When I got the opportunity to intern at Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia, I thought that it couldn’t get any better. Africa was on the top of my travel bucket list, and cheetahs have been my favorite animal for years. My plan was to travel in Italy with my family from September 1st through the 14th, and then I would leave Italy on the 14th and fly to Namibia, arriving on the 15th. I was SO excited, and on September 1st my journey began.
A couple days into our Italy vacation, I got an email from Dionne Stein. She was based in Colorado, and works for CCF. In her email, she asked if I would be willing to accompany a Kangal puppy to Africa, and gave her number so I could call her for more details. I had never heard of a Kangal so I looked it up and was immediately in love, so I called right away.
Even speaking over the phone, I knew I liked Dionne. She was sweet and we got along really well. She explained to me that Wilhelma Zoo in Stuttgart had sponsored a dog who was born in Colorado and was currently residing with Dionne. He needed to somehow get to Namibia, and that’s where I came in. The airline company Lufthansa’s rules prohibited pets flying unaccompanied, so he couldn’t go by himself.
Since I am originally from Portland, Oregon, she thought that it would be perfect for me to stop by Colorado on my way to Namibia. There was, of course, one problem: I was in Italy at the time. Dionne told me I didn’t have to do it, it would be a lot of flying, but I was insistent. I wanted to get Mikey to where he belongs, and I loved flying. And so it was decided, and we started planning. During that first phone call, we decided that I would fly to Colorado. My family had booked our reservation to Italy before I had found out I was interning at CCF, and so I already had a flight from Rome to Newark and Newark to Portland. I called Expedia, and spent hours on the phone trying to get my flight changed to Newark to Denver instead. They were very difficult, and it was a group reservation so I had to be careful to only change my flight, not anyone else’s. I finally got it changed when I heard from Dionne again. Now there was a new plan. I would fly to Newark, somehow get to Washington D.C, and then meet Anne, the head geneticist at CCF who was living in D.C. Dionne would get Mikey to Anne, and then Anne would pass Mikey off to me, and then I would head to Namibia. So again I called Expedia and spent hours on the phone with them trying to cancel only my flight from Newark to Denver. Even after all of that it never got cancelled, so I gave up. I had a flight to Newark, which was the important thing. Now, I had to figure out how to get from Newark to D.C.
In Washington D.C, the hotel Dionne had booked for me was right next to Dulles airport, which is where my Ethiopian Airlines flight left from. The problem was that there was not a direct train or bus from Newark airport to Dulles. All of the options had many different changes, which was a problem considering I had four bags. I finally decided I would take the direct train from Newark airport to Washington central station, and then I would Uber the next 45 minutes to my hotel.
By the time the plan was set, our Italy vacation was coming to an end, and the biggest adventure of my life was about to start. We got COVID tests on the 13th of September in Italy, and then left the morning of the 14th. I flew to Newark with my family, where we said our goodbyes. In Newark I found my way to my train, and ended up in Washington by the evening. I took an Uber to my hotel, and finally made it there about 8pm. I didn’t actually fly out of Dulles until the 16th, so the morning of the 15th I got another negative COVID test before having a phone call with Dionne and Anne, where we solidified our plan. Italy and Namibia happen to be on the same time zone, so I went to bed at 5pm to try and stay on Namibian time. At 2am on the 16th I got up. It was time.
I took the airport shuttle and met Anne at the airport at around 7:30am, where we had to check two of my bags as well as Mikey. This was my first time ever meeting him, he was such a sweetheart! I was instantly in love. My flight didn’t leave until 11am, but we wanted to make sure we had enough time, and it’s a good thing we did. At the ticket desk, I ended up having to unpack all of my suitcases because my carry-ons were over the weight limit. Anne helped me, and we finally got them repacked. Then we had to wait for someone to take us and Mikey to the pet TSA. We really wanted to take Mikey to the bathroom one more time, so we got him out of his carrier and sprinted to the nearest pet relief area, which was further away than we thought. We must have been a sight to behold, the two of us running with this huge puppy through the airport, Mikey just excited to be along for the ride with his tongue blowing in the wind as he galloped next to us, Anne and I probably looking panicked. By this time it was already 9:45am, and my plane started boarding at 10:15am. We made it there and back, and I said goodbye to Anne. They rolled Mikey away and he was as excited as ever, never acting scared or nervous but instead ready and trusting. I ran to my gate, going through security and hopping on the shuttle. As soon as I got to my gate, I went up to the gate agent and asked them to make sure my dog had made it onto the flight. After checking with the ground crew he assured me he had, and I settled in for my 12.5 hour flight to Ethiopia.
I had an extremely short layover in Ethiopia, only a little over an hour. I had to go through security again and managed to find my
next gate, where I again asked the gate agent if Mikey was on the plane. She said she didn’t know, and so as we were boarding the bus to take to the plane I asked another important-looking person. He promised to check and let me know when I was in my seat. I also asked the flight attendant as I boarded, I had to make sure Mikey made it! She came up to me a few minutes later when I was seated and promised me that yes, my dog is loaded on the plane. I settled in, this was a 5.5 hour flight, but I was a little anxious that boarding on either plane they hadn’t really checked, or there had been a different dog that they thought was mine. Imagine if I got there and I didn’t have Mikey!
We finally landed in Namibia at the Windhoek airport, flying over vast deserts and small mountains as we descended. We deplaned via stairs onto the tarmac, and as I looked on the other side of the plane I saw Mikey’s dog crate! I was so excited we had both made it safely. I walked inside where I had to go through customs. That was very difficult because she did not believe me that I did not need a work visa, but I made it through. Next was claiming my baggage and thankfully all of my bags made it safely, with only a few added scratches. I had to wait a while, but after all the bags came off Mikey came riding down the carousel in his crate! I had a porter help me get him off, and then he helped me load all of my luggage, as well as Mikey, up and we went to go through baggage check. I had to go to a special area because of Mikey, Dionne warned me it would probably take at least a few hours and I needed to be patient. I don’t know if it was because I looked like I didn’t know what I was doing or if it was because I had my porter helping me, but she checked his paperwork and sent us on our way! It took us a few minutes. I met Gebhardt Nikanor, CCF’s Education Officer, out front, and after a few quick stops we were on our way to CCF.
After around four hours we arrived, about 6pm at night. We drove directly to the Kraal where the dogs are kept, where I met Calum, the Livestock Guardian Dog Programme Manager and Smallstock Manager, and Molly, his intern. We got Mikey unloaded and settled into his new home, still as happy as ever with that tongue hanging out and a big smile on his face. He was very curious about the goats, he was not really sure what they were! He got used to them in time, though.
It’s been a couple weeks since I have arrived here, and I still go check on my journey buddy when I can. He is always happy to see me, he’s happy to see anyone! Everyone here is so excited to have him, and the organization that paid for him and his journey held a name contest! I voted for Kuume, meaning friend. Oonkondo ended up winning, meaning strong. He is strong, it fits him really well. It was a journey to get here, but I know the adventure for both me and Ookondo (formerly known as Mikey) has just begun, and I can’t wait to see where it leads both of us.