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Globe West People

Adventurers heed call of African bush

Following different paths led them to Tanzania, partnership

Safari operators Judi Wineland and Rick Thomson at ease in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. Safari operators Judi Wineland and Rick Thomson at ease in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. (Thomson Safaris)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Chaityn Lebovits
July 6, 2008

Judi Wineland and Rick Thomson have been running safaris in East Africa for nearly three decades. They've gone from a handful of vehicles to a fleet of 40, and from a few tents to purchasing Gibbs Farm in Tanzania, an 85-acre coffee plantation with 25 rooms for lodging. Their Watertown company, Thomson Safaris, manages approximately 250 trips a year, drawing travelers from across the United States and Canada.

They're also cofounders of Friends of Tanzanian Schools Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports local education projects. Since 1997, they've partnered with 12 schools to improve buildings, teacher housing, and latrines, and to bring in schoolbooks.

"What ties us together isn't just the relationship that we have with each other, but with the people of Tanzania," said Wineland. "From the guides to the village communities to the government," she said, the relationship "permeates everything that we do." Many of their employees in Africa have been with them for over 20 years.

From the outside, their office in Watertown looks like many of the other storefronts lined up on Mt. Auburn Street, but once through the door you'll be greeted by a chestnut-colored standard poodle named Henry, a daschund named Benson, and scores of original art.

The building, which once served as a wallpaper shop and warehouse, has interior walls of bright purple, yellow and orange that act as a backdrop to African objects, like a Mbulu skirt; a marimba, a type of wooden xylophone; a large Maasai necklace made with hundreds of colored beads; and a number of ujamaa sculptures, intricate, intertwined human figures carved out of wood, which are made by the Makonde tribe. A large coffee plant from Gibbs Farm grows in a pot on the floor.

Wineland, 57, said she first became interested in Africa when she wrote a term paper on poach ing in high school. She attended Colorado State University, where she majored in anthropology and economics. Her penchant for travel was ignited during college when she started a band with some friends and landed a job touring with the USO in Japan, Korea, Guam, and Vietnam.

"I totally fell in love with the people and their differences," said Wineland. "It was visceral and wonderful." Wineland said one of the more memorable gigs was flying onto the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier and performing for a few thousand sailors.

In 1978, Wineland became a teacher at Livermore High School in California. She also coached their track and gymnastics teams, and took them to Europe. It was during that trip that she met David Stitt, who told her about travel to Katmandu and Nairobi. Wineland moved to Boston with him, and soon after, the two launched Overseas Adventure Travel in Cambridge, where they represented European companies marketing and selling trips to Nepal and Bhutan.

A year later, one of the companies sent them on a Kenyan safari where they met Rick Thomson, a New Zealander working in Africa as a guide, and in 1981 the three opened Overseas Adventure Travel/East Africa Ltd.

"In those days Americans were traveling to places like London and Paris. The thought of going to Katmandu was really off the radar," Thomson said, but adventure travel was just becoming popular in the United States.

Wineland and Thomson married in 1986.

In 1995, Overseas Adventure Travel was sold and Wineland and Thomson changed the name of their outfit to Thomson Safaris. They use their own vehicles and staff and primarily stay in their own lodges. Depending upon the season, they'll also lease land in villages and national parks.

Despite precise planning, unforeseen obstacles come up from time to time that require quick juggling. Sometimes, for example, access to a hotel is cut off due to inclement weather, or an airstrip becomes flooded and people must be transported to another location.

"You're out in the bush, in the wilderness, so things happen," said Thomson, who is 54. "You have to compensate and go with the flow."

He recalls about seven years ago when Tanzania was being pummeled by rain and the Olduavi River became so swollen that his tour group couldn't pass through the main road near the Ngorongoro Crater, the largest unbroken volcanic caldera in the world.

"Cars were lined up in both directions, but no one could move," said Thomson. Fortunately, he said, the national park service was using a huge front-end loader to remove some blockages and free up the water, and he asked for help.

"They carried passengers, along with their luggage, across the river inside the bucket of the truck," said Thomson. "Each group of passengers swapped cars with those heading in the direction that they wanted to go, and everyone carried on."

Then there was the time an elephant began sucking water from the storage buckets that had been trucked to a remote camp location.

Marla Serwin of Westwood recently returned from her second safari, which included at stay at Gibbs Farm. "Doing business in Tanzania is not easy," said Serwin. "There are very few paved roads, and very flew flushing toilets; you have to have extraordinary operational skills to create a luxurious travel environment with such limited resources."

Thomson said many trips are tailored to private groups, from two honeymooners to large college alumni associations. "Most people want to experience the vast amount of wildlife, many want to be immersed in the local culture, and others also want some physical activity included," he said. "A popular side trek is Zanzibar, a famous spice island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania."

Betsy Rudnick, a major gifts officer for Tufts Medical Center, visited Africa with Thomson Safaris for the first time in 2001 with her daughter, then 12 years old, and again in March as an executive board member of Friends of Tanzanian Schools.

Rudnick said she was especially moved by a conversation that she had this spring with the Karatu district commissioner, who told her, "Everyone comes to our country to take our minerals and gems and say they will help us, but they don't. Judi and Rick are different, they are helping the people of Tanzania and we thank them for this."

To suggest a subject for the People column, e-mail lebovits@globe.com.

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