WildArk Founder Mark “Hutch” Hutchinson has chosen to live his life dedicated to the wild. His earliest memories are of mustering sheep, riding horses, fly-fishing and crawling into wombat holes in home country Australia.
After spending a year as a jackaroo, camping and fishing in the far North of Australia straight from school, he traveled the length of Africa by car at age 19. Inspired by his adventures, at age 22, Hutch established an adventure company, UNTAMED, that evolved into the ecotourism and training business, Avana. Avana was sold in 2013 into a public company that unfortunately ultimately failed. In 2015, Hutch left the corporate world to continue with his passion for wildlife, wild places and pursue his dream of inspiring people to reconnect with nature through WildArk, a business focused on preserving the world’s fragile ecosystems.
Where did you grow up and what were your earliest memories of the wilderness?
I grew up between Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales. My old man moved for work a lot but we landed full-time in Sydney when I was eight. Every holiday I can remember was spent on friends’ farms and the allure of the Outback, long dusty tracks, and wide open space was branded into me from an early age.
What inspired you to start your own adventure company?
During that first year out of school jackarooing in the Northern Territory, the idea of driving around on dirt roads in a 4x4 seemed like the coolest thing to do. I fell in love with the idea of a remote wilderness adventure company. After enrolling in a Bachelor of Economics degree at University in Sydney, I started my own personal training company. The early success, albeit small, of my personal training business combined with my experience jackarooing up north and my trip across Africa, gave me the confidence to build the business I’d always dreamed of.
What was the mission for Untamed?
The whole mission for UNTAMED was to take people to mother nature’s furthest outposts. My passion was hosting people who had seen everything from a luxury holiday perspective, however had lost any real connection with nature. I was amazed at how whether you’re a billionaire, a normal city dweller or you’d grown up in the bush, nature became the ultimate leveler.
Those were some fun years! I’d use phone listings to ring up lodges in some of the wildest places and ask if I could represent them. Then I would host groups to those places and inevitably end up working as a safari or fly-fishing guide in-between hosting my groups. I soon gained a broad understanding across guiding, front-of-house management, managing a small travel company and developed a good sense of the world of ecotourism and conservation. I’d met my life partner Sophie at the time and she was with me every step of the way.
How did you meet your business partner Anton Lategan?
In 2005, I completed an EcoTraining course in South Africa because I needed to qualify as a guide in Africa. That’s where I met Anton Lategan the owner of EcoTraining. We hit it off immediately over a few beers and biltong around the campfire. We struck up a very strong bond and friendship, with the mutual goal of helping people reconnect with nature. It was important for me because I had this real interest in teaching and training but also in wilderness adventure and EcoTraining seemed to me a stunning combination of the two.
How did your company Avana evolve?
When I came back to Australia in 2008, I was trying to figure out what was next. I felt I’d reached a ceiling in my business understanding. On the recommendation of a few of my mentors, I decided to go and study an MBA at INSEAD Business School in France. It was the greatest thing I could ever have done.
I took the shell of a business plan I had written for a training company through the whole year of my MBA, using the DNA of EcoTraining but with the idea to expand it into a bigger business. In 2010 we rebranded the company Avana, still keeping the corporate identity of green and sustainable, just rebranded into a fully- fledged training business.
The transition happened gradually. We started with a lot of eco-tourism and guide-training programs in lodges . Eventually we began to land bigger contracts so we started adding the training programs that our clients were asking for. We grew into the bigger world of hospitality and retail. That’s when the business took on a life of its own.
I thought education would be the way I could make the biggest difference in the wild and really enjoyed my time running a bigger business, however I did find the corporate world challenging and learnt so much from that journey. Avana became part of the Vocation Group IPO which unfortunately ended unhappily for everyone involved and left me very disappointed.
It was hard to let the training business go, however it allowed me to refocus my energy back to the true mission.
How did the idea for Wild Ark come about?
I’ve come to the conclusion that protecting as much high value conservation land globally, is the key. All of my experience to date has lead me to believe that my piece of this puzzle is to help buy our non-human neighbors a home, so that they can live in abundant biodiversity.
Not only is that something we should do but it will help mankind’s future development as a species. The ultimate goal for Wild Ark is to buy, protect and restore as much high value biodiversity land as possible and build sustainable business on that land for the protection and continuation of those ecosystems.
Why do you believe the human race needs rewilding?
Most of us have lost our connection with the bush but we all have it in us. Whether it be planting a tree in your backyard or having birds come and visit, going for a bush walk or surfing and connecting with the water, that part of our wild self needs re-building. On a global level it is a fundamental part of Wild Ark’s dream to acquire land, to re-wild degraded land, rehabilitate agricultural land and form wildlife corridors between National Parks. The Ark has physical connotations of literally restoring tracts of bush or ocean for conservation.
You are studying your Masters in Conservation, why?
I have a lot of practical experience in the bush and ecotourism but when it comes to conservation, I just don’t know the language. Enrolling in my Masters in Conservation 2016 is just like enrolling in another language so that I can be more useful.
How do you connect with nature on a daily basis?
I have chosen to raise my family between the wild and an urban area. Being on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, we have a lot of access to the ocean and the bush. I will surf or swim every day when I’m in Sydney. My connection with the ocean is very strong. That is my African savannah when I am in Sydney. Most afternoons, I take my little twin girls and we go for a bush walk. They are obsessed with the bush and love spotting birds, identifying their calls and picking up witchetty grubs.
My other real connection is through researching my course and building Wild Ark, I have a digital or reading experience with the wild every day. And, because we’re also shareholders of EcoTraining, I get daily involvement and constant trips back to Africa and North America.
Almost all of my other time is spent somewhere pretty wild, mostly with the family in tow.
What excites you?
I’ve been fortunate in my career to meet some spectacular people who have dedicated their lives to conservation and who have very particular skill sets. What really excites me is when I meet someone focused on a particular skill: the skill of tracking or the skill of chess or the skill of fly-fishing. Inevitably, the skills I warm to most are those aligned with the bush. I try to connect with people who have far higher skills in particular disciplines than I do. I feel that I am a student for life.
What does nature mean to your family?
Connecting with nature is part of our DNA as a family. My wife Sophie is 100 percent involved with Wild Ark and is running the documentary series for us. All four of our kids, given their upbringing, are very keen to get involved with Wild Ark and our eldest has just completed her level 1 field guide course with EcoTraining in South Africa.
We as a family are setting this mission to do what we can to protect even a small piece of the natural world over our lifetime. 80 percent of our conversations at home are about the bush or an animal or what more we can do for the wild.