RCL Exclusive

Instagram Influencers Jet Set to South Africa

RealClearLife’s Sally Sorte travels through the bush with social media celebrities.

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Do you remember the nervous excitement of packing your bags for summer camp as a child?

Starting in third grade and every summer until college, I packed up my mom’s pale blue retro suitcase for a week at Camp Magruder on the Oregon Coast. In my childhood, summer camp meant taking pictures with film cameras, wood cookie nametags, rope swings, lake swimming, and campfires.

Those were the days of salty, sandy innocence where I learned about shaving my legs and first kisses between wave jumping and capture the flag. Somehow, a week of forest and beach activities, communal showers, and camp food creates the perfect environment to form fast friendships and recreate yourself. Somewhere between Wet Hot American Summer meets Ernest goes to Camp is that archetypal experience of achingly coming of age.

If you miss those feelings as I have, you can now relive them through curated adult travel experiences – summer camp for the jet set.

The Birth of TBA Escapes

This November, I packed a far more practical rolling suitcase for the inaugural TBA Escapes, a 10-day photography excursion in South Africa: an opportunity to curate your Instagram feed and your female travel crew.

I joined for the adventure. I crave experiences that push me outside my comfort zone in different ways. Plus, I had never been to the continent of Africa – the origins of all our ancestors yet a place I only knew glimpses of from Blood Diamond and Casablanca.

This ‘From the Beach to the Bush’ travel tour promised to be the experience of a lifetime. 12 girls, helicopters, big game safaris, Pinterest-worthy beach picnics, and one insta-famous blogger: @theblondeabroad.

The Blonde Abroad – aka Kiersten ‘Kiki’ Rich – was recently named the #2 Forbes Travel Influencer of 2017.  No wonder, given that she helped pioneer the now industry standard formula of travel blogger turning a profit on subtly sponsored social media posts. Kiki remains authentic and down-to-earth despite her social celebrity status and an audience approaching half a million on Instagram, not to mention Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and her blog.

Six years ago, Kiki quit her nascent career in finance to travel the world. She blogged and traveled for two years before landing her first paid gig with Lifeproof phone cases. Her blog has since evolved from primarily solo budget travel – think Eurail passes and backpacking Southeast Asia – to more luxury experiences for the worldly millennial: Yacht Week, Giraffe Manor in Nairobi, Crystal Cruises in Seychelles or Eastern Europe to explore the Christmas markets.

Kiki has been successful by diversifying her audience (i.e. solo travel, couples travel) and diversifying her revenue streams.

In the past year, a handful of social media influencers have expanded their audience interactions from purely digital platforms to in-person travel experiences, often with some sort of educational angle (build your blog, grow your Instagram, edit the perfect photo in Lightroom). This is a new frontier of engagement not measured in likes, shares, and comments, but actual in-person interactions where followers can become friends.

I attended Kiki’s first all-female educational travel retreat in Bali this past June. Bali convinced her that these travel experiences could be a platform to not only branch out her business, but to share her knowledge as a female entrepreneur carving out a new market with other women working to do the same. Thus, TBA Escapes was born.

Bali was her test run, and I had so much fun that I signed up for the pilot launch of TBA Escapes, “travel tours and educational retreats for the adventurous female traveler who dreams of colorful destinations far from her comfort zone.”

Landing in Cape Town

We all flew in from our various hometowns (Denver, Chicago, San Francisco, Johannesburg “Jo-burg”, et al), proceeded through customs, and congregated at international arrivals – looking around for the other “like-minded females” promised on the promotional materials for the tour.

After a few minutes of small talk and sizing one another up, it was clear that this was a quality group of women. We were a diverse set of aspiring photographers with a healthy case of wanderlust.

The gals on the beach. (Travis Burke Photography.)

Every woman on the trip is successful in her own right.  Our crew included a model, her mom (who was also a model and is now in construction), a travel blogger, an engineer, and a recent MBA grad with aspirations to start the next Museum of Ice Cream (with its own spin) in Kansas City. We also had women from real estate, marketing, the fashion industry, corporate health insurance, and a charter school founder in career transition (me).

It was clear to me that we had each traveled halfway around the world in pursuit of photography and Lightroom skills, yes, but also that alchemic connection that summer camp creates.

Cape Town: The Adventures Begin

We pulled up to our digs in Camps Bay and ran inside. Squealing ensued as we ran around exploring the Real World-esque villa – balcony pool, airy living rooms, bedrooms with ocean views, and giant bathrooms with heated floors. We went to our assigned rooms with our roommates to find gift bags on our pillows and then headed downstairs for welcome snacks: quiches and cocktails.

Our first night kicked off with a round of get-to-know-yous and a wine tasting chocolate pairing. It was the perfect way to break the ice and set the tone for the trip.

After that, it was a nonstop whirlwind of Instagrammable adventures. As Kiersten’s preferred camera brand, Fujifilm was the official sponsor of the trip, so I was shooting on a loaner Fujifilm XT20 camera body with several lenses, along with my DJI Global Spark drone (perfect size for traveling) and the latest GoPro Hero 6.

Our first morning, the weather cooperated and we got a prime look at the iconic Atlantic Seaboard from a helicopter. There is nothing more exhilarating than the insect-like flight dexterity of a helicopter, and the views were stunning.

Cape Town is far more first world than I expected. There are beachfront neighborhoods that feel like Malibu with white walls and neon-lit cocktail bars. Yet the history of apartheid lingers. Not far away are townships, where thousands of people are crowded into tiny living quarters living on less than a dollar a day.

The dissonance was not lost on me. We were on a luxury travel experience in a place where the difference between the haves and have-nots is stark. Travel consistently reminds me of my privilege, and all that comes with it.

Each city has its urban up-and-coming neighborhood with street art and a hip, edgy feel. For Cape Town, that is Woodstock. Natalie Roos, a Woodstock resident and lifestyle blogger, gave us a tour of her hood. We also visited the Old Biscuit Mill for live music, an amazing selection of street-style food, and shopping.

South African street art.

We dug deeper into Cape Town culture with a tour of the Bo Kaap, the former Malay quarter, where residents paint their houses bright colors as a sign of pride in ownership. We also hiked Lion’s Head at sunrise, ascended Table Mountain by cable car at sunset, ate a traditional South African braai (BBQ), explored caves and lookouts along the Western Cape Peninsula, and visited the St. James rainbow beach huts.

Lion’s head. (Travis Burke Photography.)
Table mountain.
St. James Rainbow beach hut. (Travis Burke Photography.)

We even made friends with the South African penguins at Boulders Beach!

Penguins at Boulder Beach.

Our last night in Cape Town was the cherry on top: a fancy beach picnic put on by the Truffle Table. We enjoyed a feast of rainbow finger foods and a fiery sunset on a small beach tucked away from the Cape Town winds. Pinterest would have been proud.

On Safari in Search of the Big Five

After 4 nights in Cape Town, it was time to head to the bush. We piled our suitcases into the trailer and loaded up into our charter bus. 5 hours passed quickly as we edited photos, chatted, and napped.

The sun was starting to set as we pulled into Gondwana Game Reserve. We were just turning up some Lion King when the Safari began early, on our drive in. Zebras dashed and kicked; impalas glanced and darted; waterbucks hung together; and rhinos looked at us thoughtfully, chewing their dinner slowly.

12 iPhones were pressed to the bus windows as we drank in the wonder and documented for our Instastories.

After a quick drop of luggage, we piled on olive green ponchos and blankets and were off on our first official game drive. We watched elephants thrash and munch in a thicket, rhinos knock heads in plays of dominance, a mama zebra clean her baby, and a few baby impalas finding their footing with their herd.

We stopped for “sundowners,” an evening tailgate of sorts where we disembarked the safari vehicles, drank some wine, and snacked on corn nuts and the local version of beef jerky. I couldn’t take my eyes off the horizon as lion roars echoed nearby.

We tracked down those lions and found them feasting on a recent kill. After plenty of eating and lolling about in the grass, one of the females took to teasing the Mufasa of the group, tickling him with her lion tail. We all sat entranced and silent, camera shutters clicking furiously, a mere pounce distance away from these stunning creatures.

The emotional experience of your first safari is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Those moments that make your heart pound and remind you of the raw and visceral beauty of this great wide world, connecting you to your ancestral past and distant future all at once.

Mike, one of our guides, drives his children out to simply sit and watch the rhinos.

“I worry that one day, they will be gone,” he said.

With the rampant poaching epidemic – hunting rhinos for the potent symbolism of their horns – he worries that one day we will not have these wrinkled, timeless faces to connect us to the beauty of the bush.

The poaching demand is driven by Asian countries, where rhino horns are primarily a status symbol and used in Traditional Chinese medicine. Rhino horns are made of keratin, just like our fingernails and hair. The sad irony here is that the horns have no proven medicinal uses.

Gondwana Game Reserve focuses on wildlife conservation, and we were happy to learn all about the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and water buffalo) while we watched hippos walk along the bottoms of their watering holes with only their eyes and forehead poking up above the water, gnashing their teeth for air in that great hippo smile.

It’s a pretty magical experience to drive through the bush at sunrise and sunset, watching for giraffe silhouettes along the edges of mountains, then driving close and pursuing them on foot. We stepped gingerly and calculated each footprint so as to avoid snakes, and listened for sounds that might indicate danger – lions, or one of those elusive leopards.

Four game drives later, we saw all of the Big Five except the leopard and countless other fauna. Our Safari was an experience I won’t soon forget, and we got to practice our wildlife photography to boot, Nat Geo watch out.

Final Nights in the Winelands

Our TBA Escapes excursion concluded in the South African Winelands of Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. We indulged in High Tea, sipped our way through reds, whites, and sparkling wines, learned night photography, rode bikes between vineyards and enjoyed a last night at Babylonstoren, one of the oldest Cape Dutch farms with storybook gardens perfect for photo ops and reflections.

It was the trip of the lifetime. A resounding five stars for Trip Advisor or Yelp. Not only can I now shoot in manual and edit photos in Lightroom, I have a dozen new friends to visit around the globe. Turns out, summer camp is just as cathartic and memorable as an adult.

While it was my first trip to Africa it will not be my last.