“there has to be good diving there” he said, and set about finding out how. Within 10 months, Raf opened the first private dive centre in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This achievement is to this day, one of his proudest. India was somewhat closed to the world in the mid 1990’s and life was not easy.
“I had no idea what I was doing, I simply had total confidence that if I kept trying, I’d get there” he recalls. He did get there, but India would not allow him to employ foreigners so after three years of pioneering as a two man band, he had had enough. He returned to London, bought a 110 landrover for £1800 and drove across Africa. On his way he found Tanzania. North of Zanzibar was the small island of Pemba. After completing the expedition to Cape Town he retuned to Tanzania and set up another pioneering dive company. He needed help though and with New Zealander Paul Stockley, they opened a guest house in the town. Swahili Divers was an instant success, with professional diving and a great little backpackers. Sadly Paul returned to New Zealand- Raf takes the blame for this. “I did not appreciate what Paul brought to the business until long after he left. Paul was assiduous and ticked all the admin boxes”.
In 2001, Raf met Francisca over tea in Zanzibar. By 2002 he had persuaded her to return to Pemba and run the lodge. The lodge morphed into a beach resort and Francisca ended up running the kitchen and lodge. While Cisca ran the hospitality side, Raf developed his passion for diving and training. Ending up as a NAUI Instructor Trainer (equivalent to PADI course director) and a PADI Dive Instructor. Raf has 2900 dives to his name and has trained many instructors.
Francisca was a Marine anthropologist who spent a year living on the edge of a dried-up lake in Namibia studying what fishermen did with themselves when the rains did not come. He second research project was Zanzibar to study slightly more active fishermen. After working at the Netherlands South Africa Institute, she agreed to move to Africa’s as long as Raf agreed to marry her. On the 27th March 2004 Raf and Cisca married in Istanbul, went on safari in the desert for a honeymoon and then returned to Pemba. It was here that Francisca developed a safari consultancy out of nothing. So many clients sat around the dinner table and mentioned how their safari “was OK, but had so many small issues that took away the magic”
During the Pemba rainy season, Raf and Francisca drove their land rover all over Tanzania researching safari companies and national parks. They found the very best and started dealing with them. By 2010 the safari side of the business was so large that it needed a separate entity, and Tanzania was not the place to do this. By 2012 the African and Oriental Travel company was born in the UK. The business went from strength to strength with safaris being orgainsed in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Kenya. All of these were meticulously researched, as Raf and Cisca say: “we only sell what we have done”.
In addition to this, Francisca is an accomplished diver with over 1000 logged dives. Together with Raf they started taking escorted groups to dive in Micronesia, Mexico, Papua New Guinea and beyond. The safari business grew and needed more attention. Raf and Cisca could not run the hotel and dive centre and travel agency all at the same time. Dogged by less than spectacular managers in Pemba, something had to give. After 23 years of operational diving and safari management, Raf and Cisca reluctantly decided it was time to leave the bush and concentrate on the travel agency.
Raf and Cisca are assisted by consultants Al and Chris. Al organises our mainland Japan tours and Chris does our Trans Siberian and South American extensions. Raf and Cisca still have their landrover in Tanzania and can be found driving around Africa every year, making sure that the good lodges stay good, and that no other small operator has suddenly become amazing. They bring with them unparralled experience, that simply does not exist in some of the larger companies. Their one aim is to assist you in making your plans for your journey to Africa and the Orient, and to make it as memorable as possible.