When I was a teenager, I was hiking down a rocky trail on a small mountain in northern Tanzania when I tripped and landed straight on a tangle of acacia branches (from the kind of tree that I lovingly call “the Lion King tree”; those crooked, beautiful ones with the branches covered in ivory-colored thorns that you see in every African postcard or film). When I fell, my hand landed straight on top of the tangle of the thorns, and the tip of one pricked the palm of my right hand at such an angle that I couldn’t get it out, and before I could get back to a city to buy a pair of tweezers to try to remove the splinter, my hand heeled over the wound, and the tip of the acacia thorn settled into its permanent state: a small, gray mark on the palm of my hand.
I always think about it like this: I carry Africa with me. It’s often just a story or conversation starter when I’m with friends and we’re comparing scars — “you see that spot on my hand? well this one time when I was super clumsy in Tanzania…” — but I admit there’s a tiny, strange, sentimental value to it. During the times when I’m homesick for the savanna, I think about how I hold a bit of it to keep me grounded when I'm thousands of miles away. A small mark that I can run my finger over to remind myself that I’m never that far from home. I can always go. And when I leave, it's a reminder that I will always find a way to come back. I always do.
It’s been almost two months since I began my journey around the world, and as my last day in Africa comes to an end, I would be lying if I said I was ready to leave. In fact, for the past few days, I almost desperately wished I wasn’t.
From the glaciers of Peru, to the markets of Morocco, to the green hills of Ethiopia, in the back of my mind I couldn’t help but feel like I was biding my time until I made it back to the golden, sun-soaked savannas of subsaharan Africa.
So as the plane descended through the clouds and skimmed over the orange mountains of Namibia, I could feel an odd sensation of relief wash over me; the kind of relief you get after you arrive home and see a familiar face waiting for you at the arrivals terminal. I’ve spent a good amount of time in this region of Africa over the years, but still, the familiarity and comfort that these mountains and plains brings when I see them again is always profound. Since my first trip here, I wondered if over time its significance would fade, and if there would come a time when I’d visit and find that it’s not as hard to leave as it was when I first was here. And yet, I find the opposite happening. With each visit, the intensity of homesickness that hits me when I’m getting ready to leave becomes more poignant and significantly more difficult to deal with. The thought of the Johannesburg Departures terminal, of returning to paved roads and telephone poles after weeks of camping in the wilderness, of a room where I can’t hear the crickets and the elephants as I fall asleep at night, ties my stomach in knots. Coming home to the savannas gives me a sense of bliss that’s more brilliant and raw than anywhere I go or have ever been, but when the time comes to leave, I find myself as I am now, at a cafe in Zambia, drinking an espresso that doesn’t taste nearly as decadent as the instant-coffee brewed over a campfire that I’ve lived off of for the past few weeks, wondering why I’m leaving. It’s almost painful to think about how happy I am here, and yet I decided to buy a plane ticket to Asia that leaves in less than 24 hours, and something in me wishes that this time, I would have decided to just stay. It’s as simple and honest as that.
This visit in particular has been difficult to put into words, as whatever I muster up always fails to properly convey how wonderful this experience has been. I’ll start with this, though: every day of my time here was extraordinary.
We began in Namibia, making our way from the capital city to the desert of Namib-Naukluft, where we bribed our way into the park in the middle of the night to climb the world's tallest dunes at sunrise, and hiked to white salt pans and oceans of dry earth in an abyss of red sand, where ancient, crooked trees shaded herds of gemsbok. From Namibia we watched the desert turn into autumn forests then, slowly, to rolling plains decorated with villages and lazy zebra as we reached Botswana, making our way north until we ditched roads and towns for deep savanna, camping alone with prides of lions and the company of each other, not needing anything else. Finally we reached Zambia, where we were greeted by the thundering Victoria Falls, traversing the rim as we were doused by roaring water, loud enough that we could scream without anyone hearing, baboons watching from the canopies nearby. Every morning and evening was laced with joy and adrenaline; constantly enamored by every passing moment. Part of why I love guiding these expeditions is to see people who’ve never been to this corner of the world before see an elephant for the first time, or a giraffe, or a sunset from atop a dusty Land Rover, and to witness that kind of child-like captivation and glee as it unfolds across the faces of those around me.
On our final night all together, as we sat under a flowering tree listening to the hum of Livingstone beyond the garden hedges, we began talking about everything we’re going to miss. Like those lovely, long mornings with amber light dousing the golden plains, sipping a cup of coffee with a rusk under the crooked shadows of acacia trees. The smell of the riverfront as you cross the veld; the smell of sage, sun-warmed earth, sweet grass. The sun dapples on the navy-blue ponds that sable antelope and zebra linger by, pinpricked by white cranes and hippos. Those sunsets, with spectacular ribbons of mauve, of burgundy, wrapping around the silhouettes of elephants bathing at the watering hole and a swollen, deeply red sun that just seems to beckon you to come closer. The electricity of the night air deep in the bush; of sitting by a simmering campfire in the evening, woodsmoke tangled in our hair and knotted into our sweaters; rooibos tea and deep, belly-aching, honest laughter ringing against the backdrop of crickets chirping and lions calling from just out of eyesight, only ten or twenty meters from where we sit in the center of darkness. The stomach-flipping adrenaline-coursing dip of a bush plane as it careens towards a herd of elephants grazing beside the delta at sunset. The way the acacia trees flicker with red as they reflect the campfire flames underneath a spectacular Milky Way. The singsong language of Tswana, and the nights sitting at camp playing music while we lost track of shooting stars. Waking up at 2 AM to lions pawing beside my tent, and yet feeling safer there than on some streets back in San Francisco. The fact that there was no road, no telephone pole, no bar of cell service for 100 miles; no possible way to be anywhere but there, in the heart of it, at the most honest and beautiful and true the world can be.
I feel home there, in my bones, in the red dust on my shoulders and palms.
It’s so hard to leave.
Then, today. It feels strange to be sitting by myself right now, without people chatting and swapping stories and cracking each other up on either side of me, as its been for the past couple months.
About three minutes ago, a British Airways flight took off from Livingstone to South Africa, carrying my final clients with it — people who’ve become good friends — and concluding my last photography expedition of the year. Already talk of 2017 is floating through the air and my email inbox — essentially asking the beautiful question of where I want to go, and even though nothing has been decided, already in the back of my mind I’m counting down the days until I land in Namibia again. But for this remainder of this round-the-world, I realize that from here on out it’s me on my own, as tomorrow I face Asia and wherever else and whomever else I’m on the trajectory to cross paths with. The unknown of that is part of what makes this kind of travel so rich, so rewarding, so endlessly inspiring, and why I will continue to revolve my life around the pursuit of discovery. Life should be felt, should be about color, about the world. For me, that involves the road, and that involves being brave enough to trust in the unknown of Indonesia, to give up Africa because I know I always find a way to come home, and I will. Maybe next year I'll spend a few months here; in the savanna with a tent, a Landy, some instant coffee, and good company. Right now, though, it's time to go, and to trust in the possibility of something else. Something more.
This round-the-world has woken me up from the stiffness that a clockwork life drilled into me. It’s brought me an incredible amount of joy and opportunities and sincere, overwhelming happiness. But now, as a plane ticket looms tomorrow to carry me across the world to Indonesia, I can’t help but feel this daunting, unshakeable sensation that while one chapter in this RTW is closing — especially mixed with the hesitation and sadness of leaving this part of Africa — I know that there is something massive and important waiting for me in Asia, and beyond, wherever I end up. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m ready to face it head on.
I carry Africa with me, always, and will be home soon.
Let's see what's out there.