It was a late summer evening in 2010 when I found myself daydreaming and had begun Googling vacation options abroad for the coming winter. I had three things as my criteria. First, the place needed to be somewhere warm. Second, I sought a volunteer opportunity appropriate for someone older than 50. Last, I desired something totally out of my comfort zone.
Within a couple of hours, the Internet figuratively had taken me all over the world. In my search, I had discovered Biosphere Expeditions. Biosphere Expeditions is an international non-profit organization that promotes conservation efforts through forging alliances between scientists and the public. As a volunteer, I would play an active role assisting the research teams in gathering data on the species or habitat under investigation.
I immediately selected Honduras. I completed the necessary paperwork and submitted the nonrefundable down payment to insure my spot in the expedition. I went to bed that evening, my head swimming with excitement: coral reefs, Galapagos Islands, sea turtles ... wow!
The next day, I woke up accompanied by a sharp pang of "buyer's remorse." What did I just agree to do? I carefully re-read the information and discovered that in order to qualify for the Honduran expedition, I had to be a certified scuba diver. I had snorkeled once with my family in Mexico. A moment of panic set in.
Before I called the Biosphere people, to plead my case of ignorance and ask for a refund, I browsed the other winter service opportunities with Biosphere Expeditions. That's when I discovered Namibia, the home of the big cat conundrum: The challenge of protecting leopards, cheetahs and caracals in the Khomas Hochland of central Namibia. I was able to get my payment transferred to the Namibian Expedition taking place Feb. 27-March 11.
My first goal was to learn how to pronounce Namibia. Allegra and Kate (my daughters) knew a lot more than I. They knew how to pronounce it: Na-MI-bi-a. They also informed me Brad and Angelina adopted one of their children from Namibia. In addition, I learned the very popular documentary "Babies" featured a Namibian family. OK, that was a start.
Namibia is located in southwestern Africa along the Southern Atlantic Ocean. It shares borders with Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana to the east and South Africa to the south. The country is about the size of California and is sandwiched between two deserts, Namib to the south and Kalahari to the north. Namibia is the fifth-largest country in Africa, yet the most sparsely populated on the continent. Statistics show there are only two million human inhabitants, yet more than two million livestock and two million wild animals call Namibia home.
At the time of my trip, it would be summer and the rainy season. The temperatures would average in the 80s during the day and the 50s at night. Perfect.
I did not tell anyone of my plans for awhile. I wanted to become more comfortable with what was ahead. Honestly, I was virtually clueless. Prior to my departure, when someone asked about the upcoming trip, I would answer along the lines of I would be tracking "big cats" somewhere on a wildlife preservation, and moreover, "roughing it." Again, I had really no idea.
I landed in Namibia at 7 a.m. Feb. 27. The airport was about twice the size of Tiffin's airport. After proceeding through customs, I exchanged my American dollars to the Namibian currency (approximately 1USD to 6). Schlepping my two backpacks, complete with a lightweight sleeping bag and a Panama Jack hat, I hailed a taxi to take me into Windhoek, Namibia's capital city. Tired from more than 36 hours of travel, I looked outside my cab's window into the countryside of Namibia. I thought to myself, let the adventure begin.