An interview with… Simon Rowland, MD of WILDFOOT Travel

This year we have been delighted to have WILDFOOT Travel join our sponsor line-up, supporting the Oceans, Seas, Rivers, Lakes ‘One-shot’ category. WILDFOOT runs fantastic wildlife cruises and expeditions to Antarctica, the Arctic and other key wildlife destinations across the world, from the African continent to South and Central America, India, Russia and the Falklands. The company caters for everyone from solo travellers to families and small groups and for a host of interests and activities including photography, whale science, gorilla tracking and camping on ice.

Canadian Arctic © Mark Robinson

The team at WILDFOOT have decades of experience in wildlife and adventure travel, but it’s WILDFOOT’S dedication to wildlife conservation and environmental protection that makes the company so special.

TPOTY met Simon Rowland, WILDFOOT’s Managing Director. Simon has always found inspiration in the wild, and backpacked his way across Europe and Australasia as a young man. He has travelled extensively and cites moment such as kayaking through the ice of the Antarctic Peninsula as penguins jumped in and out to the water and whales were visible at very close quarters as among his favourite memories. But, for Simon, the first-choice wildlife destinations are the Galapagos Islands and the Falklands, with both ‘ticking every wildlife, wilderness and adventure box’.

What inspired you to first go travelling? Had you travelled much as a child?

Funnily enough we didn’t travel as much as some children do, except to Cornwall or Devon every summer. Then at the age of 10 my parents took me on my first flight to Mallorca. From there on all I wanted to do was to work in travel.

When did your love of travelling also become your career?

When I left college at 17 I applied for my first job with an excellent independent travel agency who set the professional tone for a future carrier. At 20 I started to work for a tour operator with a man who became my best friend. I was an employer’s nightmare because every 12 to 18 months I would leave that current job and backpack in Europe, the Middle East, Far East and Australasia for 6 to 8 months, but I had no choice, it was an obsession I’m afraid.

WILDFOOT is centred around amazing wildlife experiences – how did you first become so immersed in the natural world?

My lovely Dad was a country man and heavily into birding. This rubbed off on me and from an early age I was out with him on summer evenings and weekends. It carried on from there, and my interest in all nature still grows today, whether it’s wildlife, marine life or birds.

Give us some examples of memorable wildlife encounters you have enjoyed?

Image: Falkland Islands © Tom Mason

On my travels I’m rarely without binoculars, always on the lookout for encounters big or small. Penguin encounters are probably at the top of the bill for entertainment and antics.

One of my favourites was probably observing bull elephant seals aggressively fighting over mating rights on Sealion Island in the Falklands. Other memorable encounters include diving with juvenile sea lions and white tip sharks in the Galapagos and observing my first kill of an adult zebra by female lions in Botswana – shockingly riveting!

© Simon Rowland

Finding a Jesus bird nest and eggs on a lily pad in the Okavango Delta may not sound as exciting, but I was thrilled because the eggs are so camouflaged (image left). I also recall observing two Hobby hawks attacking a buzzard in aerial combat and pinning it to the ground in Cheshire, England.

We know you particularly love the Galapagos and the Falklands – paint a picture for us of why these very different destinations are so special to you.

Galapagos © PAISAJES

Neither of these amazing destinations require a cumbersome long lens and most of the wildlife is fearless of humans, making for the best close-up encounters. From a photographic point of view the light on the Falklands changes all of the time, from blight sunny days to light snow. It’s an interesting challenge for photographers to be faced with four seasons in one day! In the Falklands your time is your own and you can sit by a penguin colony all day if you want ,just watching the skulduggery when backs are turned and prized nest stones are carried off by a neighbouring thief.  Galapagos is so rich in wildlife and marine life you simply don’t know where to turn and makes for an action-packed experience.

Falklands © Ira Meyer

Travel is also about the people you meet along the way, and WILDFOOT offers some incredible opportunities for fascinating encounters such as the Okavango Guiding School. Tell us about some of the people you have encountered on your own journeys.

Travel broadens the mind. It’s a well-used phrase but its’ absolutely true. Travel experiences never fail to inspire me ,then they tend to coax, tempt and invite me to do even more but also try different ways to travel and perhaps with a smattering of even more adventure each time. Fellow travellers Inspire me just as much as local cultures and this provides inspiration for me every time.

I came back from Namibia recently – it had been my first African self-drive adventure, which I found invigorating in every way.  En-route we met a couple of junior doctors from the UK who had just finished their finals and were taking three months out to enjoy a blow-out, traveling through Africa in a 4 x 4. What inspired me was they had driven through South Africa, Namibia and then Botswana, which can be a devil of a challenge during wet season in the Okavango Delta, when even the most experienced African off-roaders fail to make it without getting stuck or stranded along the way. These two chaps were young, far too inexperienced to do this and yet there they were with just weeks of experience under their belt, coming up against camping every night close to big game, driving through the most difficult terrain not knowing if they were going to arrive where they needed to be that night. I admired their fearless attitude and how calm and brave they both were about managing difficulties on route. I just know for them it’s a life changer, and what they have gone through will help them surf over whatever life launches at them.

Sossusvlei, Namibia. © Wilderness Safaris

Is your camera an essential travelling companion?

Yes it is, now along with my Swarovski binoculars at the ready. I’m not a great photographer but I’m happy with a camera and time just disappears when I’m taking images.

How do you decide which new destinations to add to WILDFOOT’s portfolio? What are the key criteria once you come to actually start to create trip itineraries and how do you research the environmental standards and ethos of the lodges etc?

My wonderful professional team and I are always listening very hard to fellow wildlife clients and photographic travellers, whether it’s during one of our wildlife exhibitions, on a trip overseas or on a phone call. Over the years we have just become very good at pricking our ears for new or unusual experiences we can follow up on and research. We simply add these to a list and discuss. We usually start to plan 24 months ahead, with several destinations or new experiences on our radar. In the middle of researching we could find a trail which leads us on a totally different route from the one we have set out on and this opportunity is one we never tire of. We have our customers’ interests at the forefront of our minds at all times, constantly asking what we need to do to make our product stand out above the rest and make it authentic, special and life changing.

At the same time if what we unearth is unethical or doesn’t fit with our sense of animal welfare and conservation we will drop it immediately.  This could be a particular Indian lodge which still offers elephant rides, or an African ‘walking with lions’ experience where, once a young lion has passed its juvenile life it’s shot or put in an enclosure for a hunter to come along and shoot it. Both of these are appalling and just not in our DNA to support at any time.

The lodges and experiences we visit are approached with great due diligence, always with an interview with the manager and their team, either during casual conversation, safari activities or more formally on video camera. Our wildlife community not only includes wildlife lodge owners, guides and workers, but also the local communities and their welfare, education and livelihood.  Support for them is essential as these communities are the ones looking after wildlife and reporting poachers. We also work with conservationists, wildlife protection charities, trusts and NGOs, naturalists, photographers, travel and wildlife journalists, not to mention artists. This is our community and we must all invest in our natural environment, not just because it’s a livelihood for us all but it’s also a way of life and, critically, it’s mankind’s future.

Falklands. © Tom Mason

The talented photographer that wins the Oceans, Seas, Rivers, Lakes one-shot category in TPOTY 2019 will join WILDFOOT for a Northern Lights & Whale Expedition by Sailing Ship in Northern Norway aboard a stunning traditional two-mast sailing ship.  Tell us some of the things they can look forward to seeing…

This promises to be an adventure of a lifetime, with photo opportunities galore. During the short daylight hours the skipper and marine guide will be seeking the finest whale-watching opportunities and as soon as dark arrives it’s heads up for the Aurora Borealis. It’s such an iconic vessel; with a friendly team and like-minded passengers, the camaraderie will be second to none.

Where are you off to on your next travel adventure?

I’ve just come back from an epic Africa trip so have my feet firmly under the desk planning for TPOTY exhibitions and Rutland Bird Fair, where we exhibit every year. But I have an invitation to a rarely-visited National Park in Zimbabwe where wildlife is making a come back after a sad period of destruction by poachers.  This is a positive wildlife story and one where the local population have made a hugh difference. Our team also travel extensively, so Debbie is in Antarctica in November and we have an ‘off the beaten path’ Chilean trip lined up for another team member.

Where have you not yet visited that sits at the top of your bucket list? And if you could only choose one place to visit again in your life, which would it be, and why?

That’s easy, Japan in their winter to observe the snow monkeys, sea eagles, Japanese cranes and fish owls. I am also drawn to Zambia, where one can take part in a walking safari over seven nights, walking from lodge to lodge. Observing and taking images of wildlife on foot provides many more opportunities and encounters you would not experience on a drive. I would like to go back to the Arctic and enjoy the Polar bears, whales and marine life once again – maybe early in the season while there’s ice on the backdrop mountains.

Image © M Kelly, Heritage Expeditions

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