“Some think the best large-scale operation after the war… was the one launched over a drink or two on the veranda of the Imperial Hotel in Addis Ababa”
– Bartle Bull, "Safari: A Chronicle of Adventure", 1988
Like so many great ventures, Ker & Downey Safaris was born from a chance encounter. Donald Ker and Syd Downey, two big game hunters from Kenya, had been fighting with the British in Ethiopia shortly before the fall of Addis Ababa in 1941. Syd had just been released by the Italians and was celebrating at a local hotel when he bumped into Donald Ker. With one car and a lot of bravura, the pair made a plan to establish “the best safari company the world has ever known”.
It was not until January 1946 that Syd and Donald, newly discharged from the army, took out their first safari. They were hired to run a camp in the Maasai Mara for the production of The Macomber Affair, the United Artists blockbuster starring Gregory Peck and Joan Bennett. It was the beginning of a long love affair with Hollywood, which would see “K&D” outfit some of the biggest films ever to come out of Africa.
In 1962, shortly before Kenya’s Independence, Ker & Downey spread its wings to Botswana, with Harry Selby and a couple of other guides offering safaris in this ‘new’, uncharted corner of Africa. Through the 60's and 70's, the company continued to grow – extending its reach across southern Africa, west to the jungles of Congo, and north into the deserts of Ethiopia and Sudan. By 1977, when hunting was officially banned in Kenya, "K&D" had transformed itself into the leading provider of customised mobile photographic safaris in Africa.
Today, Ker & Downey is celebrated as the longest-existing safari outfitter in the world, and the standard-bearer for unsurpassed luxury in some of its last great wild places. So successful has the “K&D” name been that it has been brazenly borrowed by a number of copycat companies in Africa and the West. Yet to this day, no one has come close to emulating the standards, the rich experiences, or the peerless guiding of “The Original Ker & Downey Safaris”.
“We are to learn and admire in the days ahead his competence and knowledge of his adopted land and his reverence and respect for the smallest bird, the most delicate insect, or the mammoth hippo and massive Cape buffalo. We are privileged to be under his guidance and leadership”
– Francis Kellogg, on safari with John Sutton, 1967
Donald Ker was born in England in 1905 and moved with his family to Kenya in 1911. When he was eight, Donald’s father taught him to shoot and at 16 he went on his first elephant hunt with Mike Cottar, son of the renowned hunter Charles. Trained by the Cottars in tracking and bush skills, Donald became a ‘learner hunter’ on their epic safaris, which would regularly involve hundreds of porters and camp staff.
In 1928 Donald hunted with Denys Finch-Hatton and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII), and in 1934 he was second hunter to Bror Blixen, whose expedition included George Vanderbilt and the Vicomte de Rochefoucauld. By the end of the war, Donald’s eyes were already on a future in photographic safaris; as he noted, many of his hunting clients “really came out for a good camping holiday in the bush”. When hunting was banned in Kenya in 1977, Donald adapted easily to the new landscape, wholeheartedly embracing the concept of conserving the animals that had been his life.
Syd was born in 1905 on an Argentinian ranch where his British father was the manager. It was so large that Syd and his siblings rarely left until they went to school in England in 1914. Syd moved to Africa in 1924, a continent he would leave just three times in his life. He became a professional hunter in 1930 and spent much of his time in the Maasai Mara. He was described as “possibly the greatest hunter after Frederick Selous” – a reputation that earned him an enviable client list of royals, Maharajas and film stars.
During World War II Syd joined the intelligence corps, tracking Italian movements into Sudan and Ethiopia, where he was captured and imprisoned. On his release he met Donald Ker and agreed to set up a safari company in Kenya. Syd was always drawn to photographic safaris; when he died in 1983, a friend said that “he would have preferred to be remembered not for his legendary skill with a gun or the immense pleasure he gave so many clients, but for his efforts to conserve wildlife and preserve the beauties of the environment.”
One of the ‘greats’ of Africa’s legendary hunter-guides, John Sutton joined Ker & Downey in 1951, and led the company through the heady transition to photographic safaris during the 1970's. Raised on a farm near Nakuru, John spent much of his childhood on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains, where he became a keen observer of the complex relationship and changing dynamics between wildlife, the land and the people. His insight – widely sought throughout his life – led to a firm conviction that wildlife is a national resource whose proper management is essential to its survival.
A council member of the East African Wild Life Society, John worked closely with a wide range of conservation-oriented organisations and was a trustee of the African Wildlife Foundation. Pivotal to the establishment of Ker & Downey’s operations in both Botswana and Tanzania, John’s clients included Prince Charles and Princess Anne, Jimmy Stewart and Laurens van der Post. John worked on many of Hollywood’s classic African films, including Mogambo and Out of Africa, for which he famously ran a tented camp for 340 cast and crew.
David guided his first safari with Syd Downey in 1959, but did not join the company until 1964. Born in Eldoret in western Kenya in 1931, he worked on locust control in the north of Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea and the Ogaden. Returning to farm in Kenya, he was nominated to the East African Professional Hunters Association in 1960 and hunted in Tanzania and Uganda before joining Ker & Downey. On one of his first K&D assignments, David worked on the film Sammy Going South with Edward G. Robinson.
During his long professional career, David led safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Southern Sudan, Zaire and Botswana. His clients included the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, the film star Stewart Granger, and the King of Bhutan. In later life, David concentrated on photographic safaris – with a particular interest and affection for the beautiful birdlife of East Africa.
Allan was an active K&D guide for over 35 years, becoming a director in 1982 and taking over the chairmanship of the company from John Sutton in 1997. Born in Kenya, Allan is the fourth generation son of two family lines, one of which arrived in 1896 to build the ‘Lunatic Line’, as the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu would become known.
Allan is credited with helping to develop the mobile photographic safari model that is so popular at K&D today. He has led safaris to many of the farthest-flung parts of Africa, including Zakouma National Park in Chad and the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia. But his great love today is conservation, and putting back into the bush what it has given him. Allan has been instrumental in developing Kenya’s wildlife conservancy movement, and sits on the boards of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association and the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. He has also served on the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service, and is the current chairman of the Kenya Wildlife Trust.
Nigel was born in Kenya in 1948 and as a young boy travelled the world with his sister and father. With a love for the ocean, Nigel spent his teenage years sailing the Mediterranean and building sailboats. He even worked on an oil rig in the North Sea before returning to Kenya in his early 20’s to begin a lifelong obsession with Africa’s wildlife.
Nigel’s guiding career began in the early 1970’s as the protégé of Syd Downey, with whom he worked closely until retirement beckoned Syd in the early 1980’s. The fortunate young Nigel had enjoyed the finest mentor in the safari world. Nigel’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Africa’s natural world and his love of wild places inspired guests for over 40 years. Outside of safaris, Nigel’s passions were flying bush planes and hot air balloons, fly-fishing and his family.
Nigel passed in 2016 and is survived by his wife Barbara, who lives in Nairobi and two children Sarah and Sean. Sarah lives on the beautiful coast of Kenya and Sean, having been mentored by his father, continues guiding safaris throughout Africa.
James Robertson was born and raised in Kenya, where his appetite for adventure has earned him a reputation as one of the modern pioneers of the global safari industry. Nearly forty years after leading his first expedition, James retired as chairman of the board at Ker & Downey in 2019, and is an influential leader of the movement in community-led conservation.
In 2001, James was a founder of The Mara Conservancy, a ground-breaking and widely-admired partnership between conservationists and the county government, which established a new public-private template to protect the critical wildlife dispersal areas north of the Maasai Mara Reserve. He also sat on the board as a founding member of the Kenya Wildlife Trust.
Today, James and his partner, Abigail, are settling into their new home on the edge of Tsavo East National Park. Despite insisting that they are retired, they continue to be some of the biggest supporters of the new generation of K&D guides and regularly explore and travel widely.