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From Yacht Stew to Safari Architect


We’ve interviewed a lot of crew over the years and it’s such a treat when we’re able to follow their paths both into the yachting industry and to the transition out when it’s time for a change. This week we got to sit down with Gemma Heyns, once a yacht stew on board luxury yachts, and currently the founder and safari architect behind TAP Expeditions in South Africa. If you’re looking for some new travel ideas, both land and sea-based, read on for this great interview with Gemma!

close up of white yacht stew holding a tray of drinks
Gemma serving drinks on a yacht charter

Can you please share your story with us? How you became a yacht stew and then transitioned out of the industry to become a safari architect?

I grew up in a small rural community where exploring the vastness of the world seemed like an impossible dream. Where would a young farm girl even start? Not to mention the shortcomings of trying to travel on a South African passport let alone the South African Rand.

My first real taste of the international world was when I was able to work in Vermont, USA on a study abroad exchange program during my University holidays. A taste was all I needed, upon completing my studies I explored any and every travel option at my disposal. I overlanded (on a real shoestring budget) up the East Coast of Africa, from Cape Town to Uganda and back. The pure diversity, interesting people, and magnificent sights had me hooked. I experienced firsthand how travel developed me as a person. 

I was inspired to see more and my passport left me with two options to travel internationally:

  1. As a graduate student, Canada would allow a 1-year working visa – I jumped on this and spent a fabulous year in Whistler, Canada – skiing, hiking, working every odd job available (deli lady, ice cream scooper, horse sleigh driver, snow shoveler) anything to help stock the coffers.
  2. Yachting – I had friends who had taken this route straight out of school. A week before my Canadian visa was due to expire I called a friend and she gave me the rundown on yachting. It happened to be 2 weeks before the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show, she said, “Gem if you want to travel and be able to sustain yourself now is the perfect time to dive in headfirst.” So I did. I had completed my STCW and been offered a job as a sole Stewardess on 35M based out of Florida. I was greeted by the South African captain and shown the ropes, quite literally. One foot in the door is all it took. 

From there I worked my way up the industry until I accepted my first Chief Stewardess job. It was in this role that I connected with both guests and crew alike. It seemed the better they knew me the more they were interested in where I had come from. South Africa, let alone the rest of Africa was this wild, exotic place to so many of our Northern hemisphere counterparts. With curiosity came anxiety about the troubles and adversities of this “unknown” continent, but to them I was real and the stories I shared about my African travels were incredible and so I was often told, “I’m scared to go to Africa on my own… can you take me?” Yes! Was always my answer. I truly love Africa and all her problems and the more positive light I could share with these curious travellers the better we would all be for it.

I finally realized this was now my new dream to share my love and experience of Africa with others and so TAP Expeditions was born. 

How did you find the transition from yachting to land-based?

Having studied but never worked in the corporate world it was daunting, to say the least. It seemed like my friends at home spoke a different language from me, they couldn’t comprehend the life I had been living nor could I theirs. 

To tell potential employers you have spent the last seven years working on luxury yachts, a certain amount of doubt consumes their face. Yachting seems to be synonymous with parties, adventure, too much money, no rules, and no responsibilities. Sure there is some truth to that but on the flip side of the coin yachting also teaches cultural diversity, people relations (all wealth brackets and a unique international grouping of individuals), wealth management, safety and security, logistics, food hygiene, first aid, the responsibility of million-dollar assets, problem-solving, time management, creativity, hospitality, conflict resolution the list is never-ending add the pressures of long working hours in confined working conditions. 

It was only when I turned land base did I realize how vast my skill set was as a result of yachting and travel. The tricky part came trying when trying to illustrate this to potential employers and colleagues.

woman sitting with her back to the camera while a herd of elephants drink out of a pool in front of her in Zimbabwe
Gemma in Zimbabwe Hwange National Park

Can you share some of your most incredible experiences in the bush?

I have many, most of them are as a direct result of the expertise and brilliance of guides and hosts. In one instance while on safari with guests in the Linyanti, Botswana our guide heard a call, a common one at that of a Blacked Back jackal, the day was coming to an end and the sun just starting to dip. Another call, something a little more special this time, Wild Dogs. Distant and faint but clear to the remarkably trained ear. We followed the calls both leading from a similar direction until we tracked down a pack of Wild Dogs greeting their pups which had been hidden in a bush while the parents were on the hunt. A jovial meeting indeed but that is not where the game drive ended. 

 The jackal kept up his light call, our guide explained at this hour he could be following another predator, looming in the peripheral waiting to steal a small bite from a larger prey’s carcass.

Then came the low bark. “Leopard!” our guide exclaimed. Now the bark and the call were almost in unison. We continued tracking towards their direction. We stopped. Our guide with a broad smile across his face raised his nostrils to the air, “can you smell that? Leopard” The faint odour of urine had filled his senses and the smile beamed cause he knew we were on track. The guide continued, explaining that a leopard is out marking his territory. With that, we turned the corner and there a sea of spots filled our view, a flick of the tail and a small spray of urine the biggest leopard I have ever seen was just metres from us. The bark of the jackal a small distance behind us. All the signs and signals of nature had revealed this magnificent creature to us. I was in awe of the thrill of the track ending in multiple spectacular sightings.

Some other amazing ones to note:

– Enjoying a bush breakfast in the middle of Hwange National Park with elephants swimming in a water hole in front of us

– Tracking a bull elephant on foot to just a few metres away

– Canoeing down the Zambezi river surrounded by pods of hippo

– Hiking to hidden caves in the Drakensberg mountains

white woman in a hat crouched down on the side of a mountain with sprawling green mountains behind her
Gemma in the bush

Do you have a favourite corner of the globe that you can share with our readers?

– An unexpected fav, Montenegro, the history and beauty of old town, combined with the dramatic cliffs into the ocean and hidden caves and the tall green mountains. So much beauty and diversity in an almost forgotten corner of the world.

– Uganda, the rolling mountains and jungles home to endangered gorillas, tracking these fascinating animals on foot is truly remarkable.

– Buenos Aires, Argentina, quite possibly the most vibrant city I have ever experienced. The people are full of life, the history, food, shows, sport, scenery…a city that truly never sleeps.

– Sri Lanka, surf, warm ocean, Ceylon tea, and happy people. Ask anyone who knows me well, these are all my favourite things!

– Iceland, unexpectedly diverse landscapes, volcanos, glaciers, and northern lights. Iceland was so different from any place I had travelled to before.

 Where do you see yourself in a few years?

In a position to empower more conservation and community projects (check out our charity partners) by expanding the travel market to Africa and growing individuals’ awareness of their impact on others through conscious travel. 

What’s next on your bucket list?

That is a tricky one. In terms of travel, exploring Madagascar and Zambia are high on my list. In general, to become fluent in Zulu.

Be sure to check out TAP Expedition’s website with links to all of their social handles. If you’re looking to book a safari or have questions on this incredible region, reach out to a reputable company such as TAP for their first-hand experience and advice. Looking to make the most of your time here? Why not create an epic land and sea itinerary? Contact us for yachts available in the region an with help from our land-based partners, we’ll put together the perfect itinerary for you.

Ask A Yachting Expert