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    virginbush in the Press - Lake Forester

Laker Forester

Lake Forester: Wild Life - March 11, 2004

Crain has gone from Westleigh Road to running safaris

When Cindi Crain's parents pulled her out of school for month-long trips to Australia and South Africa, they helped fuel a wanderlust that eventually led the former Lake Forest resident to call Africa home.

Today, Crain and longtime friend Lisa Rolls run a safari company in Kenya. How she went from Westleigh Road to a high-powered media career in New York City to a permanent home in Karen, a small town outside Nairobi, Kenya, involves a lifetime of travel, a strong friendship and a quest for personal fulfillment.

Crain's father Rance, owner of Crain Communications, which publishes business trade publications such as Crain's Chicago Business and Advertising Age, often traveled internationally for business trips and took his family along for several weeks at a time. Teachers assigned homework and asked the girls to keep journals to share with their classmates.

In Florida, meanwhile, Lisa Rolls was on a parallel track. Her father, a doctor, excused her from school when he traveled to medical conferences in Hawaii, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Both parents instilled in her a passion for wildlife and the environment.

Turtle eggs

"My mom used to take me on long walks down the beach and we'd circle birds nests and turtle eggs," said Rolls, 36. "It was a wilderness experience."

Their worlds collided one fateful spring break in 1984. Crain had come to Florida to visit her friend Mark Chester, a Lake Forest teenager who had moved down south to play tennis at the prestigious Nick Bollettieri tennis academy. Chester and Rolls were dating at the time.

The curly-haired brunette from the North Shore stayed in touch with the sleek blond from Florida. The two friends shared a love for travel and took a trip overseas together in 1988. Despite planning an adventurous foray to Africa, a lifelong obsession of Rolls, their parents had other ideas.

The 19-year-olds traveled to Europe instead, but took one rebellious six-hour ferry ride to Tangiers, the Moroccan city located on the northern coast Africa. They rode camels, visited opium dens and forged an unbreakable connection with the continent. "It was so exotic," said Crain. "We both had wanderlust and vowed to come back."

On that same trip, they learned the tragic news that Mark Chester, the friend who introduced them, had died in a boating accident. "It was like, we had met for a reason," said Crain. "The thing that brought us together was gone, and all we had left was the bond."

After college, the pair started media careers in New York City. Rolls married and began a 12-year advertising career. Crain worked in direct marketing and advertising but felt there was something else out there for her. She took a year and a half off to travel the world. "I wasn't sure what I was looking for but I had a real bee in my bonnet," Crain said. "The one thing that crystallized is that I loved writing."

Crain returned to the States and earned a graduate degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, then moved back to New York City to work for a travel magazine. She launched the magazine Golf & Travel with her father, but the hectic life of a young editor soon caught up with her, along with the travails of living in a big city.

"There are 8 million people living on top of each other and you don't even know your neighbor," Crain said.

By 1995 Rolls' father passed away and her marriage was breaking up. During an annual trip to Kenya with her husband, Rolls decided to stay; her mother moved to Kenya soon after that. She fell in love with the way of life and went on safari several times. After developing a keen understanding of the bush, she became a licensed safari guide, one of two women in Kenya to pass the rigorous exam.

Friends visited and asked her to lead safaris, including Crain, who was increasingly burned out and disillusioned with life in New York. During one trip in 2001, Crain said "something clicked." She stayed and VirginBush Safaris was born ("To start a safari company in a male world, we needed a memorable name," they said).

Their motto: To stay in beautiful places and have fun.

The two women developed high-end, customized safaris designed to get their clients out of vehicles and into the bush. Their clients can walk with tribesmen, trek with chimpanzees or watch game from horseback.

Growing business

In two years, they doubled their revenue and the number of safaris increased from four to 10, not including those that Rolls led before they started the business. The women "choreograph" each trip, which start at $600 a day and average at least two weeks long, Crain said.

They are developing ways to handle the growth of their business while maintaining personalized attention to clients like Lake Forest residents Judy and Shelly Asher, who will take a safari in the late summer.

Judy read about the two women in a magazine and tucked the article away until she and her husband decided to plan a return trip to the continent they visited in 2002. Inspired by the women's adventurous spirit and her own desire to walk with chimpanzees near the area made famous by Jane Goodall, Asher contacted Crain and Rolls.

"Once I met them, I knew right away that I didn't have to look any further," she said, finding the right mix of personality, experience, offerings and sense of adventure in the two women.

In October, Crain and Rolls launched the company in the United Kingdom but vowed to continue only as long as they have fun. Another rule: Their friendship comes first.

They have yet to break either rule.

Despite living a long way from the Florida coast and the streets of Lake Forest, where Crain rode her Big Wheel bike with other kids from the neighborhood, they feel their lives are extensions of their childhoods.

"There was a sense of freedom as a kid," Crain said. "I feel like I've got that on a grander scale." Rolls chimes in, "With the big kids."

But after years of traveling, they finally found a place to settle down even if it is half way across the world. Said Crain, "I always thought I'd have wanderlust but there's nothing pulling me anywhere (now)."

Lindsay Beller can be reached at lbeller@pioneerlocal.com


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