Big Five Tours & Expeditions began in Kenya in 1973 as a safari company for East Africa. This year, the family business celebrates 50 years of offering travel all around the world.
Started by Mahen Sanghrajka after he discovered a love of travel, Big Five later moved with the family to the U.S.A. in 1985 and have since expanded operations to include Latin America, Asia, other areas of Africa and more.
Now, Mahen’s son, Ashish Sanghrajka, is the president of Big Five. After years of traveling around the world, Ashish has brought his own personal experiences to the company to offer incredible—and most importantly, authentic—travel. We talked a bit with Ashish about why Big Five joined FTA and what they have to offer.
Why is family travel something you’re passionate about?
I grew up traveling and remember every single experience since the age of 4, whether it was coming within an eyelash of an elephant’s eyeball or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. All those experiences had one thing in common: They were not for anyone else, they were for me. I was not along for the ride as my parents explored, but rather they were organic experiences that happened because I was given my own identify from a young age. Now that I’m a father of a teenager and a pre-teen, that same inclusive approach is important to me. I learned early on that there is a difference between family focused and family tolerant.
Please tell us a bit about your work and your mission with Big Five.
My background is finance and economics. I came from that industry to travel, or rather, back to the family business, which is celebrating 50 years in 2023. I left the finance world because it wasn’t fulfilling. We would break ever record of cash on hand but had little to show for it when it came to social responsibility. Sure, we would write big checks to local charities, however we would not be as involved or immersed as I envisioned.
That’s the focus at Big Five, to put others first through traveling responsibly. Every action and every initiative focuses on how to positively impact a destination. We are a community-building company that just happens to sell travel. This is an even more important for kids, because we really don’t have a lot of time with them to teach this one very important lesson. By my count, we have 252 days with our kids when it comes to vacation time, from the age they can interact and appreciate the experience to when they begin their own life. Those early experiences shape who our kids are adults, so we simply want to be part of that journey.
My children remember being in Cartagena, Colombia back in 2021. Sure, they loved the city, however what they remembered more was the day we spent delivering food in the Tierra Bomba area. They still talk about it and it shapes their approach to life. That’s our mission as a company, and mine as a parent—to look past what we see and find what we can’t see.
What does Big Five have going on this year that’s exciting?
Well, it’s our 50th anniversary, which is huge. Every month, we are releasing stories from the five decades, some moments of struggle and some memorable moments. Our first story was from 1956, when my father was 8. That was his first safari, and as he tells it, the exact moment when the arc of his life was altered. I’ve been at Big Five over 20 years and watched this company become what it is today. However, more than that, I was a child watching my parents struggle to build this company, first as a child in Kenya, later as a young adult watching this family endure insurmountable odds. And this was before the financial crisis or the pandemic. So, I would say 2023 is a celebration.
Are there any challenges you’ve had to face in recent times?
The pandemic was tough on everyone, however that isn’t the challenge I remember the most. At the beginning of the pandemic, my close friend Abraham in Cartagena (who is like my brother) decided to mobilize the town to deliver food to the islands around Cartagena that were cut off from aid. One little girl, Arians, was one of the families we were delivering food to. Abraham noticed her skin pigmentation and called me at 5 a.m. We needed to help her, so he went back with doctors. As it turns out, she had leprosy at the age of 3! The local hospital was never finished and where a clinic was supposed to stand, only steel beams and concrete were present. We delivered the meds to her, however her recovery never took shape, because the family was so desperate for clean water. The pandemic laid bare just how desperate families in the poorest parts of towns were and they were being forgotten quickly. Finally, she was taken to foster care and today she is healthy. I wonder sometimes how many thousand more children are similar spots. How do we see them?
When it comes to family travel in 2023, what’s your main piece of advice/wisdom?
Get uncomfortable and trust your kids. You don’t need to water down the experience to cater to current lifestyles. Try something new, and don’t spend your energy trying to make it perfect. Spend it instead on making things real.
Anything else you want people to know?
I’m writing this as I fly back to East Africa where I was born. My flight was delayed so I got two additional days in Istanbul due to a missed connection and I had the most amazing time including walking atop the Grand Bazaar over the rooftops on the exact path Daniel Craig did in the opening sequence of Skyfall. Staying in these moments is what makes travel an adventure.
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