Arriving at N/a’an ku sê Wildlife Sanctuary – My First Solo Travel Experience

Naankuse Wildlife Sanctuary Namibia

This is a travelogue, a personal essay from my time volunteering in Namibia. This piece delves into my experience travelling solo for the first time, detailing my thoughts and fears just before the trip all the way to my arrival.

The names and descriptions of people in this piece have been changed for privacy.

You can read more personal essays from this trip here.


I sat on the sofa in my parents’ living room, my heart pounding. I soaked up the comfort of the room. The soft beige sofa, the cream carpet beneath my feet and the familiar painted walls. My cats, Pooky and Mittens were sat side by side on the sofa opposite me. Their eyes were closed, tails wrapped neatly around their furry bodies. How could I possibly leave behind this and all the other comforts I had known and become so familiar with?

How could I possibly leave it behind to travel half way across the globe completely solo?

Oh, fuck. What have I done?

I was seriously regretting my decision to book this trip. What on earth had I been thinking?

Just over a year ago, I had landed in Africa for the first time as part of a group trip. I’d always known long before I visited the continent that this part of the world was almost engrained into my soul. Zambia had far exceeded my expectations. I’d loved everything about it from the dust in my eyes, the sweaty midday heat, the rugged dirt tracks and of course the nature. There’s nothing quite like lying in bed at night listening to the roaring of lions or the shrill cries of hyenas.

As soon as I returned home from Zambia I was keen to return. My heart longed to be back on the continent so badly.

And so I had grabbed my laptop. I needed to go back to Africa. It was a longing so strong that it almost made me fearless. I’d heard people talk about volunteer programmes and so typed into google ‘Volunteer in Africa’ and was presented with websites listing various programmes available.

I was browsing through a site called Enkosini, who presented a number of wildlife-based volunteer programmes in Africa. One in particular grabbed my attention called ‘Namibia Wildlife Sanctuary’. My eyes lit up as I gazed at images of volunteers cradling helpless baby baboons and sitting beside majestic cheetahs. The experience promised to be ‘hands on’, something which made my heart pound with excitement. It sounded perfect.

I skim-read the information the page, too in love with the concept of the trip to feel the slightest bit concerned that the name and location of the sanctuary were in fact never mentioned.

I conducted no research on this trip. Questions I perhaps should have asked myself never made an appearance. Like, were Enkosini even a reputable company? Was the sanctuary even a real place? Which part of Namibia was it even in? If I didn’t know the exact location how would I know whether or not I needed to take anti-malarial tablets with me? Blissfully young, naïve me didn’t even contemplate any complications.

The minimum volunteer time was two weeks. I figured that would be plenty of time for me, especially considering I would be there entirely solo, so I won’t want to be there too long on my own. What if I made no friends and ended up hating it?

I swallowed. I was going to book a solo trip. I knew I wanted to do that. That I had to do that.

I had toyed with the concept of doing the volunteer experience with a friend. But as I thought about each friend I had, I was certain that none of them would be interested. And just because I had no friends to bring didn’t mean I would let myself miss out on this opportunity. I just knew I had to push myself out of my comfort zone, however difficult that was going to be.

But making the decision to book the trip over a year in advance numbed the severity of this aspect. I felt next to no fear. It was so far off, so intangible that it almost didn’t feel like it was actually going to happen. I had shrugged, concluding I’d deal with that fact that I would be entirely alone when I came to it.

With my parents’ approval, I bit the bullet and booked the trip which required an up-front deposit. My parents had to be pay for it initially. However I had plans to work with Dad for a couple of months, to save up enough money to pay for the trip myself. I’d timed my work so that by the time the rest of the payment was due, shortly before the departure date, I’d be able to make the payment myself.

As the booking confirmation came through, I felt truly exhilarated. I was going to Namibia!

Namibia. A country I knew nothing about. As mentioned above, I did no research for this trip. I took a look at Namibia’s location on the world map and felt satisfied. Then I completely forgot that I had even booked the trip, not giving another thought to the fact that I had no idea which part of Namibia I was going to.

That was until leaving day crept up on me.

Now it was only a day before I was due to fly to Namibia and I was scared shitless. Did the sanctuary even know I was coming? I’d only dealt with Enkosini and they hadn’t given me any details of what happened once I arrived in Namibia’s international airport.

I was seriously regretting booking the trip. How on earth did I think I could do this by myself? I was so out of my depth, irresponsible and afraid.

Enkosini had at least given me the telephone number for the sanctuary. That meant I could ring them and check everything was okay. Except, I was a complete and utter pussy. I couldn’t even contemplate a phone call. The very idea of one made me want to curl into the foetal position and cry.

So I turned to Dad, the only person in my household beside myself and got him call the sanctuary on my behalf. I know right. I was a total wimp. And I cringed at what the sanctuary would think of me.

The good news was the sanctuary were most certainly expecting me and they even informed Dad that two other volunteers would be arriving in Windhoek (Namibia’s capital) on my flight. The thought reassured me slightly. I wouldn’t be entirely alone.

I swallowed when I realised that this meant I was most definitely flying to Namibia tomorrow.

On my own.

I best get packing then, I thought with a sigh.

 

--

 

I arrived at the airport feeling like a deer caught in someone’s car headlights. I didn’t want to leave Dad. I really didn’t.

The entrance to security was a few feet away, illuminated by a bright yellow sign. I knew that once I entered the security hall there was no going back, and I’d leave Dad and life as I knew it behind.

I looked at Dad with round, terrified eyes. He looked just as scared as I was but at the same time I knew he was proud of me for being so brave and following my dreams.

“Safe trip,” he remarked warmly.

I let Dad’s familiar voice sound in my eardrums, filling me with comfort. I smiled at him, waving and then turned away.

I made my way through airport security, allowing a jittery sigh to rattle my ribcage. There was no going back now.

I’d flown on my own before but only to Mallorca and back, which was a short two hour flight. I was also extremely well acquainted with Palma airport. This was going to be completely different.

I had a total of three planes to catch. My first plane would take me to Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, France. I then had a short connection before catching a huge ten hour flight to Johannesburg in South Africa. A lengthy seven hour layover awaited me in Johannesburg before I was to take the final flight to Windhoek, Namibia.

Three flights meant there was a lot that could potentially go wrong. I had to be organised or I could easily miss a connection and never make it to Namibia.

The pressure was building up as I made my way through security. The high-pitched screams of the scanning machines filled the air.

Every step I took down the line took me closer to my destination.

My destination where I would not know a single soul.

Oh, Ella. Just pull yourself together!

I thought back to a couple of days before, when I had been due to leave Mallorca where I had been holidaying with friends and family. My heart had been heavy with regret.

I had made a choice to say goodbye to a summer in the Mediterranean, comforted by friends who I had known for my entire life. I had chosen a different path, and part of me was screaming out that I’d made the wrong decision.

How could I turn my back on a summer in Mallorca, where I had lived some of the best moments of my life, in order to walk an unknown path?

Wistfully I allowed my thoughts to fly to Mallorca. What were my friends doing now? Did they miss me now that I was not with them?

Whilst part of my heart was heavy, I knew I wouldn’t give up this trip for the world. As much as it terrified me to the core to be travelling solo to a country in sub-Saharan Africa, I knew this was what I wanted. And whilst the unknown was petrifying, it also filled me with exhilaration.

Whilst everyone that I knew was staying well within their comfort zones, I was going on a real adventure.

 

--

 

Three plane rides and over a day’s worth of travelling later, I touched-down in Namibia.

It certainly hadn’t been the easiest of journeys. I cringed slightly when I recalled my time journeying through Johannesburg airport. From there I was due to connect to my final flight to Namibia’s capital of Windhoek. Yet somehow I missed the signs for connections and instead found myself queueing at immigration to South Africa.

“Umm…” I had mumbled embarrassedly at the immigration officer. “I am connecting to another flight. I’m going to Namibia.”

He stared at me, a disapproving look in his dark eyes. Did he expect me to have a South African visa or something? What if he didn’t let me though? My head swam.

Thankfully, after several moments glaring at me, he stamped my passport and waved me on.

My relief quickly faded to a feeling of utter bewilderment as I wandered blankly around Johannesburg’s arrivals’ hall. Dusty Johannesburg city - one of the most Markgerous cities in the world - rose up outside the full-length window panes. This isn’t where I am meant to be! I thought in despair. I need to get to Namibia.

I gazed around me, eyes darting this way and that. Beneath my thick white hoody, I was feeling hot. I could clearly visualise how red my cheeks were and could feel a bead of sweat preparing for a journey down my forehead.

“Can I help you?”

I spun around to see a man wearing a vibrant orange vest which said ‘porter on it. He was watching me intently, a friendly smile on his face.

Yes! A member of staff is just what I need.

“Thank you.” I let out a sigh of relief. “I need to catch a connecting flight.”

I glanced down at the plane ticket in my hand.

“May I see?” he asked gently.

I passed him the ticket and he studied it for a moment. “Ah, yes. You need to get to departure zone B. I can take you there. Follow me.”

“Thank you!”

At once he took off, glancing behind him to ensure I was following him. We rode on a set of escalators and, as we started to ascend, I realised for the first time how huge the airport was. We were in a wide, spherical, double-height foyer. Glass barriers separated the first floor from the great drop down to the arrivals’ hall.

At the top of the escalators were countless check-in desks with queues of people in front. Above them was a bright blue sign which read ‘Zone B’. Yes! This was it.

The porter took me to an automated machine and instructed me on how to check-in for my flight automatically. It was a very sophisticated system and I wondered why Manchester airport didn’t currently have anything like it.

“All done!” he beamed. “Just follow that sign through to security.” He pointed with his arm.

“Thanks so much for your help!” I breathed, preparing to walk away.

That’s when I noticed him staring expectantly. Did he want something? Then it hit me. Am I supposed to pay him? I began to feel flustered again as I realised the only money I had on me was Namibian dollars, and that was likely worthless to him.

“I don’t have any rand,” I blurted, feeling hot with embarrassment.

“I can have American dollars instead.”

“I don’t think I have any.” The words escaped my mouth before I had chance to think.

I noticed the look of disappointment in his eyes which bore into my heart. How could you be so stupid, Ella? Of course he would have wanted payment. You should have just found your own way.

“I have British pounds,” I tried.

He shook his head, looking frustrated.

“One moment,” I added hastily, deciding to check to see if I definitely didn’t have anything.

I pulled out my wallet and began to fumble through it, noticing the porter’s eyes burrowing into it. I hoped I had something. I sifted through pounds, Namibian dollars and some other random currencies. It wasn’t looking good.

And then.

Yes! I found two 1 dollar notes. Dad had given these as mementos from a trip to America he had taken. I hadn’t hoped to use these up but I could see no other choice. My eyes lit up at once and I handed them proudly to him.

My heart sank when I noticed the disappointment on his face. He turned expectantly to me again.

“That’s all I have,” I told him sympathetically.

He looked at the dollars as though they were worthless before sadly trudging off.

I had watched in dismay, feeling a weight of guilt in my stomach. I should have just helped myself and then this porter wouldn’t have been so disappointed in me.

I felt even more despondent when I realised that in my first few moments of solo travel, I was already fucking it up. What if I was just too moronic for this way of life?

I was glad to finally be in Namibia.

I stood in the queue to Namibian immigration, holding my passport and a flimsy piece of paper which was meant to be my volunteer visa. It was a list with more names on it than I cared to count, of other volunteers. Apparently we were to all use the same document to enter the country.

I couldn’t help but glance around me, trying to work out who would be volunteering alongside me at the same sanctuary.

I’d been eyeing everyone up since I was in Johannesburg airport in South Africa, where I’d had an exhausting seven hour wait. I had sipped on my tangy pineapple-flavour Fanta in a vibrant green can, a flavour I had never come across before, – likely because it was way too unhealthy to sell in Europe - glancing up from my Kindle at anyone who came to sit beside the gate.

I noticed a young girl, perhaps only a year or two older than me, who was reading on a seat opposite. She was blonde and petite and looked like she was travelling alone. Could she be one of the other volunteers? I hoped so. She looked friendly enough.

She had looked over, briefly catching my eye before I averted my gaze away, feeling hot with embarrassment. Of course, there was no way I was going to start up a conversation with her.

Three more Fanta cans and several hours later, I had boarded my flight from Johannesburg to Windhoek. The plane was quiet and I found myself fortunate to have an entire row of seats to myself. Glancing across the aisle, I had laid eyes on the same girl again. So she was going to Namibia! She had to be a volunteer. She just had to be.

The immigration queue was moving painfully slowly. Even so, it wouldn’t be long now until I found out once and for all who the two other volunteers from my flight were.

I glanced towards the full-length window to my left, gazing at Namibia’s scenery. Beyond the runway was a vast expanse of orange savannah, dotted with tall trees with wide, bottle-green canopies. I almost couldn’t believe I was back in Africa.

As I soaked up the beautiful natural scenery outside the window, my fears began to melt away. It was strange but I almost felt like I had come home. I had never been to Namibia before yet it just felt so natural and so right to be here.

The sun was an orange ball of fire on the horizon, slowly dipping down and sending the final rays of light across the savannah. Evening was fast approaching.

Namibia was a country perched upon southern Africa’s west coastline, just north of South Africa. It was slightly further south than Zambia and had a more arid, dry environment. Much of Namibia consisted of desert. It was, in fact, home to the oldest desert in the world which also housed the highest sand-dunes on the planet.

I was called forward. Shaking my head to relieve myself from my daydream, I stepped towards the immigration desk and handed over my documents.

The officer scanned them with a quizzical expression on his face, seeming particularly interested in the work visa.

“What is this?” he asked.

“It’s my visa,” I replied, feeling somewhat embarrassed.

Was there a problem with the document? What if he didn’t let me into the country?

He began to mutter under his breath before displaying it to the officer next to him. Together they mumbled in hushed tones, carefully examining the document.

I knew it looked like a strange document! I glanced down awkwardly.

Suddenly the officer handed it back to me and stamped my passport. “Welcome to Namibia.”

I trudged through the airport, swallowing hard when I wondered who would be waiting for me in the arrivals’ hall. What if nobody was waiting for me? What would I do then? I had no idea. I just had to pray that someone was waiting to pick me up.

I ventured to the luggage belt, noticing the porters congregating around it, likely looking for a startled tourist to assist. I deliberately looked at the floor. I was not going to make that mistake again!

Luggage in hand, my white shoes slapped against the matte white tiles. My eyes darted nervously as I searched every corner to the arrivals’ hall. Several clusters of people were stood in the centre of the hall in front of a couple of shops.

Numerous people held up pieces of paper with various names on. My eyes began to quickly scan them, searching for my name. It didn’t take my long to find it on a piece of paper alongside a couple more names.

My heart sighed with relief in my chest. They came! I began to amble over to the man who was holding the sign. He was standing beside a young boy with tanned skin and jet-black hair, who must have been no older than I was.

I smiled a greeting, before stopping nervously beside them.

“Hi,” I began, my voice far more confident than I felt. “I’m Ella.”

“Hello, Ella,” the man with the sign responded in a calm, gentle voice. “We are just waiting for two more people from the same flight.”

I nodded before shifting awkwardly on my feet as silence took over. I watched as more people spilled out into the arrivals’ hall, anticipating the moment of truth when I found out who from my flight was going to volunteer at the same sanctuary as me.

A slender woman with crisp white skin, perhaps in her 40s, began to make her way over. She smiled awkwardly before introducing herself in an accent that was not English. I took in her turquoise zip-up jumper, her ginger locks tied into a neat pony-tail and her rectangular glasses. I remembered seeing her whilst waiting for our flight in Johannesburg but never would have expected her to be another volunteer.

I shuffled clumsily when I realised that I’d been expecting all volunteers to be a similar age to myself. That had been quite an assumption and clearly an incorrect one. I felt a new wave of nervousness sweep through me. What if I was the only young one there? I shouldn’t have felt awkward about that but I really was yearning to be alongside people my own age. That’s what I had envisioned anyway.

Then I glanced at the boy beside us. He was young, at least. Oh, Ella. Stop worrying.

“We are just waiting for one more person,” the man interjected, relieving me of my thoughts.

We were enveloped by silence again. An awkward group of strangers with no idea what to say to one another.

It was at that moment when the reality of the next two weeks began to sink in. I was going to be living on a wildlife sanctuary alongside a group of people whom I’d never met before. I could scarcely believe it, but it was pointless pinching myself. I knew I was here.

The moments dragged on and the stream of people filtering through from the luggage reclamation area trickled until there were no more people. Where was the final volunteer? She clearly wasn’t the girl that I had seen before on the plane.

Finally, the man standing with us spoke. “I don’t think she’s coming. Come, I’ll take you to withdraw some cash.”

I tore my gaze away, following the ragged group as we made our way to one of the stalls at the edge of the arrival’s hall. Mum had already been organised on my behalf and ordered me several hundred pounds worth of Namibian dollars beforehand. So I stood back as the other two volunteers extracted their currency.

Before long, we made our way out of the airport. For the first time I took note of the thick black sky which encased us. Night had fallen and bright yellow lights were directing us through the carpark.

The young boy fell into step beside me as we walked.

“Ella, is it?” he asked in a thick American accent.

“Yes, that’s right.” I responded, unable to hide the delight from my voice. I was socialising! “What’s your name?”

“Mark. Where have you arrived from?”

“The UK. Did you arrive today as well?”

He shook his head. “I’ve been here a while. I came to the airport to withdraw some cash.”

My eyes lit up. So I was speaking to an actual volunteer.

“There’s lots of people here from the UK,” he continued. “In fact, I think most people are.”

My heart began to swell with hope. Lots of Brits? That felt comforting. Maybe I wouldn’t be such an outsider.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Eighteen. Are there many people a similar age?” I couldn’t help but ask the question.

“Oh, yes.” He nodded vigorously. “Most people are young solo travellers. A lot in their early twenties.”

At once I felt calm take over. This was sounding more like it! Whilst part of me couldn’t wait to meet the others, another part felt slightly apprehensive. What if they didn’t like me? After all, I hadn’t always found it easy to make friends. And I was rather alternative.

We reached a silver minibus which was stood illuminated by a lonely street-lamp. I glanced up at the halo encasing the light, noting the large moths which hurtled their bodies at the hot light.

The minibus door was swung open, sliding along its railing with a throaty hiss. My stomach fluttered. This was the vehicle that would take me to my new home. I sat down on the soft grey seat, trying to supress the nervousness which began to well up inside me.

The minibus roared to life, its headlights starting up suddenly. Juddering like a purring cat, the vehicle began to roll forward, navigating its way out of the airport’s carpark.

My eyes began to droop as we left the vibrant lights of the airport behind us. Darkness engulfed the straight tarred road which stretched out in front of us and I became aware of just how tired I really was. I’d never spent so much time travelling. And all the time I’d spent feeling anxious had just added to my fatigue.

I glanced beside me at the female volunteer, noticing her head lulling to one side. Her eyes were closed. Clearly she’d had just as exhausting a day.

I watched foliage blurring past my window, details hidden by a black sky. I thought about what animals could be lurking out there. I felt a sudden jolt as if I’d touched a spark, picturing the creatures of the night prowling through the dense undergrowth: lions, leopards and hyenas.

Suddenly, the minivan took a right turn from the main road. I felt the car bump ungraciously as it left the tarred road behind. A stretch of well-worn sand replaced it, winding round a bend like a snake.

I gazed in wonder at my new surroundings, realising that I had absolutely no idea where we were going. It was almost laughable how little research I had done on this sanctuary. Which part of Namibia were we in? How long was the drive? How did I know we wouldn’t be travelling all night? Where was I going to sleep? What was the accommodation like?

The dusty road went on. We didn’t pass a single vehicle and the bushes which flanked the road seemed void of life. Once again, my eyelids tried to glue themselves shut and put an end to the show that was flickering past the glass.

But I didn’t want to sleep. I wanted to savour every moment of my journey into the unknown.

It’s a good job that I didn’t give in to exhaustion as, soon enough, my first wildlife sighting of the trip occurred.

A black-backed jackal came into view, sauntering down the dirt road ahead of us, its tail beating against its muscular back legs. Its tawny legs and silvery-grey saddle were lit up by our minibus’s vibrant yellow lights.

At first, the lithe canine seemed obvious to us, maintaining a steady trot just a couple of metres ahead. It was reluctant to leave the road.

“Look!” The female volunteer had woken up and was pointing excitedly at the canine.

I smiled, refusing to take my eyes off the carnivore.

Our bus-driver grinned, increasing the pace of the vehicle until we were right behind the jackal. Its ears flew back in discomfort and it broke into a loping canter. Suddenly, it was a game and the bus-driver maintained a speed so that we were still behind the animal. As it wove into the centre of the road, so did we, and then back again. It was notable how the jackal was not moving into the safety of the thickets at the side of the road.

The chase continued for no less than perhaps five minutes before the canine finally veered into the bushes at the side of the road.

We turned left beside some gates and the minibus slowed down. Winding down the window, the driver exchanged some words with someone who was on the gate, before we continued our drive. I guessed that this must have been the entrance to the sanctuary.

The road to the sanctuary was even narrower than the dirt track we had just been on. The sand was thicker too, swallowing up more inches of tyre, and sharp trees threatened to scrape the sides of the bus.

I kept my eyes peeled for anymore wildlife, although I didn’t think I’d see much else. I’d already been greeted with a remarkable sight and it would have been too much to expect any more.

It was notable how great the distance was from the entrance to the reserve to our accommodation. We bumped and juddered down the narrow sandy track and once again I began to feel weary. I longed to rest my head against a pillow. How much further would we have to travel?

At last, we drove through an open gate and pulled up outside a tan building with a silver-coloured aluminium roof. The engine juddered to a halt and our lights fluttered into darkness.

Could we really be here?

The sliding doors were forced open and a gust of freezing air buffeted in. I supressed a shudder, picturing my hairs standing on end with cold.

I leapt out into the night, my feet landing in inches of sand and my skin prickling with cold.

A woman was standing beside the minibus wearing a smile.

“Hello!” she greeted warmly. “Welcome to N/a'an ku sê”.

Welcome to what? I thought as I lugged my heavy bag from the boot of the bus. There’s no way I’m ever going to even remember - let alone able pronounce - a name like that. It was comical how I was only just discovering the name of the wildlife sanctuary now.

“I will show you to your rooms,” she continued, her slender face and blonde hair illuminated by the bright torch which she held.

“Bye!” Mark waved from beside me. I watched as he sauntered away, beginning to disappear into the darkness. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“See you tomorrow,” I responded with a smile.

I followed the woman – presumably one of the sanctuary’s secretaries – and the female volunteer into the night. The secretary held out the bright torch in front of her which illuminated the way.

We passed numerous buildings, all shrouded in darkness and silent. No one was stirring. We must have arrived past everyone’s bedtimes. I stared at the ground beneath us, taking in the vibrant orange colour of the sand and noticing how it was already coating my once-white high-top trainers. Low trees dotted the sandy ground, each with brilliant green leaves growing from their spindly branches.

I noticed enclosures begin to appear. A wire fence enclosure rose to our left and another to our right. I wondered what lived in there. I knew I was volunteering at a sanctuary which took in injured or orphaned animals. I presumed these enclosures must have housed some of those residents. But which? I stifled a shudder as I pictured gleaming eyes watching us through the darkness. They could see us but we couldn’t see them.

The receptionist clinked open a large metal gate at the edge of the fenced complex and I felt a jolt of concern. So our accommodation was outside of the protected area? I took a wary glance back at the peaceful buildings behind us, where people likely slept soundly without any concerns about wandering wildlife.

As if reading my thoughts, the receptionist spoke. “Volunteers normally stay in that building there.” She nodded towards a very long, teal building. “But we have a record number of volunteers this year so we are using the overflow tents.”

Tents? I shuddered as I recalled my experience last year, when I had been sleeping in tents in Zambia. Going to the bathroom at night had nearly cost me my life. I had hoped I would be safer here.

The metal gate clinked shut behind us and we found ourselves following a narrow sandy trail, encased by lines of small stones. Low, arid bushes and naked trees wearing thorns stood beyond the stones, very different to the terrain within the fencing. Out here it was wild, untamed wilderness.

I noticed smaller paths branching out from the main one and followed them with my eyes, noticing they led to large green tents. I was relieved to see these tents were far bigger than those in Zambia and were even perched upon their own raised, private decks.

We stopped beside one.

The receptionist turned to my companion. “This is your tent. The toilets are just over there.” She gestured with her hand into the darkness. “There’s a toilet block every two tents. It is shared with one other tent. Breakfast is at 7am tomorrow in the lapa.”

Lapa?

She must have noticed the blank expressions that greeted her and she went on to explain. “The lapa is the volunteer area which is located just on the right once you go through the gates. Just beyond the cheetah enclosure.”

Cheetah enclosure? So we’d passed cheetahs just back there. My eyes hunted through the darkness, knowing that the enclosure wasn’t far behind us. Perhaps the felines were still watching us now.

The word lapa is an indigenous Southern African Sotho and Tswana word for home. These days in southern Africa it refers to a house-like structure with some land attached. These houses are constructed using hardwood poles and have thatched roofs. Traditionally families in South Africa gather round a lapa to eat together.

The volunteer waved goodbye and began to make her away down the trail that led to her tent.

It was just me left.

We continued down the sandy trail which twisted on into the night. We passed several more tents on our journey before finally stopping beside my designated home.

“The toilet is just over there.” She gestured towards the left and I noticed a path lined by stones which led in that direction. I could just about make up the outline of a small building. At least it wasn’t too far away.

“Your tent is called Steenbok,” she continued. “Breakfast is at 7am tomorrow.”

Steenboks are a small antelope which was commonly found throughout southern and eastern Africa.

“Thank you,” I responded, waving goodbye as she turned to head back the way she came.

I used my phone for light as I stumbled up the narrow fork in the path that led to my tent. It rose out of the foliage, perched upon a wooden deck. I began to ascend the three steps, hearing the wooden slats creak slightly beneath my weight.

My torch lit up the khaki-coloured tent as I unzipped it and stepped inside.

The tent was split into two parts. At the front was the hall area, separated from the bedroom by a wall of canvas. I noticed bags on the right side of the room and knew at once I had a tent-mate. I swallowed nervously. I hoped I didn’t disturb them with my arrival.

I placed my bags down on the other side of the room and prepared for the night.

I was certain all my rummaging would have disturbed my tent-mate. I awkwardly unzipped the bedroom and stumbled in, noticing the empty bed facing me to the left. It was set up with a colourful duvet and pillow which I hadn’t expected. I dumped my sleeping bag on it and decided to make use of both my sleeping bag and the duvet. That may make the temperature in there actually bearable.

I clambered into bed and heard shuffling coming from the bed opposite.

“Hello?” greeted a sleepy voice from the other side of the room. It was female with a British accent and sounded relatively young.

“Hi,” I whispered back. “I’m sorry I woke you.”

“It’s OK.” She only sounded marginally annoyed. “My name’s Jess.”

“Hi Jess. My name’s Ella. Have you been here long?”

“I arrived earlier today. Where did you travel from?”

“Manchester. What about you?”

“Bath.”

“That’s cool.” Suddenly, I found I couldn’t shut up. Fuelled off adrenaline and very little sleep, I became overcome by the urge to know more about Jess and her experience so far. After all, we were going to be sharing a tent for the next few weeks. “How old are you?”

“I’m 23. What about you?”

We continued talking for a while. I learnt that she was going to be volunteering here for six weeks. She had booked the trip primarily to work with children. The sanctuary ran a school within the grounds and an optional volunteer task was assisting at this school, known as the Clever Cubs School. Personally, I couldn’t see myself opting to do that as I preferred to be around animals. But I understood Jess’s drive to be around them.

Listening to how long she would be volunteering for, I couldn’t help but suddenly feel a pang of regret for only selecting two weeks. Did I make the right decision to only stay for the minimal amount of time? I wasn’t so sure anymore.

“I’m getting tired,” she announced, barely stifling a yawn. “Let’s get some sleep. We have to be up at 6.30am tomorrow in order to get ready for breakfast.”

“Goodnight,” I whispered, folding my duvet around my shivering body.

Despite my exhaustion, sleep wouldn’t immediately come. I lay awake, my tremors fighting against the cold and my mind alive with exhilaration. I was here. I was in Namibia on my own. And best of all, I was making friends!

I listened to the sound of insects and frogs chirping outside my tent, wondering how close they were. Just then, I heard a gruff roar and my eyes flew open with delight. It was the unmistakable roaring of a lion.

I can’t believe I’m here!

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