When Gary Clarke founded Cowabunga Safaris in 1974, he instilled “The Cowabunga Philosophy” in all that we do. Then, as now, we believe:
A safari should be the most memorable travel experience of a person’s life. But a safari is not just facts and photos. It should provide the individual with a greater understanding and appreciation of wildlife and our natural world, and the people and cultures of the African continent. Every safari is a unique, unrepeatable gift.
For more than three decades, Gary led safaris and authored books. On the African continent he was variously known as Mzee Shetani, the Old Dagga Boy, or simply “Cowabunga.” In 2002 he was inducted as a Maasai elder in the Oltukai Mara Clan of southwest Kenya and bestowed with the name Ole Isho, “The one who gives.” Gary’s professional career began in 1957 at the Kansas City Zoo. In 1962 he became a curator at the Fort Worth Zoo, Texas. In 1963 he was appointed Zoo Director in Topeka, Kansas, ultimately retiring with the title of Director Emeritus in 1989 after a 26 year tenure. In 2018, Gary’s service to the zoo world and his life-long passions for African animals, cultures, geography, history and photography merged. It was then when the Topeka Zoo opened the award-winning Camp Cowabunga -- a living project in which he was deeply, personally involved. Indeed, Gary’s spirit permeates every corner of Camp Cowabunga.
Brian has worked with Cowabunga Safaris since 1996 and owned and operated Cowabunga Safaris since 2006. Languages of his include Swahili, basic Arabic, and just enough of a couple other African languages to get into trouble. When not in the African bush, on safari, Brian is a professor at Northwest Missouri State University in the United States where he works closely with their Emergency & Disaster Management program. His focus there is on international humanitarian crisis response. On safari Brian is variously called “Cowabunga” or Mzungu Mrefu. The former nickname is inherited as Gary consistently referred to Brian as his “African son” (albeit not a blood relative, certain facts do not have to get in the way of certain truths). The latter nickname comes from Brian’s undergraduate days on the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania national championship basketball team. Wherever the team played Tanzanians could be heard asking, "Mzungu mrefu ni nani?" -- Who's the tall white guy?
So what is it about the safari experience generally, and a Cowabunga safari especially, which is so intoxicating? A partial answer can be found in an excerpt from a letter Gary wrote to Brian decades ago:
A Safari is more — much more — than seeing and photographing animals in the wild. It’s the thrill of exploring new areas, the adventure of living in different cultures, the excitement of unanticipated eventualities. The African bush heightens one’s awareness, sharpening imagination and senses; it makes the individual aware that all life works in cycles: temperature cycles, light cycles, climatic cycles, births, deaths. To think just now of the evenings in Africa when the sun turns the sky blood red and one sees the dark and massive silhouettes of elephants on the horizon, to think of walking on paths covered only with the tracks of life, taking in the smells of dust and dung, the songs of birds… Oh, it gives me a quiver of joyousness!
In a personal way, through authentic experiences, we look forward to the prospect of sharing all that is “Africa” with you.
“I have been with Cowabunga Safaris on multiple safaris. Every safari has been filled with incredible animal sightings, cultural insights, and the making of life-long friends. The accommodations, whether in mobile tent camps, permanent tent camps, or in lodges were thoughtfully chosen and comfortable… What I have experienced with Cowabunga is difficult to put into words. It has profoundly affected me and put a passion for Africa in my heart.” - K.V., Illinois, USA
“We have traveled with Cowabunga Safaris and Brian 10 times. Each Safari has been unique… We have met and made friends with so many great people. Brian is super knowledgeable, from speaking the language to having a wonderful rapport with the people. We can't wait to go again.” - S.M., Missouri, USA
“Traveling in Africa with Cowabunga has some sort of restorative power that leaves your soul thirsty for more. Will I be back in Africa with Cowabunga again? Absolutely. I highly recommend them to anyone wanting to take the best trip of their life.” - S.R.N., Kansas, USA
“Our family began our African adventure with Cowabunga Safaris with a mentality of ‘We’ll go to Africa once.’ Little did we know that the experience with Cowabunga would fundamentally transform us… Brian makes Africa come alive. He mixes stunning vistas and incredible encounters with animals and a narrative which places what we are seeing in both a historical and cultural context. We very much look forward to our next safari with Cowabunga!” - M.K., Virginia, USA
“Being on a Cowabunga safari is a life-changing experience. Every day is a new adventure. After being a whitewater raft guide for 20 years, I can say ‘Good guides attract good people.’ Brian makes each individual feel like the safari is just about them. He will become a personal friend, as will your fellow safarists and all the people you meet in Africa. You will leave a small part of your heart in Africa.” - M.O., Oregon, USA
“We went on our first safari with Cowabunga Safaris in 2008. Since then we have been back six more times with Brian… He has a real passion for Africa, and it shows every day you are on safari. We give Brian and Cowabunga Safaris ‘5 stars.'” - G.B., Iowa, USA
“…Cowabunga is far more than a photographic safari – it’s habit forming… (It’s) the anticipation of the unexpected. So, want an experience of a lifetime? Cowabunga Safaris makes it easy and simple. You only need four things: camera, binoculars, flashlight, and a few squares of toilet paper. (Having been on nine safaris so far), we just might join you for safari #10!” - H.H., Kansas, USA
“Having been in many different parts of Africa with Brian, he knows the areas where he takes folks -- not only the area’s common language, but the flora and fauna… He easily relates with people you meet and looks after the daily needs of all his guests exceptionally well.” - R.F., Missouri, USA
“Everyone should go to Africa at least once in their life. Yet there is really no reason to go unless it is with Brian and Cowabunga Safaris. You won't find a more knowledgeable, thoughtful, experienced or higher-quality guide than Brian. He makes the country you are in come alive, teaches as you explore, and provides a top-notch, unforgettable experience. A Cowabunga safari needs to be on everyone's bucket list!'” - J.D.P., Kansas, USA
“As my safari to Tanzania with Cowabunga approached, I cautioned myself not too expect too much (that could lead to disappointment)… I needn't have worried as it was the trip of my lifetime… Brian himself was a real treasure to have with us. Because of his intimate knowledge of the country he was able to share many tidbits of social, political and biological information throughout the day whether at mealtime or during the game drives -- plus he has a great sense of humor which makes the trip even more fun. I just can't say enough about how well the safari was planned from start to finish… Several of our group had traveled with Brian before and all of them had only great things to say about all those trips. If you're wanting to travel to Africa, do yourself a favor and plan a trip with Brian and Cowabunga Safaris.” - J.S., Michigan, USA
“‘WOW’ is one word to describe Cowabunga Safaris. I have been on five safaris with them and each one has been life changing for me. The animals are always special, but the people you meet, the landscapes and the information that Brian introduces you to are unmatched. I've seen the incredible migration. I've swam in the Indian Ocean of the Swahili Coast. I've camped out with hippos, elephants and other animals just outside my tent and never felt more at ease. I've whitewater rafted at Victoria Falls. I've been canoeing on the Zambezi River and caught tiger fish there. Each safari has had something I treasure. And on each safari there has been someone from my previous safari -- which speaks volumes. Cowabunga alumni keep coming back for more. I'm so looking forward to my next adventure with Cowabunga.” - D.D., Oregon, USA
Brian Hesse, Guide and Owner