South Africa is emerging as a leading international destination for adventure tourists. The boom in adventure events has seen extreme sport becoming a major money earner for role players in this segment of the outdoor industry. Acumen meets some of these key adventurists. 

Ernest Henry Shackleton, born in 1874 in Kilkea, County Kildare, was arguably the greatest adventurer who ever lived. Following on a career as a young merchant officer with the Royal Navy, he yearned for more adventure and eventually managed to procure a position as third Officer on the ship Discovery.

In 1901, Shackleton set off on his first foray into Polar waters and then, more than a decade later, he was deemed ready to lead his own expedition. This was the fateful ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’ on which his ship Endurance was crushed by pack ice, compelling the crew to undertake a journey that to this day is thought to have been impossible.

Shackleton and his crew navigated more than 850 miles through a tempestuous South-Atlantic Ocean in tiny lifeboats to South Georgia Island. He then continued his treacherous journey on foot, and eventually managed to save every single crew member. Alfred Lansing recounts this incredible saga in his book Endurance, a must-read for every adventurer out there.

A good century later the face of adventure is vastly changed. Unlike Shackleton, contemporary explorers have cutting edge gear to support them on their quests, with satellite phones, GPS receivers, and technical apparel – not to mention aerial support and rescue craft – making their modern-day expedition way more achievable.

There are some aspects which have not changed much, however. Shackleton needed funding to finance his expeditions, as do modern-day explorers. A successful expedition also often leads to fame and (occasionally) corresponding fortune and, again, this holds true in the modern age.

Which brings us to the ‘Adventure Dollar’ … You can search for it as a present-day adventurer; or create events where competitors become your adventure collateral; or build a company that dispenses ready-made endorphins for all those jaded nine-to-fivers in search of meaning. 

According to a research report by Johan Radcliffe – CEO of Dirty Boots, a leading South African company specialising in the marketing of guided adventure activities – this market segment is largely under-developed locally. “Countries like New Zealand, Canada and even Saudi Arabia are leaps and bounds ahead of us, but as far as the pure potential of outdoor adventure goes, we are untouched here at the tip of Africa”.

“Internationally, the definition for adventure travel is a trip that includes physical activity (with the potential of an element of risk), interaction with nature, or also cultural experiences. When using this description, 26% of all tourists qualify as adventure travellers, although locally we still separate cultural tours and safaris”, Radcliffe continues.

This becomes interesting when extrapolating figures correlating with our ‘SA Domestic Tourism Index’ (JUL—SEP 2016), showing Foreign Tourist Arrivals (2.4 million), Domestic Tourist Trips (4.5 million) and a combined Foreign and Domestic Spend of R20.9 billion. This equals a potential income of R4 billion from adventure tourism alone, and that’s not to be sneezed at.

With this in mind, we spoke to three individuals and organisations who have made adventure their business. These are their views ...

  "For scientific leadership, give me Scott; for swift & efficient travel, Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when there seems to be no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton” – Sir Raymond Priestly

The Adventure Company: Gravity Adventures


Gravity Adventures is owned by Andrew and Marie-Louise Kellett, and their main business activities focus on high-quality adventure activities for small groups. This encompasses a range of options, from wilderness rafting and sea-kayak trips, to group adventures for schools and corporates.

Based in Claremont, their micro-adventures and expeditions are run from Cape Town, but with Orange River rafting operations based in Onseepkans in the Northern Cape. A beach-front property in Langebaan on the Cape West Coast offers easy access to their sea-kayak outings. 

“Cape Town is increasingly seen as an ‘event city’, and although we don’t benefit directly from any specific event, a general increase in clients interested in micro-adventures near town has enabled us to grow this sector of our business”, says Marie-Louise Kellett. Gravity is however well known for creating small-group bespoke adventures. 

Here’s what makes them tick, in the words of Marie-Louise Kellett ...

“We have a very small, multi-disciplined core team: Andrew Kellett head up logistics, training and operations; Marie-Louise deals with sales, marketing, as well as industry and environmental issues (vital to the bigger picture); while Sonja Petersen heads up operations. Additional staff are sub-contracted as needed for each event, with a strong pool of freelance guides and support staff who regularly work with us”.

“Marketing and promotion is done through a combination of word of mouth (referrals are very important) and social media, mainly via Facebook. Editorial coverage is also effective”.

“Tangible benefits we offer clients are firstly based on Gravity being one of the pioneers in the SA adventure scene (we’ve been around for 20 years)! From the word go, we were clear on key issues: professionalism, well-trained and well paid guides, quality equipment, well maintained vehicles and gear that can be trusted. In addition, we try to push hard around issues relating to social and environmental responsibility, and do not mind charging marginally more to supply the best possible service”.

“The reason we do this? Our philosophy is ‘work hard, have fun, be kind’ and we think this applies to both work and home life. If we can live this ethos, we believe we will then grow as individuals. This means our business will have a positive effect on our staff, our clients, the natural places we operate in and on the industry we are in”.

The Adventure Event: OTTER African Trail Run


The OTTER African Trail Run, presented by Salomon, is organized and coordinated by Magnetic South, one of South Africa’s premier event staging companies. Key operational crew include the Collins brothers – Mark and John - and their respective wives, Belen and Christine.

Magnetic South Productions is based on the Garden Route in the southern Cape, and presents several additional events, including the Featherbed Trail Run, Trail Town Festival, and the Phantom Trail Run. According to Mark Collins, preparations for each individual event can take months, if you do it properly …

“Actually, OTTER takes a full year. Booking the trail must be made a year in advance and staff need to plan for leave. We engage a total team of 70 people and all staff deployed along the trail (including medical and media) must be trail runners with a high degree of mobility and outdoorsmanship. The team managing the Bloukraans crossing must be competent in surf and swift water rescue”. 

“International athletes who compete every year insist that The OTTER compares with – or even surpasses – leading global trail running events. Part reason for this is the environmental ethics of our organisation: we truly believe we set the bar in terms of managing the environmental footprint here in SA, and arguably abroad, too”.

“We feel traditional editorial content in mainstream media is still highly regarded by sponsors and participants. Social media, because of ease of access, personalised target orientation and instant saleability, is often hyped as being the way forward, but it does come with clutter and is fleeting. Too often one event looks pretty much like any other on social media, and getting real value requires a clear strategy and consistent message”. 

“The OTTER is that ‘Perfect Storm’ between a marathon-distance event and impeccably poised trail running terrain. This makes for the ultimate pure Trail Challenge, with a pristine coastline, technically demanding, yet balanced trail, and unpredictable natural obstacles all morph in a place of magical natural beauty, the Garden Route National Park. All in all, the OTTER proves as much a test of dexterity as of endurance. The challenge to move efficiently and fast over difficult terrain has always fascinated us”.  

The Adventure Personality: Peter Van Kets


Peter Van Kets is a contemporary adventurer – in the mould of Shackleton – who is consistently in search of new boundaries, both mental and physical. He is currently planning a bold series of new adventures with BEYOND EXPEDITIONS. Peter is also an ambassador for ‘Children in the Wilderness’ and the ‘Sustainable Seas Trust’ – he is based in East London, Eastern Cape.

As a professional ‘extreme adventurer’, Peter has survived and thrived in some the harshest environments on the planet. As such, he has become a sought-after international business and inspirational speaker and best-selling author, but deems being a father as the most important role in life. Lessons learned during extreme expeditions are related to a business environment, taking elements of survival, courage, perseverance, passion and tenacity, to take people on a powerful and life-altering journey. What is it that really drives Peter Van Kets?

“One of the comments I get at conferences, is ‘Wow, being a professional adventurer must be so amazing!’ I immediately get this image of Bear Grylls triumphantly returning home after conquering everything: square-jawed and formidable, he hands his wife flowers, his children crowd around, and they all live happily ever after. Brilliant, right?”

“Yes, my choice of career is amazing, and it’s everything I‘ve ever dreamed about and more. It’s the reason I get up every day and it makes me feel alive, but (and I know you’ve been waiting for that), as with all other careers and businesses, this comes at a dear price, one that outweighs many benefits”.

“Adventure and exploration is my business and must be managed as such; as with any other career, it is vulnerable to economic and political turbulence. Every venture or expedition I embark on demands a clear vision and purpose, a dynamic strategy, precise planning and preparation, absolute honesty, integrity, a passionate support team, self-discipline and, above all, perseverance”. 

“Organising an expedition is like starting a new business venture. Years of experience means I’ve come up with a universal process that really works for me and it also means I do not have to reinvent the wheel each time”. 

“There are two types of expeditions: the world firsts, generally long distance epics and often hugely expensive. These are bundled with many unknown variables and therefore take much longer, because planning and preparation have to be meticulous. Secondly, you have shorter (and often more local) expeditions, aimed at achievable and more immediate results. These are a lot easier to organize and can take anything from 6-8 months, while the premium expeditions take approximately two years to come to fruition”.

“I have found that – again, just like in business - the most critical part of the preparation is to surround yourself with the best team of people possible. Every individual must share the same vision and purpose as you, and ultimately, it’s not about me, but rather about the team as a whole. The television documentary of my solo row across the Atlantic was called ‘Not Alone’, as a tribute to my team of associates, and especially my beautiful wife, Kim, an extreme adventurer in her own right”. 


Adventure Tourism – Facts and Figures:

Domestic Tourist Trips (JUL-SEP, 2016) – 4.5 million

Foreign Tourist Arrivals (JUL-SEP, 2016) – 2.4 million

Total Direct Domestic Spend (JUL-SEP, 2016) – R3.5 billion

Total Foreign Direct Spend (JUL-SEP, 2016) – R17.4 billion

Domestic Bed Nights (JUL-SEP, 2016) – 18.2 million

Foreign Bed Nights (JUL-SEP, 2016) – 19.5 million

source:   SA TOURISM INDEX Report 3rd Quarter 2016

Total Number of Adventures Booked (2014) – 11 million

Annual Income Generated by Adventure Operators (2014) – R4.6 billion

The Average Age of An Adventure Tourist – 35 years

Number of People employed in the Adventure Tourism Industry – 25 000 +

source: DIRTY BOOTS Report (2014) –


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