The second time I was overwhelmed by traveller’s guilt was at the travertines at Pamukkale, Turkey. The first was in Jaisalmer, India but that is a story for another day.
This surreal landscape is adjacent to Hierapolis and was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. As I was standing there, one of the thousands of tourists who flock there every month, I suddenly thought: “What am I doing here?”.
Except for the fact that I was busy with a Round-the-World trip, comprising of very many flights, I was standing on that pristine white limestone and became acutely aware that I was leaving a very real footprint with every step I took.
In the village-sized world we live in, where reaching the far-flung corners of the earth has become as easy as a plane, a train and a boat ride away, how much right do I have to travel to these places, gasp in awe and wonder for a day or two, and continue on my merry way? Except for the little bit of money I may have injected into the local economy, can I say, at any level, that I have made a contribution, or was everything on my side just consumption?
In Simon Usborne’s article on world heritage sites he talks about the influx of tourists to places locals were hardly aware of; the wear and tear of millions of feet passing through; the looting of artefacts; the urbanisation of surrounding areas. Then we haven’t even mentioned pollution; the consumption of resources untouched by locals; the drinking and discarding of countless bottles of water; the stress on the environment; the corruption of local customs and beliefs through the influence of tourists and travellers – the list can go on and on.
Maybe that is the travellers dilemma. Many of these places depend on the income derived from tourists while tourists also contribute to the destruction, albeit sometimes gradual, of these places.
Real understanding though, comes from intimate knowledge and, just as much as travelling breaks down cultural barriers and preconceptions, just as much a love for nature comes from a closeness thereto.
The first time I came to Sedgefield was in 1990. I just finished high school and, although I have dipped my feet in the icy waters of Bloubergstrand, I can’t say that I have had any real knowledge of the ocean.
At the time I was part of Die Voortrekkers, an Afrikaner youth group similar to the Scouts. It was the first year they had a sea camp for kids living in the Transvaal (now Gauteng) and we, a group of youth leaders, were doing a training course in survival on water.
I will always remember walking over the dune between Swartvlei caravan park and the ocean. A berg wind was blowing and I lost my heart! There was a little house on the crest of that dune and I decided then and there I want to live here – one day.
The years rolled by and I haven’t been back to Sedgefield till a road trip in 2008 with one of my best friends. Of course I included what have remained, even after many travels through the known world, my favourite place. Countless times I gushed about the rock pools filled with sea life and am unable to describe how I felt when Ravi and I made our way out to Gericke’s point. Where did they go? Where were all the sea stars and the octopuses and the anemones? In comparison with the teeming life of 1990 the pools were dead and devoid!
A couple of weeks ago Jo, a friend who recently moved to the Garden Route, mentioned the wonderful sea life in the rock pools at Gericke’s. In an off the cuff remark local guide and lover of nature, Mark, commented that it is a wonder after the Voortrekkers were here (the camp takes place during the July winter holidays).
What a punch to the gut! I was immediately transported to that camp. A camp specifically designed to teach children – many who may never have had the opportunity otherwise – to respect, appreciate and grow to love this indescribably wonderful part of creation. Yet, by the process of collecting samples and specimens for the camp aquarium, harvesting and plundering the very thing they want to preserve.
As in that moment in Pamukkale, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that I, without a shadow of doubt, contributed to the destruction of life at Gericke’s point.
In that moment I was overcome with the responsibility we have to leave a legacy, not only for our children, but to leave a legacy in our children. A legacy not through words but through the very example of our lives. A legacy to observe rather than obtain, to contribute rather than consume and to walk ever more lightly on this earth, for what we have is finite and, once we have plucked all the sea stars, there will be no more.