When Jakes and Carl paths crossed in the UK early 2000s, their mutual friends already saw it coming. Carl was the entertainer, a true tour leader at heart, and Jakes had the MBA background and organisational skills to give the necessary structure to what was then only an idea at the back of their minds. Expat Explore Travel began (rather impulsively) in 2005 when they decided to take the plunge and start weekend trips to Paris. Working as the first tour leaders of Expat Explore, they took turns to to take groups to Paris and later Amsterdam over weekends and create itineraries to suit the avid traveler’s needs and wallet. Since then Carl and Jakes’ dream of a travel company that would provide guided tours designed by travel experts came true; they have established Expat Explore as a trusted travel operator in Europe.
Jakes, who is based at the Cape Town office, loves travelling as much as ever. He is a firm believer that travel provides context and expands your worldview like nothing else. To him, meeting new people and learning about the places we travel to is quintessential to human development. We sat down for a cup of his much-loved black coffee to find out more about his life as explorer and co-founder of Expat Explore…
Q: How did your upbringing play a role in you becoming an explorer?
A: Ever since I can remember I’ve had this longing to see other places. My brothers and I were lucky to have parents that took us to many different places as children – not one school holiday was spent in the same location. They exposed us to world politics, history and from a young age constantly nurtured my inquisitive nature. I remember them driving through certain towns so that I could find out more about the history and architecture of that region.
My mother is from Strydenburg in the Karoo, my dad from KwaZulu-Natal (close to Pietermaritzburg), they both moved far away from their families to study in Stellenbosch, Cape Town. Later they set up home in the Free State where I was raised with my three brothers. My parents still love exploring and take regular trips to see new places.
Q: When did you have your first taste of international travel?
A: I wanted to head overseas straight after school, but my dad insisted that I finish my degree first (today I’m so thankful for that). During the final year of my degree, I was awarded a travel bursary with the Golden Key International Honours society and travelled to Los Angeles, USA – a country I dreamt of travelling to from a young age. In 2001, during my stint as a student leader at the University of the Free State, I was fortunate to be a bursar of the Abe Bailey Travel Trust. The bursary aims to broaden the horisons of student leaders leaders from various South African universities. You set out to the United Kingdom on a 3 week educational tour to meet politicians, learn more about the history of England and get exposed to different languages and cultural backgrounds. Needless to say, this trip changed my life. That’s when I realised that travel changes your priorities. It changes you as a person.
Q: You have a serious interest in history and deem background on destinations as one of the most important aspects of a tour. Why is this?
A: Moving to England in 2003, I had no idea what to expect. I lived in a sort of closet above the staircase like Harry Potter and did a couple of odd jobs at first (you have to eat)! We travelled over weekends and stuck it out with bare bones budgets, staying in hostels and dorms with bed bugs and curtains as blankets. I knew there must be a way to travel in a comfortable, affordable way and also really missed having context about the destinations we travelled to. I remember seeing the Sacré-Cœur but not knowing why or when it was built. I realised the travel experience is more than merely seeing a place, it’s about learning its history and culture. I started reading up as much as I could find about Paris, the wonderful history and beautiful architecture. The penny dropped when I realised the French Huguenots emigrated to South Africa and settled in Franschhoek, Cape Town. History came alive for me and that’s the context I needed to truly appreciate the travel experience.
Q: How did you and Carl meet?
A: We knew each other obliquely as student leaders in South Africa and had a number of mutual friends. I guess it was actually just a matter of time. Carl approached me with: “I want to start a travel business” and it made absolute sense from the start. He did free tours at the time and I was managing my own placement and visa application agency. We both were and still are extremely passionate about travelling and wanted to give travellers the full experience – something to take home and carry with them for the rest of their lives. You have to be incredibly innovative and creative to start a company in a foreign country with nothing to your name! To this day, the spirit of exploration is still very much a part of us and, like always, we look at the world through the eyes of travellers.
Q: Why do you think you and Carl make such a good team?
A: The two of us started out as business partners and later became friends. W
e’ve always been very honest and open with each other and we have different roles and perspectives on life, travel, etc. Carl is more creative and I try to make sense of the plans he brings to the table. Sometimes the roles change, but the main thing is that it is based on a mutual respect and trust. Fundamentally, it’s like we’re brothers, like family. It developed out of working together and sharing a passion and making a career out of that passion.
Q: Why Europe?
A: It’s honestly because of the variety the continent offers. Italy is not France and France is not Italy, even though they border each other. If you really start exploring you will see and experience how they live and how their views on life differs. There is this weird, magical cosmos of people and cultures captured in Europe. That’s why I like Europe. There is variety in terms of everything – food, culture, what they do, how they react and think. There’s something for everyone!
Q: You spoke of your first trip to Paris in some old hotel with bed bugs and curtains as as blankets. Is it important for both you and Carl that travel does not have to be expensive?
A: It’s our number one focus. Unless you are 18 and have the resilience to stay in a backpacker hostel you can’t travel at budget prices. Just having the basics like a clean room, your own bathroom and comfortable transport is expensive when traveling in Europe. But when you travel with a group it all becomes much more affordable and gives us the scope to offer multi-country tours to Europe. You get the authentic experience with a tour leader, but not the discomfort of having to stay in a budget hostel and find your own way. We often get asked how we are able to make our tours so affordable; there is such a misconception that travelling is only for the rich and famous. We believe everyone should be able to afford to travel at some stage in their life, no matter where you come from or what you do for a living.
Q: What do you want people to experience on tour with Expat Explore?
A: The company started because Carl and I started exploring as expats and wanted to share the best of our experiences with other people. I think everyone would like to live in a different country at some point in their lifetime, but not everyone has that opportunity. So when you visit, you have to experience all of it. I remember one of our travellers on tour – a 70-year old travelling to Pompeii for the first time. If you’ve been there you’ll know it’s uneven sites to explore and in summer it’s scorching hot. The moment that coach stopped, she was out with her hat. She wanted to see the mountain she read about, she needed to walk the ancient Roman city and touch the ruins. That’s what it is all about. Those who travel with us become a part of our travel family. I believe this inspires and helps people to pick up on the passion, authenticity and care experienced on an Expat Explore tour.
Q: You read Expat Explore reviews like a book – why do you find it so important?
A: Carl and I personally welcomed our guests on tour 12 years ago and led the tours ourselves. We worked to give people more – more options, more excursions, more time, more everything, and to do that we had to listen to our customers. Today, we tackle the reviews just as hard as we did then. We don’t hear them firsthand like we used to, but we read them and monitor the experiences people have very closely. Whether it’s your first trip or your 13th time in Europe, it should always be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We have to get it right the first time and it has to be a complete experience. You are our personal guest on tour. We’re listening.
Q: Europe has been in the limelight quite a bit over the last year, especially with Brexit, the Euro currency and a number of terrorist attacks. Why do you still think it’s a good idea to travel to Europe?
A: Safety is one of our top priorities and throughout the attacks of the last year we kept a close eye on all the events to keep our customers informed. Also, we believe there is safety in numbers and coach travel is and always will be one of the best and safest ways to get around. We have to remember to see it all in context – Europe is and will always be one of the safest continents to travel to. Besides, we can’t live our lives in fear – you should get out there!
Currency prediction is an impossible science and one should never postpone the incredible experience of travel for when you have a favourable exchange rate. It’s our job to make sure every penny you pay goes towards giving you a once-in-a-lifetime travel experience. Believe me, once you’ve started travelling with us, you’ll join a club you never want to leave!
Q: What are the perks of travelling in numbers besides the safety aspect?
A: It makes getting off the couch and out of your comfort zone a bit easier. Where else would a 30-year old from South Africa get the opportunity to meet a 70-year old from Malaysia who can speak six other languages? You find out how similar you are to people from around the world and there is so much power in that. However, we still value space when travelling – that’s why we don’t stay in dorms. Our Europe tour packages include hotel accommodation with ensuite bathrooms and you have free days to do whatever your want, but you also have the interaction and the energy of travelling in a group.
Q: What does travel mean to you?
A: I’m lucky to have a wife who also loves travelling and we travel with our two- and five-year old children as much as possible. I want my children to know about the world and about travel. I bought my son a world globe recently to explain where I will be flying to. Now, when we meet new people he always wants to know where they’re from, where that is in relation to South Africa and if they can speak English. It’s in our DNA, like Carl said.
Travel develops you as a person, broadens your horizons and gives you perspective on things on which you would not otherwise develop perspective. And for me, travelling is not necessarily equated to holidaying – it’s not rushing to a resort and sitting next to the pool. If you really have to, you can do that at home. Travel is something different. It’s getting outside and learning how to orientate yourself in a new destination. Finding the joy in exploration – that’s what travel means to me.
Q: What would you tell someone who is scared to go traveling?
A: For some people exploring comes naturally, for others it’s more stressful. No matter what the case may be, everyone should travel. Off the couch and out of your comfort zone is where you learn more about yourself and the world. The moment you sit around that table and you look at the different backgrounds, different histories, different cultures, it opens your mind. People miss things because they are scared. I flourish outside of my comfort zone. But the notion of leaving a comfort zone is different for every one of us – it might be down the road or atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, whatever you have to do to move yourself to that special place, do it!
Q: What are your interests outside of your day job?
A: Family is important to me and I spend most time with them outside of work. Travel is part of my plan – always. I love new experiences and have a natural affinity for sports like trail running, so I do that as often as I can. Living in Cape Town means I’m close to the ocean, so I want to start doing a water sport soon. I’m also passionate about food and often attempt new recipes after work. That’s why I love Italy and Italian people.
Q: The best travel advice you’ve ever been given?
A : Immerse yourself. You are out of your comfort zone and you have ongoing opportunities to step out and stretch yourself. Take the train, get lost, eat something strange. Don’t be scared, ask questions. Chat to waiters, they are always happy to help and give you of the best travel advice.
Have a questions or two for our founders, Jakes and Carl or want to get in touch with our team, send a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.