I Rode an Elephant Through a YPO Conference

Taking Time to Reflect

Taking time to reflect will show you how life has a way of circling back. In this article I have highlighted a series of events that stood out for me as inspiration to visit this great continent I get to call home.

Marco Van Embden is the founder and CEO of Timeless Africa Safaris, a bespoke 5-star luxury travel company which specialises in unique, specialised travel in Africa. With over 30 years of travel experience, he has been to over 100 safaris, leading to a deep understanding of what is necessary to make trips exceptional.

Marco is an entrepreneur who partakes in various business ventures throughout the world and is also a founding member of the Cape Town Chapter of YPO (Young Presidents Organisation), which was established in 1986. Marco has held various positions within YPO and has been honoured with the most prestigious award in the organisation, the YPO Hickok Award for his distinguished service to the organisation.

In addition to his passion for travel and Africa, Marco also has a passion for giving back. Timeless Africa Safaris is responsible for fundraising initiatives, financial assistance and raising awareness for Stop Rhino Poaching, the promotion of the Rhino Bill of Rights, the Lalela Project and Coats for Cape Town.

Listen to my 12 min interview with ScottCundill.com on "I Rode an Elephant Through a YPO Conference"

Time has a way of showing us how things circle back. Twenty years ago, my wife Gwen and I were in Dallas at a YPO (Young Presidents Organisation) conference at the Anatole hotel. Two years before I had volunteered to help bring 250 members from all over the globe to South Africa. I had been invited to speak and promote our Cape Town University for the following year.

I knew I would be competing for attention along with various Chairpersons promoting their own events from around the world, and I wanted to make an impact. I was wondering how to entice these fine people to come to Africa, when it occurred to me that maybe I would have to bring Africa to them. Dressed in grey slacks and a blazer, I rounded into the GLC conference hall riding a fully-grown African elephant. Needless to say, I achieved the desired effect and we booked all the remaining slots that day.

This was a defining moment for me in more ways than one. As a direct result it took a beloved hobby and turned it into a thriving business that provides experiences like no other. More importantly, it fuelled a mission for conserving and protecting the elephants and rhinos back home in Africa.

I have now been with YPO for thirty years and riding in on this magnificent creature helped established me in a legendary status of sorts and provided an opportunity to help people fall in love with our continent.

While I certainly wouldn’t do the same thing today, I can’t help but smile at how things happened as a result of that short ride. Twenty years on, our journeys to Africa have developed into immersive experiences that will live on long after the trip has ended.

Take Time to Explore Together:

Falling in Love with Africa

One of my favourite memories, and an experience I highly recommend, is going on a father-son trip. Ten years ago, I planned one with three friends and their boys. My son Sam and I experienced rhino notching in Phinda, an initiative which tracks and tags rhinos to prevent poaching. We joined a group of veterinarians and park management for the experience. We watched as helicopters flew overhead looking for rhinos, with our group excitedly following in hot pursuit below in a Jeep. We witnessed the notching of 2 of these great creatures, a truly remarkable experience for us all. Darted with a tranquilliser so powerful that the smallest exposure to skin can be deadly to humans, the Rhinos lay down to sleep for a short while. Our boys got to assist the veterinary team in tagging the sleeping rhino’s ear which aides important research and security monitoring.

Ear notches help correctly identify each individual rhino on the reserve by assigning a unique ear notch number, but for tracking and security purposes we witnessed them implant a microchip into the horn and body of the rhinos. This way, if poachers remove and steal a horn, they can trace it back to the foreign criminal groups.

You simply cannot put a price on experiences that move, inform and change us. For me, getting involved in something larger than yourself is the ultimate reward. This is why it is so important to me to help families around the world experience the same magic, whether that is through conservation or just to take in Africa’s beauty.

Take Time to Give Back:

The Rhino Bill of Rights

I recently reached out to the greater YPO organisation imploring that we band together. From this, the NOW (Not on Our Watch) Initiative was born. We reached out to our like-minded YPO counterparts in Asia where the bulk of the rhino horn is consumed. We petitioned them to our cause and called on them for help. From this our belief is that their sphere of influence will help change the headspace around rhino products in their markets. When we shift the tide of thinking, we will affect long-term change.

As a proud and unified representation of Africa, I wanted to share our Rhinoceros Bill of Rights asking you to stand with us to protect all rhinos for future generations.

The Rhinoceros Bill of Rights:

  • Rhinos have the right to life and to continue to exist in the wild as they have for millennia.
  • Rhinos should be free from exploitation. Killing a fully-grown rhino to harvest only its horn for ornamental or medicinal purposes is exploitative.
  • This exploitation extends to recruiting poor and desperate people to commit inhumane and mortally dangerous acts. Exploiting rhino means exploiting Africa’s people; they both deserve protection.
  • No rhino shall be neglected, abused, ill-treated or subject to cruel acts. Poaching and inhumane kill methods are inherently cruel, illegal and should be stopped.
  • Rhinos have the right to a natural habitat, ecologically sufficient to support their normal existence and self-sustaining population.
  • Wild rhinos should be free to express normal behaviour, breed and raise their young.
  • As one of the most ancient species on the planet, Rhinos are entitled to respect. It is humanity's duty to use its knowledge, skills and creativity to care for and protect the species.
  • All people should share equally in the joy and beauty of co-existing with rhino. Future generations have the right to see rhino flourishing in the wild. It is the duty of every person to ensure the survival of the species.

Take Time for Art:

Our Rich Heritage and Culture Through an Artistic Lens

Beyond African travel, another great passion of mine is South African art. I found a way to bring two of my passions together and formed Timeless Africa Art Experiences in Cape Town, the leading local specialist in bespoke South African art itineraries. Over the years, we have established close relationships with many artists, museums, galleries and private collectors. Because of this we have been fortune enough to plan luxury art and cultural tours to South Africa for some of the biggest museums in the world, such as the Tate, Guggenheim, Friends of the Israel Museum, Centre du Pompidou and SFMOMA.

South Africa is home to famously ancient and beautiful artworks, but it has been very important to me that we focus on the diversity of some exciting contemporary talent, allowing us to showcase a broad view of our rich heritage and culture through an artistic lens. Our guests get to see the socio-political landscape on the ground, we even bring in speakers to provide an all-round understanding of what it’s like to live and work and play here.

With over two decades of organising YPO and WPO events, combined with our team’s rich local knowledge and connections in the art world, we have developed a truly unique programme. Where else can you get access to famous and emerging artists on such an intimate level?

Take Time to be Amazed:

How I Looked into the Soul of Mankind

I’ve had the great fortune of experiencing many indescribable moments throughout my years of travel. I once braved the Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, I was humbled by the Okavango Delta’s sheer beauty as I explored the Chobe region, and, awestruck, I’ve witnessed the great wildebeest migration in the Serengeti.

You simply can’t put a price on experiences like these. They have a way of putting things into perspective and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they reveal a little a bit about ourselves too.

One moment is particularly special for me to recall. High up in the mountains of Rwanda, I took my family to see the Mountain gorillas. Coming face to face with a Silverback, the leader of the gorilla family was a moment which moved and changed me. He stood around six feet tall, which is about my height, but he weighed twice as much as I do, and his stocky build gives him the intimidating air you would expect.

I have a lot of love and admiration for Rwanda. 15 years ago, I flew up to Kigali with two colleagues and presented President Kagame with a YPO (Young Presidents Organisation) Presidential award for his work in bringing the country back to democracy after the genocide.

As lucky as I have been to meet influential and inspirational people from around the globe, it comes down to moments like being in the presence of a gorilla that really makes you stop and appreciate where you are right now. The leader, strong and powerful stood but a meter and half in front of me and for a moment I was no man, I was staring into the soul of mankind.