We watched in awe as a newborn African elephant struggled to get onto his feet for the very first time. Mama scooped him up with her trunk and gently deposited him onto the red earth. Up he came, wobbly but triumphant. Even though we were socially distant from the pachyderm pair (which wasn’t even a thing at the time), we were moved to tears.
Moments like these are why we travel — and why we’re wildly grateful to have squeezed in a trip to Botswana’s Okavango Delta just before the pandemic hit. Oh, how we miss the thrill of landing in an unfamiliar place! We even miss the stressful stuff, like figuring out unfamiliar currency while the people waiting behind us mutter charmingly colorful curse words. But mostly, we miss those overwhelming, goosebump-inducing moments, when the planet and its creatures seem almost too beautiful to bear. Rachael McKeon of Dublin, Ireland, who viewed the birth of the elephant with us, described it perfectly: “I’m humbled to have witnessed this — so powerful!” she said. “It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
When it comes to awe-inspiring journeys, an African safari is the ultimate adventure. (Tip: If you’re lucky enough to be able to take this bucket-list trip, start planning now; people are booking these like crazy, according to the folks at Classic Africa, a Connecticut-based tour operator.) During our six days at Wilderness Safaris’ bush camps, we saw lions protecting their turf, giraffes nibbling treetop greenery, dazzles of zebras (yes, that’s what they’re called), sleek impalas sashaying like supermodels, plus leopards, warthogs, baboons, and some critters we’d never heard of, like lechwe and tsessebe. Nights brought a chorus of animal sounds: hippos splashing in the river, and warthogs sniffing and snorting (one of whom made off with a turquoise bikini top that was drying on our deck). A lion’s roar served as our wake-up call. One morning, a buffalo ambled near a boardwalk, prompting guests to take a different route to breakfast.
Feeling smaller every day
As the magnificence of life in the delta unfolded, we felt smaller by the moment. Feeling small, as it turns out, is good for our well-being. Experiencing something larger than one’s self — something vast that transcends our understanding of the world, according to psychologists — is a positive thing. In a 2015 study, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” Paul Piff, PhD, at the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues examined how moments of awe impact our behavior. For the study, researchers used a series of experiments to examine aspects of awe. In the final phase, the researchers induced awe by placing participants in a forest of towering eucalyptus trees. Some participants were directed to look up into the trees for one minute; others looked at the façade of a nearby building. Then, a person (staged by researchers) stumbled and dropped a handful of pens. Participants who had spent the minute looking at the tall trees picked up more pens than those who had not.
The take-away message: When experiencing awe, you may not feel like you’re the center of the universe anymore, and therefore more likely to engage in positive, helpful, pro-social (friendly) behaviors. A more recent (2018) study in the “Journal of Personal Social Psychology” concluded that feeling small (humble) and part of something larger increases our desire to connect with others.
After a year like we’ve experienced, physically separated from people we love, that longing for connection is likely stronger than ever. At this point, we’ll never take hugs for granted — or travel.
It’s no wonder that travelers, looking forward, are seeking trips that are memorable and transformative. Clayton Reid, CEO of MMGY Global, a global travel, tourism, and hospitality marketing company, predicts that, in the coming months, travelers will be looking for purpose-led tour packages to “destinations not traditionally in the rotation, such as the Arctic, small Mediterranean and Asian islands, and off-the-beaten path wildlife locales.”
With so much time to contemplate future travel, many of us are giving a closer look at sustainability, and how our tourist dollars impact the places we visit. In Botswana, many of the safari camps were once hunting lodges. Now, all the shooting is done with cameras and cellphones, and local guides are leading animal lovers, not trophy hunters. Outfits like Wilderness Safaris are dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife in this delicate biosphere. One of the company’s projects involves reintroducing black and white rhinos — almost extinct in Botswana because of poaching — to create a viable breeding population. They also focus on reforestation, aerial surveys, and anti-poaching surveillance flights. “We believe that we’re in the conservation business, looking after something we love,” says CEO Keith Vincent. “Tourism — the guests who come to safari camps — is what pays for it all.”
Sustainability efforts — key in the bush — include water purification systems (no plastic bottles) and solar power. The camps that we visited — Qorokwe, Vumbura Plains, and King’s Pool — were attractive and comfortable, with plush beds draped in mosquito netting, local art, and safari-chic décor. There were no big-screen TVs, anywhere. Wi-Fi was iffy, and confined to guest rooms. Instead of staring at screens, guests sit around a campfire to chat about the wildlife they saw that day, sharing those awe-inspiring moments.
Incredible though these trips are, you don’t have to visit far-flung locales to experience awe. We’ve experienced sensory overload atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine, and under a blanket of stars in Wellfleet. One of the most awe-inspiring places we discovered recently was in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, in tiny Westmore: Lake Willoughby. In a state synonymous with beauty, this one’s a jaw-dropper — a 4,971-mile fjord-like lake, Crayola blue, that flows between two glacier-carved slabs of granite, Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor. Both mountains sit within the boundary of 7,300-acre Willoughby State Forest. Paddle it, hike the mountains that flank it, or simply sit on the beach and enjoy the view, but make sure you take in this iconic spot. In New England, we’re blessed with a bounty of breathtaking places such as this.
Then again, going far, far away may be part of your future vacation plan. Reid of MMGY Global predicts that, “By 2024 [travel] experiences may even [occur] in space, via SpaceX.” We’d call that awe to the gazillionth power!
If You Go: Located in southern Africa, Botswana is a stable and safe country. The rainy season typically lasts from November to April. The driest season is from May to November; peak rates are from June to October. Wilderness Safaris (www.wilderness-safaris.com) operates 21 camps in Botswana; guests often stay at more than one to maximize wildlife sightings. Charter aircraft, operated by the company, are often used for inter-camp transfers. Rates (all-inclusive) start at $571 per person per night (Savuti Camp). Book through a tour operator, such as Classic Africa (www.classicafrica.com), in Middle Haddam, Conn.; 888-227-8311. For more about Lake Willoughby, visit www.westmoreonline.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org