become professional hunters. They were highly trained and highly honorable. To us they were like gods.
But by the time I came out of the army, in 1965, life was changing. My parents and I had launched Abercrombie & Kent three years earlier, providing wildlife safaris in Chevy Impalas to Kenya’s new self-service lodges. When I took over, the business became my big thing. I was no longer fixated on hunting, making only occasional trips with friends.
I wasn’t the only one changing; hunting’s ethics were corroding. Clients used to be from old-world money and came for the experience, perhaps bagging one trophy animal for the pot. But the newly rich now treated it like a game menu: “I want to shoot a lion or a rhino or an elephant—I’ve paid for it.” The professional hunters were under pressure to keep them happy. I didn’t like it at all.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was about to make my final hunt. In 1971, I joined a friend on a concession off Tanzania’s Lake Manyara, but every time I pulled out my rifle, I hesitated. It just didn’t feel right. I didn’t fire a single shot on the trip. And when my companion dropped a zebra, I walked over to examine the body and studied the face. Staring straight back at me were the eyes of my polo pony. That was it. I couldn’t do this anymore. I was finished. I put my guns in storage with the Kenyan police and haven’t seen them since. They may still be there now.
I introduced a new A&K slogan: Hunt with a camera, not with a gun. My school friends, who’d become the professional hunters they’d longed to be, thought it was pathetic, like a polo player taking up polocrosse. They told me I didn’t belong in the Long Bar of Nairobi’s New Stanley Hotel—that was for real hunters!
Real hunters? I intended to make real money from my safari business, and that meant changes. I’d already made our trips more stylish with candelabras, excellent food and fine wine. Now I had to make them sexier. Hunting had always been about the experience, not the kill: mud-splattered trucks with winches, beautiful tents and exquisite sunrises with nobody else in sight. That same excitement had to be translated into Abercrombie & Kent’s trips. They had to be different, innovative, thrilling.
After an accident ended my international polo career, A&K became my adrenaline fix. I tried out every trip myself before deciding if we could offer it. I traveled 500 miles down the Amazon, cruised the Inside Passage and flew as high as one could before getting to space. If we could make it safe with a luxury edge and great guides, we’d introduce it.
Abercrombie & Kent now has 51 offices, employs 2,500 people and offers trips across seven continents. I look back to the moment I stared into the eyes of that freshly shot zebra and think, Thank goodness. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Geoffrey Kent founded Abercrombie & Kent with his parents in 1962. He recently launched Geoffrey Kent’s Private Collection, a portfolio of private islands, chalets and villas; akvillas.com.