All photos by Ryan McInnis and Kimi Werner
Traveling. I think I’m addicted. I’ve come to realize that I’m a stimulation junkie. I don’t at all consider myself a dare devil or one who is always in search of a constant adrenaline rush, I just like being stimulated. Whether through reading, writing, art, delicious flavors, good conversation, exploration or high adventure, these things awaken my senses. They tickle my brain cells, make my body buzz and leave me smiling from the inside out.
Without them, I wilt. I’ve tried to suppress this side of myself in an attempt to build a life more suited to the norms of society but nothing has left me feeling more like a failure. Every time I try my best to pursue a 9-5 job or even a structured schedule, something in me dies. A part of my soul gets sedated and soon all that’s left is an unhappy shell of a person going through the motions of life and falling short in just about everything. –it’s not pretty. Perhaps it’s the sense of security itself that puts my heart in a coma, and as sad as that can be at times in both life and love, I’ve finally come to accept it.
That is why I took to the underwater world. It’s a world of mystery and wander. It’s unpredictable, untamable and it’s always moving. When I am in the ocean, beneath the surface, I am free; I am present, and I am completely vulnerable. There are no road maps or street signs or even words to be spoken. Your actions are based on what’s in front of you, purely in that exact moment. You must rely on your senses and instincts and learn sit comfortably with fear. It’s the life I’ve always wanted and it’s taught me how to live life being more me, even when above the surface.
I think it’s the moments when I stop trying to suppress those parts that make me authentic and instead start to truly embrace them, when life rewards me with more of it all. It can come in various forms. Sometimes it’s an experience or opportunity and sometimes it comes in forms of people. Two years ago life rewarded me with a person named Edmund Jin.
Edmund grew up in Beijing, China and came to the United States as a young man. His first job in America was delivering newspapers. He is hardworking and driven so with a strong will and intense focus, Edmund soon left newspaper delivery behind to became a successful entrepreneur. He now owns the 2nd largest importing/exporting home décor company in the world. I met Edmund on the set of a traveling TV show he was producing called Harbor House Life. He was filming a spearfishing segment in Hawaii and I was brought on set to be his guide.
After a day on set I was asked to come on the road with Edmund and his crew to be in more episodes. I saw it as a great way to travel and see the world but realized quickly that it was no joke when it came to work. We worked long hours sometimes starting as early as 2:30 in the morning and it wasn’t uncommon to work around the clock, sometimes finishing at 4am the next day. It was an adventure show so we often worked in very grueling conditions. We sometimes slept in yurts or tents with no electricity in temperatures of over 100 degrees. We’d find ourselves hiking on remote islands to our destination while packing heavy camera gear and luggage across miles of sand and through jungles. Somehow the harder it got, the more I was I hooked on it all. I liked this kind of hard work. –and I knew I’d take it any day over a desk job. It kept me on my toes, it challenged me mentally and physically, and I never knew what was coming next. Realizing this about myself also made me see that Edmund was just like me. Okay, in so many ways he was nothing like me. He’s a savvy businessman who understands the in’s and outs of what it takes to run a multimillion dollar cooperation. –but he’s like me in the same way that his spirit craves so much more than that. Edmund Jin craves the things in life that money simply can’t buy.
It was always in those most challenging moments that I would notice this. Times when we would have to build a campfire on the beach when storms were rolling in, or when we’d be forced to balance across fallen tree trunks over strong rapids while carrying all of our water logged gear that we just recovered from the bottom of the ocean due to a small boating mishap, or simply just having to “make it work” when somehow we end up half way across the globe but our luggage didn’t. Those moments I would look over at Edmund to see how he’d react and it was usually in those exact moments that I’d see a big mischievous smile come across his face. It was a smile I knew too well. Edmund wasn’t there to make an adventure TV show anymore than I was. It was just how he justified the whole thing. He was there for the actual adventure.
Apparently I was right. For even after we wrapped all 10 episodes of Harbor House Life, Edmund still called me, along with a handful of his closest friends and colleagues to see if we were up for more. –with or without the cameras.
Needless to say I was in. So we continued, one adventure at a time and following each trip would eventually be a new phone call or email with another destination in mind. But nothing could have prepared me for one email in particular. I actually didn’t even have to open it because he had me at the subject, Africa.
I never in my life thought I would go there. That alone already made it more enticing than any dream vacation anyone could have tried to plan for me. I was instantly taken back to being seven years old; trying to complete my first assignment I was given at the new school I had just moved to. I was at home, cutting out photo after photo of my mom’s National Geographic magazines that I absolutely adored. Lions, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebras, so many great animals! -there were too many good ones to stop. I carefully glued them all, one at a time to my new class folder that I was instructed by my teacher to decorate. My fingers buzzed just touching these images of beautiful creatures and soon every inch of manila magically turned into a busy collage of exotic patterns of spots and stripes. Beautiful animals, all overlapping one another in the most harmonious way, I had figured out how to make them all fit.
I remember being laughed at the next day by the students in my class because apparently I didn’t get the memo that 2nd grade girls were supposed to glue kittens, flowers, and hearts to their folders, not wild animals. Even my teacher held up my folder to show the class a bad example of the project because she thought it was too messy. If only she knew how hard I tried and how proud I was of my finished work. I was embarrassed and a part of me always remained a little hurt when I’d run my fingers over those beautiful shiny paper animals everyday throughout that school year but I never stopped loving it. I knew the others were just being blind to the beauty. –and their blindness and laughs just made me want to protect it and cherish it that much more. I still have that folder.
Back to the email. Yes! Yes! Yes let’s go to Africa!!!!
And so we went.
My first moment of truly feeling like I was in Africa was flying into our camp in the Maasai Mara in our small prop plane. As we approached the ground, the tiny dark specks I saw sprinkled over the vast grasslands started to take shape and move! We got closer and I swore we flew right over the heads of a family of giraffes! I thought I was seeing things but our cameraman, Ryan McInnis who was riding shotgun in the cockpit, whipped his head around faster than I could finish my own thought and said “Did you see that?! Those were giraffes!” We landed and were helped out of the small plane into to the dry heat of the Mara and there were zebras everywhere! Zebras! It was amazing to see them running wild in the warm plains that seemed to go on forever. I was just so tickled and amazed. I couldn’t believe my eyes and it blew my mind to think that we haven’t even gone on an actual safari yet. I knew in that moment that every bit of wander and anticipation stored up in that imaginative 7 year old heart I had as a kid was about to go absolutely fucking wild.
…and wild we went, literally. The next few days consisted of going on daily safari drives that would last us until the sun went down. The camp we were staying at had strict rules that we must make it back before dark to ensure our safety but it was so hard everyday to pull us away from the sights and encounters we were making every minute while exploring the Mara.
Our first sighting took my breath away. A Cheetah. Truly an animal I’ve always been so fascinated by. -and there she was, resting in the grass with a belly full from a good night’s hunt.
She was beautiful. Unbothered by our presence, yet continuously staring off into the distance obviously contemplating something. Ryan looked over at me and said “You know what I’d do if I was that cheetah?” and I said, “what?” He said, “I’d go over there and jump up on that cool log! Then I could look out and see the whole Mara!” as he pointed at this fallen old tree trunk off in the distance. Covered with texture and twists and barnacle like knots, I had to admit, it was a pretty cool log. Our admiration for it was broken by our guide who pointed out that the cheetah was getting up. Her slinky and stealthy way of moving was so majestic to watch I could hardly contain myself. Watching a wild animal move in it’s natural element is the creepiest-sexiest thing in the world, if that makes any sense. Their graceful form has a way of putting you in your place and making you feel like a clumsy awkward dork. She was so smooth, so sleek and just so in tune. -and seeing that made me the happiest awkward dork in the world.
And as if I couldn’t get anymore thrilled than that, I just watched in delightful disbelief as she headed off in the direction that exact log. Ryan and I didn’t even speak and I think we were both just holding our breaths, too shocked and captivated by the magic of the moment as our dear cheetah jumped right up onto that twisted beautiful fallen tree and claimed it like a queen!
It was as if she had heard Ryan’s words and decided to act out his simple plan, just to show him how it’s really done. -and every second of it felt like a spectacular victory to all of us, just watching and gawking at our glorious spotted queen.
And we finally broke our silence in celebration of how truly special this moment was to all of us, and how “meant to be” it all seemed and how she did exactly what Ryan had just imagined! -and as we started getting swept away into sentimental warm fuzzy feelings, our regal cheetah queen scratched at her log, strongly braced herself, bent her hind legs and finished the show in graceful glory as she squatted down and unloaded the most watery poop you could possibly imagine all over that “cool log”.
We sincerely thank you Africa, for this day could not have been any better. 🙂
And that was just the start. We spent the next two weeks gallivanting the Maasai Mara and everyday was an adventure filled with new discoveries. We did learn quickly that the “no walking around outside of your tents” rule was a good one. In the middle of the night, hearing a lion’s roar, you can feel it deep in your belly, vibrating outwards until it finally makes it way to your eardrums. No matter how far away the lion may be, that roar leaves your whole tent shaking. We listened to our guides and kept to day time exploration. Here’s a taste of what we encountered:
Crazy beautiful birds, like this saddle-billed stork
Big Beautiful herds of impalas. -That’s a LOT of ladies for one stud to handle. I couldn’t decide whether I thought he was lucky or whether I felt sorry for the poor buck.
And remember what I said about the lion’s roar? It’s just as intense in the day time!
Waking up to Lion at sunrise really makes normal sunrises seem a bit dull.
We watched a lioness eat her kill
When the lions ate, it wasn’t uncommon to see a pesky hyena or two nearby.
and we also watched a pride of young lions attack and try to take down a cape buffalo. Lucky for the attacked victim, he had a fellow buffalo with him who proved to be a very loyal friend and helped fight off the lions. While their hunt ended unsuccessfully, the intensity of watching the action unfold had us at the edge of our seats the entire time.
We saw hippos, which surprisingly are known to be the most deadly animals in Africa.
Giraffes, who have the cutest way of drinking water because they’re legs are a bit too long.
Elephants, big and small
and after searching everyday, high and low, we finally saw the rare black Rhino!
Aside from all the magically amazing animal encounters we had, the landscape itself was truly amazing. Sometimes I’d get almost as excited to see a lone tree in the Mara as I would an animal sighting.
The next photo is an example of why it was hard to return to our tents at dark. A moonrise like this is a hard thing to walk away from!
After a few days of safari, we decided to walk to the village of the Maasai people. They’re village is surrounded by fences made of sticks and and the house are built out of dung.
I was thrilled to see that I had finally found somewhere in the world where my fashion sense is appreciated.
The Maasai people took us into their village and greeted us with song and dance. We of course, joined right in. It was an emotional experience to sing and dance arm in arm with people you have just met. Those voices and the fluid movement still haunt me in the best way.
And true to my nature, meeting the children was my favorite part of going to the village.
I think Ryan felt the same way 🙂
Connecting with the Maasai people made it really hard to leave the Mara but we had plans to explore Tanzania for a few days and then end the trip in the ocean. So we had to say goodbye.
On our last day in Kenya, Edmund surprised us all with a ride in the hot air balloon. It was a wonderful way to see into the forests, get a bird’s eye view of the animals and landscape and it was the perfect way to say goodbye to the Maasai Mara.
This is Melanie. Our fellow adventurist, going for her first balloon ride!
Giraffes from above.
We spent the next few days in Tanzania. On our first morning there we saw a family of cheetahs feeding on a gazelle while a jackal kept trying to sneak in and get some scraps. The cheetahs took turns chasing off the jackal and we took turns oohing and ahhing over watching a cheetah run.
The plains in Tanzania were dryer than the Mara and the grass was a bit longer. That seemed to make certain animals blend into the landscape so we needed to keep our eyes alert at all times to find these hidden gems. We discovered this hidden lion only when he lifted his head, right when Ryan decided to step out of the car to take a pee. You can imagine his surprise. Ryan ended up right back in the car, deciding he could hold it for the next stop.
Some animals are better at hiding than others 🙂
Upon leaving Tanzania we came across a young male lion feeding on a fresh zebra kill
I learned in Maasai Mara, that whenever I see a male lion feeding on a kill, that it’s a good idea to keep your eyes peeled for the lioness who is usually nearby resting, as she was most likely the one up hunting all night who actually secured the kill. I scanned the area and sure enough, saw her laying in the grass nearby. The rest of the group snapped photos of the male lion eating the zebra since it was such a sight to see. I however kept my eyes on the lioness. She saw me looking at her. Our eyes actually locked. It was intense and reminded me of two very different memories in my life. First it reminded me of being a little girl who could “train” cats. -at least that’s what my parents would say, but I never really thought of it as training them, just communicating with them. Up until the age of 6 we lived in a very rural area. I had no neighbors and no humans around me other than my family. I’d spend my days outside in search of whatever stray animals I could find and I’d spend all of my hours trying to convince them to come home with me. Sometimes it would take me a few days in a row of going outside and bonding with the same animal until I won it’s trust and got it follow me home. I loved it. I loved the patience and persistence it took and how I learned so much about how to get these animals to trust me. I always noticed that with dogs, I could get them to follow me using my voice, body language, and hand signals. With cats, it was all about eye contact. Even when we moved to a more civilized neighborhood, I was able to keep a couple cats as pets. I’d put on shows for my parents and friends showing how I could get my cats to sit, shake hands and even jump into my arms on command. I’d say “sit” they’d sit. I’d say “shake” and they’d shake. I’d say “c’mon!” and they would spring from the ground into the air, knowing that I would catch them. Everyone loved when I’d do this. However what they didn’t know was that all the actual voice commands were purely for show. I only did that because it tickled the humans watching it all. The true way I’d ask the cats to do such acts was always purely through eye contact. Cats were the only animals that I knew that once I locked eyes with them, we could somehow create a bond.
Locking eyes with this particular lioness also reminded me of another moment in life that I shared with a wild animal. It took me back to this great white shark I once came across while diving. Our eyes had also met, but only for the briefest moment. It wasn’t eye contact that I used to read the shark, it was purely body language. I watched the way she swam and I purposely based the way I swam around what I wanted her to do (which was not eat me!) It worked and along with staying alive, an interaction was also established. She would swim up to me and I would meet her half way and I would film her with my gopro. It was a beautiful interaction and it was exactly what kept me safe. Here is an image that I took with my gopro of the shark swimming up towards me.
And a few seconds later, this image was taken by my friend who was in the water with me, of what happened next between that beautiful great white shark and me.
It was a moment that I will never try to recreate and a moment that I will never forget. Somehow through body language and mutual respect, this shark picked me up, just like one would a hitchhiker and took me for the most gentle yet most intense ride of my life. All of these images flashed through my mind as I kept eye contact with the beautiful cat off in the distant grass.
She was panting in the dry heat. Her mouth was remained opened and hot and her eyes didn’t budge from my gaze. I looked down only to make note of the shade created by our vehicle and then met her gaze again. I did that over and over again, the same way I would when asking my pet cats to come to me as a kid. I looked at the shade, then looked at her, trying to invite her. She slowly got up. Eyes still locked to mine as she rose from her bed, so locked that I couldn’t even bother to look around to see if anyone else noticed that there was not only another lion, but one who just stood up and was slowly and cautiously making her way directly to me. I didn’t need my eyes to tell me that indeed no one had noticed. I could hear the others commenting in delight about the male lion feasting on the bloody zebra carcass. I also knew that had anyone seen this cat who was steadily closing the gap between me and her, I would be instructed immediately to get my head and torso back in the car. I was grateful that our interaction had gone unnoticed. I remained hanging out of my car window staring into the her eyes. She approached our car and paused by the back corner of it, still locked into our gaze. Without breaking eye contact I slipped my hand into my pocket to take out my phone and snap this next photo, just to remember the intensity of this moment.
I once again bowed my gaze to the shade below me and invited her to come. She did and still no one noticed. She walked right under me to where the shade was and I can’t tell you how badly I just wanted to reach my hand down and caress her back with a gentle pet as she passed under me. But my voice of reason “No Kimi, don’t be that girl. You know it’s against the rules” kicked in and with the weight of responsibility of not disrespecting the rules of our wise and gracious guides, I instead just snapped this photo as she walked right beneath me and I let the shadow of my arm pet her instead. It was right then when everyone noticed this cat. It was the first time I heard our guides sound startled and caught off guard. “Oh! Lion! Get back in the car Kimi” I heard one of them say but right as they said that, the lioness settled in right below me and showed that indeed she meant no harm and all she was craving in the was some much needed rest and shade.
And I sat there smiling like a giddy 5 year old, the same way I would when coming back home successfully with a stray in tow, saying “Look at my pretty kitty Mom!”
And that was the perfect end to Tanzania.
From Tanzania we flew to the little tropical island of Zanzibar on the East coast of Africa where we were greeted by our friend and spearfishing guide, Eric Allard. We sailed over night from Zanizibar to a little atoll called Latham Island. We lived on our boat in close quarters and as much as I enjoyed the safari portion of our trip, my heart gave a huge sigh of relief to be back on the sea. Living on boats does something special to my soul. Everything else in life starts to feel so far away that the connection I have to my inner guidance, a higher power and my sense of self in it’s most pure form get intensified more than it does anywhere else. When I am at sea I feel like I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I feel free.
When I heard we were going to dive Africa upon planning this trip, I imagined murky cold green water with little visibility. -that and great white sharks. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The water by Latham Island was crystal clear, tropically warm and full of life. Everyday I swam in this beautiful underwater garden and I felt like a fish rewetting it’s gills and being set free. I was finally back in my element. -and boy, was it beautiful.
We spent the next few days freediving and hunting and we were extra selective in what we speared. There were fish everywhere, it wasn’t hard to not go hungry it was only hard to decide what we wanted to eat. But it didn’t take us long after surveying the area to all agree that the fish we would choose to hunt would be none other than the rugged, powerful and oh-so-delicious, dogtooth tuna. We worked as a team to find the fish and took turns dropping down to depths of about 80ft to try and bring them in. It was challenging but exciting as every dive was filled action. We hunted everyday rain or shine and everyday was nothing short of spectacular.
Dogtooth tunas are the strongest fish I’ve ever hunted. They have sharp dinosaur-like teeth that make them seem like prehistoric sea monsters of the fish world. -and they were delicious, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Edmund and I with our catches
We shared our catch with the local fishermen in the area. We all agreed that it is important to us to give back to the local community and we watched these fishermen sail for miles in their little boats and bottom fish for days in the hot sun trying to catch small reef fish to bring back to their villages. When we gave our fish to them, they were grateful and would try to give us gifts in return, whatever they had, we’d always try to refuse but did accept occasionally some green mango to be polite. The fishermen were always happy to be able to sail home early with enough meat to call it a week.
After eating our fish, we would boil the heads to make soup and when the soup was done, we’d keep the jaws of our dogtooth tunas. We used them for entertainment at night and would play games with them or pass around the jaws and create art out of them.
We wrapped up our Trip on Thanksgiving Day all sharing (fighting over) the last bottle of beer we had aboard. 🙂
This was actually the 2nd Thanksgiving in a row that we all spent together in the middle of the ocean. We shared gratitude for our families and loved ones back home, for the friendships we’ve made throughout our adventures and the experiences shared. We thanked the fish in the sea for nourishing us all and the animals in the safari for taking our breaths away and we simply thanked Africa, for being so primal, so wild, so beautiful and for giving us an eye opening reminder and beautiful example of where we come from, nature itself.