For Allergic Living magazine, writer Scott McKenzie detailed the outstanding trip he and his family took to Southern Africa. His family — including a teenage daughter, Taya, with multiple food allergies — had an unforgettable experience and witnessed animals, from cheetahs to giraffes to antelopes, lions and elephants, in their natural habitat.
In the following post, our intrepid travel writer offers his guidance on preparing for, flying to, and staying in Southern Africa when you have allergies. And of course, he has some recommendations for where to eat. All photos were taken by the McKenzie-Davison family.
Booking Your Trip
We used The Cardboard Box (www.namibian.org), a travel agent based in Windhoek, Namibia to book our car rental and accommodation for us. While many of the lodges have websites that you can book yourself, it is very helpful to use a local agent to book the national parks (such as Etosha) for you. The Namibian national parks cannot be booked online and are difficult to book yourself. You pay the same fee for the accommodation and the travel agents get a commission from the hotel so it does not cost you anything to book through an agent. I would recommend using a one of the Namibian travel agents as they can suggest places to you based on their experiences.
Self-Drive vs. Guided Safaris
In many of the countries in Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana, it is difficult to drive yourself and they cater to guided safari tours. Namibia and South Africa are set-up for self-drive vacations as well as guided safari tours. We decided to drive ourselves, but did stay at some luxury lodges and used guides to see the cheetahs, leopards and desert elephants.
Flying to Namibia
There are direct flights to Windhoek, Namibia from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Frankfurt. From North America, you can fly direct to Johannesburg from New York, Washington or Atlanta. Depending on where you are flying from, it may be better to connect through Europe than one of these cities.
Where We Stayed
Villa Vista, Windhoek – villavista.com.na
Villa Vista is a small, upmarket establishment with about 20 rooms near the center of Windhoek, but with gorgeous sunset views. It is family-run and the owners were very kind and helpful. Breakfast is included and the owner’s daughter has a peanut allergy, so she understood about cross-contamination. The rooms are situated around a pool in the courtyard and some have kitchenettes so you can cook for yourself.
Okonjima, Central Namibia – okonjima.com
Okonjima is between Windhoek and Etosha and has a choice of campsites, luxury bungalows (no kitchens) and a private villa with your own chef. It is the best place to go if you want to see cheetahs and leopards in the wild. Dinner and breakfast are included and the food here was some of the best on our trip. The chef understood the allergies and made Taya special bread and safe desserts for her.
Halali, Etosha – nwr.com.na/index.php/resorts/halali-resort
Halali is the quietest of the three main rest camps in Etosha. It is fenced and has a selection of campsites, hotel rooms and chalets (some with kitchenettes). There is a floodlit waterhole where we saw rhino, hyenas and jackals at night. We had a two bedroom chalet with kitchenette and cooked our own dinners. A buffet breakfast is included, but because it was a big restaurant it was difficult to find out the ingredients in dishes, so Taya just had the eggs and fruit.
Dolomite Camp, Etosha – nwr.com.na/index.php/resorts/dolomite-resort
Dolomite is an unfenced luxury camp on the west side of Etosha with only 20 chalets (none with kitchens). It is set on a high hill with spectacular views of the surrounding area. We loved sitting on our balcony and watching the animals at the waterholes. Breakfast was included and dinner served in the restaurant, but the food was just average.
Camp Kipwe, Damaraland – kipwe.com
Camp Kipwe is a 10-room luxury lodge in Damaraland near the Twyfelfontein rock carvings and the desert-adapted elephants. The rooms did not have kitchens, but the did include the loveliest outdoor bathrooms (surrounded by stone walls for privacy). It’s a real treat to shower outside in the sun. Dinner and breakfast are included and in general the meals were excellent. But this is also where Taya had an allergic reaction because the chef forgot about the ingredients in some dishes.
Alternative Space, Swakopmund – thealternativespace.com
The Alternative Space is an upmarket bed and breakfast in Swakopmund. There are four ensuite bedrooms as well as a cozy living room with a fire to take the chill off the cold nights. There is a self-serve breakfast and a communal kitchen you can use to cook for yourself. Frenus and Sybille will make you feel at home and help you with laundry and activities if you need it.
Desert Camp, Sossusvlei – desertcamp.com
Desert Camp is just 3 miles from the entrance gate to Sossusvlei and consists of 20 pre-set tents with outdoor kitchenettes and barbecues. A buffet breakfast was included at the Sossusvlei lodge nearby, and there is a small pool and bar at the camp.
Desert Horse Inn, Aus – klein-aus-vista.com/accommodation/desert-horse-inn/
The Desert Horse Inn is located in the south of Namibia near the desert horses. There are 24 luxury rooms (no kitchens) with lovely sunset views as well as a lounge with a fireplace for chilly winter nights. A buffet breakfast was included and the chef was very good about making special dinners that were safe for Taya.
Mata Mata, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – sanparks.org/parks/kgalagadi
Mata Mata Rest Camp is in South Africa near the Namibian border. It is fenced and has a selection of camp sites and one and two bedroom chalets with well-equipped kitchens and barbecues. There is a floodlit waterhole where we saw hyena and jackals at night. No meals are included and there is no restaurant, so you need to cook for yourself. There is a small store, but it’s best to bring most of your food with you.
Where We Ate
(My daughter is allergic to peanuts, sesame, soy, legumes and kiwi. My wife and I are vegetarian.)
Cactus and Coffee, Uis – facebook.com/Cactus-Coffee-422325551196999/
Cactus and Coffee is a lovely tea garden and cactus nursery in the small town of Uis. We stopped here for a wonderful lunch on our way to Swakopmund. The owner has a sesame seed allergy so she understood allergies well. She even sold us a loaf of sesame-free bread for Taya.
Panchos Grill and Bar, Swakopmund — facebook.com/pages/Panchos/197663853702219?fref=ts
Panchos is a small restaurant in Swakopmund. The waitress was excellent and talked to the cook about Taya’s allergies to ensure the food was safe. This was Taya’s favorite restaurant on the trip and we enjoyed it so much we ate here all three nights in Swakopmund.
Solitaire Bakery, Solitaire – solitairecountrylodge.com
The Solitaire Bakery is located not far from Sossusvlei and is famous for its apple pie. We stopped for lunch and the bread and pie was excellent, but it was not safe for Taya because they use peanuts and sesame seeds in the bakery. This was more than compensated for by the assistant manager of the nearby country lodge making a special cake for Taya.
Joe’s Beerhouse, Windhoek – joesbeerhouse.com
Joe’s Beerhouse is a large, sprawling restaurant in Windhoek with a thatched roof and a collection of relics apparently collected by the original owner. It bills itself as the essential Namibian experience and always seems busy. The portions are large and it is mostly for meat eaters, but there are some vegetarian choices.