The Interview: Rumit Mehta of Immersion Journeys
By Everett Potter
(Photos copyright Rumit Mehta/Immersion Journeys)
This month, we’re offering a giveaway to Ghana’s Zaina Lodge in partnership with Immersion Journeys. I met the company’s founder, Rumit Mehta, a few years ago at the Adventure Travel World Summit and was struck by his friendliness, knowledge and passion for adventure travel. I quickly learned about his remarkable company, Immersion Journeys, and its deeply rooted trips in both Africa and India. That comes as no surprise, since he was born in Kenya to parents of Indian background and raised in Tanzania. Immersion has a wide range of African trips and their India tours are becoming ever more far reaching. In fact, the new Immersion Journeys tour to the western Indian state of Gujarat was just named one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Trips of a Lifetime for 2015, the third time they’ve been so honored. I caught up with Rumit in Manhattan, where he lives.
EP. What is your background and how did Immersion Journeys begin?
RM. I am actually an architect by training and worked in the field for 13 years or so in various roles as a designer, and in management and construction. In the mid-2000’s I had a desire for a career change and by then I had already begun dabbling in planning custom trips to Africa for people. Pretty soon it became clear that I could do this full time and pay the bills and Immersion Journeys was born.
EP What makes an Immersion Journeys tour different?
RM We always say that the road from point A to B may be followed by all travelers, but it’s what we do between points A and B that sets us apart. Our trips are highly experiential and guests tend to often get spontaneity on our trips. For example, there might be a sudden stop on the highway in India because there is a camel train and local herdsmen coming towards us, which allows us to get out of the car and interact with them.
EP Tell me about the trip that was just named one of National Geographic Traveler’s 50 Tours of a Lifetime.
This is an itinerary that travels through Gujarat, a state in western India. It has been under the radar as their core GDP has always been manufacturing and mineral extraction. Plus there’s Rajasthan, the neighboring state has always taken kudos for highly developed tourism. Of late, in the past five years or so, the Gujarat state government has aggressively begun promoting the arts, culture and crafts of Gujarat. It is a state with overwhelming diversity: archeological digs of the Indus valley civilization, a long coast line, a history of trading between Persia, China and Africa for hundreds of years, amazing textile work and hand embroidery that is sold in stores in Europe and the US. It has a deep and patriotic culture involving music, food and dance rituals, and is the only place outside of Africa where lions can be found, and the only place in Asia where one can see herds of wild asses, a now protected species. It is also home to one of the largest Jain temple complexes in the world, accredited by the Guinness Book of World Records, which to this day remains a pilgrimage site and not officially a tourist site. There’s also the famous Raan of Kutch, a white expanse of a salt desert that hosts the annual White Desert festival visited by tourists from the world over. We put all this together to develop an 11-night trip that provides an opportunity to visit Gujarat and lets visitors immerse themselves in many of the experiences mentioned above.
EP. For someone who’s never been to Africa, which one of your trips might you suggest?
RM. We always suggest first timers visit either East Africa — Tanzania or Kenya –or South Africa, with an extension to Victoria Falls and/or Botswana. The infrastructure and service levels are amazing plus there’s a high density of wildlife. A lot of decisions are also based on budget. To make things affordable for, say, a party of only two people, we would recommend they take a ‘scheduled departure’ where they share the vehicle with a maximum of four others for a total of six. It makes the trip less expensive but they would still have a fantastic time. If the party is more than 2 people, we would recommend the trip on a private basis.
Our top selling East Africa trips are Discover East Africa, Gems of Northern Tanzania and Kenya Wild life Adventures.
Our top selling Southern Africa trips are Splendors of Southern Africa and Best of Botswana & the Falls
Of course, we can mix and match any of the above.
EP. And which trip in India for newbies?
RM. A difficult question. India is a country that has no starting or end point for any traveler. Ever! This is because it is so vast and diverse. However, first time travelers to India want to see the highlights, such as Jaipur, Taj Mahal and New Delhi, which is repeatedly marketed and most recognizable world over. Wild life in India is quite amazing with the Bengal tiger as the highlight of any time. India also offers an opportunity to do side extensions like a quick 2 night trip to Amritsar’s Golden Temple or Lucknow. Two of our most popular trips for newbies are:
Classic India and Tigers & Kings.
EP. Tell me about the Ghana project with Zaina Lodge?
RM. This is a 25 chalet eco-lodge in northern Ghana Molé National Park is the first of its kind in Ghana. The pioneering vision is to have a guest experience a safari in west Africa, when traditionally they would have gone to east or southern Africa. The lodge is set on an escarpment overlooking two watering holes that animals use for their water source. Each tented chalet is luxuriously furnished and has views of the escarpment for miles, indoor and outdoor hot showers, and flush toilets. The common areas consists of an infinity pool, bar and restaurant. The lodge will provide game drives and walks led by professional guides. To get to the lodge is a quick 60 minute flight from Accra to Tamale and then a 90 minute drive on the highway to the park gate. Immersion Journeys is involved in the project as an investor and to also help promote this unique destination.
EP. Is Ghana really a destination for seasoned African travelers?
RM. No, Ghana is a destination for all travelers. It’s also an easy country to travel to as practically everyone speaks English there and is incredibly hospitable. What makes Ghana unique is that it has a long Atlantic coast line offering spectacular beaches, a deep rooted heritage of the Ashanti and other important tribes, and a decent infrastructure of roads and airports. One can learn more about the slave trade and American civil rights leaders who frequented Ghana. You can do a nice 9-10 day trip to Ghana in a relaxed manner and see a lot and end on a high note on a safari. It’s only an 11-hour direct flight from the east coast of the United States to Accra, the capital, so for those with limited time, this is the ideal destination be it the first time in Africa or the forth.
EP. I know that you travel a lot, personally leading many of your trips. You were born in Africa, of Indian descent, and you live in Manhattan. But at the end of the day, where’s the place where you feel most at home?
RM. I still yearn for Africa despite having lived in the U.S for 25 years! Our travelers who have visited Africa can attest to this feeling, as once you visit it you want more. Despite the globalized and free-wheeling atmosphere felt in big cities in Africa, there is a level of simplicity that still exists. I am fortunate that I can travel to Africa on business which allows me to go back to my childhood. I am extremely lucky I can also visit India and connect with my heritage. Just a few months ago I went there and took part in the annual kite flying festival. But home for me is the U.S. now. That’s where I live and own a business. But I still have the option to travel to my former home to re-connect.