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Wild Woman Interview: Melanie van Zyl on Travel Writing and Photography

‘The Wild Woman Interviews’ is a series of Q&As with women who do interesting, brave and inspiring things. The name hints at how nature, the outdoors, travel, the natural cycles of life etc. motivate and influence their passions and pursuits.

This month, I’d like you to meet Melanie van Zyl. She is a travel writer and photographer whose work just seems to capture the wondrous essence of every place she visits. 

© Melanie van Zyl

If you had to write a new Instagram bio for yourself right at this very moment, what would it say? Curating curiosity, inspired by Africa’s intricacies and learning to fly a drone without absolute panic.

Can you share a little bit about your travel journalism journey – where did it all start? Was it something you had always dreamed of doing? What are your favourite types of stories to tell?

Roots are important. My family has always been exposed to adventure. We went camping at Cape Vidal when I was still tiny, there are pictures of my sister buried in the sand (and eating it) and my parents started their own self-drive safari business from home. They are an intrepid, determined pair. I can’t deny the influence that’s had on me. My mom also loved magazines and I’d scour the piles in our house. They were mostly women’s fashion mags, but because they advertised in Getaway magazine, they got free copies of those too. Collage was my thing. I’d sit after school to cut and colour and glue new things together.

© Melanie van Zyl

I actually started out studying industrial design, but I was so bad at it. So bad. I’ll never forget, I had to create a 3D replica of a landline telephone using cardboard and getting my fail grade back from that project. I was crushed and figured maybe, this wasn’t for me anymore. Fast forward a gap year and I was back at square one regarding my future. I’ve always enjoyed writing,  so I thought “ok, let’s try journalism”. When I started researching,  I discovered Rhodes University was the best school in the country and applied there. When I started studying at Rhodes, I thought “One day when I’m big, maybe I’ll work at Getaway magazine”. I never ever dreamed that it would be my first job.

© Melanie van Zyl

My biggest personal query “How did you get such a cool job”. The honest answer is that I just applied. I was still at university and it was a process of three months and three interviews. Finally, I began as Gear Editor, testing out epic travel gear and under the guidance of great editors, who really coached and believed in me – especially because I was walking into a role previously held by men. Proper mountain men with beards and big boots, older and more experienced than me. Then, they helped me to create travel stories and put those photojournalism lessons into practice.

© Melanie van Zyl

People often ask for photo tips and that’s the biggest for me – practice. Keep pushing, keep trying new techniques, keep shooting the same things over and over. It sounds too simple, but that’s the way I really learned. Getting out in the field and just trying.

My favourite stories to tell, increasingly, are the smaller ones. Like the communities working on the edges of Kenya’s Arabuko-Sokoke Forest in sustainable ways that better protect this last remaining tract of coastal woodland. I also love a challenge story, such as How to see four African countries in one easy road trip.

© Melanie van Zyl

What always amazes me about travel, is the way it seems to mean something different to everyone. For some it’s a catalyst for change, while others feel it’s their true home, and yet others see it as the ultimate means of self-discovery. What would you say your travel philosophy is?

The thrill of new places is always going to motivate me, but more and more, I want to travel to make a difference. I know I’m not alone, there’s been a worldwide shift to more mindful travel. Whether it’s helping conservation, people or the environment, my travel philosophy is to look a little deeper. Wander often, but wonder always. That said, I will also travel solely for food. A trip to Thailand changed my tastes forever.

© Melanie van Zyl

Getting to go on adventures and tell stories about your experiences is an absolute dream job for most people. However, being on the road more often than not can also take its toll on various aspects of life – from maintaining a healthy diet to missing out on important occasions with family or friends. Have you experienced any challenges like these and how do you deal with them?

All of those challenges! When I’m on the road, it’s primarily a diet of toasted cheese and chips (because I’m vegetarian most of the time and pickings are slim at the roadside Wimpy). My biggest challenges are actually not on the trips, but when I come home. Being back means I have to spend a lot of time behind the computer editing, writing, researching and catching up on admin. This is the actual work, not the time spent out in the field. But, all I really want to do is see my friends and family, enjoy the latest eateries in Joburg and also recharge. That’s the real balancing act. Coming home.

© Melanie van Zyl

You recently started freelancing and are absolutely killing it, I might add! How did you prepare for the transition from full-time- to self-employment? What do you find most rewarding about being a freelancer?

It’s been a big change. I’m not just a travel photojournalist anymore. I’m also a (dismal) accountant, marketing and social media manager, self-editing proof writer, procrastinator story-idea engine. I’ve got to keep tabs on everything all the time. My biggest piece of advice is don’t burn your bridges. The travel community is small and having the right contacts is essential. My biggest challenge right now is breaking into the international market. Sending pitches to info@nationalgeographic.com has not proved fruitful. A lot of the time I feel like I send emails into a dark abyss – and if they come back it’s often rejection. It’s hard not to take that personally. That said, having a hit and landing a piece in the right place has to be the most satisfying part of freelancing.

© Melanie van Zyl

What has your favourite travel writing assignment been so far? And what would your dream assignment be? 

The dream assignment is just time! So often, as journalists, we’re given a matter of days to dig into a story, find ideal interviews and shoot on location. The dream assignment would be to settle into a place for over a month and really get under the skin of a place to tell the stories below the surface. At the moment, my big goal is to experience more on the African continent. Ghana is high on my list and it’s currently plugging The Year of the Return.

© Melanie van Zyl

Where can people read some of your latest articles? And how can they get in touch with you?

My website, www.melanievanzyl.com and Facebook page are best. I always share my latest articles. If you want a behind-the-scenes look of travels as I go, then I’m crazy about creating beautiful Instagram stories.

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