Melissa Biggs Bradley’s life has long been shaped by travel. The daughter of an Australian mother and American father who met in England, Bradley went on her first safari at age 12. Experiencing other cultures and remote locales around the world has remained a defining feature of her life ever since.
“It’s interesting, in many ways that safari was incredibly impactful in terms of opening my eyes to varying ways one can live in the world,” said Bradley, who also has deep roots on the East End. She first came here as a child with her parents in the 1980s, and since the early 2000s, she and husband Michael have owned a home in Southampton. “Even now, with the issues that exist today, if one wants to be a responsible traveler, it’s important to be aware of the inequity and responsibility of being a global citizen.”
That’s a priority for Bradley, who was the longtime travel editor at Town & Country magazine, and at age 27, launched the spin-off publication Town & Country Travel. Today, Bradley is the founder and CEO of Indagare, a travel company founded in 2007 that specializes in curating memorable journeys for members around the world. Bradley’s goal, both personally and professionally, is to inspire and empower people to change their lives through adventure, with the belief that once travelers are truly engaged and invested in a region, they, in turn, become good stewards of the planet because of their experiences.
“Africa is a place that’s been really important to me for a long time. I’ve been on dozens of safaris,” said Bradley, who also sits on the board of the nonprofit Center for Responsible Travel, a Washington, D.C., based group dedicated to increasing the positive impact of responsible tourism. “From a global perspective, the biggest issue for the center prior to the pandemic was over-tourism. It was the biggest threat to culture, community and environment. But in all my travels, the place where I saw the greatest example of tourism being a positive influence while supporting and protecting the heritage and community was in east and southern Africa.”
In particular, it was places like the Tengile River Lodge in South Africa, the Singita Mara River Camp in Tanzania and Bisate Lodge in Rwanda that Bradley found both inspiring and sustainable.
“These lodges are giving back to their community, are environmentally aware and committed to cultural preservation. If you don’t have wildlife, a natural environment and people living in harmony with animals, you don’t have a business,” she explained. “They’ve done unbelievable things, pushing environmental design and leading the way showing what responsible eco-tourism in its highest form can be.”
When it comes to tourism, Bradley stresses that it’s vital for community members to be included as stakeholders, with a vested interest in both the land and its resources.
“If you don’t have the community involved, it’s not going to work. It has to involve the whole community,” she added. “Health care needs to be taken care of, livelihoods and education provided. The pandemic was tough on many places in Africa where there were no subsidies. Young girls dropped out of school to help on farms or were married for dowries. There was lack of work and hunger and true poverty issues that occurred. We have a responsibility to travel safely. It’s a lifeline to these countries.”
In 2021, Bradley published “Safari Style: Exceptional Camps and Lodges,” a book offering a photographic exploration of Africa’s foremost eco-safari lodges that are doing just that — offering memorable experiences to guests while also preserving the surrounding ecosystem and culture. The book documents a wide range of safari accommodations throughout east and south Africa, from classic, back-to-basics lodges and inspired eco-camps to indulgent luxurious resorts.
“These are the best lodges in Africa, and if you go, you’re having a positive impact,” Bradley said.
On Thursday, July 14, Bradley will be the guest speaker at the Southampton Hospital Foundation’s second annual Lecture & Luncheon Fundraiser at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton. The event is a benefit to support the new Stony Brook Medicine (SBM) East Hampton Emergency Department, which is due to open in late 2023.
Bradley, who will share her insight on the importance of sustainable tourism, notes that although the travel industry took a major hit in 2020 due to the pandemic, in many ways, COVID-19 provided the industry a chance to reset with the realization that responsible travel is now more important than ever.
“It turned out people are now so much more aware of what I’m talking about,” said Bradley. “They saw the interconnectedness and realized we have to have a more sustainable connection. If we don’t have tourism, restaurants close, shops close and what makes the local environment unique is threatened. We need to have tourists’ support. Ten percent of the world’s population is in the hospitality business. It’s one of the biggest employers in communities, so it’s important to support them and we have to do it in a responsible way.”
Part of that responsibility, she notes, involves travel choices — opting for trips that are more meaningful and immersive. She adds that the pandemic has made people more thoughtful about where and how they travel.
“In terms of my carbon footprint, what impact will my dollars have and what experience will stay with me forever?” she asks. “Better than quick hits to destinations that all look the same because they have the same brands of restaurants and stores, maybe we can be more immersive in how we travel.”
Bradley describes herself as a relentless optimist, and notes that, despite how devastating some ecological and humanitarian situations in Africa may have gotten in the past, trends can often be reversed with attention, care and support. She points to a region in the northern Serengeti that had been hunting grounds, but was leased by the Tanzanian government to philanthropist Paul Tudor Jones, who transformed it into a massive reserve with a collection of camps and a community-based partnership which included hiring former poachers as anti-poacher patrols.
“The animal wildlife came back once poaching was controlled,” Bradley said. “It was astounding.”
During her talk at the Maidstone Club, Bradley will share her thoughts about what these lodges represent to the communities in which they are located and why she feels an African safari is one of the most amazing experiences a traveler can have.
“One reason is, earliest man comes from that region,” she said. “On a genetic level, people are aware of that. It’s like déjà vu, like deep race memory on a cellular level. You’re aware of a familiarity.
“The other thing that happens is you tap back into the natural world that we don’t normally exist in,” Bradley added. “You spend your days looking for animals, on foot or in a vehicle. Animals hunt at dawn or dusk, you’re up at sunrise, with guides trained at reading the signs. It’s the lost language of the world. You can read plants, dung, footprints, tap back into the natural world in a way that has been removed.
“You can spend time sleeping under actual canvas, hear sounds at night of animals, birds in morning, get back into rhythms of nature — not hunting — but back to rhythms of how, as early man and evolutionarily through most of history, we’ve lived,” she said. “It’s only recently that we’ve been disconnected from nature.
“You’re also stripped of normal distractions of civilization. You’re not on the phone all the time or plugged into what’s going on,” Bradley said. “You have to be in the moment and watching animals. If you spot the leopard, or see cubs, you have to be totally attentive. It allows people to bond and be aware in a profound way.”
Whether it’s dipping a toe into the safari lifestyle by staying in a luxurious lodge where fine dining is part of the experience, or going truly off grid by flying to a remote region for a more rugged adventure, Bradley truly believes a journey to Africa can be transformative.
“I think it’s a special experience to live on this planet and have a connection with nature in a profound primitive way,” she said. “It changes lives.”
The Southampton Hospital Foundation’s second annual Lecture & Luncheon Fundraiser at the Maidstone Club in East Hampton with guest speaker Melissa Biggs Bradley is Thursday, July 14, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event supports the new Stony Brook Medicine (SBM) East Hampton Emergency Department. Tickets start at $500. To purchase, email Alexa.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 631-726-8700, ext. 3.