Saba Douglas-Hamilton was only six weeks old when she had her first encounter with a wild African elephant. Safe to say it was a lasting one – in the years since, this traveller has traversed the globe on an array of animal adventures, from shooting wildlife documentaries to conducting conservation work.
Now Saba, along with her husband and three children, has returned to her home country of Kenya to help run her family's Elephant Watch Camp, an ecolodge where people can learn about and get involved with elephant conservation. We caught up with Saba to find out more about her life in the Kenyan bush, how to be responsible tourists and why intrepid female explorers should always carry a 'she-pee'.
Where was your last trip?
I went to Turkey with my husband and children in August last year. Some of my wonderful Turkish friends that live in Istanbul took us on a whirlwind tour around the city doing everything the Turkish way. Life on the Bosphorus is very romantic and it was just wonderful to see how the East and West clash together in this amazing energy that Istanbul has.
Where is your next trip?
At the end of this month, I’ll be going back to Kenya and up to the Samburu National Reserve where I live, work and run a very beautiful camp called Elephant Watch Camp (elephantwatchportfolio.com).
What is your first travel-related memory?
One of my first ever memories was when I was living in Tanzania, in Manyara National Park, where my father was doing his pioneering study on the social behaviour of wild African elephants. I remember sitting in the back of his open Land Rover and being charged by an enormous matriarch elephant called Boadicea, who came thundering out of the bush towards us in this great big cloud of dust. Luckily we knew she was prone to doing these terrifying threat charges and that most of the time they were bluff – as thankfully it was in this situation.
Aisle or window seat?
I prefer an aisle seat, near an exit. I was in a crash when I was 12 years old; my father was a pilot and our plane suddenly had engine failure. All my life I’ve been trained by my father to prepare for an emergency, so as soon as our plane would touch down and we came to a standstill, we would get out as fast as we possibly could – seat belts off, open the window and out. And so that’s something that’s still very much in my head when I get into a jumbo jet.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals?
I check, and recheck and triple-check my passport and my plane ticket until I’m in the taxi and I’ve checked them for the umpteenth time and then off we go.
Favourite city or country or region?
I went through a period of being quite obsessed about the Arctic and the Antarctic. Having been born on the equator in Kenya, it was about as far away as I could imagine. There is a real sense of frontier in both of them; they’re wild, unconquered places where humans are kept down to size.
You’ve grown up amongst some pretty exotic animals, do you have a favourite?
I’ve been brought up all my life around elephants so they are certainly right up there. But I think as a wildlife film-maker, I’ve had the enormous privilege to get to know quite a few different species and I tend to fall in love with whatever animal I’m filming – especially when you get to know their unique character and personality.
What sparked your decision to return to rural Kenya and Elephant Watch Camp?
Elephant Watch Camp was built by my mother in 2001 as a way to expand what we were doing with our research charity, Save the Elephants. My father had been studying a population of elephants in north Kenya since 1997, so the idea behind Elephant Watch Camp was to open that world up and create a place where people could come and have the experiences that the researchers were having and fall in love with elephants and be inspired to get involved in their conservation.
When I started having my kids I had to give up wildlife film-making, but I desperately wanted to get back out into the wilderness again. So since my mother was in need of help running the camp, it made sense to go and take over. At the same time, my husband had started working for Save the Elephants as their COO, so it brought our two worlds closer together too.
How do you think this experience has been great for your children?
I see them absorbing all the different cultural influences that are around them, so they are learning how to grow up as young Samburu kids, they are learning to grow up as young European kids and all these things are mixing in a wonderful way.
We home-school them, so on the one side they’re learning about outer space and mathematics and a little bit of French, and then they’re also learning about where the hornbills nest and how they feed their chicks – they are just absorbing this stuff as a fact of life. For me as a mother, watching them take all of that in, that’s very rewarding.
What lessons could people learn from living with other cultures?
I’ve always felt very lucky living in Kenya. With 42 different tribes, 42 different languages and pretty distinctive cultures there’s so much diversity.
For my kids to be growing up surrounded by these different animal species and cultures, I think it’ll help them to be accepting of very different ways of life and to always be curious – curiosity is a great gift.
Animals are a huge draw for people travelling to Africa, what can people do to ensure they are travelling responsibly?
Tourism is incredibly important for preserving wildlife because a lot of the national parks and protected areas rely almost entirely on tourist dollars to keep going. In terms of responsible tourism, it’s important to choose wisely which company you go with and to make sure they have some kind of eco-credentials, that they are giving something back to the wildlife or to the communities that they work with.
What is the best or worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
The best is actually a piece of advice I never received: for any woman travelling to the Arctic, always take a she-pee (a device that helps women urinate standing up). I would have loved to have known that before my own expedition.
I’d gone up to the Arctic to film polar bears and we got caught in this terrible blizzard. We were forced to hunker down in this tiny tent for 36 hours and, of course, at one point I had to pee. In the absence of a she-pee, I had to get out of the tent and take everything off and in the process, a kind of snowbank built up on my back. I quickly put everything back on, went back into the tent and then just had to sort of lie there in all this freezing puddle of ice and snow that had melted on my back. I got unbelievably sick and then had to carry on this incredibly intrepid filming adventure.
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil?
I would go to the Kenyan coast, to Kiwayu Island and spend that last week there with my kids playing in the sea and the sand.
What advice would you give a first time traveller?
Travelling opens up one’s eyes and opens up one’s heart. Talk to local people and hear their stories because that’s really how you get the taste of the country.
To find out more about elephant conservation and how you can get involved visit the Save the Elephants website at savetheelephants.org.