Out of Africa

Looking around Donald Woods’s home, it’s easy to see he is nothing short of a globetrotter—he’s visited 43 countries and counting. Case in point: the wall of spears, all souvenirs from his trips to Africa. “They all represent different tribes from different parts of Africa, and have different uses,” Woods says. “They’re all special to us; every one of them represents a trip or a place, it’s not just stuff we got. Whenever we go on a trip, we always like to bring back something that’s a memory.”

And his memories are as cinematic as they come. The regional Chief Executive Officer for USI, a national insurance brokerage firm, eschews pre-planned vacations at all-inclusive resorts and things of that ilk, opting instead for Indiana Jones-worthy adventures, like biking, hiking, fishing and hunting trips in decidedly untrammeled places—often with his now-retired wife, Kathy Woods, along for the ride. “I’ve always been really very interested with different countries, different cultures, different histories,” he says. “I’ve been lucky and blessed to travel all over the world—throughout South America, Central America; I’ve been to Alaska close to 18 times and Africa 7 times. I’ve also been all over Europe, because I lived in London for five years and traveled extensively—that gave me such easy access.”

It’s nearly impossible for him to name a favorite trip, though he can rattle off plenty of contenders—including dog sledding in Sweden and sleeping outside in the dead of winter under the glow of Northern Lights, and exploring Botswana’s swampy Okavango Delta, where everything from cheetahs to spotted hyenas and blue wildebeests roam. Remoteness is key: “I like to go off the beaten path and get into the bush and meet people in the villages, rather than the people in the hotel lobby,” he says.

No surprise: his jaunts throughout the African continent have provided scores of movie-ready moments. “Once in Zimbabwe, we were actually sitting having lunch leaning against a tree and heard noises behind us,” he recalls. “We turned around and four rhinos walked right by us within five feet, which is very, very dangerous! We sat very still and didn’t move, and they never saw us and walked by.” Phew. Woods recommends hiring local guides who know the area well and can take you to things you’d never otherwise know were there. “It’s not just about safety, but about what are the things you might miss that are exceptional to see?  You wouldn’t know about it if you didn’t have somebody to help you navigate through that.”

Adding to the romance factor of his exploits? Woods is a pilot. About fifteen years ago, he bought a plane in South Africa and spent several weeks hopscotching the bush in South and East Africa with a friend. “We had a long leg from Nairobi to Djibouti, and we were halfway across Ethiopia in our small plane and they rejected our flight approvals while we were in the middle of country. They told us to turn around or they were going to send jets up and redirect us to Mogadishu, Somalia. We had to turn around and didn’t have enough fuel, so we had to land on a dirt strip in northern Kenya on the border.” Even for a seasoned daredevil, it was a hair-raising experience. “We weren’t prepared; we had no way to protect ourselves and we just sat there because we were out of gas. We were on the ground far away from anywhere for several hours, communicating through radios to commercial planes, and nobody was coming to help us.” Suddenly, a man came walking out of the bush and spoke “ in perfect Queen’s English: ‘What are you chaps doing here? Nobody lands here, this is a dangerous place.’” They explained the situation and two hours later a Land Rover of German missionaries arrived with a 55-gallon drum of fuel, and they were able to take off. “They couldn’t have been nicer and absolutely refused payment,” Woods says. “When you get in situations like that, special people show up in your life and help you out and you never forget it.”

And sure, he’s been all over the globe, but he finds plenty of off-the-beaten-path exploits right here in Colorado. When we asked him for his favorite secret spots here, he demurred. “If I told you and you printed it then they might lose their special status!” But Woods has some words of wisdom to get away from the crowds: “First: stay off the I-70 corridor. Second, bring your hiking boots.” Some of his preferred spots to get into nature without seeing another (human) soul: the Weminuche Wilderness and the South San Juan Wilderness; the northwest corner of Colorado around Dinosaur National Monument; and the canyon country between Cortez and Gateway. “The drive along the Dolores River Canyon is epic.” Spoken like a true adventurer.