Nigel Mason is something of an expat business legend in Bali (and beyond). He has lived in Bali for 34 years, building an ‘empire’ from scratch together with his Balinese wife Yanie. At times controversial, at times admired, at seventy years old he is still going strong, still a little crazy after all these years. He and his wife Yanie graciously made time in their busy schedules to show Rio Helmi around the Elephant Safari Park.
Rio Helmi: What was your background, what brought you to Bali, and what made you stay?
Nigel Mason: I arrived in Bali in 1980 and stayed after spending 23 years in Australia previously, coming originally from London as a fifteen year old. In those years I spent the early 1960s travelling and working in the ‘bush’ doing every job you could imagine. In the late 1960s I working with EMI Australia in the recorded music industry, before going solo in landscape design and construction, which was my real love. The late 1970s saw me back in the music industry, this time managing a major music retailer in Melbourne.
My reason for staying in Bali was initially my love of the island; however after meeting Yanie, that changed for love of her. Over the years I have had some pretty tough times with various situations. Bali was not an easy place to do business, particularly in the 1980s, but Yanie has always kept me focused and remained my reason for staying in these difficult early years on the island.
RH: Yanie and you have been married for a long time and work together. That’s never an easy formula, how do you manage that? Do you make decisions together? Or do you simply divide up the tasks?
NM: Yanie and I have been together for 30 years and raised two boys who are now young men, who recently joined our company, Bali Adventure Tours. Yanie and I are like ‘chalk and cheese’ in our backgrounds, but we have always been focused on lifestyle and family. We work extremely well together as a team. We divide our tasks, she being the steadying influence, while I am more the ‘wild card’ with my crazy ideas and my hands on approach to business. My innovation and her skills with people, especially staff, is a magic formula that has always worked for us.
RH: You are very hands on, and the Elephant Safari Park seems a very personal affair even after 17 years. What triggered the project in the first place?
NM: I loved to create and I love to garden, so being hands on is not a problem for me. I love what I do and I love the challenge of creating new ideas. That is why i pioneered the adventure business in Ubud, first with white water rafting back in 1989, then mountain cycling tours and later the Elephant Safari Park Lodge starting in 1997. I must say the elephants have been the most enjoyable addition to our company; that happened almost by accident after I took pity on nine deserted and emaciated elephants that were being mistreated and exploited. As with all that I have started, I have been copied, first in the rafting and cycling and then with the elephants. These imitations, particularly with elephants, are my only regret, as I feel that I opened ‘Pandora’s Box,’ that has seen other, so-called elephant parks, that bear no resemblance to our park at Taro and that has seen elephants used purely as ‘cash-cows.’ This was not my intention and it saddens me to see these poor imitations that have jumped on my bandwagon.
RH: Looking back, did things evolve pretty much how you thought they would?
NM: Things certainly didn’t evolve how I imagined them to, either in my life in Australia or my later years in Bali. I had very simple dreams and never planned to be rich or become a well known businessman in Bali. This happened purely as a by-product of my love of what I do and the ideas that come into my head. I never planned ahead too much when I was young and literally muddled along in my early years in Bali, just trying to survive and raise a family. Innovation, hard work and a little bit of luck go a long way. In my youth I always loved animals, but I never imagined I would eventually own a herd of 31 Sumatran elephants, that’s for sure!
RH: What were the biggest issues for you in creating this park? Anything you would have done differently?
NM: The hardest thing Yanie and I had to cope with when we started the Elephant Safari Park was money and Yanie and I consequently put ourselves in a lot of debt to the bank to get the park started. There is nothing I would have done differently, as the park has just evolved over a period of time with new ideas springing into my head as each year went by. The hotel happened really only because people started to ask if they could stay with the elephants overnight, so twelve years after we started, we decided to add the lodge, which has now been listed in the top ten most unique hotels in the world by National Geographic and the Discovery Travel Channel.
RH: You’re a pretty spry 70; do you still have the same urge to create and innovate now that the park is so established?
I am lucky that I have been given good genes by my parents, as I really don’t do anything special to look after myself other than exercise, eat good food and live a common sense lifestyle. However even in bad times, such as the Bali bomb, I have kept and remain focused and never allow myself to be depressed for more than 5 minutes. Worrying too much is the best way to get old, panic and lose your focus. I still love to create and will probably continue to do this until I am too old to continue. Then hopefully my two sons will continue where I leave off.
RH: Your sons are young men now. What would you like to see them do? Keep the business in the family?
Both boys have finished their education and have returned to live inBali. The boys work with Yanie and I in the family business. I would love to think they will eventually take Bali Adventure Tours to the next level and love the company as much as Yanie and I do. Our innovations have literally ‘kick-started’ Ubud as a new centre for adventure tourism in Bali, that almost overshadows Ubud’s original art and culture image. This has now become a multi-million dollar industry that now includes dozens of rafting, cycling and other adventure businesses all situated in the Ubud area, employing thousands of Balinese people that support hundreds of families. This I believe is my real legacy that I will leave behind me in Bali after I am gone.
For more info on the Elephant Safari, see our page here