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Destination Africa: Alum finds career in safari planning

Michael Sailor with elephants

Michael Sailor ’73 is greeted by elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.

It has been said that if you can only visit two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa twice. Michael Sailor ’73 would agree. He has planned more than 300 safaris to Africa and knows the experience is second to none.

“Although there are many significant and inspirational sites and monuments around the world, and I encourage people to encounter as many as possible, nothing compares with being on an African safari,” said Sailor, who has visited 70 countries. “A safari is frequently described as a life-changing experience; and for most, if not all, it truly is.”

While safaris of the distant past revolved around a big game hunt, the majority of trips today focus on photography and sightseeing. With the African continent spanning 11.6 million square miles—that’s more than three times the size of the United States—it’s virtually impossible to squeeze multiple regions into the typical safari trek of 10 days.

“Africa is much larger than people think it is. The Sahara Desert alone is the size of the United States,” Sailor said. “So we tend to break sub-Sahara Africa into two regions: East Africa and Southern Africa.”

Safaris in East and Southern Africa are distinctly different. East Africa boasts the expansive plains, such as the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. The region is home to the Great Migration, the largest big animal migration in the world. Travelers typically observe immense herds of wildebeest, zebra, and antelope, while also spotting lions, elephants, giraffes, and other majestic creatures.

Sailor photo from canoe

This photo, taken from a mokoro (dugout canoe) in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, won top honors in the 2013 Wild Angle Photo Contest.

“I find people have a mental image of what it will be like on safari, and often that image is more closely aligned with what there is to be had in East Africa,” Sailor said. “Often it is where I recommend people do their first safari.”

Those on safari in Southern Africa have the opportunity to see many of the same animals that live in East Africa, but the bush territory of South Africa offers a different experience.

“In Southern Africa the quality of game viewing is very, very good.” Sailor said. “However, the largest herd of zebra I’ve seen is 25 to 30, whereas in East Africa, I have seen herds of 300–400. Also East Africa is mostly 100 percent safari. Southern Africa has other attractions like Cape Town and Victoria Falls.”

Most American travelers on safari spend two to three nights at a location before moving on to a different region. Game drives, which generally last up to three hours at a time, are held in the early morning and later in the afternoon during active animal periods. Completing four to six game drives at a location, travelers are usually able to encounter any wildlife they want to see.

“I recommend no fewer than three locations on a safari,” Sailor said. “You want to move to different ecosystems and experience different wildlife.”

What travelers are willing to spend impacts their experience, such as whether they will make game drives in a personal vehicle or a shared minibus. Lodging could be an exclusive tented camp in the middle of a private reserve or a large hotel on the outskirts of a park. Sailor tends to look at a safari on a per diem basis. A safari generally includes meals, rooms, costs for game drives, and park fees. A basic safari will cost around $350 per person per day, with luxury experiences reaching as high as $1,200 per day. This does not include airfare to Africa or the cost to travel between locations.

“My job is to make the most out of your trip by taking the time you have and your budget and figuring out how many places I can get you to to have different experiences,” said Sailor, who found a love for travel early in his life.

 Unique path after Illinois State

After graduating from Illinois State with a double major in biology and chemistry and then earning a M.S. in chemistry at Ball State, Sailor worked as a research chemist in Chicago. Though the field was rewarding, he was dissatisfied with his role and was encouraged by his colleagues to use his outgoing personality in the field as a sales rep.

Sailor accepted a position as a technical sales representative for Orion Research, which involved travelling throughout the U.S. When a position at a company specializing in quality control instruments for petroleum refineries opened, Sailor applied. He was offered a position covering the United States and Canada. A spot overseeing the Asian territory was available as well. He took the domestic position with approval to cover the Asian territory until a permanent hire was made.

“I was around 30 and at the time had never been out of the country,” Sailor said. “I got hooked on the travelling. I was quite successful when travelling internationally.” His laid back attitude and willingness to learn about each culture helped him avoid being perceived as the stereotypical ugly American businessman and allowed him to adapt to his clients.

Sailor photographs a hippo

Sailor’s favorite animals to photograph are hippos, which he notes as having a great deal of personality.

“It was nice because I developed friendships with a lot of people around the world,” he said. “And I still keep in contact with many of them to this day.”

Sailor’s success abroad caused his territory to grow, expanding to include the Middle East, Europe, and parts of Africa. For six years Sailor spent half of his time out of the United States, and he couldn’t have been happier.

“There’s a saying that if you do something you enjoy then you never work a day in your life,” Sailor said. “Travel is what I enjoyed doing, so I wanted to see if I could make a living at that.”

He consequently left his sales position and worked on his own tour operation. He saw Thailand and China, two of his favorite places to travel, as emerging destinations. Sailor began setting up offerings and was preparing to launch when disaster struck.

“We were within weeks of launching when Tiananmen Square happened,” Sailor said. “The bottom fell out of the market.”

Despite the setback, Sailor continued toward his dream, eventually buying and running two travel agencies. He created contacts by joining and heading trade organizations, such as the Pacific Asia Travel Association and Association for the Promotion of Tourism to Africa. His work attracted the attention of Abercrombie & Kent, a leading luxury tour operator in the United States.

At A&K Sailor developed and sold custom trips to South America and Africa. It was a beneficial experience, as Abercrombie & Kent annually sent their sales representatives on familiarization trips to various locales. It functioned as a working vacation for Sailor, who would visit 30–40 properties during a 10-day period.

Today Sailor works with clients through two firms, Sapphire Travel, which he runs with his wife Suzanne, and Safariline, helping travelers to experience the continent’s wonders.

“The safari experience is dynamic and ever-changing,” Sailor said. “You can return to the same location day after day after day and nature will always provide you with a new and unique spectacle.”

Steven Barcus can be reached at srbarcu@IllinoisState.edu.

 

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