Bernd Bierbaum

Bernd Bierbaum writes books, paints, enjoys photography, and travels professionally across the world. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Latest: Searching for the aardvark. Based on my idea and story, a 45min documentary was recently broadcast on ARTE TV and ZDF in France and Germany.

1200 days


The first thing I can remember is the pattern on the inside of my baby carriage. The fabric was dark blue with thin beige lines, which I could assemble into a cloud or a branch or worms or a bird, thus creating my own worlds, as landscapes slowly rattled by. I grew up in a village between fields, forests and industry. In spring, farmers would plant foul smelling plants for oil, with their intense yellow flowers expanding to the horizons. In autumn, roots would be boiled down to a sugary syrup, its steam a characteristic sweet and sour concoction which filled the air. Some nights the skies would turn bloody red, when molten steel from the iron works illuminated the clouds. There was always something exciting to share with my sister Ellen and my parents, as life for me alternately depended on an extra bit of ice cream, a new exotic fish for the aquarium, a missing stamp from Namibia or some bizarre cactus I had to have. Collecting rarely stopped short of perfection. In my first public appearance at age five, the local newspaper showed the photo of a frowning dwarf next to the five metre champion sun flower he had meticulously watered all summer.

Geographically my world was bound by a rounded mountain chain that served as both an easily recognizable beacon and a limitation: The highest peaks of the Harz range were close enough to see, but only few of them were accessible. Others were located across the wall that divided east and west at the time. Mounted with massive radio and TV transmitters facing "the enemy", these mountains were the very epitome of dualistic living. Two opinions and lifestyles competed with each other through words in the same language. Sporting events, politics or even landings on the moon were explained differently. Years later, one icy December morning, the wall between those mountains fell. I was 26 then and, together with many others from east and west, I hiked up Brocken, the highest peak which was still infested with transmission devices from the Cold War that had only ended here that very morning. When we got to the top, one single Russian in a T-shirt and a felt hat came out of his shack, waved and smiled at us.

6500 days, jumping into a lake in the Cascades, USA
At age 17, my world expanded. I was off to spend one year with a family near Seattle, attending American High School. Again there were mountains, but this time everything was different: glacial volcanoes rising more than 4000 metres, the snow covered Olympic Range with its thick rainforests and lakes, ocean and a towering city, not to mention massive freeways. Still stunned by the natural beauty, the locals quickly taught me what to do with it: "Climb it, walk it, swim it or just drive on it", the latter preferably in big cars with big stereos on Friday night. The charm of the new kept me excited and within a year I felt at home, not only in my surroundings, but with the language and the youthful mix of people I met. Even my travels along the west coast, up to Alaska or that rather notorious surfing adventure in Hawaii, posed less of a limit than a challenge and defeats easily turned into a good story to laugh about.

After I returned to Europe, travel continued its magic spell. From early on, stories set in different times and places along with family trips sparked my imagination. Later, unexpected encounters confirmed a notion that travel is synonymous with an adventurous life. Soon travel went far beyond geography. In my early days, I met travellers from around the world in youth hostels and later, I took up hitchhiking almost as a mental challenge. I devoted most of my free time to the roads of Europe, North America and Japan, feeling out luck, chance and ideas. Space, time and friendships played out in their own dynamics.

In 1983 I went to Japan for two months, a culture I find fascinating, not only for its originality, but also for its exchange and contact with "the west". At Tokyo University I heard a lecture in Ethnology, and when I later enrolled at the University of Munich for a masters program, I chose that subject as my major.

Travelling thus shifted towards research. Brazil (and to a lesser extent Indonesia) was my regional focus; culture change (acculturation) and comparative religion (especially cosmologies) were my theoretical choices. I did a prolonged field study in the Brazilian state of Bahia, researching for my thesis. I lived part of that time with the Pataxó indigenous group (see my article in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, under "publications", as well as a book I recently published together with my former professor on the subject, in Portuguese).
Plus I had a lot of fun, it was the time of the Lambada, and the moon can be so romantic… When finally the preparation for exams arrived, I chose to live alone in a remote Tyrolean cabin high up in the alps. Without Internet or a cellphone, but with books heavy enough to fight off trolls, I studied the philosophy of religion for three months. Underneath my hammock the mountain flowers would surprise me daily with their display of ever changing colours. In a way a paradox developed: the more I learned about cultural sciences, the more I realised how we as humans create our universe over and over again.

16500 days, striking a camel pose in Ethiopia
Later my scientific interests began to incorporate the more subjective and individualistic expressions in literature and the visual arts. I began guiding study-focused tours for a German travel company. This job allows for flexible location and timing, as well as an independent lifestyle. Since 1990, it enabled me to travel repeatedly to all corners of the world. (have a look at the destinations over the years by clicking on tour guiding on the right side of the home page). Besides, I found more and more time for my writings and art. See examples when clicking through the homepage.
Eventually, after having lived in La Goutte d’Or, a very lively, multi-cultural and multi-social neighbourhood near Montmartre in Paris for seven years, I moved to Observatory, a similarly structured area in Cape Town in 2003. It has proven to be the perfect place for me, opening up new possibilities to experience life and express myself.  Still tour guiding and writing books, I launched 021 Magazine in 2009 with a team of dedicated professionals. A quarterly print publication, 021 Magazine is now Cape Town’s city magazine. It includes a What’s On Guide, and it features entertaining, yet investigative journalism about the Cape. It is firmly dedicated to ecological ideas and to social and cultural challenges of the “New South Africa”. (also available online and as a free app). Amongst many revelations, 021 has shifted the way I address my audience. No longer the foreigner writing or talking about something foreign to other foreigners, I now consider myself a “foreign” local addressing locals. In the process of running a (difficult) business, I have come to understand a lot about privileges, restrictions, and opportunities.
To sum it all up, a winter’s day in Iceland comes to mind. Walking down to the ocean, I passed some weathered buildings. On one door I found a graffiti, which simply read: "I love". These five letters, in a way, are my challenge and my joy.