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Naturetrek’s History – Where It All Started

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Naturetrek’s History – Where It All Started


The Early Days

In 1981, between a law degree at Exeter University and Solicitors’ Exams in London, Naturetrek’s co-founder and MD, David Mills, headed to Nepal and India for two years – combining a passion for wildlife (especially birding) with a love of walking and mountains. So began a deep-rooted passion for the subcontinent, and particularly for the people and wildlife of the Himalaya. David also discovered Bob Fleming, ‘bird man’ of Nepal and author of the country’s only field guide at the time. Bob had a job that David’s school careers master had negligently failed to flag up. He earned his living by guiding wealthy Americans on long and pioneering trekking expeditions into little-known areas of the Himalaya in search of birds. He lived in a comfortable house in ‘medieval’ Kathmandu, where cars were almost unknown. It was heaven. Was there a better lifestyle? Probably not!

And so, after a period of guiding trekking holidays for Exodus and freelance travel writing, in the summer of 1986 David finally got round to completing the first Naturetrek brochure from a primitive Berber house in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains with the help of Maryanne. They had met in Marrakech in 1985. Maryanne, a zoologist from Perth, Western Australia, was a veteran of many research and surveying expeditions in outback Australia, yet she had initially come to England in 1985 to watch the Australian cricket team, managed and selected by her father, Lawrie Sawle, in the 80s and 90s. But the cricket wasn’t going well. David Gower was having the Ashes series of his career for England, and Maryanne was unimpressed by the weather as well. So she sought the desert heat of Morocco for relief, only to encounter David (who was missing the cricket!), suntanned and in a djellaba, whom she mistook for a local porter.

A year later, the brochure text was gradually completed by candle-light, in the Berber house of Lahcen ibn Mohammed in the mountainside village of Aroumd, and duly posted home each month to a typist-cum-typesetter. That autumn the first Naturetrek brochures were despatched from the living room of a tiny terraced house in Alresford, Hampshire (right).

So began Naturetrek, carrying just 27 clients in 1987 – to Kashmir and Ladakh, Bhutan and Morocco. Remarkably, many of those who travelled with us in that first year continued to do so over the next 25 or even 30 years, and we are most grateful to them, and the great many Naturetrek devotees since who have given us such great support. Amongst them were Cesca and John Inskipp. They travelled on the very first Naturetrek holiday to Kashmir and Ladakh, and many others, but were perhaps unaware of the inspiration that their son Tim had provided David in his teenage years. Like all budding young birders of the 1970s, David hitched around the country in his quest for birds and got by on as little as possible. On occasions though, he had the good fortune to be offered a lift by ‘ace birder’ Tim and his girlfriend, Carol. Many were in awe of Tim’s knowledge and field skills (if a little concerned at the speeds he covered the country in his functional Ford Cortina). He’d been one of the first British birders to have ventured to Nepal, overland, and to have spent a substantial time exploring the country that became his and Carol’s lifelong passion (their field guides to the birds of both Nepal and India used by countless Naturetrek travellers and others today). It was Tim’s tales of the magic of Nepal and its birds that so inspired David, as he clung on to the back seat of Tim’s Cortina, and ensured that it was the first country to which he headed (with Bob Fleming’s phone number and ‘Birds of Nepal’ safely in his rucksack) following his university degree.   

What is so easily forgotten is that Naturetrek emerged in a truly joyful (for David especially), technology-free era. Office computers were unheard of, and the fax machine, mobile phone, emails, websites and social media were modern tools of the tour operator’s trade that were then a mere twinkle in some trouble-maker’s eye! Communications from David and Maryanne to each of their clients, suppliers and overseas partners were carried out simply, by means either of a hand-written letter or aerogramme, or by phone. The latter, of course, was not only costly, but it was also extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to reach overseas representatives by phone in those days. So, on the rare occasion that a client booked late or a last-minute adjustment needed to be made to a long-established holiday plan, a substantial investment (£10 or more!) needed to be made in order to deliver a telex to an overseas partner or leader by phoning the words through to the Portsmouth News’ telex service for onward dispatch. By today’s standards, this was a stress-free environment in which to work, and at least twice a day (if the cheques were coming in) there was need to take a walk through Alresford, with binoculars at hand for some wayside birding, to bank cheques early and catch the last post. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that, today, the data required by our ‘tablets’ in the consumer age generates a greater carbon footprint than all the world’s flights. David, for one, would happily forego the technological advances of the past 35 years, ahead of the abandonment of flights, to slow climate change!  

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First Naturetrek brochure

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Terraced house in Alresford from which the first Naturetrek brochures were despatched

This was also an era in which the travel trade in the UK operated entirely unfettered by the constraints of regulation. There was no need for an ATOL licence, bonding, and the other requirements for consumer protection later brought in across the EU. It was the perfect time to start a travel business. Better still, in many developing countries accommodation and travel arrangements, prior to governments recognising the milch cow and taxing it excessively, were extremely cheap, allowing us to put together some fabulous packages at very low prices. Even in Europe, prior to the introduction of the Euro, some countries offered especially good value. For a budding travel entrepreneur, the 1980s was a great time to launch a business. We were fortunate indeed.

However, in one area we were more blessed than any other. Many of our clients were 65+. They had lost their 20s to the Second World War. Now retired, they were determined to enjoy their Naturetrek holiday and have a great time, come what may. And challenges did come; challenges galore, for nothing then ran like clockwork as we expect it to today. Planes were frequently delayed, for days, weeks or indefinitely … or borrowed by dignitaries. Charter vessels often had engine problems and occasionally sank. Mountain roads were forever becoming impassable, whether on account of a fallen bridge, landslide, road accident or demonstration, and not cleared. Remote regions were forever being closed, without notice.

Obstacles arose relentlessly in those days, yet tour operating and tour leading were universally such fun – problems forever needing to be solved. Our clients of that time simply loved the adventures we had together, never batting an eyelid, just laughing off each unforeseen situation. They were a golden generation indeed … and we were blessed to have their patronage and honoured to enjoy their company on our fledgling Naturetrek holidays. 


The Late 1980s and Early 1990s

Talking of relentless obstacles, the very first Naturetrek holiday, to Kashmir and Ladakh in July 1987, was one such example. First, we had no plane. The sole domestic carrier at that time, Indian Airlines, did have one for that summer’s schedule between Srinigar and Leh, a new Airbus no less; but they’d purchased it on the cheap, without seats, intending to fit it with Indian-made varieties for the summer run. Thus, although we sat for a hot summer’s day in Srinagar airport with tickets and the promise of a plane with seats; none came, nor looked likely. So, not wishing to be further delayed and to ensure a seamless tour, that afternoon David chose to hire three airport Ambassador taxis, with drivers willing to attempt the two-and-a-half-day drive on dirt roads to Leh. Nine new customers were squeezed in, together with a lot of luggage. Ahead lay one of the highest and most gruelling road journeys in the world, up a pass – the Zogi La – that no-one could yet be certain was passable, following heavy winter snows and a devastating avalanche the previous October that had consumed 1,500 vehicles and their occupants. The route offered no hotel nor restaurant suitable for travelling tourists, so two nights were spent on the flat roofs of willing wayside hosts who fed the adventurers on rice, dal and salt-tea. The drive was a dodgy one, through rivers, ice corridors and the carnage of scattered avalanche victims, slowly revealed by receding snowfields. Yet, we made it, and enjoyed a lovely trek in Ladakh. Another pass, however, now lay in store. The Jugemarec La needed to be crossed on foot to complete our second trek of the holiday, through Kashmir. It was not clear whether the pass was yet open, but rumour had it that locals had crossed it with laden baggage ponies the day before, so we would try the same. What was not mentioned was that one of those poor baggage animals had slipped on the ice and fallen to its death while crossing the pass, so our ponymen took care to cut steps across the most treacherous slopes to enable safe passage for customers and baggage ponies alike. The pass duly completed (though not one of a gravity David would ever permit a Naturetrek group to attempt again!), we had less success crossing swollen rivers which saw ponies lose their footing and most of our fresh food supplies washed down-river. Our loss was the local villagers’ gain as they eagerly sold us a goat and some chickens to keep us fed on trek. Thereon, it was plain sailing, a tour relished and long remembered by all.

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Rooftop accommodation en route to Leh

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A truck revealed by the melting snow

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Crossing the Jugemarec Pass

Much quicker than expected, David and Maryanne were finding that they needed to be office-based. Already by 1988, they had discovered that they couldn’t lead all the tours themselves as well as run a growing business. So David persuaded his birding friends and early travelling companions, Paul Jepson and Jonathan Eames, to share the leading of all Naturetrek’s predominantly Asian tours in those early years. Like David, Asia was ‘under their skin’ and both ultimately went on to illustrious careers in conservation, Paul heading to Indonesia to become founder of Burung Indonesia, BirdLife International’s partner in Indonesia, and ultimately an Oxford academic, while Jonathan chose to live in Vietnam where he set up BirdLife’s Vietnam Programme in 1993 and remains today as Programme Manager for BirdLife International Indochina (work for which he was awarded an OBE in 2019).

During those early years of Naturetrek, David and Maryanne operated tours exclusively to long-haul destinations, particularly to those in the Himalaya and the rest of the Indian subcontinent. However, there was trouble around the corner in the form of the first Gulf War; when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Naturetrek bookings ceased. Nobody was prepared to book a holiday at this time, let alone one overflying the Gulf region! The fledgling business had come to a standstill, and David and Maryanne knew that they needed a European programme on which to fall back on at such times. So it was that, in June 1991, David and Maryanne, together with their one-year-old baby son, Thomas (born just hours before the first Rutland Birdfair, which David still managed to set up and run each day), headed to the French Pyrenees to see what the area had to offer. The following year, in June 1992, they returned to the Pyrenees, accompanied by botanist Martin Beaton and his wife Louise, to run two full groups back-to-back from a lovely family-run hotel in Gèdre that we still use to this day. Wallcreepers, Lammergeiers, Black Woodpeckers and Snowfinches were amongst a wealth of birds, and the abundance of flowers and butterflies was even more spectacular. It was the perfect destination for the all-round naturalist and paved the way for the extensive European programme of tours that we offer today to all corners of our home continent.

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Wallcreeper

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Lammergeier

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Black Woodpecker

By 1991, although their futon bed on the floor in a corner of their bedroom-cum-Naturetrek office was comfortable enough, Maryanne had her hands full with a new-born son in an alien land and was beginning to find the sharing of the family’s tiny 3-room Victorian terrace with a red-hot phone, a dodgy second-hand typewriter and 200 boxes of brochures (which occupied all of the living room) quite challenging. Worse, an Amstrad had arrived, which David couldn’t work, but tour leader Paul Jepson and Maryanne could. In those days, indeed for 10 years or more, many group members were supplied with ‘trek packs’ (sleeping bag, sheet sleeping bag, down jackets, etc) which Maryanne lovingly washed and pressed between treks. Kitbags of luxury foodstuffs were also prepared for every tour and trek to such countries as Nepal and Bhutan, in which little could be purchased beyond such staples as rice and vegetables. All these kitbags were then squeezed into an elderly Volvo and taken to Heathrow or Gatwick where, throughout the first 10 years, David greeted every departing Naturetrek group, and assisted them with their check-in. A move to a new-build 4-bedroom house in the nearby village of Bighton – the new Naturetrek HQ – had become essential.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Naturetrek programmes in Europe and Africa were growing steadily, often focusing on areas that other tour operators did not visit. The overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu presented the opportunity for us to become the first wildlife tour operator to pioneer the rich rewards of the Danube Delta and the Carpathians, whilst Corsica and a magnificent hilltop retreat in the Spanish Pyrenees became firm favourites. Advantage was taken, too, of the fabulous flora and fauna of Sardinia and the rest of Italy which other operators had hitherto shunned. In Africa, Ethiopia became a much-loved addition to the fold, even during the years of civil war and famine in the north when we were almost the only visitors. We were beginning to thrive as pioneers of new wildlife tours to exciting new wildlife destinations hitherto unexplored. Bhutan, remote regions of India such as Arunachal Pradesh, and the Russian Far East were amongst other areas on which we focused. Indeed, for some years we even sold and operated a selection of holidays known as ‘Russian Nature Tours’, led by the eccentric Algirdas Knystautas – holidays that reached the parts that other holiday operators could not reach! … albeit sometimes using transport that was unacceptable, even by the standards of the time (the vehicle supplied in Lithuania which had a badly cracked windscreen and only two working gears being the final straw!). 

Other friends then joined the gang, amongst them Andy Clements (current CEO of the British Trust for Ornithology), Tony Baker (long-time warden of RSPB Marshside) and Mark Cocker, prior to a career as acclaimed journalist, author and broadcaster, specialising in the environment, wildlife and conservation. The fledgling company’s passion for Himalayan natural history was becoming noticed, and before long Naturetrek was additionally running dedicated botanical treks in Nepal and Bhutan, led by such luminaries as Tony Schilling (the curator, at that time, of the RHS’s Wakehurst Place in Sussex who, in the 1960s, had created the National Botanic Gardens at Godaveri in Nepal) and Roy Lancaster, the much-loved early presenter of the BBC’s long-running series, Gardener’s World.

One key figure in Naturetrek’s development was not a tour leader. It was David’s dad. From the start, this taxation commissioner, accountant and tax specialist, took on the role of unsalaried proof-reader, book-keeper, financial adviser and general dogsbody – a loyal and meticulous servant of the company, always setting the highest of standards. His contribution for over 10 years was a godsend … and the standards he set remain aspired to today.

During this time, the company’s long-haul offerings were long indeed. Tours or treks of 24 or even 28 days would be taken by our clients as their primary annual holiday. But times were changing, a new generation of customers was looking for shorter and more frequent adventures overseas. So, taking advantage of some very cheap long-haul flights (then unencumbered by the exorbitant taxes that so inflate the cost of air travel today), the most active of birders were tempted with Naturetrek’s new ‘990s’  – a programme of locally-led, action-packed, all-inclusive long-haul holidays to some of the world’s top birding destinations for just £990! These holidays are still fondly remembered by many birders today.

The ’Naturetrek 990s’ also saw two pioneering new developments. First, David and Maryanne were determined to see Naturetrek holidays led by local naturalists … and in Nepal they had become friends with the very best. When David first led a tour (for Exodus) that included a stay at Gaida Wildlife Lodge in April 1984, two local boys impressed him. Both teenagers were Gaida staff members. One, Hem Sagar Baral, was a trainee naturalist guide; the other, Tika Ram Giri, was a ‘kitchen boy’ with no formal education. In due course, Hem, was to go on to a university degree, a PhD, and to become Nepal’s foremost conservationist – the CEO, first, of BirdLife Nepal, then of Himalayan Nature, and now ZSL’s country representative in Nepal. Tika, meanwhile, was to become Nepal’s most experienced and knowledgeable field ornithologist and naturalist, as well as the country’s top wildlife guide, leading more Naturetrek holidays than any other Naturetrek tour leader. They remain amongst David’s and Maryanne’s most cherished and longstanding friends today.

It was with the enthusiasm and commitment of Hem and Tika, and of two other budding young naturalists named Suchit Basnet and Hathan Chaudhary, and the financial backing of David and Maryanne, that the second pioneering development of this period was possible. From the time of his first visit to the fabulous Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve in 1981, when he camped in a derelict watchtower and enjoyed the incredible birdlife and special mammals of this extensive and unique wetland reserve, David had dreamed of one day creating a wildlife lodge and a bird observatory at Koshi. So it was that, in 1993, this Nepalese-British-Australian partnership established Nepal’s first ever specialist wildlife ‘lodge’ away from Chitwan and Bardia National Parks, to accommodate not just a couple of hundred Naturetrek wildlife enthusiasts each year (most of them on our ‘Naturetrek 990s’), but also the groups of other specialist birding and wildlife tour operators from around the world. Koshi Camp (now a comfortable permanent tented camp offering private facilities) was re-established in 1999, with a mini-nature reserve of eight acres created around it from paddyfields adjacent to the reserve, and in 2008 a second wildlife ‘camp’ was established in the remote Suklaphanta Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal. To this day, both remain primarily the exclusive preserve of Naturetrek customers and the only tourist-standard properties servicing these two very special reserves – the latter providing us with what can seem to be our own private Tiger reserve!  As for that Koshi Bird Observatory that David had first dreamed of in 1981, this became a reality in 2011 through the determination of Dr Hem Sagar Baral, whilst CEO of Himalayan Nature, and with the support of Naturetrek and donations from a number of Naturetrek clients. In the days when virtually every British-operated overseas adventure, trekking and wildlife tour group was led by a British tour leader, Hem and Tika were amongst the very first expert local guides to become fully-fledged Naturetrek tour leaders. Others, such as Negussie Toye in Ethiopia, Willy Perez and Byron Palacios in Ecuador, Alexis Sanchez in Panama, Lelis Navarette and Jose Antonio Padilla in Peru and Ecuador, followed in their footsteps … Naturetrek forging way ahead in employing and training talented local naturalists to escort groups of British customers (and in so doing reducing carbon footprint) – a practice now commonplace amongst all tour operators. 

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Tika Ram Giri, 2020

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Koshi Camp (Sara Frost)

Nepal was Naturetrek’s top-selling destination through the 1990s, and we simultaneously pioneered the first-ever Tigers tours as we found ways in which to obtain regular sightings of a hitherto shy, elusive and unhabituated mammal. Indeed our ‘Just Tigers!’ holiday, still as popular as ever today, was the first-ever tour to India from overseas with an exclusive focus on Tigers, and a sightings success rate of 100% was achieved through very careful planning and use of the very best guides and leaders. We went on to pioneer the first-ever holidays to enable the reliable sighting and watching of European Brown Bears (in Finland), Wolves and Iberian Lynx (in Spain), and many others.

Until this time, David and Maryanne had been assisted nobly in their office-cum-home by neighbours, relatives and birdwatching friends. Volunteers and part-timers alike. But, by 1994, Maryanne’s dining and sitting rooms were becoming buried beneath David’s papers and brochures (she’ll say nothing has changed today!) and, worse, the number of Amstrads was on the rise. It was time for a full-time employee and a proper office. A room was duly rented in ‘The Cadcam Centre’, the converted dairy of what had previously, and much more fittingly, been known as ‘Woodlark Farm’, just a hundred yards from David and Maryanne’s house in Bighton. Debbie Ward, a friend of David’s family in nearby Bentworth, had recently returned from a period of extended travels in Australia and elsewhere and became Naturetrek’s first full-time employee, her secretarial background and meticulous attention to detail a bonus for the next 15 years, and still today. Joining the team then, during school and then university holidays at least, was Guy Thompson. David, who was forever bumping into a teenaged Thompson at nearby Alresford Pond where they both enjoyed their birding, had been quick to offer part-time work to this able and talented student who would ultimately go on to become Chief Operating Officer at English Nature (on the back of the training he received at Naturetrek, we always presumed!).

It was to this first office that today’s company stalwarts, Paul Stanbury (1996), Gini Whitlock (1997) and Andy Tucker (1998), found their way. David desperately needed help from some young heads. The new Dell computers that had usurped the Amstrads were causing him strife – not to mention the new-fangled printers, emails and a fax machine that were now muscling their way in … and Paul’s and Andy’s experience of North and South America, respectively, enabled a broadening of Naturetrek’s horizons.

In those pre-internet days, marketing was delightfully straightforward. An annual brochure was essential, perhaps a newsletter or two, plus the necessary magazine advertising, while any Naturetrek coverage in a weekend travel supplement would generate an avalanche of messages on the answerphone by Monday morning. Always enjoyed, the Rutland Birdfair provided a wonderful opportunity to meet both existing and prospective customers alike, and annual outings to present slideshows in such cities as Chester, Oxford, Winchester and York were (and still are) always capped with a curry (all the better if Nepalese!). Everything was relatively easy to track, making marketing analysis simple. One thing hasn’t changed though. In those early days Naturetrek benefitted enormously from word-of-mouth recommendations. It continues to do so, and the company is indebted to the many magnificent ‘Naturetrek ambassadors’ amongst you!