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Where are the best high-end travel experiences in Africa and Asia?

Founder Nicola Shepherd explains the underlying values and ethos at the foundation of The Explorations Company and why luxury experiential and philanthropic travel is the most rewarding way to explore the world.

Recorded: 21st July 2021. Listen time: 19 minutes 57 seconds


  • 1:08 What is unique about The Explorations Company?
  • 4:25 The top safari experiences in Africa
  • 6:18 Off-piste travel in Africa and Asia
  • 10:37 Ultra-luxe private jet travel
  • 12:20 What is the future of luxury travel?
  • 15:30 Exclusive and utterly private safaris and vacations
  • 16:29 Private luxury travel in Asia
  • 17:41 What’s coming up in future podcast episodes?

Mark Harvey    

I'm here with Nicola Shepherd, founder of luxury experiential travel company The Explorations Company. I know the Press, including Robb Report, Wall Street Journal and National Geographic have all been citing you as a leading light in organising, sustainable, immersive travel. But tell me for those listeners who may not be so aware of you, can you please give us a brief synopsis of who you are and what you do?

Nicola Shepherd    

The Explorations Company specializes in high-end adventure and cultural holidays and safaris with a philanthropic twist. I started my company 31 years ago, initially with Africa, and then broadening to Asia and finally parts of Latin America.

What is unique about The Explorations Company?

Mark Harvey  1:08 

What makes you so unique? How do you stand out so definitely from the crowd?

Nicola Shepherd  

Our original ethos holds firm to this day, which is we're totally dedicated to customizing every trip around every single client, taking in their hobbies, their interests, their likes, dislikes. And then like an architect, designing something entirely unique around them the way that it should be; in 31 years, we have never assembled two trips the same as no two individuals are the same. And I think that's a huge differentiating factor.

The second point is that our knowledge is unparalleled. And I make no apology. We spend more resources on R&D than any other travel company. And unlike any other company, we spend three months in the field every year.

This is necessary when you operate at this level, as excellence is everything. And we really pride ourselves on delivering, to our clients, the latest information and exciting new developing areas, as well as determining philanthropic projects that our clients can be involved in.

Each place that we recommend has been thoroughly tested by us. The beds have been slept in, the rooms compared, the best views noted and the food sampled. We seek out the very finest guides and the very best camps, hotels and lodges, which really give our clients the very best experiences.

That brings me to the third USP, which is most of our holidays include an element of philanthropy, either as a contribution from each holiday which we match. Or, if our client is interested, it forms part of their overall holiday whereby they can visit conservation or community projects in the field. This is so incredibly rewarding and enriching.

Lastly is that all our specialists come from the continents we support. This is crucial. The success of our company is down to our people. I was brought up in Africa, but born in India, and we are lucky to have probably the most experienced and knowledgeable specialists anywhere. We are utterly unique.

Our Africa specialists come from Africa and intrinsically know the continent, its cultures and its wildlife. In the same vein, our Asian specialists come from Asia, it is all about that crucial understanding of the places one is discussing. And of course, being able to translate that into the right holiday for each and every client.

Mark Harvey    

I think that's right. I think it's the people that make any business and it's something that's often forgotten. But moving on to travel itself, what would you say are the best high-end experiences out there?

Nicola Shepherd  

That's difficult to say, because this is not mainstream. And there is something for every individual depending upon what really interests them. There is a commonality for high end clients, which is that they demand the best and they want reliability. I always say the most taxing question they should have to answer is what wine they'll drink that night. From the moment they touch down in their destination they are met, everything is arranged for them, and all they have to do is simply sit back, relax and have a great time.

Where are the top safari experiences in Africa?

Mark Harvey  4:25 

What are your top experiences in Africa?

Nicola Shepherd  

You know, I think the top experiences are the experiences that enrich you that shape you and make you a different person from the one who stepped on board that flight to that destination. It's about meeting stimulating, energizing people who teach you new things, and how to look at the world differently. But ultimately, it's about the brief, which is always so wide.

Luxury means different things to different people. For some it's space and inaccessibility, to blaze your own trail to reach parts of the continent by helicopter, as it is the only way to access the region. That's a pretty special experience.

Places like the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia, or Lake Turkana  and the Chalbi Desert in Kenya or perhaps take a private jet and land in places where few others tread. Yet an Eden of wildlife opens its arms to you, such as Zakouma National Park in Chad, which is one of my favourite regions.

Or having an exclusive use camp set up for you in the middle of the Sahara Desert, where you witness camel trains coming over the horizon like a mirage and passing you without even acknowledging your presence, like a ship in the night.

These are experiences that you can place no commercial value upon.

It might be gorilla tracking in the Republic of Congo and seeing a completely wild and untouched part of Africa. For others, it is more mainstream, which would mean taking a private villa somewhere, having a private yacht or catamaran and staying on a private island. Less mainstream would be to have a luxury private camp set up for you in the style of Hemingway from the 30s and 40s, with a gourmet chef and the very best guiding.

What about more off-piste travel in Africa and Asia?

Mark Harvey  6:18 

It sounds absolutely incredible. I'm really keen, though, to know about some of the more off piste or unusual trips you've arranged over the years.

Nicola Shepherd  

We send our clients into the deepest parts of Africa and Asia and Antarctica, where few others have been. Many of our journeys are just that: almost pioneering expeditionary experiences. It's about connecting with the area and environment that you're in and the people around you.

Perhaps going into Namibia and seeing the last stronghold of the Bushmen or San people and being part of their culture for the brief time you spend with them. Knowing theirs is a dying culture. They teach their children through folklore and are the most generous kind people you could possibly meet.

You could even accompany them on a hunt. But you can equally be a part of their day to day lives, stepping into observe. But unlike other touristic ventures, you're not a voyeur and they pay no attention to you, unless you try to engage with them.

Or spending time with a Murci tribe in the Omo region of Ethiopia. For anyone interested in authentic culture, then here, and North Sudan, (not to be confused with the South), is where you want to be. North Sudan, I don't know if you know, has twice as many pyramids as Egypt has few tourists, and is perfectly safe. You might even be able to see an archaeologist undertaking an original dig.

Mark Harvey 

Can you give us an actual example of something you've created for someone something that's really different, something that's really out there?

Nicola Shepherd  

One that comes to mind is that we had some ultra-high net-worth clients from the US who were very keen fly fishers. And in addition, he was celebrating his 60th birthday with his family. They were all really active. So we charted them into the Himalayas in India, flew in the very best fly fishing rods and fishing guide and set up a camp for them in a beautiful special place where no accommodation existed.

But that is what we do. If there's nothing there, and the client wants to visit a region, we put up a beautiful camp for them, whether that's in Antarctica, Asia, or Africa.

For his 60th birthday, we approached the Maharaja and asked if we could put on a very special celebration for him and his family at their private palace and invited the entire village to join in the celebrations. This was simply magical and truly uncommercial.

Mark Harvey  

And I imagine it wasn't easy to get there. How did these cards actually move around, I mean, when they were actually in countries, so to speak, and in such remote locations?

Nicola Shepherd  

Much of the trip was traversed by helicopter. And in fact, helicopters are the perfect form of transport because they give the chance to access areas that are incredibly remote and beautiful. And it's a fun way to see places.

So whether it's taking a helicopter to go fly fishing on Lake Alice in Kenya, or to visit the Chalbi Desert or landing on top of an ancient crater in the Ngorongoro in Tanzania, or being dropped off at Mount Elgon, in Uganda before going mountain biking.

Having a helicopter on safari just makes it that much easier, and as I said before, more fun. You can either hire a helicopter just for a day or do a whole week safari by helicopter. Visibility is great, which means you can fly relatively low. And it's a wonderful way of seeing the landscape.

One of the most popular trips we do in Nepal is taking a helicopter to Everest and landing there for breakfast and that's just sensational. You go with a Sherpa guide who has climbed Everest and who explains every peak to you. Heli skiing, too, is great and apart and the details are all on our website.

Mark Harvey  

Think Nepal is one of the most fascinating countries I've ever been to actually. And my next trip is certainly going to be to be Bhutan.

Ultra-luxe private jet travel

Nicola Shepherd  10:37 

In the realm of complete top end, we have our private jet holidays and safaris in Africa, Asia, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica.

Your own private jet is just that: private, for you!  Our jet safaris and holidays have been chosen as the best by the likes of the Times of London, Robb Report, Forbes, Bloomberg and Centurion in the US.

These private jet holidays can actually either emanate from the US from the closest local airport to the client, and transport to Africa, Asia or parts of Latin America and Antarctica. Alternatively, they can fly commercial carrier to their destination, and pick up private charter flights and jets once they arrive. Then they can have their own private holiday or safari with their own private vehicles guides, chef and crew.

But our private jet safaris and holidays are completely unique. We are the only people who are selling completely private jets safaris and holidays. They come with a professional wildlife photographer guide, our clients have the opportunity of spending time with the very top researchers and wildlife scientists in their field; they can be part of a lion or leopard collaring, or a rhino notching. This is all hugely beneficial, as a part of these holidays goes to projects that they have the chance to visit whilst on safari.

In Asia, our private jet holidays take you to the most incredible places. It is also perfect for those who want to see as much as possible in the shortest time as possible.

We have a carbon offsetting scheme in the form of solar stoves placed in villages, which helped to reduce deforestation and removes human wildlife conflict whilst obtaining charcoal as well as reducing lung disease.

What is the future of luxury travel?

Mark Harvey  12:20 

Leaving COVID to one side, which we all hope will be just short term in its effects on travel. Have you seen a great deal of change over recent years? I mean, for example, changes to what you can offer your clients?

Nicola Shepherd    

Yes, very much. In terms of safaris, whether in Africa or Asia, things have moved on so much. It's not just about game viewing in a vehicle. Most people are really active these days, and there's also a huge trend towards zero carbon emission holidays once one arrives.

So we can make it so much more interesting by offering private walking safaris, (which is a far more immersive experience), private horse riding safaris, mountain biking safaris, or going through Winelands by bike or road cycling along the scenic coastal potential in Cape Town. Or mountain biking in Uganda.

Then it's meeting top winemakers in the Cape and learning their art. It's about learning how to cook foreign foods and having chefs come and teach you in your in private villa. It's about talking to inspirational leaders like Mumma Yendi, who lives in a township settlement in Cape Town and has a daycare centre that is free to all women with children if they cannot afford it.

You visit her and all the children (and by the way, she feeds 1000 a month). She find funds it by recycling plastic from the beaches and makes them into incredible art, which she sells to the tourists. She has been invited to Paris and the US amongst many other places to talk about her recycling.

Another possibility is going out with Nelson Mandela's Warden to Robben Island as he recounts his time with Nelson, or perhaps spending time with the top conservationists or organizations.

Kenya in Tanzania offer the most amazing scenery and wildlife, especially in terms of the wildebeest migration, which is Africa's greatest spectacle, where 2 million animals cross the plains. We place a luxury private mobile in the Masai Mara in Kenya, or the Serengeti, in Tanzania, (depending on the season), complete with the most incredible chefs. You spend the days game viewing on foot and by vehicle, witnessing this incredible spectacle.

Another favourite of mine is hot air ballooning over the Namib Desert. You can see the colours changing here over the sand dunes. Another lovely thing is horse riding alongside the Migration in Kenya, or perhaps going out with a matriarchal herd of elephants in the Okavango Delta and sleeping close to them in your own starbed, where you can listen to them gently rumbling away close to you.

Mark Harvey  

Sounds incredible actually. Do you mean they’re wild elephants?

Nicola Shepherd  

Yes, absolutely. This is at a camp called Abu. This is the only place on the African continent where one can spend time with wild elephants in a safe environment, sleeping out in the bush.

Exclusive and utterly private safaris and vacations

Nicola Shepherd  15:20 

Moving on, there is another area which is private yachting, and Asia lends herself to private yacht trips.

In Africa in Tanzania and Kenya, one can go snorkelling and diving with whale sharks, which so many people love to do. And there's some wonderful catamarans and Madagascar too.

But along the more traditional realm, I think now more than ever, people want to spend quality time with the individuals who mean most of them, whether that's family or partners or spouses. So that might mean a gorgeous private villa somewhere on a beautiful beach or perhaps on a private island.

Or it might mean a fabulous private luxury tented camp, set up in the savannah surrounded by wildlife as I was mentioning before. It could mean taking a helicopter somewhere and staying in a log cabin on a lake fly fishing, it could mean a private villa in the middle of the bush on safari somewhere, or perhaps a gorgeous Aman Hotel in Bhutan whilst trekking.

Private luxury travel in Asia

Nicola Shepherd  16:29 

Bhutan is a truly beautiful kingdom, as we were mentioning earlier, with the most upscale accommodation, catering for just a handful of visitors. It promotes exclusivity, as well as spirituality. It's the perfect place for the active traveller with the most amazing walking and cycling.

We can arrange a private meeting with a Chief Abbot to learn about Buddhism. Or you can join a monk’s debate. You know, they study philosophy for nine years, and it's an incredibly animated event.

The Himalayas in India are also superb for trekking, especially the Ladakh and Kumaon, with the most authentic spiritual experiences again. Interestingly, from all Consumer Reports, Japan is topping the list for the most desirable holiday in the Orient at present, and the country has so much to offer, you know, from vibrant cities to incredible countryside.

Then we have private fabulous villas in India of Sri Lanka and Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia offers the most startling private islands and beaches as well as Thailand. The best private yachts operate in Indonesia and there are yachts again for just two people or right up to 20. One can even charter a yacht in the Galapagos Islands.

What’s coming up in future podcast episodes?

Mark Harvey  17:51 

I'm reeling from all the information we've gathered here this evening, Nicola, it's been really very interesting, it's been inspirational. I believe, just before we close that you've got two more podcasts planned. So before we do close, can you briefly tell us about those?

Nicola Shepherd    

My next podcast will focus on our philanthropic holidays and safaris, as well as how we assist family Foundations with accessing possible credible charitable entities for future funding. I know that Morgan Stanley has a philanthropic platform, so our ethos is perfectly aligned and symbiotic and is the reason we are a partner of Morgan Stanley.

Our third podcast will be dealing with traveling during a pandemic. I give my own personal experiences having just returned from South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, as well as the accounts of clients of ours who have travelled to Africa and Asia during this period.

Just to say that it was incredible to see how rigorous the COVID protocols are adhered to in these countries. It was nothing short of impressive. I can say it is far more rigorous than anything I've witnessed in the West. I believe it to be a balanced and factual podcast weighing the highlights and the challenges of traveling during this period.

Mark Harvey    

Well, we look forward to that because I think that may challenge a few preconceptions that we have here. Thank you very, very much indeed. That's been terrific. The Explorations Company seems to be a truly individual concept, and your passion really shines through in everything you say.

The whole concept is so attractive to the traveller who wants real service, perhaps old-fashioned service mixed with superb knowledge, clearly a great deal of enthusiasm, and a lot of care. I'm looking forward to hearing our next podcast.


Please do feel free to contact Nicola directly or at The Explorations Company for more information about anything you’ve heard in this episode. Or if you want more inspiration, you can find it at our Video Library.


Headline image courtesy of Feline Fields, Botswana