The McKenzie-Davison family head to Africa where they get to track cheetahs on foot, come face-to-face with rhinos, and climb the world’s highest sand dune.
THE roar woke us at 4 a.m. “What was that?” asked Taya, our 13-year-old. “I think it was a lion,” I replied, suddenly wide awake.
We were staying at Dolomite Camp, in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. Dolomite is unfenced, which means there was nothing between us and the lion, except the wood and canvas walls of our little chalet.
That evening, when the camp staff had driven us back to our chalet, they made it clear we were not to go outside until morning light because the animals can roam through the camp. Trust me, in that moment, I had no desire to go out wandering. The lions continued to roar close by, and we didn’t get much sleep.
At 6 a.m. when the sun finally came up, we ventured onto our balcony, and my daughter spotted three lions lying in the grass about 100 feet from our chalet. Not as close as they sounded, but not very far away, either!
When I told people we were going to Namibia, they usually asked “where is that?” followed by “why are you going there?” The second one is the longer answer.
My wife Keely and I loved backpacking through Southern Africa almost 20 years ago and had always wanted to go back with the kids when they were old enough. Since Taya, our younger daughter, has multiple food allergies to peanuts, sesame, soy, legumes and kiwi, we wanted to go to a place where we spoke the language – and English is the official language of Namibia.
We also wanted a place where we would feel safe and could drive ourselves instead of hiring a guide. Since most of Namibia is a desert and it is the least densely populated country in Africa, there is very little traffic and it has national parks that are well set up for driving without a guide.
There is also usually a choice of accommodation, including camping, hotel rooms and, a favorite for those with food allergies, bungalows with kitchens. Our family of four is experienced at traveling with food allergies, having vacationed safely in Europe and the Caribbean on several occasions.
Since Southern Africa would present a greater unknown, my planning included extensive online research for safe places to stay and eat, ever on the lookout for ways to create our own allergy-friendly meals.
Of course, we also wanted to see animals – and 42 percent of Namibia’s land is under conservation protection. That’s more than any other country in the world. Almost half of the conservation areas are managed by local communities who benefit from tourism and, as a result, Namibia is the only place in the world with a growing population of rhinos, lions, elephants and giraffes.
Some of these are large predators, yet there are remarkably few animal attacks on humans. It’s important to read up on the rules for wildlife encounters, to stay in your car and keep your distance in the daytime, and to be aware that you don’t go sightseeing on your own at night. Namibia also has a remarkable landscape, and is home to the world’s oldest desert, with some of the highest sand dunes in the world.
Etosha National Park is one of the best game parks in Africa. During the dry season (May to September), the animals tend to congregate around a series of water holes throughout the park. We spent two days driving around the water holes and watching the animals, which was amazing. At Kalkheuwel, one of our favorites, we saw herds of elephants, zebras, giraffes, antelopes (both eland and kudu) and springbok. At Okondeka water hole, we saw two lions as well as a massive herd of wildebeest arriving to drink.
One afternoon while driving, we came face to face with two rhinos just a few feet from the road. We stopped to take photos when one of them began pawing the ground and advancing toward the car. Fortunately, when I started the car to back up, the seatbelt alarm went off and scared them away.
Our chalet at Dolomite Camp had an incredible view overlooking a water hole; in the afternoon, we watched as a procession of elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, springbok, kudu, gemsbok and eland came by to drink. Perched above the water hole traffic, we relaxed and cooled off in our plunge pool. While we were only there the one night, it was our favorite place to stay on our trip.
It’s difficult to find leopards and cheetahs in the wild on your own. But fortunately the AfriCat Foundation, a non-profit committed to the long-term conservation of large carnivores including cheetahs, lions and leopards, offers guided tours in the massive Okonjima nature reserve. Some of the animals have radio collars so their behaviors can be studied, which helps AfriCat guides to know roughly where they are.
On the afternoon we arrived, our guide took us in a four-wheel-drive, open-back vehicle, and we saw a leopard just a few feet away. The next morning we were within 50 feet of a cheetah while tracking it on foot. It was breathtaking to see the big cats up close.
Just over the border into South Africa, in another wildlife conservation area, we enjoyed several African wildcat sightings. One evening, Keely was startled by a hyena – it was walking by less than 10 feet away from our terrace.
Namibia is home to two deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari. The Namib Desert stretches along the entire Atlantic coastline of Namibia and has a variety of plants and animals, including elephants, rhinos and lions, that have adapted to its arid climate. The Kalahari to the east, meantime, gets more rainfall and supports more animals and plants.
Intrigued by the idea of desert elephants, we’d booked to stay at Camp Kipwe, a luxury lodge in Damaraland. Our guide took us in a four-wheel-drive vehicle down the dry riverbeds and, after a few hours, we found a herd of 13 elephants. We parked and had coffee and a safe snack while we watched them graze around us. It was amazing to watch these huge animals that have adapted to the desert, and incredible to see how gentle and quiet they seem.
We drove south to Swakopmund, an old colonial German town on the coast that is considered the adventure travel center of Namibia. The weather is cool and foggy because of the cold Benguela ocean current.
The girls wanted to try sandboarding, so we signed up for a tour that took us to a 300-foot-high sand dune just outside of town. My older daughter, Kieryn, impressed the locals since she was the only one able to link her turns without falling.
Taya managed to hit a speed of 45 miles an hour while sledding down the dune. Fortunately for me, the sand was soft – so falling didn’t hurt. However, walking up a 300-foot dune seven times did make me think they need a chairlift.
We continued our journey south to Sossusvlei, right in the heart of the Namib Desert, which has some of the highest sand dunes in the world. We climbed ‘Big Daddy,’ which is over 1,000 feet high and has breathtaking 360-degree views of the desert – the red sand dunes stretch as far as you can see. The run down the face of the dune to the bottom is a lot of fun. But it results in more sand in your shoes than you ever imagined possible!
Our last stop in Namibia was Kolmanskop. Once a rich town at the center of the local diamond industry, it was abandoned more than 50 years ago, and the surrounding dunes are slowly burying once-beautiful mansions. Nearby at Aus, we were able to see the only herd in the world of wild horses adapted to the desert.
One Scary Food Incident
Given Taya’s multiple food allergies and the fact that my wife and I are vegetarian, we are a difficult family to feed. On most of our trips, we always try to get a place with a kitchen so we can cook for ourselves and reduce the risk of an allergic reaction. However, on this trip there were a number of places we wanted to go where there were no kitchens, so we did a mix of eating in restaurants and cooking for ourselves.
We found the food allergy awareness in Namibia to be mixed. We met a few people who had experience with allergies and clearly understood about cross-contamination, but others did not seem to get it. Each of the luxury lodges we stayed at asked whether we had food allergies, but I still spoke directly to the chef at each place to make sure they understood the allergies and the precautions.
Our scariest moment on the trip occurred, not from a close encounter with wild animals, but when Taya experienced an allergic reaction. We were staying at one of the luxury lodges and I had asked the cook if the hamburger and bun would be safe for Taya. He said the beef was fine and the bun was made with no sesame.
After her first bite though, Taya’s mouth started to get itchy so she stopped eating. We had our five epinephrine auto-injectors at the ready and I immediately started calculating how far it was to the nearest hospital (about one hour). But fortunately, the reaction did not progress.
I noticed a sauce on the hamburger which the cook did not mention, so I went to the kitchen and found out there was soy sauce in the sauce and bread crumbs in the meat that he had forgotten about. From then on, we modified and simplified every meal for Taya even if told a dish was safe. We made sure her meat and vegetables were plain and the sauce left out – and she did not have another reaction.
All of our accommodations in Namibia included breakfast. The format was pretty much the same and worked well for us. It would include a cold buffet with yogurt, fruit, cereal, bread, cheese and meat plus a grill where they would cook eggs as you wanted them (scrambled, fried, omelet, etc).
Taya would usually have to use our own bread because of her sesame allergy. The breakfasts would be difficult for people with dairy and egg allergies, though.
You Can Do It, Too
If you have ever considered a trip to Africa, but were too intimidated, I can highly recommend Namibia. Think of it as “Africa for beginners? The animals are plentiful, but the roads are empty. The people are friendly and English-speaking and the desert scenery is stunning.
While the allergy awareness wasn’t perfect, we were able to take additional steps to keep Taya safe while enjoying what our girls call “the best vacation ever.” Getting up close and personal with wild animals is an experience of a lifetime; the elephants aren’t the only ones who will never forget.
Kindness of Strangers
One of the places I emailed while planning the trip was the Solitaire Bakery, which is set in a crossroad in the desert and only has a population of 92. Yet the bakery has become famous for its apple pie, so I wrote to find out if there would be anything Taya could eat, since we planned to stop there for gas and lunch.
The bakery emailed back, apologizing that it would not be safe for my daughter since they use peanuts and sesame in the bakery.
Then a couple of weeks later, Magda Bekker, the assistant manager of the Solitaire Country Lodge, which owns the bakery, wrote that she had seen my email. She offered to make Taya a cake at her own house, so that she would have something to eat while we were there. She didn’t even work at the bakery, and here she was offering to make a special treat for someone she had never met, halfway around the world.
When we got to Solitaire, Magda gave Taya a box of two different kinds of chocolate cake. She wouldn’t let me pay her for it. Coincidentally, this was just two days after Taya’s 14th birthday – and she said it was her best birthday cake ever.
Homework Before the Africa Trip
Preparation: In advance of the trip, I emailed every place we were staying and planned to eat and told them about Taya’s food allergies and asked if they could make something safe for her. All of them responded or had the email on file when we arrived.
Allergy cards: I made up allergy cards with Taya’s allergies including pictures of her allergens and laminated them with English on the front and German on the back. At each place, I would give this to the cook who was preparing her meal.
Modify and Simplify: I spoke to the cook before every meal and we reviewed each dish before it was served. Even if a cook said that a dish would be safe, we would simplify the dish by keeping the meat and vegetables plain, and leaving out the sauce. This way we ensured Taya’s meal was prepared separately and with fewer ingredients.
Return visits: If you have a successful meal at a restaurant, then do not hesitate to return. We went to Pancho’s Grill and Bar the three nights we were in Swakopmund because our first meal worked well. The waitress laughed at Taya ordering pizza with no cheese and me for ordering chicken pasta without the chicken, but she remembered us and the allergies, and all the meals were safe.
See Scott McKenzie’s advice on booking a trip to Southern Africa, including flight and accommodation details here.
Photography: Kieryn Davison, Taya Davison & Scott McKenzie.