No. 14: Galápagos Islands

Feel wild and free on an avian adventure in Ecuador's biodiverse volcanic archipelago.

Free As A Bird

Occasionally, at the conclusion of yoga practice, my favorite instructors end with a Sanskrit prayer: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. It means, “May all beings everywhere be happy and free. And may the thoughts, words and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.” 

It’s a heartwarming thought, and one I love hearing. The first part, sometimes simplified in English as, “may all living things be wild and free,” especially resonates with me. And when I think of freedom, it’s birds that come to mind. For as long as I can remember I’ve had recurring dreams in which I can fly. In my REM state I soar above treetops, between buildings, over and into the sea and atop rolling hills powered by the butterfly kicks I learned as a young swimmer. It’s like a hybrid of swimming and flying, actually, and I can do it both in the air and underwater. In my dreams it hardly takes any effort. Yet this ability doesn’t come across as a magical power; it feels like something my body was made to do. Maybe my unconscious brain recognizes that birds—and all of us, for that matter—evolved from fish. There’s an inextricable link between the two that’s obvious when you watch fins and wings at work. 

I find birds pretty fascinating. When I was home-schooled in 4th grade, my mom and I studied birdwatching and observed pesky blue jays and beautiful bluebirds in our backyard. (And for my entire childhood, we fed a family of ducks that lived in our pond.) Later on when I made it to Africa for safari I was enchanted by the quirky behaviors and incredible vibrance of species like lilac-breasted rollers. But it wasn’t until the other night when I re-watched The Big Year—the very funny 2011 film about obsessive birders starring Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson—that I recalled just how cool they are. Funny enough, I’d spent an indulgent 30 minutes earlier that day attempting to capture a good shot of the snow-white great egret we see gracefully criss-crossing my sister’s pond daily here in Nairobi, Kenya. 

When I sat down to write about the Galápagos, I started with visuals, and quickly realized a significant portion of my favorite images from the trip last year aboard the chic Ecoventura Theory were of the avian persuasion. I struggled to whittle down my photographs as it became clear the Galápagos was a topic far too broad for a single newsletter. It’s an otherworldly destination with wondrous life at every level—ocean, land and air—from sea turtles only dwarfed by gargantuan tortoises to seals and land iguanas, rays and dolphins. Not to mention penguins, flamingos, the famous blue-footed boobies and birds whose throats blow up into enormous red balloons. Interestingly, the very first creature we spotted on the trip was the San Cristobal mockingbird, critical to Charles Darwin formulating his theory of natural selection—it was his muse. So, here is my ode to birds of the Galápagos Islands, the place where my own adoration for the class aves was confirmed once and for all.  

Ecoventura’s exceptional naturalist guides Sofia and Fernando told me there are more than 150 species of birds in the Galápagos. I can say without a doubt that great frigatebirds are the oddest. On Genovesa Island I gawked at the giant crimson balloon-like throats (called a gular pouch) the males inflate to attract females during mating season. I for one cannot imagine finding it attractive but, hey, it clearly works since they seem to be in great supply. Fernando called them the “pirates of the Galápagos,” since they can eat anything they want, from baby sea turtles to marine iguanas and eel, as they glide just over the water’s surface scooping food.  

The name, red-footed booby, would make you think this bird’s best feature is its feet. But I fell in love with their heads. Blue-footed boobies are what everyone associates with the Galápagos (fun fact: they choose their mate based on the intensity of their foot color because it’s a sign of health), but in a beauty contest they’d lose. My favorite species’ most marked attributes are their one-of-a-kind beaks and faces, each a totally unique watercolor painted in shades of periwinkle, lavender, turquoise, coral and salmon pink. As they perched with prehensile feet atop nests in the red mangrove trees I became obsessed with capturing the photos of the most vibrant, framed by striking blue-rimmed eyes and silky feathers.   

At a different part of Genovesa Island, we climbed Prince Philip’s Steps to trek amid seemingly thousands of of the largest booby of all: the nazca booby. This seabird with white plumage and yellow beaks was only recognized as its own species in 2002. In the heat of the midday sun, they acted quite sedate, standing still in petite patches of shade cast by barren palo santo trees.  

Incredibly downy white fluff made this chick—a young nazca booby—the sweetest thing I’d seen in a long time. I almost didn’t see it, the baby was so hidden away, most likely waiting for its mama to come back with food.   

The endemic Galápagos short-eared owl knows the power of camouflage—with the exception, perhaps, of its sunny yellow eyes. It felt like a serious win when we finally spotted one, blending in beautifully with the rock, and most likely awaiting the chance to catch a storm petrel as it left a tunnel in the hardened lava. 

In a brackish lake on Santa Cruz, en route to find sumo wrestling land iguanas at Dragon Hill, we came across flamingos. I don’t know why, since pink was never my favorite color, but flamingos have completely delighted me since I first saw them in a zoo. I remember realizing, in awe, they could fly—and a spectacular sight it is—when my mom, sister and I explored Camargue National Park in the south of France. I also once memorably spent days seeking them on Isla Holbox in Mexico, my dear friend Joy as dedicated to the prolonged pursuit as I. Here, though, they didn’t elude me, though I had to be almost dragged away since I would have happily spent the afternoon marveling at the funky shapes created by their backwards-bending knees and serpentine necks.

The appropriately named lava gull is exactly the color of the ancient flow that coats many of the Galápagos Islands to which it’s endemic. It’s actually the world’s rarest gull, with just several hundreds thought to remain. The best characteristic of these birds is their hilarious call—it sounds just like a mocking human laugh and reduced us to giggles. 

The landscape of Fernandina Island is breathtaking: inky lava flow with pleats and fissures, prolific fuzzy cactus, baleen whale skeletons, piles of black marine iguanas, and sapphire-hued water. The endemic brown pelican sitting so pretty there was icing on the cake. 

Anchored aside Santa Cruz Island, we took panga boats to explore Black Turtle Cove and, along with spying on a pair of mating sea turtles (that ritual looks seriously exhausting for the female, by the way, since she has to keep them both afloat). we found an adorable little Galápagos penguin going for a swim. If it looks a little tropical for a penguin, you’re right—these are the only ones living north of the equator. Later in the trip they’d prove a fun albeit speedy snorkeling companion. (Sadly, rising ocean levels due to climate change could threaten these cute creatures, since they lay their eggs on shores very close to water.)  

You can’t help but feel sorry for this guy, a bird that cannot fly. You can see it in his shrunken wings—the flightless cormorant is an endemic species that over time lost its ability to do the main thing birds do. (The guides explained it arrived on Fernandina Island flying, but without predators and with plenty of food, it lost the need.) In a way, it’s become more like a fish, since it swims down to the sea floor for its meals. The bird hasn’t fully evolved to an aquatic life, however—it’s not waterproof! After each dive the blue-eyed species must spread its little wings out wide so the sun can dry the feathers.   

More reading

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Come away with me

Now is no time for isolation—it's time for inspiration

We Can Still Journey 

Are you craving a change of scenery? Has boredom set in? Loneliness? I’m here for you. This isn’t a true Journeys newsletter. It’s more of a touching base, to share a little reading material (in case you’re running out of ways to entertain yourself) and let you know I will soon be publishing stories of far-off lands to help you contend with this grim, totally surreal moment of social distancing and sheltering-in-place. Now more than ever I feel like maybe it’s my job to transport, help draw you out of isolation and introduce you to places I explored in what almost feels like another lifetime. I’d like to distract you with something fun, adventurous and lighthearted. So let me know where I should take you—virtually! Do you have any questions re future trips? Pick my decently traveled brain, please!  

There’s no question that most of us have been cut off from our worlds—and cut off from the world at large, too. Los Angeles currently feels galaxies away to me. On Tuesday I made it to Nairobi, Kenya, just before their travel ban began, to be with my sister as she gives birth to her first child. Travel is what I do. It’s my livelihood, so you bet I’m feeling these new limitations and closures in a very big way. I keep reminding myself, however, that just because we can’t physically travel doesn’t mean we can’t escape through words and pictures, all the while making mental notes (or even actual mood boards) about where we’ll venture when it’s once again allowed.   

Still, let’s not live in anticipation of the future, or pine for the past. We must exist firmly in the moment, in this uncertain now, and take the opportunities afforded by extra time at home (time, after all, is a gift we overwhelmingly take for granted) to perhaps do some reading. Learning. Listening. Noticing. Being grateful. Truly, it’s the perfect time to practice empathy. 

As segregated as the planet seems right now, broken down into country-sized puzzle pieces with impenetrable borders, I’ve realized that in a way, this is the most connected we’ve ever been. The concept of community has changed. This is the first time I’ve seen all of humanity in the same boat, walking in the same shoes. We are all affected by this. (Of course, many humans are preoccupied with far worse.) No matter who you are or where you’re from we are all suffering sadness and fear, confusion and frustration. 

It’s like when hurricanes decimate Caribbean islands, or an earthquake shakes Indonesia to pieces, when tsunamis hit Thailand or bushfires devastate Australia and its wildlife. Except this time it’s everyone. I know tourism will play a critical role in getting Earth back on its feet. We will have to lean on each other, be kind, and be patient. 

It may seem far off, but have hope. Our futures are no doubt filled with plans, travel and bucket-list ticks. In the meantime, let’s allow ourselves to feel inspired, and connected. In my coming newsletters I want to help you feel you’ve gone somewhere, by simulating experiences from my travels that might make you smile. I’d like this to be a conversation, so please say hi, and send me a note with your questions, thoughts and interests—I can’t wait to hear them. 

For now, here are three mini escapes that take you on a journey from your bed, sofa or newly minted home office. Bon voyage and stay well!

Madagascar is everything you could want—and more

Foraging, fishing and surfing in Tofino, Canada

Indonesia’s isolated UNESCO World Heritage getaway of Raja Ampat

(Drone photographer: Marie Tysiak, in Raja Ampat, Indonesia)

Journeys No. 13: Masai Mara, Kenya

Safari guide role models worthy of International Women’s Day

Women in the Wild

Even those who’ve never seen an elephant in its natural habitat, never stepped foot on the African continent, can envision the stereotypical safari guide: head-to-toe khaki, wide-brimmed hat, maybe a five o’clock shadow. Probably South African, with a charming accent and build that exudes rugged, protective vibes. Right? Wrong. 

Though that actually does describe my first-ever safari guide to a T, it’s not what I’ve come to expect in 2020 from a part of the world changing rapidly. Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day, and I thought it a good time to reminisce about a trip last year that flipped the script, so to speak, on my associations with adventures in the bush. 

It was January when I landed amid wildebeest on a dirt airstrip by the Masai Mara National Reserve, and was greeted by a cherub-faced young woman with close-cropped hair wearing a red plaid dress and yellow lace cape, rainbow-beaded choker and gold studs—including one quite Western piercing, in her cartilage. She grinned, introduced herself as Nash and, after loading our bags, hopped in the driver’s seat of an army green 4x4 safari truck headed for the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. I was thrilled. 

Agnes Nashipae, this vibrant, twentysomething Maasai woman, was my safari guide that week—and an excellent one at that—as I drooled over sightings of massively maned lions, giant-tusked elephants and fuzzy baby zebra, and snapped some of my favorite photographs to date. Nash had a quiet demeanor and a quick smile. She was full of knowledge, happy—and prepared—to answer any question thrown at her by a truckload of inquisitive journalists. 

At night I bedded down in a spacious safari tent at Leopard Hill that was the perfect blend of rustic, minimal and cozy. A remote opened a mosquito-netted skylight over the bed for stargazing after dark or birdwatching by day, and I showered outside, with water heated by solar panels. This is the newest camp inside a conservancy formed in 2010 when Basecamp Explorer founder Svein Wilhelmsen banded together with Maasai elders to encourage hundreds of local landowners to combine their properties via lease to become a 50,000-acre private wildlife reserve, mutually benefiting the community, animals and tourists. Its name represents that, too: Naboisho is the Maasai word for “coming together.” Around 5,000 individuals’ lives are better for this holistic relationship between the community and wildlife, which has resulted in a major return of lions, cheetahs and leopards.

As I soon discovered, Nash is not the only female Maasai guide at Basecamp Explorer, the collection of sustainable safari camps I experienced—she’s one of a proud handful. Each of them traveled quite unique paths to achieve their hard-won positions, since guide schools are not exactly full of women. As is true most everywhere, they had to work many times harder than any man to prove themselves capable. But, here they are, traversing tricky terrain, spotting elusive species and, like their male colleagues, wearing the traditional dress of their Nilotic tribe, juicy, saturated reds being the most dominant, followed by blue and green. Called shuka or leso, you might confuse these ubiquitous checkered fabrics with tartan plaids, except the African version is somehow more exuberant. 

Without these female guides bringing their perspectives to the conversation, I would not have discovered nearly as much as I did about tribal life in Kenya. Young girls, I learned, are taught by their mothers to make mud huts for their future husbands out of sticks and wood they collect. Apparently, if the hut leaks during a rain, it’s the woman’s job to climb up on top and fix it, while the “big man” directs her from inside where it needs patching. Polygamy is still the tradition, but it’s no longer the only option; likewise with female circumcision. “Elders are complaining about the change eroding our culture, but for us girls we really love it,” Nash told me of what she felt was a major shift caused by Christian missionaries bringing greater education opportunities. Now, she said, “When they try to do it to you, you report it to the government. The change has really benefited us.”  

The youngest of 20 siblings, Nash persisted in completing her education despite being asked by her parents to stop so she could look after their sheep and goats. That is a feat for a young girl, I realize—persevering with zero community support. To her, education is everything. An independent thinker, she also rejects polygamy, while raising a nine-year-old son on her own. “If I can’t find a man without another woman, it’s better to stay single and be happy with my life,” Nash said jubilantly. 

Alongside encouraging these progressive changes to Maasai culture, Basecamp Explorer is engaged in preserving it, too. Historically, the abundant beaded jewelry I admired on all the Maasai was made by women using small bits of bone and wood, colored with natural dyes. Nash told me girls start learning around age 10: “You have to know how to make it for your boyfriend.” Now, the tiny seed beads comprising so many accessories—earrings to necklaces, belts to harnesses—come from China. But more than 150 local women employed by the fair-trade Basecamp Maasai Brand also use recycled and repurposed materials—insect repellent spray cans cut into keychains, cow horn as buttons, shreds of food bags twisted into thread—to lovingly craft these eye-catching pieces of art. 

They are retaining beloved tradition while massively improving their own lives and those of their offspring. These are women, like one we visited named Nolo Mala Talek, who now own their own sheep and goats—formerly something only men had the privilege of doing. They can afford tanks to harvest rainwater, instead of walking hours each day with a jerry can, and buy solar panels for side businesses charging now-ubiquitous cell phones, not to mention producing safe lighting (replacing smoky paraffin lamps) so their kids can do homework. They earn tuition to send their children to secondary school. And they might even live in a permanent cement home. Ninety-five percent of these ladies, some second, third or even fourth wives—who asked me to take photos and giddily savored the visual of their ornamented selves afterward—have become their families’ sole breadwinners. 

There was one moment when gender roles seemed more defined: during a bonfire one evening when two dozen staff came heaving in from the dark, columns of red sheathed in shukas, bouncing with purpose and humming, chanting, yelping, singing, pounding wooden staffs into the earth. “Expressing our happiness,” is how a Maasai named Derek described it to me. There’s a jumping contest, in which only men compete, launching themselves upward into the night sky full of glittering galaxies. It’s a show of vitality, and the ladies spectate, eyeing the best. Apparently the highest jumpers have the most girlfriends.

On a walking safari with a young male guide named Samson, his accessories jingle-jangled as we crossed the plain behind warrior-looking guards with spears. He told me his wife is college-educated, and they have one baby so far. He plans to take a second wife in the next few years and have a total of four children. “Now, education means some girls only want one lover,” he told me, though Samson didn’t seem particularly judgmental. He was more concerned about discussing wildlife. It used to be that a Maasai man earned the prestigious role of chief if he could kill a lion. But, said Samson, “If we kill it, our kids will not know it—they will only see pictures. It is much more important to conserve than kill.”

Yes, there are still Maasai taking multiple wives, circumcising their daughters, and dissuading them from attending school. But there’s progress, too. There are those taking second wives, family planning, and educating their kids. The last Maasai chief, I’m told by veteran guide Big Moses (whose beaded accoutrement include American flags in honor of when he proudly guided the Obama family in 2006), left his cattle and land to his daughter. 

In other parts of Africa, too, there are increasing numbers of inspiring female role models. In Uganda, I met Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, an influential and internationally recognized wildlife veterinarian and the founder of Conservation Through Public Health, an NGO whose mission is to create peaceful coexistence between endangered wildlife and humans. (Her Gorilla Conservation Coffee brand benefits primates, too.) In the same country I spent valuable time with pioneering founder Evelyn Habasa at her rousing nonprofit, Ride 4 A Woman, where hundreds of struggling local women have learned empowering skills like sewing and weaving or put microloans to good use. While gorilla trekking in Rwanda recently, I hired a female porter. And luxury safari company Roar Africa, founded by a South African woman, does an annual Women’s Empowerment Trip, patronizing and celebrating establishments with female leaders and staff.  

In all of these things, education is at the heart. I felt encouraged by hearing this common refrain in Kenya, since to me, it’s the remedy for much of (if not all) the world’s ailments. Over lunch, under a giant double fig tree, Lorna Serseri, a Basecamp Explorer guide with a kind face and braids, told me her story. That she sought out this career not only because she felt passionate about wildlife, but because she wished to be a role model for her little sisters and the girls in her village. She was the first to break the mold there, opening a door for the future. And Lorna credits one thing: “If someone is educated, she knows her rights.” 

Further reading

Behati Prinsloo shares her journey to Namibia for rhino conservation awareness

Why Arizona should be your 2020 wellness destination

Journeys No. 12: Breckenridge, Colorado

There is so much to learn while traveling—new skills included.

School’s in Session 

The first time I rode a chairlift with one foot strapped into a snowboard and attempted to dismount, I ate it. The lift ground to a stop so I could crawl away—mortifying. That was a decade ago. Older and wiser, I took another stab at it a few days ago. On my new first attempt, I instinctively squatted down and tried to grab the rail like I was riding a wave backside on my surfboard. Iffy, but not a total disaster. On the next I stayed upright, my instructor holding the back of my jacket like I was a kid on roller skates. The third time I nailed it, standing and skating down the gentle mound until I slid to a stop grinning, like I’d just done a super impressive trick. Impressive, not so much. But I had earned a high five. 

My Breckenridge Ski & Snowboard School guide, Greg Lock, seemed determined to do two things during our two days together on the Colorado mountain coated with 40 magical inches of just-fallen powder. One, he wanted to teach me to snowboard. Two, he wanted me to love it. See, 10 years ago my friend Alexis and I had embarked on a short “learn to snowboard” session with an Oakley-sponsored pro at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah that amounted to us falling down—like, wind knocked out of us falls—every 10 seconds as the pro laughed. That early experience clearly hadn’t motivated any follow-up, but still, Greg succeeded on both counts. 

He took me straight to El Dorado, a beginner practice area where I got the hang of toe side and heel side, practiced a falling leaf exercise, and started linking C turns into S’s. I had blue skies above me, and the plushest white padding below, thanks to the generous snowstorm. My quads began burning quickly, then the tingly sensations moved to my outer calves and ankles. My heart raced, at some 10,000 feet. Still, I wanted to run up the slow-moving “magic carpet” after each descent, my eagerness to try it again and get it right fueled by the exciting sensation of my body learning new, fun movements. I was hyped to graduate to green slopes, even more stoked when I snaked my way down without falling on day two. My love of learning not only the history or culture of a place, but a native sport or practice, was affirmed in Breckenridge (where I highly recommend the new boutique hotel Gravity Haus, with its inviting hot tubs, après scene and warming cocktails named for Dumb & Dumber).

Greg pointed out to me the rarity of this, and I was amazed to realize the truth in it. When was the last time you learned a new skill as an adult? And I don’t mean taking a boxing class once, or painting a piece of pottery on vacation. I mean immersing yourself in a practice or craft. Honing a new ability. Many adults don’t have or take opportunities to tackle something foreign or different, like snowboarding. There are many factors: It might not occur to us, maybe we don’t have time, or we’re afraid of failure. As children, new things were thrown at us daily—we didn’t hesitate to learn how to ride a bike, kick a ball, or read. Practice led to improvement. But aging can damper that enthusiasm; so often it’s easier to stick to what we already know. 

In thinking about this, however, I’ve realized some of the very best—and most exciting—parts of my life and travels are when I dive headfirst into learning something new, from a true expert. Expert being the operative word. It’s occasionally part of my job, but I don’t chase these opportunities because they further my career. (I’ve always been envious of actors who get the most amazing training in order to master a skill for a role, like Natalie Portman did for Black Swan.) I embrace these moments because I love becoming a more dynamic person. I feel stimulated when broadening my horizons.

Admittedly, I didn’t have this attitude in my twenties. It wasn’t until I entered a new decade, 30, that I decided the time was finally right to take the drum lessons I’d secretly wanted since I was a teen jamming to Foo Fighters on my steering wheel. My nerves were so major at first that my instructor sweetly offered a beer to take the edge off. But throwing myself into a nightly practice, banging out bottled-up emotions, and adding Led Zeppelin songs to my repertoire built my self-confidence and enhanced my self-worth tremendously. When I began spending time in Indonesia and Australia, surfing became my next obsession—and courage booster. The journey to become a surfer has involved a Moroccan surf camp and coaching from Portugal to Punta Mita. I first caught the bug after catching my first wave all by myself and feeling ecstasy wash over me. I felt a bit of that same euphoria in Breckenridge on day two of my lessons. Since strapping on a harness and scaling a giant ceiba tree at Kasiiya Papagayo in Costa Rica last summer, I’ve been learning to rock climb, thanks to my Spiderman–like boyfriend Keith, who offers the ideal blend of encouragement and instruction. 

It’s true once you feel a bit of competence or a “win” with a new pursuit you’re hooked. (On that note, we’re heading to Mammoth Mountain in a couple weeks to build on my newfound snowboarding skills!) Next, I’m going to Oahu for intensive training in the ancient art of hula, something I’m beyond excited about as a former ballet dancer.  

I’m sharing this in hopes of inspiring internal conversation. What have you wished to try but were too scared to go after? A young woman once told me that she wanted to practice yoga, but worried she’d be bad at it. For me, leaving town is the perfect way to get out of my element and into a new one. It introduces me to masters from whom I can learn, and opens the door to things I might not feel comfortable to experiment with at home. In so many ways, travel is an antidote to fear. More and more, immersive, fascinating experiences around the world are giving us opportunities to delve into pasta making or even boat building. So ask yourself, what will you endeavor to learn next? 

—Kathryn Romeyn

Further reading: 

Nature informed Kengo Kuma's new pavilion at Amanpuri

The handcrafted-in-Cali brands to know from Mercado Sagrado fair

Journeys No. 11: Namibia

A visual journey through Africa’s spectacularly diverse nation, where far more animals than humans roam.

Namibian Magic

Some folks say Namibia is a great second or third African safari destination. They claim it doesn’t have the volume of wildlife of, say, Kenya or Tanzania, to hold the attention of first-timers. That it’s more about the scenery. Yet for those very same reasons I feel it’s an incredible maiden voyage. For one, the landscapes are epic, reason enough to go if you’re someone who enjoys nature even a little. Safari spots often have one-note terrain, but Namibia bursts with variety. As for the animals, it’s actually home to the world’s largest free-roaming black rhino population, and a quarter of all wild cheetahs. One misses out on caravans of tourists bumping around on 4x4s with herds of wildebeest as iPhone fodder. Instead, the experience of rolling in a safari vehicle across the plush sand of a riverbed in hopes of glimpsing one of four known elephants in the vicinity creates an intimacy I truly savored. Not that I hated being surrounded by 16 of the majestic creatures elsewhere in the country. But that riverbed was so implausibly quiet I actually heard the breath and footsteps of an adult male as he ambled slowly to a trickle of water for a sip and splash through his expressive trunk. Fixated, I studied only him, with no other life form to distract me from his monumental presence in the grandest of settings. 

I was allowed time and space in that same environment to compose striking images, juxtaposing a pair of lunching oryx against a garnet wall and cascading dune. The relative starkness of Namibia’s environments hypnotized me into a meditative state as I moved through mirages glinting on long desert drives, soared over massive plateaus in what felt like an IMAX movie, and bumped over landscapes of pink-dusted sand and whale skeletons carved and weathered by wind and salt. I’ll be returning to explore more of the massive country, so safe and easy to navigate (if not via small charter flights like Scott Dunn arranged for me, then self-driving in a rental car on long, empty stretches of hot tarmac). It’s more affordable than its neighbors, too. A constant stream of new and renovated lodges and camps—dynamic and environmentally aware in their design—keep teasing me with their magic. And I’m intrigued to meet and learn more about the cultures of Namibia’s indigenous tribes over long, slow drives. I could go on, but instead I’ll let the photographs (and, yes, some words!) do the talking. 

Just about a half-hour drive from the airport is Omaanda, a Zannier resort, on a 9,000-hectare private reserve that feels like the middle of nowhere. Though I wouldn’t truly know the definition of ‘middle of nowhere’ until I stepped onto a small plane a few days later—Namibia is about the size of two Californias, with 6% of the population of one. Aesthetically, it epitomized bush luxury, with individual round, thatched-roof huts inspired by traditional Owambo architecture, indigenous artifacts; a soft, earthy palette; and the dreamiest beds and armchairs, too. I’d happily move in, if only to have as neighbors meerkats who stand like soldiers at attention.

You might ask, how does one find themselves standing (shakily!) on packed earth looking up at a cheetah holding court in the safari vehicle? Talk about role reversal. While at Omaanda I spent time at N/a’an ku sê—an innovative wildlife sanctuary and conservation charity next door—and was fortunate to take a walk with cheetah brothers (rescued as cubs) who seemed totally tame one second and the next took off like lightning in pursuit of breakfast. Did you know they can run almost 80 mph?  

N/a’an ku sê is the work of one of the most passionate and badass women I’ve ever met: Marlies van Vuuren, a French-manicured seventh generation Namibian who’s friends with Angelina Jolie and sleeps with orphaned baby baboons in her bed. Here she’s feeding one, which I unwittingly did, too. The instant someone handed me a bottle an infant scampered up my leg into the cradle of my arms, clutching the milk with her tiny, hairy hand. (N/a’an ku sê offers very cool volunteer opportunities for animal lovers and ecotourism packages.) Marlies took me to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s sanctuary to visit its newest resident, an orphaned two-week-old white rhino. Like a baby dinosaur out of The Land Before Time, Hope, clambered around the boma with goats and, upon hearing Marlies, tried to squeeze her lumpy head through the fence. When I reached to pet her snout, her gummy, toothless mouth engulfed my fingers, and Hope slobbered and sucked them as a happy tear rolled down my cheek.   

After flying over a lattice of sand dunes to the socked-in coast, and driving along the churning Atlantic Ocean, bones of shipwrecks and whales revealing its danger, I arrived at Shipwreck Lodge, a Natural Selection camp inside Skeleton Coast National Park. Jaunty nautical “wrecked” cabins of recycled materials perched over the sea, which could change from sun-drenched to shrouded in the blink of an eye. There, I caught my dinner surf-fishing in icy waves, tracked elephant footprints down to the water’s edge, and read up on the mysterious and punishing region’s history.   

What struck me most in this environment was its pervasive silence—even the vehicle hardly made a sound. In slow motion we crawled up and down dunes, me on top in a fleece-lined poncho noticing the smallest details—think minuscule patches of orange lichen—and subtlest changes in scenery. A shift occurred at the geological wonder Clay Castles, where I crunched over mica, ruby garnet sand and crystalline fairy dust as we hiked to stunning panoramas that gave context to the empty environs.

After multiple safaris, what piques my interest is observing odd animal behavior, and these male desert-adapted elephants delivered. Against apricot sand, they seemed to be whispering secrets and playing as one continuously flopped his trunk all over the other’s head and tusks. It was as if they were doing contact improv, contorting body parts and striking silly poses as they moved in unison across the riverbed.    

There’s nothing quite like waking at 5:30 a.m. in anticipation of tracking wild black rhino in remote northwest Namibia with the help of a dozen rangers and Save the Rhino Trust guards across terra-cotta hills that appear endless—and empty. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, had done the same at Hoanib Valley Camp mere weeks before me, apparently spotting one after five hours. On our journey, dust billowed behind the truck bed as the spotters carefully attempted to stay upwind of the rhino we were after. These animals hear and smell very well and run if they get a whiff of something—or somebody—strange. Jackals and giraffes, rabbits, elephants and springbok, we saw plenty of species along the way. Hopes were dashed and restored many times over hours as we lost tracks and rediscovered them, climbed, descended and lurched over increasingly rugged land. This dust-coated Hartmann’s mountain zebra, part of a small dazzle, appeared to me the freest of all the creatures. 

Our high-intensity scavenger hunt paid off at 1:25 p.m., when we found the elusive female rhinoceros we’d been chasing. She was resting next to a euphorbia damarana, the milky sap of which poisonous. We had walked the last 15 minutes, keeping our distance and watching quietly for a spell. Regal and somehow graceful, she held her perfect horns—which are actually keratin—like a crown. 

En route to the airport, my guide, Frank, took me to visit a small Himba village and get a glimpse at some of the fantastically ornamented women’s rituals, which include applying a blend of foraged ochre and a sort of cooked cow’s butter to their velvety skin daily. All their accessories are imbued with meaning. The Himba have the most unique beliefs and customs of all Namibia’s ethnic groups, rejecting most elements of modern life.   

Safarihoek lodge, my last safari stop, introduced a new kind of atmosphere, one of abundance. The immense Etosha Heights Private Reserve is stocked with plenty of water holes enticing large numbers of wildlife. My guide, Mike, with an Idris Elba vibe and impressive brass bracelet collection, was a wealth of knowledge—and the human embodiment of perseverance through trauma. Incredible story made short, he was born in an Angolan refugee camp during the long war for independence in which his parents fought, shipped to a convent in Cuba for his schooling as part of a Communist aid program that saw his siblings sent to places like Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and adopted before he’d ever stepped foot in his homeland of Namibia. After its independence in 1990, he earned a master’s, guided overland safaris, married an American physician, and become Natural Selection’s head guide. But about this giraffe: They spread their front legs wide to drink water, but only in short stints. Beyond a minute they’ll black out, and without a buddy standing guard, they could get attacked by a predator. After each long sip, the statuesque animal snaps their legs together effortlessly like a gymnast sticking their landing.   

Mike arranged this flawless photo op on my last night—I’m pretty convinced he’s understood and respected by all creatures, human and otherwise. We sipped G&Ts as the fireball dropped and glowed, and I commented on his biopic-worthy life. “It is the only one I have known,” he replied with a shrug. I’d been asking all my guides their favorite animal, and it turned out Mike’s favorite is the leopard, beautiful and adaptable. “It can live anywhere in the world, it’s suited for every place, and it survives wherever it goes,” he explained perfectly.  

Further reading 

Namibian model Behati Prinsloo is on a mission to save rhinos

A globally inspired wellness journey in Southern California

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