Radio host inspires global awareness by sharing stories

Monday, February 3, 2020
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In this Jan. 22, 2020 photo, Mandela van Eeden shows students at Ovando School, a didjeridu during a presentation in Ovando, Mont. Van Eeden hosts an adventure and travel radio series featuring interviews with people from around the world.

OVANDO (AP) — At a small school in rural western Montana, Mandela van Eeden stood at the front of a classroom, pointing to Australia on a large world map. On a table beside her sat several large, tree-like wooden tubes, all unique in shape and color.

Seven students, the entirety of the rural Ovando School, listened curiously as van Eeden explained the origins of the didjeridu and its importance to the indigenous aboriginal Australian people’s culture. She taught them how the ancient instrument is made with the help of hungry termites and how it’s used for traditional storytelling.

“Have any of you ever heard the sounds of a didjeridu?” she asked, receiving head shakes and facial expressions of eager anticipation.

Van Eeden then pursed her lips, set them on the end of one of her didjeridus, and let out the unmistakable low drone of the instrument.

One student stared wide-eyed into the bell-shaped end of the didjeridu as van Eeden placed it directly in front of her face. Another girl’s jaw dropped. One of the boys across the table giggled and a couple students even seemed slightly frightened, as van Eeden began patting her leg, inviting the students to clap along.

As the intense, deep buzzing of the didjeridu circled the room, so too did van Eeden, walking around the group of students, giving each their own up close and personal encounter with the “sound of mother earth.”

“That was so awesome,” one student exclaimed once van Eeden stopped playing.

“Do you guys want to learn how to play?” she asked, with a unified roar of affirmative response.

Van Eeden is host of “The Trail Less Traveled,” an adventure and travel radio series on 103.3 FM, where she interviews people from cultures in some of the most remote places around the world. She’s also a whitewater instructor, guiding trips through rivers across the globe.

When she’s in Montana during breaks in her nomadic lifestyle, she holds workshops at schools and gives presentations as part of an outreach effort and a personal mission to pass along what she’s learned.

The Nature Preserve

Van Eeden has been traveling since she was an infant, flying from San Francisco to South Africa at 3 months old to attend her grandfather’s funeral. Her father’s side of the family has lived in South Africa since 1652.

Her mother grew up on a farm in Valier and her father came from a jersey cow dairy farm in South Africa.

“They’re both vagabonds, both travelers,” she said, adding that’s how they met and got paired up. Her mother was a flight attendant for 42 years, making it easier for the family to travel standby.

During the 10 years her parents were together and most of van Eeden’s childhood, the family had two homes: one in Billings, and the other a thatch hut on a piece of land in a remote coastal area of South Africa.

The land was purchased by her grandparents in the ‘60s, who turned it into a private nature reserve. The A-frame hut, made out of local thatch, timber, bamboo and baling cord, was van Eeden’s home for six months out of the year and shaped who she is today.

As a small child, van Eeden learned to be a steward of the land and to live alongside the animals. The family usually traveled to South Africa during the cold months in Montana, and when they would first arrive at the hut, they would stay quiet for several hours, allowing the wildlife to get comfortable with their presence.

“We would have birds consistently walking around the hut, snakes under the table, which is not super ideal if there’s a little kid running around,” she said.

Their home was filled with artifacts from around the world, including a didjeridu that hung on the wall, which her parents had brought back from a trip to Australia.

“It’s very ancient, and they told me not to touch it,” she said. “What do you do when you’re 8 years old and someone tells you not to touch something?”

So she began to play it, mostly for fun, but developed a strong connection to the instrument.

During this time, she was home-schooled, which was mostly experiential learning.

“We would go down to the tide pools in the Indian Ocean and we would actually get the crabs and dissect them and take them apart, so I’m still a hands-on person,” she said.

Her parents had a binder from the Billings Public Schools, which helped them follow along with what the kids back in Montana were learning, and van Eeden would write letters keeping them up to date with her progress.

When she would return to Billings, she and her parents would give a presentation to the class about their experiences at the nature preserve and living in the bush, something she said likely sparked her desire to share her travels through radio, workshops and presentations to this day.

But having two homes wasn’t always easy, as she’d return to Billings and go through somewhat of a culture shock, having lived in the bush with only her parents and the animals for six months.

“All of the sudden now I have to wear clothes every day,” she said, adding she was often naked at the nature preserve. She has memories of getting in trouble for going to the bathroom in the playground at school or in her neighbors’ flower beds, because in the bush, she was just used to going outside and “watering the plants.”

“My neighbors and the teachers would talk to my parents about teaching me how to use toilets, and I don’t think a lot of American parents deal with that when your kid is 7 or 8 years old.”

She remembers struggling with English as a child and stood out because of an accent she still carries to this day.

She had learned how to react after coming around a corner in the bush and seeing a pack of female lions ripping apart the carcass of a wildebeest, but she had no idea what to do when a kid on the playground took a ball away from her.

Still, she describes herself as a class clown and says her peers would remember her more for the stories she brought back from her travels than for her differences.

Finding Whitewater

Twenty days after she graduated high school in Billings, van Eeden came to Missoula for summer school at the University of Montana.

“It was groovy because I got to get to the community before I was just stuck on campus, which shaped a lot.” She went on an orientation rafting trip with the Outdoor Program, where she fell in love with whitewater.

She started volunteering almost daily, said Elizabeth Fricke, senior assistant director of the Outdoor Program.

“One thing about Mandela is that she is just a sponge,” Fricke said. “She’s always wanting to get better and always staying this lifelong learner.”

Van Eeden was asking more than just the questions about how to navigate water, she wanted to learn everything about her surroundings wherever they went.

“So it wasn’t just about the lines, which we taught her, but she also wanted to know the natural history and the geology and the human history,” Fricke said.

The curiosity connects back to her childhood at the nature preserve and an ingrained importance of being a steward of the land and animals.

“It’s not only your job as a guide to keep people alive and to help them navigate the terrain and the whitewater,” van Eeden said. “It’s also to be able to articulate the knowledge of the land, everything from the plate tectonics up through the biodiversity.”

Fricke remembers having to throw van Eeden, who at the time was still training, into an unexpected guiding position after extra guests showed up to one of their rafting trips down Alberton Gorge.

“I remember she was nervous, but she did it and of course she went through Tumbleweed, which is one of the bigger rapids, and everybody fell out of the boat,” Fricke said. “It was definitely a bumpy trip down, but she learned from it and kept going and didn’t let it get her down.”

Fourteen years later, van Eeden guides on some of the biggest whitewater around the world.

Falling in love with radio

Freshman year was pivotal, because it’s also when she got her first radio show, “The Mandela Experience,” on KBGA.

“I started falling in love with learning how to be on the radio,” van Eeden said. For the next five years, she’d bring in art and music and tell her travel and adventure stories.

She said her fellow classmates at UM might remember her as the “didjeridu girl,” as she usually had at least two with her while walking around campus.

She ended up starting a didjeridu club, where she met her partner, Wesley. He was her first kiss and became her first boyfriend.

“We’re celebrating 10 years now,” she said, adding that keeping a relationship together hasn’t always been easy with her travels.

Eventually she grew tired of being the one always speaking on “The Mandela Experience,” she said, and wanted to tell others’ stories rather than her own.

It was Wesley who suggested she propose the idea to The Trail 103.3.

“So I went there with my demo tapes from KBGA. I did not expect them to give me a chance, but they did,” she said.

While the interviews for “The Trail Less Traveled” started in the studio, van Eeden was still traveling and interviewing people abroad during whitewater guiding stints.

About a year into working for The Trail, van Eeden proposed doing remote interviews and sending her radio shows in to the station from the field.

“I was so afraid to propose the idea to them, because that was my dream,” she added. But some dreams come true, and for 10 years now, she’s been immersing herself in remote locations, sending voices and sounds from cultures around the globe back to Missoula.

Van Eeden said she likes to gain a deep understanding of the people she talks to in the field, usually living with them for at least two months before she sits down to interview them.

“That is where my heart is — to document these cultures around the world before they’re lost, because we’re losing cultures every day, we’re losing languages every day,” she said. “Hopefully the listener learns more about this beautiful world that we live in and how they might contribute some of these beliefs from these ancient cultures that came before us into their daily lives.”

Giving Back

Back in the classroom at Ovando School, van Eeden closes the presentation with a brief review of what they learned.

“I hope that in their brain, some little seeds are getting planted about travel and the earth and curiosity of other cultures,” she said, adding that her foundational message in all she does is that the world is a small place, and we’re all connected.

“Going into the schools and playing didjeridu for the kids and giving talks ... whatever I can do to give back to these cultures, I do, because they’re giving so much to me and the world with their stories.”

She continues to guide whitewater, mainly in the Grand Canyon during the summer months, and “The Trail Less Traveled,” which airs Sundays at 6 p.m., was recently named one of the top travel podcasts of 2020 by The Daily Telegraph newspaper in the UK.

Fricke, who still runs the Outdoor Program at UM, said whenever van Eeden is back in town, she’s always asking how she can get involved and what she can do to give back.

“It’s never ‘what can I get?’ It’s ‘what can I do?’” Fricke said, adding she’s proud of the life van Eeden has made for herself. “I think she’s living her dream. She’s learning, she stays curious, and I think it’s just so inspiring.”

Van Eeden said even if her radio show or presentations inspire the smallest changes in people, she’s done her job.

“I can’t imagine using my energy for anything else.”