With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, Julie McIntosh says she became a safari operator out of “pure naivety”. The South African-born founder and director of the Sydney-based Classic Safari Company led a peripatetic childhood, following her parents escaping the social strictures of apartheid to Brazil and the US, returning to South Africa for boarding school and finally ending up in the ‘80s as a business management student at university in Brisbane.
Her fate as a perennial adventure traveller was sealed when she spent a year as the president of an international business students group organising cultural exchange programs. “Of course that involved a lot of travel and I followed that up with a year of backpacking,” Julie recalls. “It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, when David Hartley, an old school friend of my father’s, who owned a string of lodges in Botswana, approached Dad to sell his properties in Australia. I was young and bullet-proof and I thought ‘that sounds like a good idea’. Which is how in 1992 my brother and I came to represent Hartley’s Safaris here.”
Young and impetuous she may have been, but from the outset, Julie aimed high, offering bespoke tours to top-end lodges. The early ‘90s were an optimistic time for South Africa, with the end of apartheid and the growth of tourism in the country. During this time Julie relocated to Africa, where she met and married Will Ruck Keene, a daring, devil-may-care English adventurer who has been credited with putting Zambia on the world tourism map. While Will and his friend and business partner, Ben Parker, created Tongabezi, now five beautiful, remote luxury camps on the upper and lower reaches of the Zambezi River, Julie developed the Classic Safari Company, adding more destinations and riding safaris as business grew, mainly through word of mouth from satisfied customers. Tragically, the larger-than-life Will was killed in a car accident in 1997 at the age of 36.
“I realised it would probably be better for the business to return to Australia to live,” Julie recalls. “I’d always been a horse rider and my sister-in-law played polo, so when I came back to Sydney I tried to emulate my African life by coming out to watch an international game at Richmond.”
This seemingly random decision turned out to be a game changer for Julie, as since then she has been completely absorbed by the Richmond-Windsor polo scene and is now an avid competitor and supporter of the sport. In 2001 she bought a turn-of-the-century cottage in Richmond and she now divides her working week between Classic Safari’s HQ in Sydney’s Woollahra and a home office at Richmond. The polo ponies she shares with her partner, former professional international polo player and financial consultant Mike McKechnie, are stabled a few minutes away on a property they share with other members of the equestrian fraternity. Julie and Mike have become stalwarts of the Windsor Polo Club and prime movers in its revival. “I must admit the club takes up a lot of our time,” Julie says. “I am the president and Mike is the treasurer and club captain and with a lot of hard work, we’ve been able to turn the club around.”
Part of their success is due to Julie and Mike’s determination to change the image of polo, which is often seen as an elitist sport. “In fact it’s a huge amount of fun, and while it is fast and furious, it’s one of the few sports you can play at pretty much any level of fitness and at any age,” Mike says. “I must admit these days I enjoy playing polo much more than I did as a professional as these days I play with who I want to play with and when I want to play.” “Our aim has been to make polo more accessible and introduce more Sydney people to the sport,” Julie adds. “There are two schools attached to the Windsor Polo Club and you can do lessons and lease ponies, so you certainly don’t have to be wealthy to participate.”
The Richmond house Julie and Mike share with Julie’s seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, and Staffies Kidogo and Duma is a cheerful drop-in centre for horse and work friends and colleagues and Julie admits that a recent renovation was pretty much completed with expertise from connections made through the polo club. The house is a heartfelt homage to Africa, with Cape Dutch furniture that has travelled around the world with Julie’s family since they left South Africa in the ‘70s and works by African artists lining the walls. They include political statements by Stephen Kappata, photographs by Zimbabwean Michael Bowles, bronze sculptures by Llewellyn Davies and fabrics and cloth hangings from all over southern Africa.
Plus for more information on The Classic Safari Company’s trips visit their website classicsafaricompany.com.au.
Words: Kirsty McKenzie
Photography: Ken Brass