“As a woman, you always have to prove yourself. You work hard at the beginning of a tour, and after a day or two they (the tourists) settle down and are happy with you,” says Pat, who has built up Themba Tours and Safaris over the past two decades.
As the owner-manager of a guest house in Bryanston, a day-tour operation in Johannesburg and a safari operation to the Kruger Park, she does not do tour guiding herself anymore, but from conversations with female tour guides she gathers that things have not changed much since the time when she did her first stint, at age 21, through the Kruger Park as a tour guide for her husband’s company.
Pat says she has learned to live with it, and hardly noticed it after a while. She soon learned to “develop a bit of a thick skin” and adopted an approach to business which has served her well in the competitive safari business: “I work hard, I work quietly, and before they know it I’m in there and they didn’t see us coming.”
After working for several years as a guide for the safari operation of her husband and father-in-law, she felt it was time for a change. She has never grown tired of the game reserve itself, she says, but the monotonous trip from Johannesburg to the park got to her, and she felt that it was time to start her own venture that would allow her to settle in Johannesburg.
At first, the two-room guest house in Bryanston which she started simply doubled her work. Because her business was not big enough to sustain her, she continued doing tours for her husband’s company and worked on growing her guest house. Her parents lived on the property, and could keep things running while she was on tour. But still it meant burning both ends of the candle and living in garages and make-shift corners as the guests occupied every available room.
“At some point I think they fired me,” she jokes about the transition she made to focus solely on her own business. She had grown her Waybury House guest house incrementally to the thirteen rooms that it has today, and launched her own tour company, starting with day-tours to Soweto and elsewhere in Johannesburg.
Soon she was offering her own tours to Kruger in competition with her husband’s company. Although the Kruger tourism industry can be very competitive, Pat says it has never become a point of contention between her and her husband. If anything, he is proud of what she has achieved and they help each other out with vehicles and client referrals.
She was devastated when her partner from Soweto suddenly passed away in 2009, and she had to step into his shoes. She says the Soweto community welcomed her and today she is still able to support several businesses in Soweto, as well as a local orphanage, by bringing in about 200 tourists per month.
Her Kruger operation services about 140 tourists per month and is on the verge of an exciting expansion. Up till now, her business had been somewhat stunted by the lack of a base in the game reserve. Her four open-canopy game-viewing vehicles are kept permanently in the park, but she has to negotiate parking for them with other companies when they are not in use.
Now she is planning to buy a 22 hectare plot near the reserve with a small six-room lodge. Her vision is to expand it by building a luxury tented camp, which will become the base for her Kruger operation.
Pat says finding finance has always been the hardest part of growing her business. The banks did not fund her until 2010, when her guest house was very well established. But when she desperately needed finance to expand Waybury House, Business Partners agreed to help her.
For financing her new Kruger Park venture, which will be called Themba Safari Lodge, she did not even approach the banks, but went straight to Business Partners, who gave her a loan to buy the property. They have also agreed to consider financing a multi-million rand expansion of the lodge into a tented camp depending on the performance of the existing lodge over the next six months.
If her track record is anything to go by, she will prove herself soon enough.