On the face of it, saying that next week I’m going on a trip with some guys I found on Instagram sounds like a terrible idea. A I’m-about-to-be-dismembered-after-suffering-some-truly-unpleasant-events terrible idea. It’s a true crime podcast waiting to happen. You’d listen to that, right?
The reality, though, is a far less fraught affair.
I don’t remember when I first came across Gerry van der Walt’s account, but I know that I was immediately taken with it. Not only did he have beautiful wildlife photos, but he was doing something the kids are really into on the onlines: being authentic and being generous. Gerry is a co-owner and guide with an outfit called Wild Eye. They run photographic safaris throughout Africa and several international expeditions including Svalbard, Borneo, and Brazil. They run safaris for people who have money. More money than, for example, I have. But rather than have a feed full of opportunistic calls-to-action, destined to make the less well-off among us just feel bad about ourselves, Gerry’s feed is a trove of useful advice on travel and photography. So is his podcast. So is the Wild Eye website. So are the feeds of the other guides who work there.
Gerry answers people’s questions about how to take better photos, how to take better trips, where to go and what to see and what to bring – and he does this for free for people who are not now, and may not ever, traveling with his company. As a cynic, I hardly knew what to do with this. I was following Gerry when he started his podcast and was over the moon when he answered one of my questions on it – a question, mind you about lens choices for a safari I was taking not with his company. And this kind of selfless generosity was not a one-off, he does it for countless people in an almost superhuman way (I think he’s one of those people who doesn’t strictly require sleep because he is always doing something). He responds to email, of which I am sure there are thousands, in a couple of days – and he writes real, personal emails, not form letters.
So it wasn’t long before I was strategizing ways that I could go on a trip with his company. The universe is not always an amazing place and the very least I can do, is support the parts of it that don’t suck. There was one, small problem: money. And since I’ve endeavored to talk about that forbidden subject here, I’ll let you know that most of the trips with Wild Eye start at 6k/person. Also known as a lot. Also known as way more than we spend on vacation. Also known as “gee, could this ever be worth it to us given how comfortable we are traveling on our own?”
A particular itinerary, however, stood out to me as something we couldn’t do on our own: a walking safari. Specifically, a walking safari in Zimbabwe. So I put that squarely on the aspiration list. It wasn’t going to be something we did in the next year, hell it might not be something we do in the next five years, but it’s something I want to save for, and something I can kinda sorta justify. I am under no illusion that Jim and I miss A LOT when we drive ourselves through national parks. We don’t have the experience to read the landscape, we’re often lost, and we’re very often impatient. However, those trips have been incredible and I don’t know if we’d find the bonus of getting to see more to be compensation enough for being driven around and giving up our “freedom.” (Our freedom to get stuck in the mud and hope we find someone to help, our freedom to run out of gas, our freedom to eat Haribo gummy bears and beef jerky as meals – you know the freedom we like so much.) So much as ALL the trips they plan look amazing, I didn’t feel like we were in a position where we could justify the cost for something that we could do a poor man’s version of. The company runs trips in the Serengeti and in Namibia which neatly enough match the trips we took ourselves, at a cost 4x what we paid. If I win the lottery, terrific! But in the meantime…
That being said, walking around Zimbabwe is not really something we can do on our own (another trip I’m considering for the future is gorilla trekking – again because there would be no way to do it on our own). So onto the bucket list it went. I even think I’ve convinced my brother and his soon-to-be wife to do it with us, thereby allowing us to be the only guests. But they’re getting married this year and honeymooning in 2020 which means 2021 is the earliest we’d be able to do this and I’m frankly impatient.
Which is when I discovered that Wild Eye runs some trips in South Africa. Some not 6k/person trips. And I have more PTO than Jim does. And I unthinkingly blow money on Sephora and Starbucks like I own stock in both (I own stock in neither). So I impulsively decided at the beginning of the year that I was going to bid farewell to my VIB Rouge and my star accumulations (and many other things I buy and do not need), and put that money towards one of these trips. Within two weeks of mentally making this decision, I had put down a deposit, cashed in some Chase points for a round-trip ticket, and just went full YOLO. Thanks to my mother-in-law for a generous Christmas present which also helped defray the cost.
And I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be going to the Madikwe reserve, which is in the north of South Africa near the border with Botswana. It’s a safari geared towards photography and improving one’s photography, and I could definitely stand some improvement. Yes, the accommodations are wildly nicer than what I would book myself, and there’s a part of me that thinks, “couldn’t you have done this without the fancypants lodge?,” and the answer is yes. But I’m looking at this as paying for experience, the Wild Eye guide’s experience, and choosing to spend my money with a company that has proved its value to me long before I became a customer. Am I going into it also hoping to gain some insight that will allow us to be better at driving ourselves? Absolutely. And it’s a bit of a recon mission to see if our proposed foursome would enjoy traveling with the company. Finally, it’s a bit of mindfulness: all of the things I really want to do involve travel and I can do a lot more to prioritize it. This trip, with some guys from Instagram, is a step in that direction.