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Travel With Allergies

On Safari, with Multiple Food Allergies

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Desert Wonders

bigdaddyScott, Kieryn and Taya at peak of the 1,000 foot Big Daddy dune.

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.

taya slide (71)Taya flies over the sands at Sossusvlei.

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

giraffedrinking2A giraffe quenches its thirst.

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.

oryx2An oryx, a large African antelope.

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 breadcrumbs 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

TayaMagdaMagda Bekker made safe cake for Taya, a girl from the other side of the world.

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 and website links here.
Photography by Kieryn Davison, Taya Davison & Scott McKenzie. 

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