Founded in 1972, the history of the Catalina Safari Company is that of its founder Pierre Jaunet
From growing up in Poitiers, France to his first trip hitchhiking across the continent, Pierre discovered a passion for Africa and soon became an expert guide offering some of the most intrepid overland tours possible. From these initial steps he has since travelled more than 3 million kilometres overland across Africa and the Middle East. Amongst those who have watched the growth of tourism in Africa over the past 50 years, Pierre is considered one of the top non-African explorers of the continent. This is his story.
The first trip
Pierre started exploring Africa in 1970. When he set out from his home in France that year, his intended destination was Australia. He never got there.
On this first trip through Africa Pierre hitchhiked his way across the continent accompanied by an Englishman he had met in Istanbul who, curiously, was also on his way to Australia. It took them four months to travel from Libya to Namibia (Southwest Africa, at the time) and the winding roads provided ample time for George to help Pierre with his rapidly expanding English skills.
When they arrived in Namibia, Pierre had an English accent and his travel companion was out of money. Pierre agreed to stop for a while so that his friend could restock his wallet before continuing onward to Australia.
Prior to leaving Europe, Pierre had quit his university studies and had gone to work in London, England, eventually finding work with the “Sommerfeld Formwork Ltd” company. Under the mentorship of its founder John Sommerfeld, Pierre managed the building of some of the city’s unique structures, perhaps most notably, the Monkey Cages at the Regent’s Park Zoo. Through this experience he gained management and construction skills that would serve him well in Namibia.
With such practical skills to offer, Pierre quickly found jobs in Namibia as foreman on projects developing the country’s infrastructure. While travelling the country for work, Pierre fell in love with its deserts and became enchanted by its nomadic tribes. Intrigued and determined to continue exploring, he quit his job and used his construction earnings to buy his first Land Rover, a second-hand Series IIA (1962 model) that he found in the capital city Windhoek.
Upon hearing of the San bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, Pierre soon expanded his explorations to include Botswana. There he spent time with the bushmen, learning how they maintained their traditional lifestyle of hunting with poisonous arrows and gathering food in the desert. In 1971, capitalising on his knowledge of the Kalahari and his growing 4×4 and expedition experience, Pierre shot a 16mm documentary film called ‘The Bushmen of the Kalahari’.
It was at this point that he abandoned all plans to move to Australia. There was simply too much in Africa left to explore.
In the Sahara a career is born
From the driver’s seat of his first Land Rover, Pierre started offering overland trips across Africa in 1972. For the next two years he carried paying passengers on four-to-six-month trips from Johannesburg to London (and back) travelling first through East Africa then turning west through Equatorial Africa before finally crossing the Sahara and leaving the continent via Morocco. His professional career as an overland expert was officially born.
By 1973, and after less than two years on the continent, Pierre had already driven the length of the Sahara Desert six times. Awed by the Sahara’s beauty and tempted by its challenges, he decided to begin offering specialised desert tours there. Having been on the road continuously since leaving France, he also set out to establish a base for himself in the region. From his first base in Djanet, Algeria and now with three Land Rovers, Pierre started serving in 1974 as a Sahara Desert Safari Operator for the French tour operator Explorator. This was the start of a 35-year partnership with Explorator and a lifelong friendship with its founder J.P. Picon.
His time in Djanet also resulted in another fortuitous meeting that shaped the course of his personal life. In a group arriving from Paris, Pierre met his future wife Antoinette. Until her death in 2011, they were a formidable pair of adventurers and business pioneers. Antoinette Jaunet became an expert driver and guide in her own right, leading innumerable trips across the continent.
Over the next decade, Pierre, who was by now fluent in Arabic, became a renowned expert in Sahara Desert exploration. The region’s political changes provided additional challenges to entertain him. In order to continue operating in his beloved Sahara, Pierre was forced to regularly move his home base and shifted first from Southern Algeria to Agadez, Niger, then on to Libya and finally to Khartoum, Sudan.
By 1983 Pierre had expanded his operations by returning to his roots to offer trans-Africa overland expeditions. During this time groups of 10-12 people joined him on three-week long sections on a route running north and south between Libya and Victoria Falls. In addition to these trans-continental trips, Pierre kept busy by offering safaris into the Sahara during the European winter period and leading trips to Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar and Northern Kenya during the European summer.
The Catalina Flying Boat Era
It was in 1986 on one of these trips that Pierre had a grand idea. During a stop on the Zambezi River upstream from Victoria Falls he was inspired by the old river jetty that had serviced the glamorous Imperial Airways flying-boat service of 1948-1953. On seeing remnants of this incredible era of travel, Pierre decided that he too would offer trans-African flying safaris. Despite starting with no plane, no flying experience, and of course no passengers, within 18 months Pierre had purchased a Catalina Flying Boat in Canada, refurbished it, found a flight crew and made the journey from the west coast of Canada to Cairo. When he arrived in Cairo in November 1988, 16 passengers were waiting.
A documentary film crew from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) captured the excitement of the company’s first trip across Africa. The resulting documentary, ‘The Last African Flying Boat’ won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for Best Single Documentary in 1990.
For the next six years, Pierre’s newly renamed Catalina Safari Company operated three-week flying-boat safaris between Cairo and Victoria Falls. With his flying boat landing on the great waterways of Africa, it was a spectacular journey. The Nile, Lake Turkana, Zanzibar harbour, Lake Malawi, and the Zambezi River were a few of the magnificent stops along the way. Thanks to his partnerships with the prestigious tour agents Mountain Travel Sobek, Kuoni, Abercrombie & Kent and Bushbuck Safaris, every trip was sold out.
During this time Pierre and his crew enjoyed the company of many interesting guests, including Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and the richest man in the world. The plane and crew were also chartered for special events including an around-the-world trip that Pierre guided for the Peter Stuyvesant company. Flying past the Manhattan skyline to land on the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty, touching down amongst icebergs in Greenland and landing in Amsterdam where another film crew eagerly waited, were just some of the highlights from that remarkable time.
By the way, it was thanks to the flying-boat safaris that Pierre finally did make it to Australia. The Australian airline Qantas was interested in having Pierre start a similar service between Australia, New Zealand and Polynesia and graciously hosted he and Antoinette for ten days. When they weren’t exploring possible flying routes (and determining it wasn’t a viable business opportunity) they were busy doing media interviews including a segment on Australia’s most popular morning television program ‘Good Morning Australia’.
Pierre continued his Catalina flying-boat safaris for six years. Undaunted by the challenge of having to secure, for every single trip, the right to fly and land in 11 different African countries, he successfully navigated African regulatory and permitting regimes longer than anyone could have expected. Eventually, however, political changes and the downturn in tourism caused by the Gulf War caught up with him, overcoming even his indomitable optimism and ingenuity. Operating trans-African flying safaris became unsustainable for the Catalina Safari Company and in 1994 Pierre sold his plane and returned full-time to his Land Rovers from a new base in Harare, Zimbabwe where the Catalina had been based and registered for the past 6 years.
After selling the Catalina, Pierre needed another grand challenge. He soon decided that his next adventure would be to take tourists to remote areas where none had ever ventured, and he would do so by exploring the length of the great Zambezi River by zodiac. Inexperienced in navigating small boats down dangerous rivers, Pierre sought out the expertise of his friend and fellow explorer Paul Connolly.
Pierre had met Paul in Victoria Falls a decade earlier, just as Paul and his company Shearwater began offering rafting trips in the gorges below the famous Falls. In fact, Pierre and a group of his faithful passengers had been Shearwater’s first paying passengers.
Paul quickly accepted the challenge of joining Pierre on a recce of the river, and a trip down the Zambezi from its source at Mwinilunga, Zambia to the Mozambique border was soon underway. With a new semi-rigid inflatable boat with a big 60hp engine, lots of fuel and a new trailer, they ventured off down the river with Antoinette following closely by Land Rover on land. Two weeks later they arrived in Victoria Falls having travelled 1000km of the river by boat.
With Paul’s guidance, Pierre learned how to read the great river and navigate its rapids. Most importantly, he learned which stretches of the river were too dangerous to cross by boat and where ideal landing, portaging and camping sites were located. Pierre had everything he needed to convince himself and others that commercial trips down 1700km of the river were possible.
Starting in 1996 Pierre began offering a series of trips in two semi-rigid inflatable boats carrying nine passengers with a fleet of Land Rovers following alongside. Starting from the northwest of Zambia they travelled to Victoria Falls where they traded zodiacs for Land Rovers. Pierre knew that the Zambezi below the Falls was a long succession of very dangerous rapids so for the safety of his passengers they opted to drive to Lake Kariba. As the 300km length of Kariba would have been a slow and monotonous trip by zodiac, a two-day houseboat cruise carried them forward. From the base of the Kariba Dam they re-joined their zodiacs. Dr David Livingstone himself had described the Zambezi’s path through Mozambique as a wide shallow river with many sandbanks and bordered by swamps, so with the end of the river offering little value to tourists, each trip concluded at the Mozambique border.
Pierre continued his Zambezi adventures until the end of the decade. Between zodiac trips he continued offering safaris through the Sahara and Southern Africa, with increased attention to the wonders offered by his new home base of Zimbabwe.
Based in Botswana
As an expert in travel throughout Africa, and no stranger to changing times, Pierre was prepared to adapt when, once again, operating conditions changed for the worse. With Zimbabwe amid political and economic turmoil in 2005, Pierre moved his operations to neighbouring Botswana and started a new mobile safari company called Africa Under Canvas in collaboration with Damarana Safaris of Namibia. From his base in Kasane and with a fleet of eight Land Rovers, two Oka Australian trucks and three zodiac boats, Pierre spent the next few years specialising in photographic safaris across Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
After running Africa Under Canvas for eight years and following the death of Antoinette, Pierre decided to move on from the pre-packaged safari business model that had his trips successfully marketed for decades by Explorator and Damarana Safaris. Seeking to offer a more personalised approach to travel, Pierre returned to Harare and reinvigorated the Catalina Safari Company label, relaunching it in 2012 as a boutique safari company working directly with clients.
Never one to remain idle when there’s an opportunity to explore, while in Botswana Pierre had capitalised on the quiet of safari low season (which is winter in Europe) by starting trips to new destinations. In this time his reach expanded to include operations and overland safaris across both Ethiopia and the Sultanate of Oman. A few years later he added Iran to his list of destinations.
He first began exploring Oman and its Wahiba Sands in 2006. The Wahiba is a remote, uninhabited 30,000 square kilometre desert with no roads and offering no mercy. When he approached the Wahiba’s magnificent yellow sands for the first time that year, the only directions he had for crossing them was to ‘Go south, south, south. Then keep going south.’
It was on this maiden trip across this enormous desert that he happened upon a grove of seven trees in its middle. He has returned to these seven trees every year since then, camping on the dunes under the stars with clients. But, before setting up camp there each time, he first must find them. These aren’t on any road and they aren’t marked on any map you’ll find and Pierre finds his way by GPS, following the GPS coordinates written on his trusty Michelin map.
On a subsequent trip to the Sultanate, Pierre happened to meet a family of fellow Arabian horse-breeders from Iran. It was their assistance and connections that allowed him to once again expand his reach and begin offering his faithful clients trips through Iran.
Today, a new level of personalised safari service
Today Pierre and the Catalina Safari Company offer tailor-made expeditions for privately formed small groups of passengers. Drawing upon his decades of unparalleled experience and insight, Pierre and his team offer an exclusive safari service as expert designers and guides. Working in close consultation with clients, the Catalina Safari Company today offers customised expeditions to the destinations across Africa and the Middle East that Pierre knows so well.