THE MOTHER GIRAFFE reached to the top of the tree, pulled off a leafy branch, and then bent down to give it to her child. We sat dead silent in the armored Jeep about 40 yards away. I had “The Circle of Life” playing in my head, and was trying desperately hard to not burst out with “NAAAAAAAAAHHHHH SEVENYAAAAAAH! NABABEECHEEBABABA!” and thus prove myself the biggest asshole on the safari.
I was saved this embarrassment by the woman who leaned over to the driver and said, “Um, excuse me? Can we move along? We’ve already seen a bunch of giraffes.” The Jeep started, the giraffe ambled off, and we drove on in search of more interesting wildlife.
South African safaris involve less meaningless animal killing than they did in Hemingway’s day, but they are still basically the same: You are driven around the reserve by knowledgeable guides, who lead you to all of the places the animals like to hang out, and then when you see them, you shoot them. The only difference is it’s a camera doing the shooting. They even have held on to the tradition of hunting the fabled “Big Five,” the five animals that were traditionally the toughest to hunt and kill (the lion, the elephant, the black rhino, the cape buffalo, and the leopard), and are now, for whatever reason, the most exciting to see. A trip isn’t complete if you haven’t seen the “Big Five.”
I had been in South Africa’s Kruger National Park for about three days, and while I told myself I was there to witness nature’s majesty or some other weak shit, I was really there to pollute my Facebook feed with pictures of the “Big Five,” thus making my friends at home (the ones who hadn’t sunk 17 grand into an around-the-world study-abroad program) insanely jealous. The trip had been a wild success. I was getting so many likes.
So when the woman asked if we could move on from the giraffe, my first thought was, “Yeah, fuck this shit, I’ve got three hours of safari left and I still haven’t seen a leopard.” Four out of five was ridiculous. It simply would not do.
Then, an image popped into my head: the heads of a lion, an elephant, a rhino, and a cape buffalo mounted on my wall, with an empty mahogany plaque just beyond them. A brass plate on the empty plaque read, “Leopard,” and I sat across the room in a smoking jacket and a monocle, lamenting my failure to obtain the final trophy.
“Hoo boy,” I thought. “That’s not okay.” I tucked my camera in my bag and didn’t pull it back out for the rest of my visit.
My desire for souvenirs, trophies, and general documentation that I am an interesting person has long gotten in the way of actual travel for me. As a kid, I collected rocks, keychains, bottle openers, and t-shirts so I could show off my vacations to friends. When my parents bought me a camera, the souvenirs became photos. The problem was that photos required much more of my attention during the traveling itself, and I found that when I got home, the images in the photo had replaced the images in my memory. Photography allowed me to experience travel later, and not be present to it now.
Now, when I travel, I only take pictures when my parents’ emails become excessively hostile about the lack of photographic proof of my travels. I write instead. It’s impossible to write about something you’re distracted from. It’s why the literature on the experience of tying your shoes is so pathetically thin. When I started writing, my traveling instantly got better. My stories instantly got better. My memories became clearer. I no longer had the false memory of the photograph to fall back on.
Good photographers, of course, are fully present on their travels. They notice small details, and that’s what makes their photos so damn good. But most travel photographers are more along the lines of the parents in that atrocious Nokia Lumia commercial, which shows them fighting over getting the best smartphone view of their child’s recital, instead of just watching their kid perform like a decent fucking parent.
If you’re a good photographer, by all means, keep taking pictures. I need something to fuel my nostalgia addiction when I’m trapped in my cubicle at work. But if you’re not a great photographer, put down the camera. Enjoy the giraffe.