Durban - Andrew Johnson walked out of a padded cell in a psychiatric hospital, threw his prescription tablets into a bush outside the door (something he doesn’t advise others to do) and set out on a four-year journey which took him to Europe and the Middle East, before he returned home to South Africa and set out on foot through east Africa.
Today, Durban-born Johnson, 33, is part of the groundbreaking company Wilderness Safaris, which creates eco-lodges, sometimes temporary, in the remotest and most beautiful parts of the continent to promote conservation and socio-economic development.
“I remember sitting on the floor (of the hospital) talking to my father on the phone. I was crying. I told him I didn’t belong in such a place. He said: ‘Andrew, you won’t understand this now, but you will some day. What you are going through now will stand you in good stead for the future. It will make you stronger. Most people only go through it much later in life, such as myself.’ I walked out the door of the hospital, I threw the tablets they had given me into the nearest bush – I remember it so clearly. I was so determined.”
He packed a backpack and headed for Europe.
“I get bored very easily, so I knew I had to wake up every morning and face a challenge. I worked in restaurants, construction sites, at a kibbutz and as a lifeguard at a Tel Aviv swimming pool. The kibbutz was close to the Lebanese border and I would have sundowners with friends as rockets went over our heads. We would count down to the explosion. It was weird.”
His first breakthrough was working as a chef in an Indian restaurant. “I really enjoyed being in the kitchen. That was a start.”
But it was when he returned home after three years that Johnson set himself a real test.
“With an English friend, we hiked from Durban to Tanzania – we used public transport to the South African border and then walked all the way. I knew I wanted to get into the tourism industry, but that trip through the bush cemented that for me.”
On his return home, Johnson wrote a letter to local hospitality legend Patrick Shorten. “I told him I loved the bush and I asked his advice. He replied and his advice was strange, but I took it. He said “start in the kitchen”.
Studying at the chefs school at the Chantecler Hotel in Botha’s Hill and achieving his diploma before going on to study hotel and business management, Johnson then made himself available to hotel kitchens.
“I worked for free. Sometimes for three months at a time. I was then thrown in at the deep end, at 21, as general manager at the Chantecler. But after two years I decided I wanted to head up north of the Limpopo. I wanted to be in the bush.”
After running a restaurant in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Johnson met up with the owner of a small company called Star of Africa.
“It was a newish company, privately owned. It seemed strategic for me to join a company that was growing quite fast.
“I was single, young and based in Bulawayo, and looking back on it now, the work was tough.”
Johnson recalls how he would spend 48 hours without rest on the back of a 10-ton truck going to set up the seasonal camps in the remotest corners of Zambia’s national parks, without electricity, no access roads and a small budget.
“I can remember a 16-bed camp, full of guests, and having to work with one fridge, no storeroom and a generator. We had to be quite resourceful with a limited budget. It was good for me.”
In 2005, the athletic youngster, who was now a trained chef and hotelier, could turn his hand to construction and manage the logistics of setting up the temporary camps and packing them up once the season was over. And it was in that year he joined Wilderness Safaris, for which he has worked since.
But, he says, it’s not work.
“I wake up every morning knowing I will face a different challenge. I ran the Zambian operation from 2006 to 2010 which included eight up-market camps and an air charter and the construction operation in northern Kafue National Park.”
It was also during this time that he married lifelong friend and sweetheart Deanne who he “imported” from KwaZulu-Natal to Lusaka. The couple now have two sons, Josh, four, and Max, two.
His blue eyes light up as he speaks of solar panel farms as large as football fields, and lodges built of canvas, grass and decking from sustainably harvested timber; plunging through swamps, workers carrying planks on their heads one at a time to sites so inaccessible guest are flown in by helicopter.
And now the most exciting project of all as Wilderness Safaris, which has 10 established camps in nine countries which have the lightest carbon footprint and leave the landscape and wildlife undisturbed, break virgin territory in the Republic of Congo and on the barren Hoanib desert lands of Namibia.
“The camp in the ROC is the result of six years of negotiating and planning. It’s in the Odzwala National Park in the north-west of the country – 13 600km2 of dense forest, rivers, lions, leopards and its estimated 40 000 to 50 000 lowland gorillas. There is great potential, but tourism is foreign to them. There is a huge threat from mining and there is an assumption that a choice must be made between mining and tourism, but that is not necessarily a fact.
“There are 40 000 people living around the park and what we have achieved would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the work done by Sabine Plattner of Africa Charities.”
Johnson says now, having found what he loves, it is easy to motivate himself.
He learns and draws from the experience and passion from the team around him and says being in Africa is what it’s all about.
“I see incredible results from those different things that we do. I see beautiful lodges in a wild, untouched part of Africa.
“There is a purpose to what we are doing, and doing what is right, contributing to communities and conservation. I would never want to be anywhere else.
“Africa is opening up, and as long as you are flexible in your outlook and understand Africa, it’s okay. It makes me feel alive.” - The Mercury