Safari company Aardvark settles in Solana Beach

John Spence will never get tired of seeing elephants.

The new Del Mar resident moved his 10-year-old African safari company Aardvark from England to South Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach last year.

Aardvark specializes in creating custom-made trips to Africa, a place he calls magical and thought provoking.

Spence has visited Africa many times and says his favorite place is often wherever he went on his last trip to the continent. He has fond memories of flying in a plane along the Skeleton Coast in Namibia and the scenic sand dunes captured in the film “The English Patient.”

He said seeing gorillas in the wild always lived up to his expectations and he was moved by the history of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, where 139 British soldiers held their own against 5,000 Zulu warriors in 1879.

And then there are the elephants. He once saw more than 1,000 elephants in Botswana — the rotating herds making happy noises and communicating with their waving trunks.

Spence loves his face-to-face interaction with clients and tailoring a trip just for them. He finds out what their interests are, whether they want a more luxurious trip or one with more adventure. He helps them go wine-tasting or whale-watching in South Africa, view the wildebeest migration in Tanzania, relax on Seychelles beaches or watch zebras in Malawi.

“I like helping people see what makes Africa special, see what I fell in love with in a way they feel comfortable with,” Spence said.

He launched his official Web site in October.

Behind his desk he has a map of the U.S. marked with red thumbtacks representing where his clients are located — Colorado, New York, Washington and two in Indiana.

The company will celebrate its launch on Jan. 20 with a party at David Alan Collection at 241 South Cedros Avenue at 6 p.m. People interested in learning about the trips can mingle with Aardvark clients as well as Africa travel experts.

Spence said many people think of safaris as riding in a four-wheel-drive but he said there are so many different ways to safari. He suggests mixing up the kinds of experiences for clients — safaris on horseback where they can ride alongside a giraffe or by canoe, watching elephants come to the riverside to drink.

Horse riding safaris have become quite popular along with trips to climb Mount Kilamanjaro or to see gorillas in Uganda.

As a young Englishman, Spence started as a ski guide in Europe before taking his first trip to Africa at age 22.

He bought a one-way ticket and found work as a cocktail barman in Cape Town, South Africa, and as a whitewater rafting guide on the Zambezi River. He stayed for a year, exploring on his days off.

Eventually, we went to work as a safari guide in Zambia and for eight years he traveled all over the continent with clients.

He started Aardvark with offices in Hampshire, England, and Scotland in 1999. His decision to move to Del Mar came after a trip to the city, during which he spotted dolphins in the surf. He also has many clients from the San Diego area.

Last year he took children Jack, 9, and Lily, 6, both Del Mar Hills Academy students, on their first safari to Kenya with his wife Emma.

He has treasured memories of his children interacting with the locals, visiting a schoolhouse, cooking breakfast in the bush and his son Jack waking him up in the tent because there was a hippo outside.

“Those moments made it the most special,” Spence said.

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