You've probably heard the slogan before – most likely in an ecotourism campaign. It's a great slogan. (At least, I think so.) It is simple, catchy, and can be applied to a broad range of itineraries.
But in my opinion, what makes the message truly powerful is that it appeals to the hero complex in every individual, because there is an implied lead actor in those two sentences: Me. The traveler.
This is the interpretation I took with me when I visited other destinations in the past, including when I landed in Windhoek on a recent trip with my family to Namibia. But it was during the trip that I was inspired to rethink the role I play in ecotourism. Specifically, it was a rhino tracking activity organized through Gondwana's Palmwag property that changed my view.
Early one July morning, six guests (my family, plus a lovely young couple on honeymoon) assembled in the lobby of Palmwag Lodge & Camp, where our guide, Rodney, met us with a warm smile and warm(ish) ponchos. In the darkness, we loaded ourselves into an open-air truck and set off to pick up the ranger who would be accompanying us on the trek. Once he was on board, we continued on to the location where we hoped the find the rhino.
I don't think I can describe how cold it was on that drive. Despite the layers of clothing we were wearing, the ponchos, and the blankets we had, I was so cold that I started praying – begging in a rather unflattering way, if I'm being honest – for the suffering to stop. And I live in New England, where the weather regularly dips into the negative double digits Celsius! But this was cold like I've never known before.
By the time we had arrived in the area where the ranger jumped out of the truck and began tracking the rhino, I couldn't feel my toes. We stopped the vehicle and climbed out to stretch our legs in the weak morning sun, jumping up and down and trying to restore some warmth to our bodies as we listened to Rodney talk about how he had grown up here, sharing the land with rhinos and elephants and giraffes, and how the work of Save the Rhino Trust, in cooperation with partner NGOs and local residents, was making a difference.
Within another half hour, we were quietly following the ranger as he trailed a rhino mother and her baby. The cold was still there, but I no longer noticed it. All I could focus on was the incredible pair of animals before me. Seeing them in a zoo or from a car window, with a barrier between this enormous creature and our small, fragile human selves, is not the same. I was afraid…and I was exhilarated.
It was so unique and emotionally moving in a way that is impossible to reproduce through other means. We followed the two rhinos for some time, taking photos but staying quiet, and always keeping a respectable distance. There was a tense – very tense! – moment when the mother rhino caught sight of my daughter's binoculars, the sun glinting off one of the lenses, and we had to suddenly crouch low, stay completely still, and again...pray.
We were completely out of our element. Thankfully, Rodney got us away safely, moving us out of the path of danger, back to the truck, and comforting us with warm tea and coffee.
The experience shifted something in me. It made me realize that, despite the appealing picture presented to me by my imagination, I am not the lead in the story of sustainable travel. I am not saving the world by seeing the world. Instead, I am a supporting actor. Not the hero, but the sidekick.
As ecotourists, there might be times when we take on a much more prominent role. My hat goes off to those who find a calling during their travels and end up becoming so much more to an area or organization than someone who is just passing through. In those cases, saving the world certainly is a direct result of seeing the world. But in many cases, it is my belief that we are not, in fact, the leads.
That's not to say that the role of ecotourists is not important. After all, what would Macbeth be without his Lady? Han Solo without Chewbacca? Harry Potter without Ron and Hermione? The supporting cast is just as critical to the success of a hit show, but it is most impactful when everyone understands their relationship to the story being told.
We ecotourists are that important support. We drive long distances over gravel roads and suffer through unfathomable cold precisely because we want to support the main actors in order to tell the best story possible.
For me, the real stars are the Namibian men and women who take the lead and do the hero's work that saves the world...so that it can be seen.
Author: Pauline Benninga
Photo: Gondwana Collection