One of the first things staring me in the face when I found out I was going to Namibia was the formidable challenge it posed. As a quadriplegic, a trip to Africa represents the ultimate quest: managing the four days of travel which would include two 16-hour flights, taking my rifle, securing gun permits, packing ammunition, updating passports, finding a place to overnight in Joburg (Johannesburg, South Africa), hauling an extra bag for my shower/bathroom chair, and then most important part of the equation of all… finding an accessible lodge on the other end when we arrive.
My second thought was that I couldn’t wait to go.
In January of 2011, while at Safari Club’s national convention in Reno, NV, I received the Pathfinder Award for accomplished disabled hunters. The award came with it a 10-day safari donated by Jan Oelofse on his ranch in northern Namibia, and it’s the highest achievement in the obscure field known as ‘disabled outdoors’. It was also there that I discovered that the Oelofse have one of the few wheelchair accessible operations in Namibia. They have a lot of experience hosting disabled hunters, some of which who have been in power chairs. We set the date for my safari to begin in early June, winter time in the southern hemisphere, and I returned home to prepare for the trip.
Now, I’ve flown extensively in the past so I pretty much know the drill when it comes to airports and flying. Going through them on wheels is one of the easiest things to do. Why, because the airlines know their stuff, that’s why. Some of them may need reminding that disabled passengers are allowed an extra bag for medical equipment, but for the most part, they’re well-prepared for wheelchair travelers. And for general flying (2-4 hour trips), I usually do anything special. A 16-hour flight is a different animal though.
My lifelong friend Greg Goerig and I were booked on Delta Airlines from Atlanta to JoBurg on an overnight flight scheduled for June 4. The priority for a long leg like that is skin breakdown. Airplane seats are not made to suit disabled passengers for that length of time. And though I generally use the gel pad off my Jay cushion for longer sits, on an all-night flight, I’ll take along a memory foam cushion as an extra measure. The second thing I do is pack any supplies I may need in a carry-on. Some will be for emergencies, like an irrigation syringe or extra leg bags, the rest were things I’d need to survive a few days if my luggage was lost, like a change of clothes, latex gloves, suppositories, etc. You never know what could come up on a flight like this so you better be prepared for all of it. (Some of the best items we brought on board were our toothbrushes and toothpaste. I brushed my teeth in the seat and used a cup half filled with water as my sink. Another good idea is to bring something to help you sleep.)
As soon as our booking was made, I called to notify Delta about my special needs and work out seating assignments. For this trip, I chose the middle seat of the middle row of seats so that no one would have to step over me to get to the aisle. Greg had the seat to my right so he could get to the leg bag that I wear on my right leg. If I had to cath (which I don’t because I have an SP tube) I’d take a window seat for more privacy, but either way, you’re going to need something that serves as a urinal. To save space, I usually either buy a bottle of water before boarding or ask the flight attendant for one afterward. It has a cap and at the end of the flight, you can throw it away.
These are some of my least favorite conveyances in the world. Some of the most necessary though. What other way is there to get down the aisle? Let me assure you, however, that they’re not made for humans over 5’8”. As a C-7 quad, I can transfer onto this narrow-seated contraption, but the safest plan is to have the porters “dead” lift you onto the aisle chair and then again to place you into your seat. The flight attendants may not be allowed to touch you, but the guys who work the aisle chair certainly can. (Tip: Be sure to check in at the gate to get a tag for your chair so it will be brought up to you on arrival. You can let them know then if you’ll need two people to transfer you onto the aisle chair.)
Overnight to Johannesburg
With a strong tailwind, our flight to South Africa only took 14.5 hours. One of the nice things about O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg is that all wheelchair travelers get an attendant assigned to them from the time they deplane until the time they board their next flight. These attendants help you get your luggage, get through customs (which is a breeze), navigate the airport, and ultimately get you checked through to your next departure. We were overnighting here, but we checked all our bags through to Windhoek from Atlanta except my shower chair and gun (Greg and I brought a change of clothes in our carry-ons so we wouldn’t have to mess with our suitcases until Namibia). My attendant stayed with me up to the point where our guys from Afton House were waiting to clear my rifle and take us to their guesthouse. Through SCI, we were booked to stay at Afton House for one night in Joburg. Afton caters to hunters and supplies all transportation to and from its secure location ten minutes away from Tambo.[With the time difference, it wasn’t logistically possible to go all the way to Namibia on the way there. However, coming back, we made the whole trip in one long shot, from Windhoek to JoBurg to Atlanta to Dallas in 30 hours. We scheduled longer layovers on purpose for the return trip so we could have more downtime in front of and behind the 17-hour flight from JNB to ATL.]
Arriving at Mount Etjo
On the morning of June 6, 2011, Greg and I touched down at Windhoek’s “international” airport, a place no bigger than some of the remote airports I’ve been to in Canada, 30 miles south of Namibia’s capital in the sprawling bushveld.
Fernando, our driver, stood waiting for us as we cleared my rifle* and exchanged some American currency for Namibian dollars. Thankfully, all our bags made it through and we quickly loaded them into the van and off we went. After crossing through the streets of downtown Windhoek, it was a four-hour drive north to the Oelofse’s Mount Etjo lodge, most of which was remote bushveld. I counted a total of two power lines and one ‘rest stop’ along the way where a gas station, a convenience store, and a small market existed where two highways intersect. There were no other signs of civilization.
Jan, his lovely wife Annette, and their son Alex met us at Mount Etjo when we arrived. The staff helped us settle into our accessible room at the Main lodge where we stayed for two days before heading to Hunt Lodge which was farther into the mountains. The Oelofse’s have made every adaptation for wheelchair access, complete with accessible rooms, a stair lift to the elevated viewing room at Hunt Lodge, a rear-entry lift into the game viewing vehicle, and a side-car lift on one of the hunting rigs. Whatever we needed, the Oelofses provided. They even drilled holes in the wall to install propane heaters into the rooms because they were too cold at night.
On to hunt lodge…
On Wednesday morning, June 8th, my 10-day safari began. My PH Rudie de Klerk picked Greg and me up at Main Lodge in a hunting truck that had a gun rig already installed. He took us directly to the range where we checked my rifle for accuracy and worked out what would be the best way for me to shoot from the vehicle. After that, we went hunting.
Over the next 10 days, I experienced some of the most pristine places in God’s country that I’d ever seen, and the hunting was better than I could’ve imagined. I ended up taking some amazing trophies, including kudu, zebra, gemsbok & a big-tusked warthog. Hunt Lodge, just like the lodge at Mount Etjo, was fully accessible. One of our favorite things to do was go up to the “viewing” room, overlooking a small lake, at the end of every day to have a drink and talk about our adventures.
Back in Windhoek
Since our flight home left early Saturday morning, we decided to drive back to Windhoek on Friday and stay one night there at the Kalahari Sands Hotel. It’s located downtown on top of a mall and supermarket and just one block away from the open market where Greg and I were wanting to shop before leaving. We found another accessible room, complete with a roll-in shower, at the Kalahari Sands, as well as a nice restaurant, a bar with live music, and a small casino that we just had to check out before calling it a night.
The next morning, we were picked up and taken to the airport where we started our marathon journey back home. Thirty hours later, Greg and I were back in Texas and half a world away from one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen.
*To bring a rifle to Namibia, I first had to get a US Customs Form 4457, then an invitation letter from Oelofse Safaris, fill out forms for the South African Police to get a temporary permit since I stayed overnight in S.A., and finally another permit form for a temporary license once we landed in Namibia. I was also required to pack my ammunition in a locked box inside my suitcase. It may seem like a lot of trouble, but it wasn’t that much trouble.