On the day before my oldest daughter’s birthday I laid in our rooftop tent, pen in hand trying to capture our first couple of days in Africa. I realized while I wrote that at the same time nine years ago, I was in the 20-somethingish hour of labor. I try not to remember too much about how many actual hours it took from the start of the first contraction to when she finally entered the world. It was many, way more than 20. Stubborn that girl, plain stubborn. Along with that stubbornness, however, she also possesses knowledge of who she is and what she wants. It’s all I want for her; to know thy self. Isn’t that the key that once found, will unlock the world? The best weapon we can have against the meanness and pressure of adolescence and high school is to know how to listen to our own opinions and have a strong sense of belonging, especially in our own skin. My job as her Mama is to help her continue to grow in self-awareness as well as cultivate an ability to advocate for herself. It is because of that self-advocacy that we arrived, nine years later, in Namibia, Africa.
My parents took us up on our suggestion to join this leg of our trip. We met them in Frankfurt and then flew the ten hours to Namibia together. The reunion was so sweet; once Quinn spotted her Popa at the gate, she flew down the airport hallway and crashed into his open arms. Mackenzie landed in her Omi’s arms and was immediately covered in a thousand kisses. I would do that scene over and over if I could.
My own desire to go to Africa started when I was Mackenzie’s age. I watched movies, read books and looked cravingly at photo after photo of this continent until well into my adulthood. I began the sales pitch to my parents back in July; enthusiastically painting my vision of Africa for them as we sat around the campfire at our favorite family camp spot. To further entice them into joining, Mackenzie happily added that Africa was her chosen place to celebrate her birthday. My parents gave me my appreciation and need for outdoor adventures, which I hope I am also passing on to my daughters. My mom loves to tell the story of camping with my dad when she was eight months pregnant. How she fished with my sister on her hip and me in her belly; got sick on hotdogs and marshmallows. How my dad dug a hole underneath the tent with the hope that this little streak of genius would allow her to comfortably sleep while resting her heavy, Baby-Amy-filled belly in the hole (didn’t work, but what a guy). I remember my excitement at receiving my first backpacking pack, baseball hat and fishing pole for Christmas when I was ten. I logged many a wilderness mile with that pack on my back, hat on my head and pole in my hand. What a gift to add a camping safari in Africa to my bank of outdoor adventure memories with them and for my kids to have those memories with them too.
Our research and planning landed us on a self-drive tour through the country complete with 4 x 4 trucks supplied with camping gear and two-man tents harnessed to their roofs. The girls were giddy when they saw the pictures of the trucks, enamored with the idea of how the tents open up on the roofs and a ladder drops to the ground for them to climb into their kingdom.
The eleven-day route took us from Windhoek, the capital and largest city in Namibia, north to Etosha National Park, west to Damaraland and then to the coastal town of Swakopmund, south to Sesriem and the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei then finally to the Kalahari Desert before heading back to Windhoek.
The time change and driving conventions were the first challenges to overcome when we arrived in Windhoek. As we ventured out to find groceries for our trip, I watched through finger-covered-eyes as Jacob wrestled his brain into driving on the left side of the road while simultaneously yelling unheard warnings to my Dad to, “stay left!” . The travel agent through Cardboard Box who arranged our trip, knew what she was doing when she booked our first night in Windhoek at a bed and breakfast. After our heart stopping tour of the city, we relaxed on the veranda with a beer while jet lag seeped into our bodies. My mom and I suppressed secret giggles as my Dad lost his battle, his neck too tired to hold up his head.
Once we got on the road the next morning, I felt like we were on some kind of crazy theme park safari ride. Our trucks running in a track, taking us to the perfectly timed and choreographed mechanical warthog by the roadside with the bright blue bird perched on his back. Like the Jaws ride at the Universal Studios of my childhood, a lion would come bursting out of the bush at any moment. However, one turn of the knob on the radio and the car filled with the sound of a DJ speaking an African language complete with clicks and I realized that the warthog was real and this was no theme park.
Our first stop was Waterberg Rest Camp. After the long hot, dusty drive, the girls were desperate to find the swimming pool. This must be the most picturesque swimming pool in the entire world, or at least in the world I have seen. Two big circles of clean water were surrounded by Acacia trees and situated at the base of an iron red cliff. Thousands of dragonflies zoomed high in the sky overhead. We sat in the grass with cups of crisp, white wine, inhaled a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and watched while the girls delighted in their splashes. I looked around at this scene and tried to get my brain to accept the place where my body had landed.
Back at our campsite, an entire family of warthogs greeted us. At least ten of these beautifully ugly creatures were snorting around in the grass, completely unaffected by our sudden stop and gawk. We laughed at the size of their heads, which take up most of their body and snouts that take up most of their heads. That night I was happy to be kept awake by their very strange donkey-like snort as they defended their territory from the screeching baboons. Literally, their sound is a hee-haw, snort snort.
Because Namibia has a population of two million in a country roughly the size of Texas, the darkness outside the cities is like no other darkness I have ever experienced. Before setting off, we were warned by a fellow traveler to “have your torch handy” because once that sun sets, it is immediately dark. However, with the darkness came the stars! It was like someone spilled a pound of salt on a pitch black tablecloth. Not even in the darkest, clearest mountain sky in Colorado have I ever seen this many stars. We sat with our heads resting on the back of our camp chairs and looked up into the sky. The more our eyes became accustomed to the dark, the more the stars appeared. The familiar constellations were lost in all of the extra stars invisible in other places, in other skies. The Milky Way was truly milky. Mackenzie did not want to go to bed when her sister crawled up into the tent. It was one of those moments when you watch your child mature right before you. She “oooed” and “awwed” with Jacob, me and her grandparents and I silently noticed my emotional dichotomy, both excitement for her growth and nostalgia for her infancy.
The conversation between the warthogs and baboons continued the next morning in the trees all around our campsite. The baboons made their appearance in the adjacent site just as we were packing up our things. They walked through the site, tails held high with an air of superiority. Their body language told us clearly that they were in charge and the trashcans were part of their territory. They noisily flipped off the lids to peer inside, expectant of breakfast. My Dad bravely moved closer for a picture as my mom slowly backed further away and jumped into the truck not sure she wanted to be so close. Once packed, we all piled into the trucks. Wasting no time, the biggest of the group bounded into our site and hopped up on the braai, giving us all a safer photo op.
With Etosha National Park and Namutomi rest camp plugged into the GPS, birthday cake waiting quietly in the refrigerator for its adornment with candles later that evening (let’s face it, this really was more of a version of glamping rather than camping!), we headed down the first of many dry, dirt roads. I watched as the landscape flew by and marveled at the billions of clouds in the sky and the long views of the savannah. I said a silent prayer for Mackenzie to receive her requested gift of a giraffe sighting on her birthday and secretly hoped for that scene of the lion bursting out of the bush. I giggled to myself as I remembered the interaction we had with some young American girls on a bus in Sevilla. One of them declared to Mackenzie, “how many kids can say they turned 9 in Africa?!” Mackenzie astutely answered, “All the kids that live in Africa?”
This planet is better off since she arrived and I will always be impressed by her intelligence, humor, creativity, confidence and ability to catch every detail. While I never got my lion scene, I could never have prepared myself for the many incredible scenes I did get to see throughout our safari. Watching Mackenzie turn 9 was just one of them.