In 2016, I travelled to Zimbabwe to lay the tombstone of Dreamboat’s mother.
It was my third trip to my husband’s homeland months after his mum died unexpectedly of a stroke.
Culturally, the laying of the tombstone happens roughly a year after someone passes, after the rains. Spiwe was already buried in her husband’s (Emmanuel’s dad’s) rural area in the family graveyard.
Laying the tombstone, 2018.
The trip was a challenging one, as you can imagine. I had been fortunate to meet Emmanuel’s mother on my two previous trips. We had her blessing for our relationship. But I was still a white girl in a country not long independent from white colonists.
I knew little of Shona culture, didn’t speak the language, and was an outsider, privy to a very emotional and private family process.
On our previous visits to Zim, Dreamboat and I had made an effort to be tourists in his country, exploring Victoria Falls, Hwange National Park and local attractions.
Emmanuel’s oldest niece Tadiwa, me, Emmanuel’s mum ‘Mai Chima’ and my mum! 2011.
We discussed doing a little side trip this time around but ultimately decided that it was in poor taste to a) go off and have fun during such a time and b) to spend so much money when the family was struggling.
And then, I received an unexpected email. Möet and Chandon invited me to be involved in a campaign that celebrated the present moment. The theme couldn’t have been more perfect for the current circumstances; death has a way of grounding you in presence and gratitude. But the campaign lead time was short. I wouldn’t make it back to Australia in time to participate.
The budget was significant. I had an idea. I would take the work and use the money to plan a side ‘work trip’ in Zimbabwe. The timing seemed too serendipitous for me to miss the opportunity.
I did a little research and found a safari lodge in a remote corner of Zimbabwe called Bumi Hills. The property was only accessible by plane or boat. I read on the website that the property was close to an anti-poaching foundation that took guests out on patrol to learn about poaching and human-wildlife conflict. That really interested me.
I managed to track down a bottle of Möet and Chandon in Harare, which was not an easy task. And off we set for what I thought would be another Instagram gig, albeit an exciting one.
Bumi Hills and Möet Chandon, 2018.
Those few days in Bumi Hills changed my life.
First, Dreamboat and I met a safari guide named David Amyot. David was a white Zimbabwean displaced when Zimbabwe’s then-president, Robert Mugabe, took back farmland from the whites and gave it to the blacks. (A highly nuanced historical event that requires a broad understanding before applying black-and-white thinking.)
Without farming to sustain his family, David turned to the only path he had experience in. Hunting. He became a commercial hunting guide in Hwange and escorted rich, foreign men into the wild to trophy hunt African wildlife.
David was in Hwange when a commercial hunting enterprise illegally shot the famous resident lion ‘Cecil’. It shook something loose in him. It opened his eyes. He knew he couldn’t continue working in an industry that did so much harm. He took a significant pay cut to become a safari guide in Bumi Hills. Our safari guide.
Listening to his stories about hunting and human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and the difficulties faced by Zimbabwean people (black and white) made me realise how much more was going on beneath the surface of this country. He inspired me so much, but I felt insignificant and powerless to do anything about the struggles faced by wildlife and human populations in a country I had grown to love.
An afternoon safari drive with David.
On that trip, we also met a man named Nick Milne. Nick was the manager of Bumi Hills before the current owners bought it out. Every day, he spoke to guides and tourists and sat on the deck, watching fewer elephants migrate to the lake’s edge to swim and play. He realised that, without intervention, there wouldn’t be a tourism industry in Bumi Hills. Its animals were being poached to extinction.
Nick started the Bumi Hills Foundation, an anti-poaching operation that actively saves the lives of animals. He saw a problem, and he did something about it. Something that makes a difference. It deters poaches from operating in the region. It minimises harm coming to animals through illegal bush meat snaring.
Nick’s work saw a complete stop to elephant deaths in the area, with zero carcasses found in the 18 months leading up to our visit. (After seeing populations drop from 18,000 to 3,000 in the nine years prior.)
Nick Milne, Bumi Hills Foundation 2018. He is photographed here with recovered elephant jaw bones and a cape buffalo head.
Spending time with David and Nick while simultaneously working on a big-budget, big-brand campaign with Möet catalysed me to discover my purpose. (The first iteration for it, at any rate.)
After leaving Bumi Hills, we returned to the family home, spending time with Emmanuel’s youngest brother, Lennon. For the first time in my life, I understood how good people could make terrible choices. I thought about Lennon and his struggle to make something of himself in a country with a 95% unemployment rate. I wondered if someone asked Lennon to poach an elephant or trap a cheetah for money, would he do it? And I thought, yes. He probably would.
I am pictured here with Dreamboat and his living siblings. Lennon is to my right.
I also realised that I wasn’t insignificant or powerless. I had a massive Instagram following and five years of experience working as an influencer in the tourism industry. If I wanted to make a difference in Zimbabwe, I could. That was when I dreamed up my Zim tours—sitting in the car at dusk, talking to Lennon and processing everything I had seen and heard.
Putting together those tours was the most challenging business endeavour I had ever undertaken. The logistics in the country are tough; there is a lot of fear and stigma amongst Westerners considering a trip, and I had to take a significant financial risk to afford the deposits on our safari lodges.
I travelled to Zimbabwe twice before those tours began, once at Christmas in 2018 and the second time to do a research trip for my tours, shooting and filming the experiences I planned to take my guests on.
I wanted to show my 12 guests an incredible time, but I also had an idea to use travel to facilitate conversations about challenging topics.
Like human-wildlife conflict, to not just understand it from a textbook definition but to meet the displaced Tonga tribes in Lake Kariba and understand that losing a cow to a lion attack could be the difference between life and death for their family.
Or the importance of anti-poaching operations and how nuanced and open to corruption they are.
I wanted to show people the Zimbabweans living rurally and for them to understand subsistence farming. The sort of farming that can see your family go hungry if you don’t have a successful crop.
And, importantly, I wanted my guests to meet beautiful, talented, intelligent Zimbabweans and understand that they want the same things we do. Love and connection, yes. But also basic human needs that we take for granted. Access to drinking water, plentiful food supplies, electricity, a shelter over their heads, and education for their children.
Even now, on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, the electricity and water supply is inconsistent. Most people bath out of buckets of water drawn from a nearby borehole. Most can only afford to eat local food, maize meal, basic vegetables and occasionally a little meat.
With my tours, I planned to stimulate the tourism industry in a flailing country, help our immediate family with money and business enterprises and eventually branch out into wider areas.
I wanted my guests to leave Zimbabwe with an understanding that the world is not black and white, and its problems aren’t easily solved, but that purposeful people can make a difference.
Eventually, Dreamboat and I saw ourselves living half our time in Zimbabwe, or at least several months a year.
But as I dropped my last guests at the airport after my second tour, I rushed home to see Dreamboat and fell pregnant that day. And when our little girl was born, a global pandemic swept the globe.
I kept myself busy, parenting, scaling businesses, falling pregnant with baby number two, working on myself, breaking down, and picking myself up. But through it all, I heard Zimbabwe calling my name.
We’ve been busy.
If you’ve ever done a life vision exercise, you’ll possibly remember being asked or prompted to picture yourself some time in the future when your life feels complete.
I have a lot of dreams. But whenever I close my eyes and picture myself in the future, when all my dreams have come true, what I see isn’t complicated.
I’m in Zimbabwe. My feet are bare. I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sitting on the grass. Children of all colours surround me, and I’m laughing with abandon.
It is so vivid. I can smell the grass. I can feel it under my toes. I am present. I am loved. I love.
My vision almost looks like this. More sun, kids and laughter.
And I know the woman who believes in that future is inside of me. But she feels far away these days. Motherhood, the loss of identity that goes with it, an uncertain world, and the fear that goes with it have closed down the sense of possibility I once had.
Sometimes I wonder, where is the woman who did the polar plunge in Antarctica?
Where is the woman who convinced Dubai Tourism to let her run a 25-person influencer trip worth millions?
Just me and a group of 25 Australian influencers at the Burj Al Arab, 2014.
Where is skydiving Lauren, frequent flyer Lauren, photographer Lauren, Lauren who was featured by 60 Minutes, Lauren who won business awards? Is she coming back? Has she already peaked?
The answer is that she is still inside of me. And I am not only remembering who she is, but I’m realising that her power back then was only the tip of the iceberg.
I am Lauren, who birthed a baby on my living room floor. I am Lauren, who walked away from a seven-figure business to find my happiness away from my extrinsic success.
Damn straight, I did!
I am Lauren, who fights each and every day to stay true to myself. I am Lauren, who writes these incredibly vulnerable emails, watching the unsubscribers stack up, watching my Instagram following go down but showing up anyway. I fight for what I believe in, and I fight to be seen for who I am, no matter how hard it is.
Palliative care worker Bronnie Ware wrote an inspiring book called ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. In it, she lists the number one regret of dying people as “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”.
I think of that often. It takes great courage to be honest about who you are. And I feel so grateful to have this community as I continue my journey, with all its bumps and challenges along the way.
To every single one of you who reads my words, especially those I exchange emails with, thank you.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
Watch Dreamboat and I, pre-kids, talk about what Zim means to us.
** Originally published to my email database on the 27th of September, 2023 **