As 2023 draws to a close, like many of us I'm reflecting on how I've grown this year and what changes I want to make in 2024. What challenges did you face this year and how did you overcome them?
Recently I found myself standing in front of a crowd of about 250 people in Brisbane who were from a government agency talking about what it's like to step outside my comfort zone. The irony is that for many of us (me included) public speaking is way outside our comfort zones. Many of my experiences in Africa as a wildlife conservationist have helped me learn through experience how to breathe through tense situations, like the day I was charged by lionesses in Etosha National Park as I unknowingly approached their kill on foot, somehow, miraculously avoiding being eaten by them as only a half hour later they killed a springbok right beside our car. And then there was the more recent time on safari in Botswana when an elephant bull leaned on our open safari vehicle and 'sensed' my forearm with his trunk. Once a spotted hyena tried to climb into my car and into the driver's seat. On several occasions I've almost stood on a puff adder. Such things are all in a day's work in Africa, but what I find fascinating is that every time something like this happens, the same biological reaction kicks in.
Something purely natural takes place in our bodies when the amygdala starts to do its job by recognising a dangerous situation. Our bodies flood with adrenaline. Your brain becomes hyper alert, your pupils dilate, your blood flows more quickly and breathing and heart rate accelerate. Other organs, unnecessary to the fight or flight response, shut down, like our digestive system (causing a suppression of appetite). We are all animals, and because of that, we are deeply wired to feel fear and respond to it. No one likes the feeling of fear, but feeling fear is not the problem - it's a feeling we need in order to respond. If African animals have taught me anything it's that fear is essential for survival. How do you think impalas got so common? They are really good at responding to fear, barking loudly and jumping around with white fluffy tails raised in the presence of a predator. They feel the fear and they use it to their advantage. It's how you respond to fear that matters.
Standing up in front of a crowd of people telling stories about Africa and sharing my own fears and vulnerabilities, I found myself using the same techniques to push down my nerves and use that (very uncomfortable) feeling to propel myself on to the stage. After a while behind the podium, my body seems to understand that the people in the audience are not actually a pride of dangerous lions and the fear response relaxes. But I always look back at moments like these with the sense that no matter how awful that feeling of fear is, it's always worth it because there's no growth in the comfort zone.
Something does happen when you push yourself outside your comfort zone. You very often do rise to the occasion and find yourself growing in confidence and with a new sense of perspective as a result. The problem is that in modern life, the biggest surprise we might get is if the local barista serves us the wrong type of milk in our latte. Think about your day today. We all get up, have a cup of tea or coffee, maybe walk the dog if we're early risers or perhaps hit the gym. We go to our job, earn a few bucks, pay the mortgage and the bills, maybe save a few dollars. In general, most of the people reading this blog lead pretty comfortable lives, not having to worry about putting food on the table or potentially having your home bombed.
But comfort rarely leads to growth and it also doesn't equal happiness. One of the best lessons I was ever taught was by a bunch of school kids at Humani Primary School in the Save Valley Conservancy, Zimbabwe, back in the mid 1990s. The kids at this school, like so many schools in Africa today, had to walk many kilometres to get to school each day through bush that could potentially see them walking into an elephant or a lion. They had almost nothing in material terms - torn clothes, bare feet - but they had the biggest smiles on their faces. Just going to school for them was something they were so grateful to be able to do, because not all kids got to go to school. Those kids taught me that having a lot of stuff isn't going to make you happy. What a gift that learning was. I remember returning to Australia at the age of sixteen and seeing so clearly that, in my world, people lived really comfortable lives, but it didn't seem to be enough. In Australia, it's now recognised that 43% of people will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives.
When I take people to Africa, or arrange their private journeys, I love to see people stepping outside their comfort zones and experiencing the joy of that fresh perspective and being in the present moment. It sometimes takes a couple of days for the feeling to kick in after the build up of getting to Africa. Getting on a long flight to the other side of the world to a country you don't know much about other than what you've seen on television (which is probably just the bad news) can be incredibly daunting, especially if you haven't done it before. Then when you get there, staying in a large canvas tent, walking back to your room at night with your guide while lions roar in the not-too-far-away distance, listening to wild elephants foraging on trees in camp, and hearing sounds that are so unfamiliar and strange that you have absolutely no idea what's going on out there - it's spine-tingling stuff! It can be quite mind-blowing for many people to be so far outside their usual safe, familiar spaces. But it's also completely inspiring.
What you come to realise after you've been to Africa at least once is that getting outside your comfort zone is a large part of what the magic of an African safari is all about. You're not going to be physically uncomfortable on our safaris (let's face it, most of our safari camps are quite luxurious!), and your safety is something that's taken extremely seriously, but you are going to be doing something different and seeing new, wild things and challenging yourself mentally (sometimes physically if you go on a gorilla or chimp trek in Rwanda) and doing all sorts of things that will lead to a change in perspective. You may not realise it at the time, but people tell me all the time that their trip to Africa changed the way they see the world completely. And I think we all need that. Purpose and perspective are my goals for 2024.
If you're ready to take the bold step and go on safari in Africa, I have one room left on my Botswana safari from 10-18 June 2024 and we have some great deals for independent and guided travel to all of our African safari destinations for next year, so please get in touch and let's make 2024 the year you step into Africa's magic cauldron of wonderful surprises. Best wishes and a joyful festive season to your family from the Matson-Ridleys. See you for some African inspiration in 2024!