Del Mar resident provides ‘life-changing’ experiences for clients through custom safari trips


By Joe Tash

John Spence had tried running a restaurant, working in a ski resort and tending bar before he tagged along with some friends he met in Cape Town, South Africa, to visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

He soon landed a job as a white-water rafting guide on the Zambezi River, and on his days off, traveled to nearby wildlife reserves to look for lions and other exotic creatures.

“That’s where I fell in love with the whole safari thing,” said Spence, 44, who now lives in Del Mar with his wife, Emma, and the couple’s two children, Jack and Lily. “I’m very lucky. Twenty years later and I’m still doing the dream.”

The dream is running a safari company with offices in Solana Beach, England and Scotland. Working with a variety of tour operators, lodges and other agencies across 14 countries in Southern Africa, Spence’s company, Aardvark Safaris Ltd., arranges custom safari trips for his clients.

After his stint as a rafting guide, Spence returned to his native England, where he was hired by a fledgling safari tour company. He spent seven years shuttling back and forth to Africa, scouting different countries and leading tours.

He has since traveled by canoe, on foot, by light airplane and behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive jeep, all the while compiling information and experiences. In 1999, he and a partner, Richard Smith, started Aardvark. Ten years later, in 2009, he moved his family to San Diego County and launched the American arm of the business.

The company has continued to grow over the years, and now generates revenues into seven figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

Spence estimated he has visited Africa 40 to 50 times, and he’s also got his family into the act, traveling with wife and children to enjoy the safari experience.

For each client, said Spence, he and his staff try to design a trip that meets their own interests and desires, whether it’s seeing animals ranging from cheetahs to gorillas to elephants, exploring art and culture, or volunteering with a local charity.

“We start with a blank sheet of paper with every client,” Spence said. “I think I can really customize it, that takes passion and knowledge.”

While there are luxury lodges where visitors can enjoy all the modern conveniences, Spence said he tries to push his clients a bit to get them out of their comfort zone, and off the tourist track, for at least part of their trip. He can set up camping trips where visitors can be on their own, far away from tour groups, with local staff who handle all the details from setting up tents to cooking meals.

“I want them to know they’ve been to Africa,” he said.

Patty and Jack Queen of Rancho Santa Fe took their extended family on a trip to Kenya last summer to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The group of 16 relatives included three generations, from grandchildren as young as 8 to adults in their 70s.

Part of the time, the group traveled on foot between camps — with camels to carry their gear — and they visited villages, where their children played soccer with local children.

They also witnessed close-up the annual animal migration in Kenya, watching as the plains were covered with wildebeest, zebra and other animals as far as the eye could see, said Patty Queen. They even saw a cheetah making a kill and feeding her cubs.

“You can’t explain it to anybody, you have to see it for yourself,” she said. “It was the trip of a lifetime.”

Another client, Susan Storti of Del Mar, traveled last fall with her husband, Bob Hajek, to South Africa, Botswana and Zambia. She said she was impressed by Spence’s connections in Africa, and his ability to plan any kind of trip a traveler might desire.

Storti and her husband opted to stay in upscale lodges rather than camp, traveling by bush planes that landed on dirt airstrips in remote regions. From there, they were met by jeeps sent by the game lodges. On safaris, they rarely encountered other tourists, she said.

“It was a real, true African adventure,” she said, describing Botswana as “Africa’s last Eden.”

Over the years, Spence has set up trips for families and people of all ages, even making special accommodations for people whose mobility is impaired due to cancer or other conditions.

Traveling to Africa isn’t cheap, although Spence said he and his staff are sensitive to clients’ budgets. An average safari trip of two weeks runs about $10,000 per person, plus air fare of between $2,000 and $2,500, he said. The minimum for a shorter trip, depending on the destination, is about $5,000 per person, he said.

But people find the experience life-changing, he said.

“The wow factor is off the charts,” Spence said.

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Aardvark Safaris, Inc. is located at 312 South Cedros Ave, Suite 315, Solana Beach, 92075; toll free (from USA): 888-776-0888; email: