South Africans love to declare Elon Musk as one of their own. But the Tesla chief apparently has little love for his homeland. South African Darren Humphreys, now of Duxbury, feels differently. For him, the country’s poverty, corruption, high unemployment, and continuing social inequality — while serious endemic issues — don’t overwhelm the innate richness of South Africa. Humphreys is founder of Travel Sommelier — a custom travel agency that curates luxury safari and wine tours — and he believes tourism can help generate economic growth in South Africa. The former investment banker and bond trader supports wineries run by black — or “coloured” — business people, and encourages visits to both the disadvantaged Cape Flats as well as the wine land of Franschhoek. Humphreys spent several years at the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, seated next to a trader whose family owned one of the premier safari lodges in Africa. When Humphreys decided to execute his “great exit strategy” from finance, he saw a niche in “vinitourism.” An oenophile (lover of wine) himself, Humphreys knew that his country had experimented with a wide range of great varietals and was a forerunner in unusual and enigmatic blends. About five years ago, he vowed to put South African on the world culinary circuit, launching Travel Sommelier as an upscale boutique travel provisioner. The Globe spoke with him about his insider’s view of South Africa and the wine industry there.
“I grew up near the Botswana border in a little town called Rustenburg. It was a remote mining town, the epicenter of platinum extraction, and in the middle of the bush belt. I didn’t wear shoes to school and when the tar melted on the road, my feet would stick to it. I grew up during apartheid, but as a child, didn’t know the difference. Most memorable of all, just walking the dog, I’d see a multitude of game animals — elephants or buffalos, with leopards probably up in the hills. I was left with a deep and abiding passion for wildlife, and today, am parlaying my South African roots into a credible platform of offering safari trips and gastronomic explorations.
“Africa can be a challenging prospect for travelers. It is not somewhere you can just ‘Google.’ The spectrum of offerings are overwhelming and logistics are key, so people are more apt to pay for the services of a trip expert. There are a multitude of safari lodges, and safaris themselves are not only limited to South Africa — there’s also Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and more. I’m agnostic — I could structure a safari in Kenya as well as South Africa, but first-time safari-goers typically want to see the big five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard), and South Africa has 90 percent of the rhino population. And it’s the only country with safaris that is also a wine producer, offering a diverse and well-rounded trip.
“There are more than 200 cellars within a couple of hours’ drive of Cape Town, and four main wine regions – Stellenbosch, Paarl, Franschhoek and Wellington. I’ll put you in a private safari lodge and you’ll catch the Big 5 in the first Land Rover drive with a game ranger and tracker.
“Typically a safari goes out twice a day — morning and evening — for four to five hours. Wild animals are not something you can just watch on the Discovery channel. It’s difficult to convey to the armchair traveler – there’s a clarity of life and upward spiral of the senses. Species are not dormant, but prowling and on the hunt, and much closer than people realize – 5 to 10 feet away. Return those binoculars and that massive camera lens, because you’re not going to need it.
“I see myself as a guardian of pristine wilderness and the animals that inhabit those areas. Just going on safari with one of our suppliers hugely contributes to conservation efforts. The African continent as a whole has benefitted from tourism, from Morocco to South Africa,
“Sure, South Africa has its issues, and hindrances remain: unnecessary bureaucracy, pockets of corruption, tribal differences. But I have confidence we are headed in the right direction. The African spirit shines through, and this can-do attitude is pervasive when it comes to business transactions.”