Vegas?  Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Vegas? Nope, the Venetian in Macau
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Berlin Cathedral and the TV Tower
Mar 082012

If you want to go on safari in Africa you have two choices: book it in advance or turn up and hope for the best.  The latter approach generally yields much better deals but demands some flexibility.  I researched some of the options ahead of time and the costs were downright scary.  We are talking well north of US$1000 for an 8-day tour!  To put that in perspective, that is roughly equivalent to our monthly budget!

Fortunately, our turn-up-and-see-what-happens approach worked out just fine.  On our first full day in Windhoek we visited a couple of tour agencies including the Cardboard Box Travel Shop where we learned about a tour that was departing in about four days.  Chad, the owner, would personally be leading the 8-day “participation safari” to some of Namibia’s headlining attractions.  Unlike the expensive tours, we’d be responsible for feeding ourselves, erecting/stowing the tents and loading the vehicle.  The itinerary included two nights in Etosha Park, a night in Damaraland, two nights in Swakopmund on the coast and finally two nights near the dunes at Sossousvlei.  Don’t worry if those names don’t mean anything, I’ll be writing about all of them in the coming posts!  I’ll also put together a budget summary for the safari in the final post on Namibia.

Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads

On the first day of the trip we made the 400km drive north from Windhoek to the southern entrance to Etosha.  The roads in Namibia were much better than we were expecting (Mongolia certainly altered my concept of what constitutes a bad road!) so we reached the park by mid afternoon.   As soon as we were through the gates we started to see the animals and lots of them there were.

Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!

Like many of the parks in Africa, Etosha is basically a huge fenced-in area.  The park is a little more than 22,000 km² which is roughly the size of the state of New Jersey but the wildlife is a bit more exciting!  The animals that live in the park roam freely, eat each other and do what wild animals do.  Water is the only thing that is provided to them by humans and this is because they are not able to migrate long distances in search of water as they would do in the wild.  The park staff drill boreholes to make small ponds for the animals.

Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)

Etosha is also the only game park in Africa where you can turn up in your personal vehicle (we saw people driving tiny VW’s!) and go on a self-guided safari.  The roads inside of the park are sealed and comparable to what you find in many national parks back home.  The rules are simple: stay on the roads and never get out of your car except at designated points.  I guess this makes sense considering you could very well end up as a tasty meal for one of the park’s residents.

A black rhino!
A black rhino!

There are a number of camps within the confines of Etosha.  We stayed at Okaukuejo lodge, a German-built camp dating back to 1901.  The facilities there include a luxury hotel, a campground, a swimming pool, a small airport and probably lots of other things I am forgetting.  We stayed in the campground but were treated to hot showers each evening and even running water at our campsite.

The best part of Okaukuejo was the adjacent watering hole.  Just a short walk from our campsite we could go sit and watch the activity at the watering hole behind the safety of a formidable fence and stone wall!  Sitting at the watering hole you have basically a nonstop parade of animals coming through.  At first there might be some giraffes awkwardly drinking from the pond (did you know they pass out if they keep their head down in the water too long?).  A short while later a pride of lions might come in for a drink and a nap while the lesser animals watch on cautiously with envy.  After they leave it could be rhinos, wildebeest, springbok, etc.  The parade goes on and on around the clock.  Amy and I both agreed that we could have spent days hanging around watching the action.

It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

The main activity inside of the park is to go on game drives.  We completed a number of drives in the early morning and late afternoon when the animals are most active.  Chad had large modified Land Rover was perfectly suited for photography with huge windows.  Combine the vehicle with Chad’s uncanny ability to spot animals out in the bush and we had more than our share of animal sightings!  Be sure to check out the gallery below for many more photos from our time at Etosha.

Namibia – Etosha National Park
Beware of the warthogs!
Beware of the warthogs!
Namibia has some great roads
Namibia has some great roads
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
The group just outside of the camp ground at Okaukuejo
Kudu
Kudu
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori)
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
These springbok have figured out how to share the limited shade.
Springbok
Springbok
Red-Crested Korhaan
Red-Crested Korhaan
Jackel
Jackel
Sociable weavers - massive bird colonies
Sociable weavers – massive bird colonies
A black rhino!
A black rhino!
Etosha Pan
Etosha Pan
Cats and birds.  Both bigger in Africa.
Cats and birds. Both bigger in Africa.
Zebra crossing?
Zebra crossing?
The viewing area at the lodge's watering hole.
The viewing area at the lodge’s watering hole.
Black Rhino
Black Rhino
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Helmeted guineafowl running for the water
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Oryx (Gemsbok)
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Southern Masked-Weaver?
Kudu
Kudu
Helmeted Guineafowl
Helmeted Guineafowl
Looks like we aren't going to be continuing on this road.
Looks like we aren’t going to be continuing on this road.
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
A lone wildebeest listening to his radio
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Sometimes the birds dwarf the mammals!
Gemsbok (Oryx)
Gemsbok (Oryx)
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
Tuna sandwich.  I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Tuna sandwich. I ate a few of those in Namibia.
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Acacia (also known as camelthorn)
Jackel
Jackel
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Blacksmith Lapwing (Vanellus armatus)
Jackels
Jackels
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Cape Fox (Vulpes chama)
Mongoose
Mongoose
It took us a while to spot her!
It took us a while to spot her!

Those of you who have been viewing the website regularly have probably noticed that we have switched continents again. In fact, I am writing this post in hot and sunny Windhoek, Namibia. About 12 days ago we were packing our bags in tropical El Nido, Palawan which is tucked away in a remote corner of the Philippines. Since then we have passed through Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, Germany, Poland, Austria, Switzerland and South Africa. Quite a bit of flying for 12 days!

The crazy routing was mainly due to a bargain redemption that I spotted on the United award chart a couple months ago. One-way awards from Japan to Southern Africa (that is, most of the continent south of the equator) are 40/50/60k miles in coach/business/first respectively. 60,000 miles for an intercontinental first class redemption is a good value but this one in particular is spectacular due to the overall distance traveled and the very generous routing allowance.

Boeing-Lufthansa 50 years of partnership special livery
Boeing-Lufthansa 50 years of partnership special livery

United’s Mileage Plus awards are now governed by a “maximum permitted mileage” (MPM) rule that limits how far you can fly on a given award. The MPM is based on the given origin/destination city pair you are traveling between – basically, they look it up in a big table. For Osaka to Windhoek, the MPM allotment is a whopping 15,880 miles – to put that in perspective, the straight-line distance is a mere 8,627 miles!

Krakow to Vienna, again with EuroLOT
Krakow to Vienna, again with EuroLOT

With a huge cushion of routing allotment to work with, I set to work finding a good set of flights on our desired travel dates. Lufthansa had some nice availability on their Osaka-Frankfurt flight and, as an added bonus, there was a rumor floating about that it would be operated by 747′s featuring their new seat+bed first class product. Even without the new seats, Lufthansa First is a fantastic product that I was eager to try again.

Vienna to Zurich, my first flight with Austrian
Vienna to Zurich, my first flight with Austrian

The next challenge was finding award availbility on the Europe to Africa portion of the trip. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a flight that lined up well with our inbound flight from Osaka. Award space on the long-hauls to the southern tip of the continent is pretty scarce. In the end, I found space with Swiss on a flight but it was four full days after our inbound flight from Osaka. This would be a deal-breaker for some, but it was still usable with a little bit of work.

Our Joburg-bound A340-300 as seen from the first class transfer limo.
Our Joburg-bound A340-300 as seen from the first class transfer limo.

United one-way awards don’t allow stopovers so it wasn’t possible to scheduled a stopover in one city for a few days without paying for two award tickets. What their rules DO allow are an unlimited number of connections provided you still observe the MPM restriction. Connections are defined as stops of less than 24 hours in a given city. The Star Alliance has an incredibly dense mesh of routes across the European continent so it feasible to bounce from city to city to pad out the schedule. So that is just what we did!

Getting closer to our final destination.
Getting closer to our final destination.

The routing I pieced together gave us 23 hours in Berlin, Warsaw and Krakow plus nearly a full day in Zurich and an overnight in Vienna. What’s amazing is that we still had 2,880 miles left in our MPM allottment. If I had really tried, I probably could have fit Portugal, Norway and Turkey all on the same ticket!

Namibia, at last!
Namibia, at last!

Actually getting United to ticket this five-airline, eight-segment, 13,303 mile routing was a challenge in and of itself. At first, the agent expressed complete disbelief that such a redemption was possible. Foruntately, she was open-minded and was willing to go through the rules with me. Eventually, she took down the routing I had come up with and called the rate desk to see if they would authorize the booking. This took quite some time but she gave me updates every few minutes. She let on that the rate desk was very unhappy with the routing but that it was indeed within the bounds of all their published rules. When it was all said and done the tickets came to 60,000 miles plus $220 in taxes per person. Not a bad deal since even the cheapest economy ticket from Osaka to Windhoek was over $1800!

Lots of interesting airlines on the apron at WDH - that's Windhoek
Lots of interesting airlines on the apron at WDH – that’s Windhoek

Positioning ourselves in Japan was fairly easy.  We used Zest Air (“Asia’s most refreshing airline”) to get from Palawan to Manila and then continued with Cebu Pacific to Macau.  After a day in Macau and two nights in nearby Hong Kong, we flew Cathay Pacific to Osaka on award tickets issued by American Airlines (a friend owed me some miles!).  So all in all, Philippines to Namibia the slightly long way!

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