I had come to the Namib to shadow Stander in his research on a trip organized by Wilderness Safaris as part of the outfitter’s Travel with Purpose program of small-group itineraries, which emphasizes conservation and community engagement.
Our base was Wilderness Safaris’ Damaraland Camp, a collection of ten bungalows on a rocky slope overlooking the Huab River Valley, with rooms that were luxurious by desert standards, excellent food, and attentive service. But the greatest privilege was the chance to see Stander at work. For more than two decades, Wilderness has provided him with financial support and lodging, but this was the first time it had collaborated with him on a trip—”an experiment,” as Stander called it—that gave guests the chance to witness his efforts firsthand.
The opportunities Wilderness’s Travel with Purpose program offer don’t just satisfy a growing demand for deeper and more exclusive safari experiences—they support a greater mission to build community-based conservation. “Tourism gives value to wildlife,” Stander told our group of four over dinner the first evening. “It provides income and job opportunities and a whole range of other benefits to the communities. Without tourism, we would not be able to justify lions in this area.”
Kili McGowan, the chair of the Safari Pros consortium of travel advisors, organizes and leads trips that venture beyond sightings of the classic Big Five–elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and buffalo. As an expert on the region, McGowan was guiding a tour of conservancies in Kenya, which is bouncing back after a half-decade hiatus during which security concerns kept some travelers away.
McGowan is one of a growing number of specialists who are willing to go above and beyond for clients. She will even, on occasion, accompany them every step of the way, providing on-the-ground knowledge and a deep understanding of conservation issues. Once this trip was complete, McGowan would turn around and fly back to the continent with a group of women who will only travel in her company.
When Lifescan executive Kirsten Kempe and her husband, Bob Carlin, a longtime Oracle manager, decided to travel in 2018 with two fellow elite triathletes and their spouses, they turned to custom safari specialist Next Adventure (nextadventure.com). The Berkeley company hosts gatherings in clients’ homes and offices by which travelers glean the latest information on conservation issues, along with practical safari advice.
Next Adventure Managing Director Kili McGowan helped organize an evening at Kempe’s Mountain View home “that was almost like a dinner party, where we got together to talk about what they wanted to do,” she says. The result: a three-week trip that included South Africa’s Cape Town and Johannesburg, and 13 days on safari in luxury camps in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana.
Next Adventure, a safari company based in Berkeley and run by Kili McGowan and her husband Jeremy Townsend, was tasked with setting up the trip for Bell, Bourdain, and the Parts Unknownproduction crew.
“Tony [Bourdain] inspired people to be travelers, not just tourists,” McGowan said. “Being a chef, he had this appreciation for people and their cultures.”
McGowan ended up traveling with the crew to Kenya’s Lewa Wilderness. As fans would expect, McGowan said Bourdain was mindful of the conservation efforts in the African countries he visited. “He was so enthusiastic about it, and it’s extremely rewarding,” McGowan recalled.
She also remarked on Bourdain and the production crew’s passion and positive working dynamics. The rapport between the late Bourdain and Bell was obvious as well. “Their chemistry is really palpable,” she said.
When the show was in the planning stages, Bell pointed the Parts Unknown production company, Zero Point Zero, to Berkeley company Next Adventure whose expertise is curating personalized, conservation-minded safari and wildlife trips to Africa. Bell is friends with Kili McGowan, the company’s managing director, and was sure its thoughtful approach to travel would marry well with Bourdain’s show.
“It was such a great shared opportunity,” said McGowan. Both Bell and Bourdain, whether through the lens of diversity in America, or international food culture, go into experiences with open hearts and minds, she said. “They both have a vulnerability and empathy that draws people into conversations.”
Next Adventure recommended the visit to the Lewa Conservancy. “The transition from the vibrancy and intensity of Nairobi to the tranquility of the conservancy is one of my favorite parts,” said McGowan who accompanied the crew on the shoot.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to take this moment to tell him what he really means to me,’ ” Bell says.
He told Bourdain that he watched his show on his couch 10 years ago, thought it was a perfect job, and wondered how a struggling comic could get there. Bourdain responded that he was a simple cook, “dunking fries” at age 44, and never thought he’d see Rome much less Kenya.
It was a special moment, Bell recalls, that now feels like a goodbye.
As the sun drifted down on the rolling hills of South Africa’s Free State province, Manie Van Niekerk wore a mournful look. The 52-year-old farmer and rancher, whose short hair is dark on top and gray on the sides, has a sturdy, solid frame formed by decades of physical work. He looks like a man who is hard to shake. And yet, talking about his 32 rhinoceroses, which at that moment he was preparing to give away, he was visibly moved. “You fall in love with the rhino,” he told me. “You get a lot of joy looking at them. They are dinosaurs. You can look at them and imagine the world before. People think they’re clumsy, but they’re actually very graceful. Like ballerinas.”
Simon Penfold, my Scenic Air Safaris host, was right. Through the window of our 10-seater plane, I watched a herd of elephants saunter across the Masai Mara plains with slack-jawed astonishment as we made our way to the landing strip.
I had not heard the call. No one near me had—not the South African behind me, nor the Swedish woman to his left. Not even the Vancouverites, who’d finally silenced the shutters on the shiny new Canons they’d traveled 9,875 miles to test out in Botswana, and who had proven to be the couple in our mud-smacked 4WD who maybe, maybe, could spot something before OB, our guide, had a chance (they got high praise for spying a rare red-billed quelea 30 minutes earlier which sent those shutters aflutter). With two days of game drives already behind us, the five of us now understood when OB sensed something.
WE ARE MARCHING single file on a mountain path, winding our way through a bamboo forest, tall spindles shooting to the sky. Sunlight splashes through the canopy, hitting the pale green of the bamboo sheaths and turning the light a refulgent green. It’s magical, and strenuous. About 2,000 feet up, the vegetation turns into a jungle of hairy plants with needles and nettles. My ankles and calves itch terribly, but I concentrate on the mission at hand: getting face-to-face with a mountain gorilla.
In Kenya, aspiring safari guides are taught that the ideal guide should possess boundless knowledge of the local flora and fauna, rock-solid survival skills, mastery of the communication arts, and an unflagging sense of humor. And until recently, these guidelines also included an unspoken rule—that guides should be male.