This week we get to know Phil Sylvester, Travel Insurance Direct’s safety expert as he recalls that time he came face-to-face with a charging elephant and talks future plans to explore Mexico’s cenotes.
1. When and how did you get started in travel?
Travel Insurance Direct is actually my first job in travel. I’ve been doing it for four to five years now. Before moving into travel, I was an executive producer on a radio talk back show and before that I was a reporter for a nightly news bulletin.
I moved into travel because I knew a couple of people here at Travel Insurance Direct and they told me they were interested in harnessing the information and the power of their customers and have that information help other customers – so travellers helping other travellers. This required a lot of information gathering and story telling and as an journalist I had both.
2. What was your most amazing travel experience?
I went on a safari to South Africa a few years ago and I was staying at an open camp so every time I wanted to go from my room to the building I had to be escorted by these tall guys with massive guns. Anyway, our room was built on the edge of a river, but the river had dried up so it was a very steep drop. I looked down and there was a big pile of poo. I asked one of the guards where it came from and he explained that they were dropping from an elephant that had been drinking from our plunge pool. That was interesting.
But aside from that, on our first drive we saw a leopard. It was incredibly exciting, particularly because other people on the drive were South African and had been going on drives for 10 years and hadn’t seen one. So I was lucky to spot one our first time.
Usually when you’re on a drive you stay in the truck and animals just ignore you, but on our last drive our driver got out and asked ‘who wants to stalk a rhino?’ He had a massive gun with him and I said yes I’ll be going where ever that gun goes because I didn’t want to be left in a truck, in the wild and without protection.
So we’re stalking this rhino on foot and all my senses were on alert because suddenly we weren’t just observing, we were part of the food chain. As we were walking he gave us instructions on what to do if the rhino charges and they were: they don’t have good sight but they have good smell and hearing, so try and get high up. I looked around and we were on this flat, barren patch of ground with one weedy little tree and a couple of ant hills.
Thankfully we weren’t charged by a rhino, but on the way back we came across a small group of elephants. If a female elephant doesn’t like you or thinks you’re too close, she will turn and face you. If that happens, it’s an indication that she may charge.
The female of this group of elephants did exactly that. She turned and gave us the flap of the ears and the driver told us to make ourselves look as big as we could – puff out our chests, stretch out our arms etc. We did just that and low and behold she walked away.
But it was just our luck that we bumped into the group again five minutes later, but this time she not only turned and flapped her ears, she started snorting and stamping. We were told to stand still and the driver was in front of us with his arms all wide and chest out when suddenly the elephant took three paces towards us. They weren’t small steps, she cut the distance between us in half. But she then turned around straight away and walked off.
It was quite frightening but exhilarating at the same time. It was the most amazing experience of my life.
3. What is the weirdest job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had to do some weird things as a journalist. Being a journalist in general can be weird. It’s surreal sometime some of the situations you get into but I loved every moment.
4. What destinations are on your bucket list?
I was doing research on Mexico and I was reading about these cenotes in the city Tulum. They’re these great big holes filled with crystal clear water that you can go diving in. It’s amazing I’ve got to go there.
The company also sent a team to Iceland and they came back with the most beautiful images and film, so I’d like to do Ireland.
5. What was your biggest influence growing up?
My mother always use to say to me that when I was a child whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grow up, I always said I wanted to be a journalist. I think they’re born, not made. It happened to be that my earliest influence was a cousin of mine who was five years older. She was a reporter for a local newspaper and I always thought she was so cool and I wanted to be just like her.
6. How has working in travel changed you?
Coming from journalist where it was a lot of conflicts and disasters, it is wonderful to work in an industry where all they want to talk about is the great stuff. Working in travel has made me happier.
7. What’s one in-flight tip you always give to new travellers?
Noise cancelling headphones and don’t take the kids.
8. What’s your favourite destination?
South Africa is up on the list cause of the experience I mentioned above. It’s a pretty crazy destination. I also love Italy and I’ve been to Fiji a couple of times that’s a great destination.
9. What advice would you give someone starting out in travel?
Count your blessing you lucky thing.
Have a question for Phil on wine or his travel experiences? Leave it below and we’ll get you the answer.
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