No. 4: Siem Reap, Cambodia

A photo essay through the land of ancient temples, floating villages and genuine smiles


Siem Reap, Cambodia: the Khmer and Culture

Years before I landed in Cambodia, my sister spent a rewarding and eye-opening summer teaching at the Cambodian Children’s Fund, in the poorest part of the country’s capital of Phnom Penh. Her e-mail dispatches from that time captured me with vivid storytelling of moments in a place so poor, so scarred from violence and genocide far from forgotten, yet adorned with the biggest smiles she’d ever seen. Hollyn talked of the rainy season elevating the pretty countryside to “breathtakingly gorgeous,” and the announcement of extra English classes being met by students “yelping and hollering with delight, they so genuinely want to be here.”

Admittedly, the idea of a place where the people (called Khmer) focus on joy over pain, education over defeat, appealed to me. They seemed to have figured out the secret to happiness, that it’s not wholly dependent on external factors. When I finally made it to Siem Reap, Cambodia’s unofficial cultural capital, I realized immediately that my sister hadn’t exaggerated a thing. My guide, Yous Sopanha, a former professor, was explicit in recounting his and his family’s suffering by the Khmer Rouge and killing fields, but his disposition was unabashedly sunny. He could be serious, however the twinkle in his eye never dimmed as he captivated me with wide-ranging knowledge and insight. Here, a glimpse into what I discovered.

Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, was built over several decades by around 20,000 people and a few thousand elephants in the early 1100s as a Hindu temple. By the end of that century it was Buddhist. At one point it was abandoned for 400 years, overgrown and occupied by wild animals. Tourists wait at daybreak to capture the iconic shot of its five-towered silhouette reflected in a cloudy lily–strewn moat, but I felt that Instagram moment was far less impressive than what’s inside—intricate storytelling bas relief on sandstone.

Several Buddhist monks are always on hand at Angkor Wat, ready to give a blessing to those desiring one—for a small donation. This was the first of many string bracelets I had tied on my left wrist over the course of days, each promising me good luck. 

An evening performance by the Sacred Dancers of Angkor, a non-profit Khmer ballet and folk dance troupe, brought to stunning life the Apsara dancers I’d seen carved into Angkor Wat. Each of the thousands of contortionist hand gestures they use in the deliberate adagio help tell a story and express an emotion. Their poise and attention to detail is extraordinary.  

Siem Reap is not short on temples—or dominating trees. Octopus-like strangler figs spread their tentacles across and through ancient architecture, becoming part of the structure. Abercrombie & Kent provided my eternally smiling, deeply passionate guide Yous Sopanha. His knowledge so enriched the experience that I’d warn against wandering without someone like him.

My favorite Southeast Asian fruit, rambutan, were peeled and waiting in my villa at the exquisite Shinta Mani Angkor — Bensley Collection, a smile-inducing display of vibrance and local history designed by Bill Bensley. (I tried frog legs for the first time, wrapped in mango, at their restaurant Kroya and, I have to admit, I’m sold.)

I hopped aboard a Helistar helicopter tour over the lush, emerald Siem Reap area and its many temples, and we ended with a flyover of Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the painterly Tonlé Sap. It swells to 4,600 square miles in the wet season. On it are a handful of floating villages; the residents move locations several times a year based on water level, and to avoid typhoon or monsoon waves.

Along with a patchwork of humble but colorful homes, ubiquitous wooden boats and other creative craft (I saw three grinning little boys paddling around in half a plastic water tank), Tonlé Sap’s fishing villages comprise temples and churches, floating bars featuring live crocodile attractions, food shops, floating chicken coops, petrol “stations” and many, many adorable children.

While it felt beautiful, the chalky-brown water enhancing the blue sky eerily, cruising around on a cushy luxury boat—we nibbled hors d’oeuvres and sipped white wine from the small rooftop lounge on Amansara’s chic vessel—illuminated the stark contrast between my privileged life and the fragile, insecure existences of everyone around me. Their tenuous realities seemed clearly evident on the faces of somber, hardworking adults on the lake, but appeared lost on the ebullient, smiling children.

While driving through Siem Reap we passed a mass of people standing around, bags of food in their hands, babies on their hips. They were gathered around the Angkor Hospital for Children, waiting to go in and visit their sick kids. Yous Sopanha told me they come from far provinces, waiting until there are enough ill youth in one place to afford a car to bring them to the city, and later traveling long distances to visit and bring food.

My favorite temple of all is known as the Citadel of Women, and contains the most insanely exquisite carvings I’ve ever seen. Rendered entirely in luscious pink sandstone, Banteay Srei is 200 years older than Angkor Wat yet was only rediscovered, by the French, in 1914. Fun fact: The doorways were purposely tiny so people would have to bow when entering. 

Ta Prohm is one of the temples most overtaken by nature—to a beautifully ruined effect. It’s also become known as the Tomb Raider temple after Angelina Jolie filmed inside. Weaving through the growth and decay, trying to imagine the rituals and life that went on inside hundreds of years ago, is totally awe-inspiring.

A little girl seems to ponder life on Tonlé Sap Lake. 

Further reading:

J Brand cofounder Susie Crippen embarks on an African fashion adventure

In case you missed it, No. 3: Fiji

No. 3: Fiji

Five fun facts about the delightful South Pacific islands

In response to reader feedback we’re going weekly, so please check your inbox every Thursday to join the next journey!


The wild collection of island jewels in the South Pacific 

To me, Fiji is the most perfect blend of my favorite things: nature and culture. Lush, electric jungles laden with bananas, coconuts and waterfalls hug sandy beaches edged in crystal water crammed with coral and exotic sea life (not to mention surf paradise–level waves). The cultural element on these 330 islands (only one-third of which are inhabited) is alive thanks to abundant singing, dancing, storytelling and smiles. A subtle natural soundtrack intermingles waves, palm trees, laughter and song. Refreshingly, Fiji is one of few places I’ve traveled where virtually all hotel staff is actually local, imbuing curious travelers’ visits with a true sense of their pure lifestyle. My impression is that Fijians live in harmony with the wild, with a very happy result. It’s inspiring to be around, and something I’m compelled to be in the presence of again. Here, a few reasons I feel certain I’ll return. 

1. Fijians are most likely the nicest people you’ll ever meet—but in the not-too-distant past (they’ll be the first to tell you) they were cannibals! 

Fiji is consistently ranked one of the world’s friendliest countries, and my experience backs that up fully. The locals are so warm you’ll often get a long hug paired with a massive smile upon first meeting a person, like I did from a lovely woman named Funga at Laucala, just after landing. (I can’t help but wonder if Oprah got the same welcome when she visited!) Fijians are happy—infectiously happy. And that happiness doesn’t seem to be based on material possessions or technology. In fact, they seem happy in spite of it. On some islands people still live without phones, WiFi and electricity, harvesting what they need from the land and water (farming and fishing), and spending about $15 Fijian dollars ($7 USD) per month on basics like sugar and salt. It’s a very simple life, and a very joyful one, apparently. Though it didn’t happen to me, multiple people mentioned that if someone sees you walk by their house they will insist you come in for tea—perfect strangers included!

2. Making music and sharing stories is a way of life. 

Any place where music is part of the every day is where I want to be. Being Fijian, it seems, means having a natural sense of rhythm and a powerful voice that can either sing sweetly and softly (like when we departed each island) or project catchy rhythms that build to a torrent of vibrant sound and energetic dance. In performances that thrilled me at Namale, women and men, boys and girls from a local village paired grass skirts with bare chests or floral dresses accessorized with seashell necklaces and palm garlands. They depicted Fijian fables and stories passed down from generations of aunties, fishermen and warriors that seemed in song, at least, endlessly exciting. (Migration from Micronesia and Melanesia to Fiji continued onto Hawaii, and in many ways the culture here feels like a particularly euphoric version of Hawaii’s.) Their exuberance, I feel, was responsible for at least a few new smile lines on my face. On another island, while walking across squishy ground in eye-popping electric greens to a thundering waterfall, a Herculean Fijian hacked open fresh coconuts while explaining life on ultra-remote isles where shoes don’t exist—his friend tried to board his first airplane barefoot! Leading the way and occasionally hacking down wayward vines, his buddy Mahle told a tall tale about how an umbrella was responsible for the end of cannibalism. I wish I’d written it down—it was an amazingly fantastical story, and one of many that cemented in my consciousness the unmatched delights of these islands. 

3. Kava is also a way of life. 

The ubiquitous drink described as a mild narcotic is precious and unendingly popular—think of South Americans’ yerba mate obsession. But kava is very much about ceremony: Historically it’s part of welcoming a visitor to a village after they’ve presented the chief or elder with the valuable pepper plant root. It’s generally dried in the sun and pounded into a fine powder to mix into water, which becomes increasingly muddy looking. And honestly, I don’t think it tastes much better. Drinking it is quite a ritual, as I learned at Namale, and can go on all night—until there’s none left—interlaced, naturally, with songs and stories. You sit on the ground in a circle as someone ladles small servings into coconut shells, clapping and saying “bula!” (like “aloha,” it’s the local word for hello, love and life) before downing it in one gulp. And there is no getting away with one swig, you’re expected to continue until you can no longer feel your tongue, or at least that’s when I stopped, somewhere around a dozen shots later. I truly felt I had started to slur my words, not because I was the slightest bit tipsy but because it felt like I’d had an intense trip to the dentist. Interestingly, at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort I was told of a double-blind clinical study done in Melbourne that found kava to be wonderful for anxiety. Biologically it’s a bit of a sedative, anesthetic and anti-depressant—maybe one more reason Fijians are so blissfully happy?!    

4. Things grow like crazy. 

Evidently Fiji is in Mother Nature’s good graces, making it extremely self-sustaining from an agricultural standpoint. (Also, the government’s pledged the country will use only renewable energy by 2030.) Hiking through jungle I felt a little bit like I’d been miniaturized, à la Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, the flora towered so mightily. At private-island resorts like Laucala and Kokomo Private Island Fiji, hydroponic gardens are quite sophisticated—and hugely prolific. The former’s farm is 240 acres, encompassing three greenhouses, an orchid and plant nursery with 600 species, Austrian chickens, fluffy sheep, pink pigs, quail, imported Wagyu cattle and their own coffee. Kokomo works with a farmer who while living on Suva banked seeds he’s adapted over many cycles to the island soil and salt-infused air—apparently plants can actually be educated, trained in a way. Copper wiring under their garden beds shocks slugs in lieu of pesticides; leaves get spritzes of Johnsons baby shampoo to ward off aphids. There’s basil everywhere because the bees love it, plus the herb lends an aromatic quality to honey. 

5. Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world. 

When I first learned to snorkel as a kid, I swam around fixated on finding Little Mermaid–worthy fish—you know, all the neon colors of late ‘80s animation—and ignoring everything else. But at some point there was an epiphany that made me realize I’ve matured in my under-the-sea explorations: Corals are often far more interesting and at least equally as vibrant. As the soft coral capital of the world, and home to one of the world’s longest and most untouched barrier reefs (the Great Astrolabe Reef), Fiji is a mecca for the kind of saturated, undulating, quite alive corals that make me want to drop an anchor and stare. Of course, healthy coral also brings plenty of what we typically think of as aquatic life, critically endangered hawksbill turtles, for one, and also mantas and iridescent blue spotted eagle rays. And because even remote Fiji is not immune to climate change or cyclone damage, there’s ample effort being made to replenish what is being bleached or damaged. Kokomo’s marine biologist, Cliona O’Flaherty, took me down into the brilliant blue—sunlit so ethereally it could be heaven—to plant a few pieces in their coral garden, a long rope between A-frames to ensure insidious crown of thorns starfish can’t eat the budding fragments we twisted into the rope. It’s like they’re giving natural selection a sweet helping hand, selecting bits from the strongest corals to propagate and increase survival. Because as I witnessed, one of the most inspiring things about Fiji is the symbiotic way humankind and nature coexist.

No. 2: Mexico, Botswana part II

Dia de los Muertos in charming San Miguel de Allende, and an elephant adventure in the Okavango Delta

In Pictures

Every year in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, something happens that is more fun than Halloween, more magical than Christmas, and more exciting than New Year’s Eve. The UNESCO World Heritage Site city comes vividly alive, pun intended, for Day of the Dead, known as Dia de los Muertos. 

It’s common to conflate Halloween and Die de los Muertos: Their dates are close together, and both involve a lot of skulls. But unless you’ve seen Coco (if not, please do) or experienced it, many assume Day of the Dead is dark, both in tone and palette. But looks are deceiving. Mexico’s annual two-day celebration is actually a vibrant and exuberant reaffirmation of life. One of the best places in the country to experience it is San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city in the highlands with a fairytale of a pink neo-Gothic church (can you spot it above?), color-drenched cobblestone streets and lush gardens like these at Rosewood San Miguel de Allende. 

Preparations for the UNESCO-recognized festivities—which occur on November 1 and 2, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day—are tedious and colorful as each doorway, fountain and corner of the city get a floral makeover. The green square by Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel is the heart of all activity. 

The tradition of Dia de los Muertos goes back not only centuries but thousands of years to pre-Hispanic cultures that believed it disrespectful to mourn the dead. Instead they kept their memories and spirits alive and, once a year, celebrated a day they returned briefly to Earth. 

On this occasion family members must bring flowers to their loved ones’ tombs, and vendors hawking saturated blooms line the path to the cemeteries. Marigold petals, especially, are believed to help guide the dead back to their resting places after their brief visit to Earth. In preparation for this return, family members clean the sites, bring water (the souls are thirsty after their long journey), decorate and even repaint. 

Mariachi musicians linger in the cemetery all day and sometimes all night, playing for the living and the spirits as they spend time eating, drinking and singing together. As one local told me, “people celebrate in their own way. It’s a combination of happy and sad, but it’s a special day for everybody.”

It’s common to see children’s gravesites decorated with small toys and alfiñiques—figurines made from sugar paste in the form of a skull or lamb, for instance. 

Alfiñiques are a ubiquitous part of Dia de los Muertos, sold at every market and an element of every ofrenda. They’re customized with the name written on the forehead in colored sugar, so the soul knows it’s for them.  

The Catrina is this holiday’s most searing symbol, an image inspired by political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada’s early 20th century etching that iconic painter Diego Rivera appropriated in his 1947 mural “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.” He named his fancy hat–wearing skeleton Catrina, a slang term for “the rich,” and it caught on. In San Miguel’s square, local artists tediously paint elaborate masks on (patient!) tourists eager to get in on the glamorous fun (the Rosewood also offers this service to guests). 

On November 1, Mexicans prepare ofrendas dedicated to the souls returning, in cemeteries, their private homes and around San Miguel’s main square. These offerings usually involve a hyper-personalized likeness of the person meticulously made of dried beans, rice, lentils or colored sand, alongside photos, candles, food and drinks, whether it’s pumpkin seeds they always snacked on or tequila they sipped religiously.

Artistic, elaborate ofrendas are meant to give family and friends a place to reconnect, but for outsiders they’re amazingly eye catching and expressive. I was told, “In Mexico, death is something really special. You never really die, you go to the other side, and you’re always in someone’s memory.” It’s a point of pride, and an important tradition that’s passed down to each generation—a wonderful piece of culture that seems solid in its legacy. After November 2, apparently, families may eat the food, drink the tequila or smoke the cigarettes left out but, a local told me, “it doesn’t taste like anything. It’s like the flavor was taken out.” 

San Miguel de Allende’s annual Catrinas Parade multiplies in size each year, with more and more exotically costumed Catrinas—male and female—joining the march winding through the narrow, darkened streets toward the square in front of the church for interpretive dance, live music and plenty of merriment. 

Odyssey in the Okavango, part II (Elephants!)

Several safaris in, I fully appreciate the gratifying privilege of observing wild animals in their native habitats—and all their sweet, silly, curious, strange and even frightful behaviors. They’re not behind glass, cordoned off in a cage, barred into enclosures or, in Botswana, at least, kept from going anywhere because of fences. Because of their exceptional size and strength this is especially true for elephants. They rule the savanna, and, to some extent, the villages, since a gate is nothing to a 12,000-pound creature with feet the size of pizzas and tusks as long as an adult man. 

At Chitabe I learned this was quite a quandary. Botswana was trying to reconcile its overpopulation of elephants. When then-president Ian Khama banned trophy hunting in 2014, it was a win for both conservationists and these seemingly prehistoric beings whose population had been reduced severely over decades of poaching—down by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census. The safe haven thing worked. But, as Chitabe’s camp manager told me, humans are the only limiting factor for some animals, and taking hunters out of the equation meant elephants have overgrazed, destroyed crops, damaged property and, tragically, increasingly killed humans in villages. 

Apparently the current tally of 240,000 elephants is several times more than the country’s carrying capacity, according to him. Of course, their range is consistently diminished by the ever-exploding human populations thirst for more space, too. (Other countries still have very low numbers of African elephants, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 of which are killed for their tusks annually on the continent.) He said a committee was tasked with reevaluating the ban, with the National Rifle Association even apparently lobbying to reverse it. Many locals agreed with them. This was hard to hear. But my guide, Duke’s assessment differed. People blocked migration paths and encroached on their territory, so we’re to blame, he said, adding, “By nature they want to roam, and by taking all their land we’ve created the problem.” (In May the government reinstated hunting.) 

As I climb aboard a puddle-jumper to Abu I’m confused and struggling to square these harsh realities with my personal beliefs—maybe Botswana could relocate a couple dozen thousand to where they’re endangered, I brainstorm. But I’m also eagerly anticipating what’s to come, since this intimate camp revolves around its own herd of rescued elephants that interact with guests!

The Okavango Delta must be magic—it’s mere minutes after stepping out of the diminutive aircraft that my face aches from smiling, my euphoria tangible. The cause of this serotonin tsunami? Eight filthy elephants who immediately embrace me, muddy trunks feeling my legs and wrapping around my arm like a boa constrictor. I’ve entered another world and stand in total disbelief, gazing into a gargantuan eye fringed with thick lashes, noticing the deep, comforting creases in this expanse of ruddy, half-wet skin. 

The friendly gang hangs beneath a towering baobab tree as I’m introduced to each one starting with the towering matriarch, Cathy, born in Uganda in 1960. She was captured as a baby and taken to a Canadian safari park, but later returned to her continent and was recruited in 1994 for Abu’s elephant-back safari experiences that were discontinued (thankfully) two years ago. There’s Naledi, her name means “star” in Setswana; Lorato, meaning “love,” and her silly 11-month-old firstborn, Motlotlo (“proud”), who passes gas then, when we laugh, swings his trunk around with such force he almost falls over. I’m in heaven. I’d love to play in the dirt with nine-month-old Shamiso, adorably struggling to his feet, but he already weighs about 450 pounds, I’m told.  

It’s impossible to stand in the shadow of a being as monumental, intelligent and emotionally connected as an elephant and not feel dwarfed, not only physically but mentally. Their brains are the largest of any land mammal, and they have three times the neurons of us homo sapiens. I’m awed by how reassured I feel in their presence each time we’re together, whether it’s on morning or afternoon walks—they appear to move in slow motion, but I practically jog, panting, to keep up with 7,700-pound Cathy’s lengthy strides, lest I’m knocked out by her ever-swinging tail—or while overhand throwing brown pellets into their gaping maws, the largest tongues I’ve ever witnessed wet in anticipation and undulating as they disappear the food so quickly David Copperfield would be impressed. 

Maybe it sounds silly but when I’m with Cathy, especially, I feel seen. It’s as if she’s peering into my soul, reading me like a book and healing me silently, energetically. I imagine she’d have ancient wisdom to impart if only we spoke the same language. Instead, her caress is medicinal, the best therapy imaginable. Standing between Cathy and doting Sirheni for a photo I feel like a child trying to make sense of their lumpy mountainous heads; long, tarnished tusks; and deep brown inquisitive eyes. A staffer asks me how I’m doing and the dam bursts. Salty tears flow as I gasp for breath in the most cathartic cry I’ve had in years. I’m crying for personal reasons I myself am not sure of, for the deep connection I inexplicably share with these foreign creatures, and for their uncertain futures. It’s so difficult to see anything negative in their radiant light.

I keep it together when heading off with my well-spoken guide, BT, into flaming sunsets to track down luxuriant leopards and hunting lions. (This is the only camp in the vicinity with scouts who track the most exciting game each day so we don’t waste time that could be spent with the herd.) I even stay cool when sleeping on stilts above their boma one night, in the plush Star Bed, cocooned in mosquito netting, lulled by chirps, squawks, burps, snorts, splashes and even elephant farts, and bathed in starlight from the Milky Way. When I awake before dawn luminous Pleiades has shifted north above my head and I can just make out silhouettes of my massive slumbering friends below. 

Abu takes the safari tent concept and elevates it into sculpture, evoking an elephant’s ears with the raised structure that nestles up to the largest termite mound ever and brushes the banks of a palm-ringed lagoon that provides me with sunrises of a lifetime early each morning. In my airy momentary domicile—with a vast deck, plunge pool and luxurious freestanding bath—artifacts frame a desk with a small easel and a watercolor set I use to paint a rough portrait of Cathy. It’s here, submerged in the pulsing Delta, that I sleep to a soundtrack of splashing, groaning hippos one night, only to awake and, in the pink glow of the day’s first light, discover a noisy mama standing protectively over her newborn infant meters from my deck. 

A flock of storks—“they bring the babies!” BT exclaims—fly overhead as we set off for our last gallivant with the herd, yet another awe-inspiring stroll on which I learn that elephants, who drink up to 210 liters of water a day, have footprints as distinctive as our fingerprints. Watching them eat is savage, and endless. (In fact, they chew through six sets of teeth in their lifetime, dying not because of old age but because after the last set they can no longer eat.) They’re constantly ripping out vegetation with dexterity even as the last bite is still dangling from their jaws. But interestingly BT says that while some blame elephants for killing trees—they strip trunks with their tusks, devour most everything green, and occasionally uproot them—he sees it as a public service, clearing thick foliage and thus lessening the danger of attack for other wildlife. The longer I’m in the savanna the more symbioses I see. 

That afternoon we meet for afternoon tea under a brilliant blue sky streaked with wispy white paint strokes. Warona is sneakily attempting to drink Champagne through her inquisitive trunk (teenagers, they’re all the same), while Cathy seems to want to hold my hand with hers. Hanging with elephants, it turns out, is always a wonder. “You come out here and you realize they own the land,” a staffer named Kele comments as we admire the dynamic herd. “We’re just visitors here.” As I see it, they were here first and neither of us is superior.

They may no longer be protected, but to me elephants are the ones providing a sanctuary. The rest of the world drops away when I’m with them, and in our bubble of mutual respect there’s nothing but beauty. 

(Botswana held presidential elections yesterday, and the tightest race in its history hasn’t yet been called. Depending on how it plays out I’m hopeful a friendlier solution might be reached in the future, helping clever wildlife and compassionate people live in harmony.) 

Further reading

Total immersion in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Spectacular new sea-worthy design in cruising

No. 1: Botswana, Bali

Safari in the Okavango Delta (part one) and the world's dolphinarium problem

Odyssey in the Okavango 

Flying into Maun, Botswana, over endless tree-speckled land, I can’t help but notice just how flat it is. Like, Arkansas flat. There are little light-catching tin houses dwarfed by birds with wingspans meters wide, soaring between cotton ball clouds. It’s hard to settle on the horizon, for it appears like a mirage in never-ending strips of blue and green. 

This is the jumping-off point for the Okavango Delta, one of Africa’s most prolific wildlife habitats and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for me, jumping off means boarding yet another plane, this one teeny tiny and up in the sky for just 15 beautiful minutes. From up there the landscape is still glaringly lacking elevation, but with plenty of rich texture adding visual interest. Rivers snake, glistening, through plush green carpets of foliage, while ponds and water holes reflect the pale blue sky’s every whimsical wisp and puff. Like a homemade diorama, round huts come into focus surrounded by what look like drips and globs of paint, spiderwebs of pale tan sand threading through—animal highways, I recognize after a second. 

Obviously no animal is going thirsty or hungry here, I think to myself as we cruise to a landing, grazing gemsbok coming into focus alongside clumps of palm trees and termite mounds that, if I didn’t know better, I’d mistake for drip sandcastles.

Duke, a sturdy Motswana (the word for a person from Botswana; a group is Batswana) guide with sleepy eyes and a strong handshake, fetches me in an open-sided safari vehicle from Chitabe Camp, where I’m staying a few blissful nights. I know we’ll get along once he suggests starting the safari drive immediately, skipping check-in and afternoon tea. “We have everything that nature can offer,” Duke tells me of the Delta as we roll off under intensely blue skies to see if we’ll get lucky—that is, see all the predators in a day. “It’s all up to Mother Nature to decide what to show us.” 

Rhinoceros were reintroduced here a year ago, so even they can be found among the lions, cheetah, leopard, buffalo, hyena, wild dogs, elephants, giraffes, zebra, wildebeests, and half a dozen other antelope. My ears perk up when he says it’s baby season. According to Duke, many animals give birth around now—January, in the middle of the low period from November to April—because the rainy season provides plenty of water, food and better cover from predators.

This private concession of 28,000 acres is indeed thrumming with life. An impala stops in our path and does his business—a true welcome to the bush. “Vultures invite themselves to a kill like unwanted guests at a wedding,” Duke is telling me of the original party crashers he’d spotted, circling. These ugly birds are usually harbingers of something dead and, fortunately for me, this is no false alarm. 

Just 15 minutes after landing we drive right up to a leopard! An absolutely massive dominant male at that, fattened by the recent meal his body is working so hard to digest as he lays half conscious, belly and entire torso, really, heaving, stretching out the black rosettes on his velvety white stomach. His enormous furry paws—theirs are retractable claws—are clean and surprisingly cute. “I saw you were lucky, your face was shining,” Duke beams, thrilled to have given me such an impeccable welcome. Leopards are solitary and extremely well camouflaged, so finding one is far from a given. 

I’m fairly certain we made eye contact—like an adrenaline injection straight to my veins. But, according to Duke, leopards can’t discern individuals in the vehicle, only one very large shape since their eyesight is not the best during the day. For his inauguration, Duke tells me, a chief must wear a leopard or lion skin, signaling that he is confident like a cat, a good leader and a neutral mediator. “You have to be brave.” For that reason, leopards have been hunted quite a bit over time. Now, he says, skins are passed from father to son to protect the species.

It turns out I am lucky. After a couple-minute interlude in the form of a mongoose, duck and African ibis, we come upon two very dead buffalo that likely clock in around 800 pounds each, looking almost comically like plasticine props on a Hollywood film set. In the wild, I’ve noticed, a creature looks fake the instant it’s killed, its energy or spirit—whatever you believe—seemingly exiting the corpse swiftly and leaving a cold imposter behind. The unmissable melody of deep, rapid, labored panting interrupts that thought, however. 

The culprits, two large male lions, their majestic black manes mashed and tousled into enviable bed head, are sprawled out beneath low trees. These are proper kings of the jungle, their bellies distended with proof. “They’re being greedy with two buffalo,” says Duke, “but with temperatures rising and global warming hitting, you never know when is gonna be your next meal.” 

Before reaching Chitabe we see more of the approximately 500 bird species in the Delta—including my favorite, the lilac-breasted roller, resplendent in all the colors of the rainbow—and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it giraffe mating exercise that goes on for days, split-second mounting alternating with bouts of quite impersonal, sly “flirting.” Let’s just say female giraffes are incredibly patient. (Further evidence of that: Their gestational period is 14 months!) There are gruesome marabou storks with fluffy peach necks; monkeys with impossibly long, slender tails; a warthog trotting across the savanna, and all-female herd of impalas and their babies, each one an exact replica of its neighbor. If there’s any variation in their brown ombré coats and large doe eyes, it’s imperceptible to me. They are truly like mannequins lined up in a shop window.

We find a pride of lions with a dozen cuddly cubs, the moms wearing stone-cold poker faces as they intently watch a dazzle of vulnerable zebra across the wide plain while the sun sets in a fiery display. (For the record, I’m ready to jump into the pile of playful pups, until I notice them sharpening their teeth and claws on sticks.) They’re looking for dinner—anyone unsuspecting, young, old, weak or wounded—and begin slowly dispersing, movements synchronized as they communicate through body language. As the zebras come closer, the lionesses flatten themselves behind lumps of earth; I’m on the edge of my seat as the sun sets and stage dims, the night making them invisible to me, more dangerous to their prey. 

The pristine environment here is like nowhere else on earth, constantly in flux and comprising wetland, dry savanna, plains and woodland. Tectonic activity created this anomaly of a delta, or alluvial fan, where the water does not flow into a sea or ocean, but into the Kalahari Desert basin. The closest thing to mountains are ubiquitous termite mounds, which actually become islands when the savanna floods each year in June and July. For this, I’m told, they are the most important organism here. We think of termites as destroyers, but here they’re builders. There are no fences between concessions, and the approach to tourism is high cost, low yield, causing less environmental impact and damage than many African safari destinations.

Wilderness Safaris’ Chitabe is a perfect example of this edict, as it’s perfectly luxurious and built specifically to have zero impact on the land. A wooden boardwalk curves gracefully around a large sausage tree like an impala’s horns, connecting the tents and elevating guests above wildlife threats. A solar farm provides energy, and there’s no plastic to be found. 

From this African idyll, each drive provides a lifetime’s worth of photo ops and discoveries. There are rainbows, and breakfasts beside hippos. A procession of 20 elephants parading by, trunks high in the air to smell us. Red and yellow–beaked saddle-billed storks eating flying termites like we throw popcorn into our mouths, and fantastical velvet ants the same dense pile and the color of a ripe tomato. Rambunctious young pups from a pack of African painted wolves 18-deep play fighting around a water hole, their perfect reflections jumping and scampering about with the slightest of ripples. 

The beauty of safari is in these wildlife experiences, yes. But also its perfect lesson in impermanence, and the joy in it. Deltas are delicate eco-systems that are defined by constant change, and things are different minute to minute here. No day or mere moment can be replicated. A baby elephant is always cute, but with each sighting you’ll discover new behavior or notice another adorable detail. Being in the Delta is a reminder to appreciate—everything. Especially our vulnerability as humans. It’s living in the moment, because each one is fleeting, and special. 

Like when we happen to be in the right place at the right time, meeting up with five guys from the rhino conservation unit who chaperone us while approaching, on foot, a pair of 4,500-pound beasts they’ve tracked. I don’t have time to think, I just follow, willing myself to stay calm as I move closer and closer to 9,000 pounds of wild animal mass armed with hacked-off horns—one conservation method used to undermine or deter poachers is to cut off their prized keratin signatures (they do regrow). Only bushes separate my inconsequential figure from these ancient and endangered dinosaurs of Africa, pacing as if to show off their size, strength and dominance. 

I imagine I’m breathing as hard as that leopard as I capture a few frames, if only to later recall this thrill. Because it feels once in a lifetime, and it is. Yet there are so many more of these encounters on deck tomorrow.  

Please stay tuned for part two—all about the time elephants made me cry—in the next issue, October 24.  

“The public deserves the truth”

I heard these words the other night from the world’s foremost dolphin activist Ric O’Barry—formerly a trainer on the beloved ‘70s TV show Flipper—and they’ve stuck with me. They’re embedded as I struggle with the horrendously graphic footage I viewed in Louie Psihoyos’ Academy Award Best Documentary–winning film The Cove, under the stars at Drifter Surf in Bali, before Ric appeared for a Q&A. 

Ric is in town, on my island home, working to rescue captive dolphins from chlorinated hotel pools and building the world’s first (the first—isn’t that crazy?) dolphin sanctuary. Some will transition out of the sea pen into the complete wild, eventually, while others, blinded by the chlorine or completely toothless thanks to a dolphinarium, will never again be capable of living free. The four bottlenose dolphins rescued from Lovina’s Melka Hotel are the first in the world to have been microchipped so we’ll know what happens to them next. 

In The Cove, released a decade ago, we see Ric and Louie putting together an Ocean’s 11–style tactical team to expose the horrific bottlenose dolphin slaughters and trafficking in Taiji, Japan. Taiji fisherman use sound—as important to dolphins as sight is to us humans—to corral these beautiful creatures into a dead-end cove they close with a net and then, at about $200,000 a pop, sell to dolphinarium trainers. The rest are murdered. They get about $600 per animal for their meat, generally disguised as whale and sold to unsuspecting Japanese consumers who have no idea this kind of thing even occurs. Every year tens of thousands of dolphins are slaughtered in Taiji—still! Even after this film. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it. 

I sat aghast as Ric spoke after the film, in which he’s heroic and determined and brought tears to my eyes for revealing the devastating horror facing dolphins in this world. I felt especially heartbroken and uninformed. They have absolute power to make my day—let’s be honest, week—when I see them while surfing in LA or Malibu. And I see them almost every time I’m out. A glimpse of their glistening gray skin gliding through the water, their fin cutting through the surface, and my heart jumps inside my chest. I usually shriek, sometimes I paddle in their direction to get a closer look. Other times they swim just under my feet. I feel drawn to them, and oftentimes, so it seems, they are to me. When dozens, maybe hundreds, surrounded our Galapagos mega yacht, Ecoventura Theory, this summer, I rode the bow with them, lying my belly on the wood, head, shoulders and camera projecting over the front to witness their balletic liquid play.

I, like many other contemporaries of mine, have been to SeaWorld—I think I was about six years old. I’m sure I was delighted, I mean who wouldn’t be? Dolphins are absolutely spectacular. They’re talented, intelligent, emotional, fabulous and beautiful. We didn’t know better then, but we do now. When Ric said that China has recently opened 80 new dolphinariums, in response to its burgeoning—and not just burgeoning but exploding—middle class, I felt livid.

Ric knows every gruesome detail about how dolphins are treated at SeaWorld and dolphinariums on every continent—did you know in these environments they’re regularly fed antidepressants and ulcer medication because they’re so stressed? He’s been on the front lines trying to shut them down for decades. At almost 80 he’s not slowing down one bit.

Ric’s knowledge owes to the fact he started as a trainer. He switched sides abruptly when his favorite of the Flipper dolphins, Kathy, committed suicide in his arms. She looked him in the eye, he says, and stopped breathing. Ric defended this admittedly bold statement with a fact: Dolphins and whales don’t breathe automatically like us humans; theirs are conscious breaths, each time. 

So what can be done? To start, never buy another ticket to a dolphin show again. Anywhere. “The dolphin show is nothing more than a spectacle of dominance,” said Ric the other night, “that only serves to perpetuate our insidious perspective of nature.” And encourage everyone you know to find cruelty free entertainment, too. There’s plenty of it. This multi-billion-dollar industry can and will crumble if we stop encouraging and demanding it. 

After all, as Ric said, “the greatest way to make change is by example. And that’s what we have an opportunity to do.”

All words and photos belong to me, Kathryn Romeyn. 

Further reading

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s new Scandinavian-inflected LA home

Malibu hatmaker Teressa Foglia takes Hollywood by storm

Taking you on a trip.

Destination features, photo essays, travel guides and commentary to inspire exploration and understanding of the world.

Welcome to Journeys!

I’m Kathryn Romeyn, and this newsletter is based on my experiences around the globe, discoveries, obsessions, lessons, curiosities and more.

As a freelance travel, wellness and design writer for magazines including AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Architectural Digest, Brides, The Hollywood Reporter, C Magazine and Modern Luxury, I’m constantly on the road, in the air and at sea. I’m constantly exposed to fascinating places, people, ideas and initiatives. But I’m not always able to fit every favorite moment into my assignments.

That’s where this newsletter comes in. I’m using this space to share what I’ve been seeing and doing recently, with the desire to transport you—from the comfort of your sofa, desk or bed. It’s my voice, my observations, and the stories I wish to tell from special places in the world. I hope you’ll come along for the trip!

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