Normally Michael doesn’t shriek like a tween girl who just found out One Direction was breaking up. But he was this day. Being up close to the open jaws of a lion will do that to you.

We had arrived in Africa a few days earlier for a safari so Larissa could fulfill her long-time dream of seeing wild animals in their native habitat. Michael is more of a city boy, more comfortable with concrete than trees, so while he was coming along reluctantly as the good husband, he had his doubts about how this bout with nature would turn out.

During our travels around the world we met up with several people who just gushed about visiting Namibia, located on the southwest coast of Africa. Its main attraction is Etosha National Park, located about 250 miles north of the capital city of Windhoek.

wildlife in Namibia

 

About the size of New Jersey in the United States or Slovenia in Europe, Etosha surrounds a vast, blinding white saltpan and provides one of the best wildlife viewing areas in all of Africa. On any given day a visitor can spot elephants, zebras, giraffes, lions, springbok and, with a bit of luck, elusive rhinos, leopards and cheetahs.

We were riding in the park on a guided game drive in an open air Land Rover, making sure not to leave our arms dangling outside of it. Our safari driver, Ismail, knew all the hot spots or, in this case, wet spots as he sought out the waterholes where the animals congregate.

Within minutes of entering the park gate we spied a pair of giraffes loping across the road with their signature languorous stride. Despite a childhood spent leafing through animal photos in the glossy pages of National Geographic, nothing prepared us for seeing these animals up close in their native habitat. Surprisingly, Michael was enthralled as he watched the mesmerizing pace of the giraffes. We clicked through what would have been several rolls of film in the pre-digital era in about five minutes. Ismail’s gentle smile let us know that “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)

After 20 dusty minutes on a gravel road we reached the Nebrowni waterhole, where hundreds of zebras were eagerly quenching their thirst. Sprinkled among them were springbok, dik-diks and impalas.

We watched the animals for a spell and were just about to leave when off to the right three mammoth leathery gray piles lumbered towards us. The elephants plodded along with a slow-motion rumbling gait, with their big ears flopping back and forth.

As the elephants made their deliberate progress towards the waterhole, the zebras got a bit restless. Most of them had seen this movie before and scurried away before the gargantuan onslaught.

Photo of Zebra Namibia one elephant

When elephants show up at a waterhole it’s the equivalent of the chubby kid cannonballing into the pool at a swanky hotel. Everyone else gets soaked and figures out that it’s time to leave the party. It was no different here. The zebras and springbok crept away and meandered aimlessly while waiting for the big boys to have their fun.

The elephants weren’t content to just drink the water like the other animals. They plunged right in, splashing and swinging the water around with their trunks. They played for an hour, as delighted as schoolchildren on the first day of summer.

After this adventure, we drove down a rutted gravel road through scrub pine for two or three miles where we happened upon another watering hole where a herd of thirty elephants were cavorting in the mud; the larger ones pushing the little ones aside until they swigged together at the equivalent of the “kid’s table” at the end of the pond. Elsewhere giraffes crouched into their distinctive splay-legged wide stance so they could reach down with their long necks and slurp some water. Hours slipped away as we enjoyed front-row seats for our very own live-action nature film. Elephants here, zebras there . . . hey, there goes a pack of ostriches.

Etosha 30 elephants at waterhole-Namibia

At one point Ismail pointed out a large animal about 20 yards off to the side of the Land Rover plodding through the bush. At first, all we could see were branches being disturbed but then we focused on a sight that is rare indeed, the elusive white rhinoceros. It was so close yet we never would have seen it without our guide’s trained eye. This time we put the camera down and enjoyed the moment. We were experiencing one “pinch me, I can’t believe I’m here” moment after another.

Later that evening, as the setting sun was casting a golden glow on the savannah, we got a bit more than a pinch. We had stopped on the narrow shoulder of the road and parked over a culvert to take some photos of the sunset. Meanwhile Ismail was dropping rocks onto the culvert. He said lions sometimes sleep there to escape the heat and this would bring them out. (That maxim about not waking sleeping dogs, doesn’t it apply to lions too?) But guess what: his technique worked, perhaps too well.

self-drive Namibia trip lion

Suddenly a lion, or in this case a lioness, leapt up out of the culvert where she appeared at Michael’s dangling elbow. And that’s when the shrieking started. Fortunately, the lion didn’t seem all that interested in us, or was just so shocked at the sight of a grown man whimpering so much, that she sauntered away with nary a care in the world as she returned to her nap.

Michael was a bit stunned at first, as were we at his shrieking, but like a little kid who loves being tossed in the air and repeatedly asks for more, he said, “Hey, can we do that again?” City boy was becoming nature boy as our adventure in Africa continued.

Namibia self-drive safari

For those to whom a trip to Africa is the trip of a lifetime it’s a must-see, and as Michael proved, even those for whom it’s not on the radar will experience unforgettable moments that are not available anywhere else on Earth. Just be careful if you wake up a sleeping lion.

Note: This post has been sponsored World Expeditions as part of their #WEVentureOut series. We are proud to have our “Waking a Sleeping Lion” adventure featured in this series, which encourages travelers to step outside their comfort zone and experience more of the world. For more information on trips to Africa and other unique destinations, visit the World Expeditions website.

Is it possible to travel on your own in Africa?  I really wanted to go on a safari, but Michael’s not too big on nature stuff and neither of us like group tours.  The challenge was on: I needed to find a way for us to take a road trip, seeing Africa on a self-drive safari.

Many of the African countries popular for viewing wild game, such Kenya and Tanzania, caution against moving about the country on your own due to safety concerns. The result is group safaris. Usually bulky, uncomfortable overland vehicles that leave at the crack of dawn, cramming as much as possible into the day.  (Did I mention we really don’t like to get up early?)

Self-drive safari in Africa

Sleeping in is always an option on your own self-drive safari. We enjoyed a late breakfast at Ai Aiba Rockpainting Lodge after our solitary stroll amid the rock art.

To my delight I learned about Namibia. The 22-year-old nation on the southwest coast of Africa has developed a reputation as a safe spot for drive-yourself vacations. It offers an abundance of wild animals, a sterling national park system, and spectacular scenery.  It’s big and sparsely populated, larger than Texas with only ten percent of the people.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Not much traffic in sparsely populated Namibia.

Visitors typically begin in the capital city of Windhoek, flying in via Johannesburg or directly from Frankfurt, Germany on Air Namibia. Begin your road trip right at the airport. Pick up a rental car; almost all are 4-wheel drive SUVs or pick-ups. Namibia boasts excellent roads, but the well-marked secondary routes are gravel and the extra control and high clearance come in handy.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Driving on gravel roads or the signature red sands at Sossusvlei makes renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle a must in Namibia.

Namibia has stayed away from large-scale tourism. Most accommodation is of the “boutique” variety.  Whether lodges, tent camps or bed & breakfasts, all are perfect for a romantic stay. (Even the tent camps: we found one with a queen-sized bed and air-conditioning!) During our 3-week self-drive safari we stayed in a few of each. Our criterion of a double with en-suite was easy to find in all price ranges. We opted for 3-4 star quality, which cost us anywhere from $75/night with breakfast to about $250/night per couple, including breakfast and dinner. Prices were higher at more remote locations.

Self-drive safari in Africa

Our air-conditioned tent at Etosha Village-complete with queen-sized bed and open air shower-just outside of Etosha National Park.

The best part was that the entire trip was at our own pace. Self-drive also meant self-scheduling. We rose when we wanted and could spend as much time as we liked just absorbing Africa. During a pre-breakfast hike (which for us was 8:30) we searched for 500-year-old rock paintings of giraffes, and then turned to see a pack of live giraffes ambling by, oblivious to their portraits set in stone. Driving among the signature red dunes at Sossusvlei, we simply pulled to the side of the road for an impromptu picnic when the mood struck.

But nothing can compare to a drive all by yourself through the vast Etosha National Park to view wild game. Imagine rounding a bend on a dusty road to find a water hole with 30 elephants cavorting or another with a giraffe placidly taking refreshing sip, the two of you as the only observers.  Nature has invited you to a private showing, and it’s truly a “pinch me” moment. Even “I’m not a nature boy” was impressed.

Self-drive safari in Africa

It’s easy to get a great photo when you’re the only one around!

If you made it this far you might want to read how we avoided getting eaten by a lion in Namibia.

Planning:  There are several companies that can help you plan your self-drive holiday, however we chose to book our own. The Namibia Tourism Board publishes a comprehensive 200-page visitor’s guide that reviews sights, suggested itineraries, travel companies and lodging options. 

Getting There:  The capital city of Windhoek, which is just about in the geographic center of the country, is a great place to begin and end your safari. Most flights are routed through Johannesburg, however Air Namibia also offers one direct flight daily from Frankfurt, Germany.

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When we were driving all over the world we saw some unusual animal crossing signs that were different from the typical signs for deer we see at home. As we bounced along some pretty rough roads we took these warnings seriously, can you imagine the damage an elephant will do to your car?

camel crossing sign Jordan

Camel crossing signs are common when driving the Arabian Desert in Jordan. Fortunately all the camels we saw were behind fences.

animal crossing sign deer israel

Who knew they had reindeer in Israel, but it sort of makes sense. This sign is unusual because it’s in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.

horse crossing sign dubai

In Dubai, horseback riding is a popular hobby among the Emirati. Apparently some of them break free now and then.

koala crossing sign australia

At the top of this post is a kangaroo crossing sign that is seen throughout Australia. You really have to take them seriously, particularly at dusk when the kangaroos go bounding across the road as if they are attracted to the car’s headlights and become “roo’d kill.” While the koala pictured above will do less damage, they are so cute that drivers really hope to avoid them.

cow and sheep crossing sign australia

Drivers get two for one on this sign in the Australian Outback as they look out for cows and sheep.

New Zealand bird (575x431)

We’re not sure why these birds in New Zealand couldn’t just fly across the road.

elephant crossing road sign

Elephants were a common sight in Namibia. But they lumber along so slowly we doubt they’d be much of a problem.

warthog crossing road sign

We saw literally thousands of warthogs by the side of the road in Namibia. They are one of the funniest looking animals around. Smart too, unlike the kangaroos in Australia, we never saw a warthog crossing the road.

meerkat warning sign

Meerkats, similar to prairie dogs, are all over Namibia. We stayed at one lodge where a local meerkat was pretty tame and scurried around the restaurant.

zebra crossing sign namibia

A multi-purpose sign for zebras, warthogs and kudu on the Erongo Plain in Namibia.

wild animals Africa two giraffes crossing road (575x440)We didn’t see a giraffe crossing sign in Namibia, but we did have to stop for these actual giraffes.

Larissa crossing road Namibia (575x403)

Namibia is so sparsely populated we never saw a crossing sign for this rare animal.

bull crossing sign in spain

Cattle crossing signs are fairly common around the world but we liked how they rakishly add horns in Spain. Ole!

turtle crossing sign

Watch out speed racers for slow crossing turtles on Tybee Island in South Carolina.

abbey road zebra crossing

Well in London this is called a zebra crossing so it fits here. Can you guess what Fab road this is?

If you have any unusual animal crossing signs please send them to me and I’ll credit you and link back to you blog. Thanks!

As we traveled around the world with our statue of Rocky Balboa, there were only two groups of people who didn’t recognize him: North Koreans and the San people of the Kalahari in Namibia. Everywhere else he was quite the celebrity and a real icebreaker who helped us meet Read more

We finished a two-week road trip in the countryside of Namibia where we feasted on all types of game meat: oryx, impala, springbok, even wildebeest. So I was ready for some good old-fashioned beef when we returned to the capital city of Windhoek. Our friend Jim took us to the Soweto market in Katutura (a former apartheid-era village) to try some kapana, the famous Namibian street barbecue.

We had gone 12 months without opening our emergency supply of Cipro, a streak I didn’t want to break, but after watching Jim down strip after strip of beef mixed with a bit of fat we couldn’t resist.

men eating kapana in Katatura Namibia

Locals demonstrating the proper way to eat kapana.

The best way to eat kapana

There is a set way to eat kapana. Tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount of meat over to one side of the grill. Then pick it up with your hands, since it’s still over the open fire this part is a bit tricky, and dip it in a communal cardboard box filled with a salty spice blend. After eating a few pieces we picked up some freshly baked rolls from a bread vendor to make a sandwich out of ours.

Kapana roll Katatura market Namibia

Make sure to get a freshly baked roll.

The meat was delicious, fresh, tender and perfectly chargrilled, while the spice blend had the right amount of peppery kick. After he saw that we were enjoying ourselves, Jim decided to point out that, oops, it’s not beef after all but donkey meat we were chowing down on. Apparently it’s a local delicacy.

kapana donley meat namibia

The mystery meat.

I have to admit I couldn’t tell the difference, it still tasted pretty good. Later others told us it wasn’t donkey meat at all but that was hard to believe when the butcher’s tables a few feet away were laden with fresh donkey, which we could tell by the furry skin.

Kapana Katatura market butcher cutting boards

The butcher’s tables at the market display their years of use. To keep clean they are covered with fresh cardboard every day.

So maybe it was donkey, maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes when eating food in foreign lands, ignorance is indeed bliss. A lesson we learned when we tried kokorec, a sheep intestine sandwich in Istanbul. We loved it but didn’t know what it was until after we ate it.

Here’s a video of the kapana sizzling on the grill at the Katatura market:

What foods have you accidentally tried?

Etosha National Park in Namibia is one of the top game viewing sites in Africa. The park was created over 100 years ago and is huge, larger than the state of New Jersey. We spent three days driving around the park during dry season. That’s the best time to visit since the animals must come out of hiding and flock to the waterholes to drink.

On any given day a visitor will spot zebras, giraffes, elephants, springbok, oryx and more. With a bit of luck a rhino or lion will come sauntering by. We were lucky to see both of those as well.

Namibia is a prime destination for self-drive tours in Africa. With the second lowest population density in the world (after only Mongolia) there were times when we were the only car for miles as we gazed upon the animals.

The zebras sort of surprised us. To begin with, they’re not all black and white. Some of them have a fair amount of tan coloring which we hadn’t expected. They also pretty much just stand around all day without much to do.

Pictures of Zebras at Etosha National Park in Namibia

Pictures of zebras Etosha Namibia

They also seem pretty dense, just standing in the road staring us without a thought of moving. In that way they were sort of like donkeys with stripes.

Photos of zebras Etosha Namibia

Larissa just loved how many of the zebras stood around all day doing the zebra version of spooning.

Zebras at Etosha pack at waterhole

The lone springbok (the one that looks like a deer) seems a bit lost among all the zebras at this waterhole in Etosha.

Wild animals of Namibia ostrich zebra (575x438) We don’t see this relationship working out.

Pictures of zebras Etosha Namibia elephant

These zebras don’t realize it yet but they’re about to get kicked out of the waterhole by the big, bad elephant. 

Photo of Zebra Namibia one elephant

There’s always somebody who’s the last one to get the memo.

Pictures of zebras three zebras

Here’s a short video of zebras moseying around the park:

From a kitschy throwback hotel in North Korea to a nudist B&B in Portugal, we found a few unique places to stay in the world. Here are some of our favorites:

1) Little Petra Bedouin Camp, Jordan

 

Little Petra Bedouin camp Jordan

The Little Petra Bedouin Camp is so named because of its proximity to Little Petra, a smaller cousin of the world-renowned site of Petra. Just like the name implies, it’s little, but worth visiting as it gets less than 1% of the visitors of Petra. When we visited there were only three other people there. The Bedouin camp offers accommodations in tents. However, we were a little concerned at check-in when the owner cheerfully told us, “I’ve upgraded you to a cave.” So we spent a rather cold night in the cave but it was filled with blankets and pillows and ended up being quite cozy.

Website: Little Petra Bedouin Camp

2) Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel, Beijing, China

 

Unique places to stay Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

Keen observers will notice that while Larissa is waiting for the next performance she is engrossed in a game of Solitaire.

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods of small alleys and courtyard homes in Beijing that are rapidly being bulldozed over for new developments. While the hutongs are becoming a shadow of their former selves, will an art based on shadows help revive them? The Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel is in an old hutong neighborhood and showcases the ancient art of shadow puppetry. Banned by Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, shadow puppetry is being revived by another Mao, this one an artist.

Unique Places to stay Shichachai Hotel Beijing

The man behind the curtain is puppet artist Mao.

Mao makes his own hand painted shadow puppets as he revives the lost art. A theater was built into the hotel lobby to showcase regular performances for guests.. Staying here provides the visitor a unique opportunity to experience life in an old hutong while watching an ancient art.

Book a room at the: Shichachai Shadow Art Hotel

3) Belar Homestead, Dubbo, Australia

 

Unique places to stay Belars Australia

The Belar Homestead sits in Australia’s bush country on a 3,000 acre ranch owned by 4th-generation cattle farmer Rob Wright and his wife Deb. In fact, the house was built by Rob’s great-grandfather. The setting off a mile-long driveway is perfect for someone seeking solitude with the only neighbors being a few cows, some chickens and the occasional kangaroo. The remote location provides a spectacular night sky for stargazing. It’s so clear that the Parkes Radio Telescope, which received the video of the first Apollo moon landing, is nearby.

4) Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge, Namibia

 

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Namibia has become a popular destination in Africa for independent self-drive safaris. Aside from the big game viewing, there are many areas with prehistoric cave art paintings. Ai Aiba sits within a 12,000 acre reserve boasting over 150 of these paintings. On a pre-breakfast hike we spotted some ancient artwork of giraffes while looking over our shoulder at real giraffes munching on the acacia trees. It was a sublime experience.

Ai Aiba rock painting lodge Namibia

Website: Ai Aiba, The Rock Painting Lodge

5) Yanggakdo Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

 

Yanggakdo Hotel Pyongyang North Korea

Okay this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly wasn’t Larissa’s choice, but the Yanggakdo is the place to go when visiting the monolithic country of North Korea and experience some retro-70s style. There’s even a highlight of that era, a revolving restaurant on top. The rooms were nicer than we expected, although coated somewhat with several decades worth of tar and nicotine. The only way to visit North Korea is via an authorized tour operator. We recommend Koryo Tours. Extra bonus: There’s a two-lane bowling alley in the basement that comes with your own cheerleader.

Website: Koryo Tours

6) Casa Amarela, Algarve Coast, Portugal

 

Casa Amarela Naturist resort Portugal

If you’re seeking a vacation where you can pack light, really light, the Casa Amarela may be what you’re looking for. The guest house run by Brits Jane and Stewart is clothing optional. The feeling of diving into the pool and then drying off au natural in the warm Portuguese sun is so … well, you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. And while you’re relaxing just think of all the money you saved on baggage fees.

Web site: Casa Amarela

7) Munduk Moding Plantation, Bali

 

Unique places to stay Munduk Moding Bali

If you’ve dreamed of waking up to a view of a coffee plantation on the island of Bali then this is the place. True coffee addicts can hike the plantation then retire to the lodge for a fresh cup of Kopi Luwak. Made famous as the java of choice for Jack Nicholson in The Bucket List,  it’s brewed from beans that have first been eaten and shat out by the civet cat. Despite that history, Larissa tried it. Fortunately for Michael he’s not a coffee drinker. As an added bonus you can visit the civets in cages and watch them prepare the beans for roasting.

Munduk Moding Plantation Bali

Website: Munduk Moding Plantation

What unique places to stay can you recommend?

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