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.
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