If there’s one thing South Africans need when they make the move to the USA it’s tenacity.
So says Robin Mountain, who together with his wife, Stella, launched Louisville, Kentucky-based Ntaba African Safaris in 2005. Robin and Stella met in SA in the early 80s, at a party that neither of them wanted to go to. “We never looked back and got married in 1984. She is the most amazing woman in the world,” says Robin.
The business is run by Stella, as president, and Robin, as CEO. Ntaba, which means ‘mountain’ in Zulu, offers its clients a unique opportunity – they don’t send you to Africa, they take you there!
“I accompany our clients on trips when I can, and we have numerous local guides based in the countries that we send clients to,” says Robin, who was born in Germiston, Gauteng. Robin and Stella are fluent in several languages, including English, Afrikaans, Zulu and German.
Stella grew up in the Kranskop area in KwaZulu-Natal, speaking German and Zulu, and learnt English at school. She became a computer programmer and worked for Infoplan in Pretoria. Robin, who attended Pretoria Boys High School, says he and Elon Musk have something in common. “We’re both high school dropouts,” he laughs.
ot that this held him back. After completing his compulsory stint in the SA army, Robin pursued technical studies and went to America for a year before returning to SA. He also obtained a degree in animal science which, he says, proved beneficial when he immigrated.
The couple owned a beekeeping operation and a beekeeping protective clothing manufacturing company, Mountain Bee Products, in SA, and it’s honey bees that led to their immigration on Stella’s birthday on 17 July, 1999. At the time, Robin’s father owned SA’s largest beekeeping operation – Honey Mountain Farms – and Robin was trained to raise queen bees and perform artificial insemination of these prolific egg layers.
This saw him sign a four-year contract with a California-based company to run its line breeding programme, with the aim of eliminating ‘bad’ traits in the bee populations. “Honey bees weren’t originally from the USA, they were brought over by the settlers,” explains Robin.
When they arrived, they were given distressing news – Robin’s work permit had been refused. While this was eventually sorted out, the future held another obstacle. “We were at the stage where one work permit was about to expire and the new one had not kicked in. The government threatened to deport Stella. It was a scary time. Stella had to plead guilty – although we still don’t know what to – and pay a $5 000 fine,” says Robin.
How did the couple overcome these obstacles? “With a lot of help and tenacity, which is what South Africans are made of! A person looking to immigrate to the USA really needs to have a tough skin,” says Robin.
While Robin loved his job, he wasn’t getting to spend much time with his family and needed a change. The family moved to Kentucky, where he started teaching at Kentucky State University, but his passion for Africa and sharing Africa with Americans continued to grow.
At the time, he worked in the beekeeping industry and made contact with beekeepers all over the USA. When the family eventually got their green cards, which enabled them to travel back to South Africa to visit family, Robin rounded up the beekeepers who had expressed an interest in joining him on a trip to SA. This is the first tour he led.
“We had 30 people on the tour. When we got back, they said we should start a safari business and the idea of ‘taking you to Africa’ was formed.”
Shortly thereafter, Ntaba African Safaris was launched. A few years later, Robin and Stella faced another challenge – the housing crash in America which led to widespread financial turmoil. Times were tough. “To save the company, I was watering flowers at a nursery in Frankfort for $7 an hour. Stella was working for the government at the time.”
Not a pair to be easily defeated – as evidenced by Robin summitting Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and spending several months in a wheelchair after falling two storeys when he still lived in SA – Robin and Stella stuck it out and the business grew exponentially.
“In 2019, there was not a day that someone wasn’t on safari somewhere in Africa with Ntaba African Safaris,” says Robin. This changed rapidly when Covid-19 hit in 2020. People couldn’t travel and there was no business. “We were just hanging on. Things turned around again in 2021 and we started taking people back to Africa,” says Robin.
Ntaba offers its clients a choice of scheduled safaris or unique trips that can be customised and personalised to suit their needs. “Our safaris enable our clients to decide where they want to go, when they want to go and how much they want to spend. They are in full control.”
While Ntaba specialises in safaris to southern and east Africa, it also offers trips to the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean Islands, including Madagascar, Mauritius, Saint Helena and Seychelles. The company’s Southern African destinations include SA, Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. East African destinations include Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Robin is a South African National Guide, certified by South African Tourism. He says one of his greatest experiences was conducting the ceremony to marry an American couple in SA’s Karongwe Game Reserve last year.
“It was a destination wedding on the banks of the Karongwe River in Limpopo.”
Falling in love with coffee
In 2015, Robin and Stella decided to import various South African products to sell locally, and Ntaba Taste of Africa – an online store that delivers South African goodies to your door – was born. “It worked beautifully and was like our own little spaza shop,” laughs Robin. In 2019, the dynamic duo launched their first coffee shop – Ntaba Coffee Haus – in Louisville. “We roast and serve African direct-trade coffee and tea. We know and work with each farmer to ensure that our beans come directly from the best farms and co-ops in Africa,” says Robin. They opened their second coffee shop in November 2022.
Robin and Stella are firm believers in giving back and have helped open a school in Tanzania. They hope to also open one in Rwanda soon. As for SA traditions, they love to braai, so they arrange an annual Potjiekos for Saffas in Louisville, Kentucky. The next one will be held on August 12. “This year is proving to be very busy, as everyone wants to travel again, and business in the Coffee Haus is also picking up,” says Robin.