Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Grant Nel

Q. Give us your thoughts about being a Smithsonian Journeys Expert for so many of our African safaris. 

A. A wise man once said "If you only ever have the opportunity to travel to another continent twice in your lifetime, make sure it is Africa both times." Africa has been the ancestral home to my family since 1688, so the pules of the continent really courses through me, but there is something about this land that resonates deeply in every person who is lucky enough to step upon its shores. Perhaps it is because all of our DNA codes were shaped in Africa. Despite my academic background, my real qualification is a childhood and 27 professional years spent surrounded by African wilderness and its plethora of amazing creatures and plants. My own curiosity for all things natural is fueled by the inquisitive minds of others and sharing my passion with them. I am drawn to wild places all over the planet, from camping with grizzlies in Montana to scuba diving with turtles on the Great Barrier Reef. Whilst in Africa it will be my pleasure to offer insights as we view magnificent Victoria Falls; are enthralled by the grace and beauty of he big cats; laugh at the clown-like antics of baby elephants; and are astounded by the sheer number of animals moving across the Serengeti plains. Plus, I enjoy sharing indelible memories with like-minded travelers as they become lifelong friends. 

Q. In addition to the sense of wonder inherent in any safari, what kinds of insights do you hope to convey to our Smithsonian travelers? 

A. "Sense" is an appropriate word, because the first message I try to convey at our welcome dinners is for everyone to open up their senses. Urban life tends to dull our ability to be truly observant and Africa is so full of color, smells tastes, sounds, and textures that to fully appreciate all it offers one needs to take note of all the messages our senses detect. Another insight I try to convey is the importance of biodiversity to our planet and our own species, something that is very close to the Smithsonian ethos. Suffice it to say that the wild places of the world are shrinking and the threat to global biodiversity, particularly in the tropics, is frightening. There is a gradual realization that Man needs to act now to preserve biodiversity and we cannot let up on our efforts. 

Q. How do you infuse your tours with your expertise?

A. I am not a natural lecturer, at least not in the traditional sense, so I endeavor to deliver my presentations in a way that stimulates questions. If I do it right, these questions endure from the beginning of the tour to the very end. This has served me well every opportunity to sit down with travelers, at a meal, on a coach, on a flight, I find myself engaged in discussions that have been stimulated by  the lectures. They are therefore as contextual to the program as possible so that a thread of curiosity persists all the way throhgh the tour. My presentations also try to arm our travelers with the tools to help them be more observant: from understanding some of the nuances of elephant communication to why coral reef waters are so crystal clear.