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Into Africa with safari guru Brad Hansen

By Katie Sweeney

Camping on the great Zambezi river.

Brad Hansen, the safari guide to San Francisco’s elite, lives the life of a modern-day explorer

It was the last 17 kilometers that nearly killed us,” says Brad Hansen, in his thick South African accent. “It took a toll on us; it was hard. We were lucky to all survive.”
Hansen is referring to the last 10 miles of a 5,592-mile expedition to reach the geographic
center of Africa. He’s guided hundreds of San Franciscans throughout the years, including many of the city’s hoi polloi, but he’d never seen anything like this. “You’d think that in this day, the age of exploration would be over, but it isn’t,” Hansen explains. “Africa was the last continent that had no beacon, no monument, nothing to determine where the geographic center was.”
Hansen and his mentor, Kingsley Holgate, a noted South African explorer, humanitarian and author, were determined to discover the central-most point of the country they call home. The duo, along with a small group of fellow adventure-seekers, took off at the end of August 2015. It took
them three months to travel from South Africa through Botswana, Zambia, Angola and Congo before ending deep in the equatorial rainforests of the Northern Republic of Congo. “We’re quite big guys, and we struggled to get through the forest and the swamp — but of our 14 pygmy porters, only seven made it. The rest turned around,” Hansen remembers.
Hansen and his team pull their way out of the heart of Africa.

“They said there’s no way they would go that deep into the forest — and they are the people of the forest.”

The group trudged on and eventually made it to the middle of the 77,220 square-foot jungle — reaching the “heart of Africa,” as Hansen dubs it.
The environment was teeming with wildlife: thousands of gorillas (including aggressive silverbacks), eight types of antelope, three species of crocodile, the endangered forest elephant, plus chimpanzees, forest leopards, golden cats, and a host of blood-sucking insects that carry diseases like malaria and Ebola. Danger lurked around every path in this place that armed rebels and bandits call home. According to Hansen, the experience was so draining that the six expedition members “didn’t talk about it for a year afterward.”
While Hansen is no stranger to hazardous exploits — be it a pirate attack where “one of my best friends was stabbed in the neck, hand and foot” or the moment when “an elephant charged me” — the Heart of Africa journey remains a somber footnote in his adventure-seeking career. Still, that won’t stop him from getting excited about his next excursion with Holgate’s team which kicks off in South Africa and winds down in Kathmandu.
“We’ll drive from Cape Town all the way up to Tanzania, passing many countries through Africa before shipping the vehicles to Turkey,” he says. “Then we’ll drive through Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iran and all of the -stan countries before going to China, India and Nepal — ending at Everest Base Camp.”
The trek is sponsored by Land Rover, and each person along for the ride plays a crucial distinct role. Hansen, a certified tracker who speaks multiple languages and has 15 years as a safari guide under his belt, serves as the team’s naturalist and diplomat.

A family holiday on the equator.

There’s always a humanitarian or conservation initiative: Along the way, Hansen and company hand out reading glasses — to date, they’ve given 150,000 pairs — as well as life-saving mosquito nets that protect against malaria and a small, portable tube called LifeStraw that filters contaminated water.

Hansen plots no official itinerary for the exciting road trip — and that’s how the group prefers it. “We play it by ear,” he says.
“We don’t have set dates. We don’t have a set plan for where we’re going to sleep. We let
the adventure unfold. We have a clear objective at the end, but whatever happens in the
middle happens. We’re geared for anything. We like to take the ‘off the beaten track,’ so,
we’ll look for adventurous routes to get to our end objective and sleep out in the bush.”
That’s nothing new for Hansen, who grew up spending childhood holidays “out in the bush.” He prefers to wander the safari on foot rather than by Jeep. And when he’s not on an expedition or
spending time with wife Svetlana and daughter Sofia, he leads American travelers — specifically
San Franciscans, through a partnership with local luxury travel company GeoEx — on elaborate

walking tours through the African bush.

Handing out life saving mosquito nets to moms with babies on an expedition tracing the length of the Great African Rift Valley.
“I’ve never sold two of the same trips,” he says. “Africa is such a vast place. Last year I guided in 13 different countries, so every trip is completely different.” Hansen took Gazette owners Janet and Clint Reilly across the Mara River, where they viewed blood-thirsty crocodiles hunting wildebeest.
“It was a theatrical, dusty scene,” he recalls. “Lots of drama and very noisy.”
Don’t be fooled by Hansen’s charming demeanor, crinkly blue eyes and infectious smile. Underneath is a raw toughness. He’s committed to keeping his clients safe — and
calm amid unscripted encounters with wild animals.
“A lion has many different types of charges,” he notes. “A lion can run at you with straight, stiff legs and that’s him trying to make himself look tall and make a big noise and scare you. But if a lion comes running at you in a flowing action, well, then maybe it’s a different story.
“Each situation is going to require a different approach. My biggest fear is not the animal. My biggest fear is the guests behind me, because I never know how someone’s going to react. The lions are so close you can feel their growl reverberating against your chest — but it’s just animals trying to protect themselves and letting you know that they’re not comfortable and that you need to give them some space.”

Hansen describes these moments as having an “almost spiritual” effect on people. “When it gets into their blood,” he observes, “there’s something about it that draws people back, time and time again because it’s primal. I can honestly say that Africa changes people.”

 

 

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