Updated: Oct 20, 2020
Whenever I hear Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’, I am reminded of a conversation I had with a local bartender at the Mara Sarova Lodge in Kenya’s magical Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Kenyans have a deep insight into life and living and love to philosophize about them. To this day, I can still quote him verbatim: “Bwana Firdosh,” he said, “Sad to see you leave us tomorrow to go home to Canada but we know that the soil of Africa that you take on the soles of your shoes is our magnet that’ll draw you back to us”. And by God, how I crave to get back to Africa! Over the years, I have returned more times than I can count but for me, there’s no such thing as “too much Africa!” Which brings to mind my first encounter with South Africa. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison and apartheid was gradually being dismantled. By the Spring of 1991, and thanks to the joint efforts of South African Airways and South African Tourism, I found myself in South Africa. That unforgettable introduction to witness firsthand a country in the midst of monumental changes, resulted in our first-ever South Africa Tours & Safaris brochure within 10 days of my return. The rest, as they say, is history, and my everlasting gratitude to Stephen Elmy and the late Tom Elder for facilitating that memorable visit.
I’ve had the good fortune of travelling and doing business in 14 African countries, however, a favourite event has been my participation in Indaba; South Africa’s leading travel-trade show. ‘Indaba’, in Zulu means ‘business’, and in the truest sense of the word, this event showcases a vast variety of Africa’s tourism products, bringing together international buyers and media from across the world. Held annually in Durban, I have attended Indaba for 17 consecutive years, but one particular show stands out for me. It was 1995 and Mr. Mandela, then the President of the Republic of South Africa, was to open the show. On the evening of May 1, he arrived in the hall where the opening day festivities were taking place and it just so happened that along with a few travel trade colleagues, I was standing close to the stage as Madiba (Mandela’s nickname) came by, stopping to greet people along the way. Suddenly he was by my side, placing one hand on my shoulder and with the other, shaking my hand and saying “Thank you very much for your support.” As if in a dream, I could hardly breathe, and I was acutely aware of this special moment being etched on my memory. Oh, how I wish I had taken a photograph or asked for an autograph, but by then, the great man had moved on!
Whenever I travel to Africa, often in search of unique experiences for our clients, the words of Mr. Mandela at that historic Indaba, echo in my mind. I recall his eloquent summation that it is in tourism that nature and humanity meet most equitably. For me, it still remains a motivating and empowering mantra. Tourism is an economic boon for Africa, providing much needed employment and a major means of support to auxiliary businesses such as lodgings, restaurants and cottage industries. But what makes travel in Africa special is its greatest asset – its people. I’ve met and interacted with Africans from all walks of life and can find no greater praise to their generous hospitality and their love for their land.
Africa has also taught me a great many lessons in life and living; patience, tolerance and community service being very much at the top of the list and so relevant today as our industry goes through its toughest test of survival. International travel is probably the last thing on anyone’s mind at the moment and from all that I hear and read, an expected recovery to pre-pandemic levels is likely two years away, creating for many a perilous disruption to their lives and livelihood. Being patient and tolerant may not pay the bills or put food on the table, but perhaps now is not the time to fear exploring alternative options, even if they are outside one’s comfort zone. Down the road, we may need to start afresh both creatively and innovatively. Not an easy task, but it can and will be achieved.
On the other hand, should you feel comfortable with the idea, why not consider going to Africa now. Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa have all opened their borders and are welcoming a limited number of travellers from select countries. This could be your opportunity to volunteer for community projects (I can recommend several that are worth volunteering at). It would be an inspiring and rewarding experience. And when you return home, the soil on the soles of your shoes is their magnet that’ll draw you back to Africa!
Until next time..