As the plane touched down at Windhoek’s Hosea Kutako International Airport, Benison got her first look of the beautiful desert landscape of Namibia. The airport is set far away from the city because the altitude of Windhoek, at over 1700 metres, is similar to most Australian ski fields and inhospitable to take-offs and landings.
The staff from Chameleon Backpackers recognised us and greeted us warmly. For Sam and me, who spent a few weeks on and off in the hostel two years ago, it felt like our second home.
Our driver during our previous stay, Fernando, a Mozambican who emigrated to Namibia in the 1980s, remembered Sam. ‘He is much better now. He is much calmer than the last time.’
Benison and I shared a look of satisfaction. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘he seems to be enjoying this trip much more.’
In the morning, we headed off on safari to the world famous Etosha National Park, a six-hour drive away in the north of the country. The landscape contrasted greatly from our last trip, with an extended and heavy wet season leaving a carpet of green over the umber clay. As the truck rattled on, Sam entertained our fellow international travellers with a continuous monologue on Tintin characters, his mother’s dislike of eels, and the relative merits of ABC Kids programs from the 1980s. He lent his copy of Tintin Goes to Tibet to Jean, a friendly young man from Angola sitting beside us. Jean, whose English was very good for a native Portuguese speaker, had never seen Tintin before and was most impressed.
Sam was showing some repetitive and obsessive speech and behaviour, reflecting his stress at the fact we were going to be camping for the next two nights.
When we stopped at a roadhouse to buy morning tea, he ignored the ladies at the counter and left without getting his change. Benison expressed her disappointment. ‘Sam, you did really badly then. You know you must look at the ladies and speak to them.’
‘But Mum, this is hard for me,’ he said.
Benison felt gutted. He’d come so far in the last two years we’d become complacent, but he was anxious today. ‘I’m sorry, Sam,’ she said.
Still, the trip ended up being miles better than our last Etosha experience, when Sam had a complete melt-down about camping, and had even tried to abscond. This time it was one minute of grumbling and then he moved on.
Benison, of course, had never seen African animals in the wild before, and was tickled pink by the experience. A lion family, with Mum, Dad and two cubs, played near the road, a black rhino flashed by the truck, and a constellation of other fauna flew by, strolled by or stood defiantly on the road in front of the truck as we criss-crossed the pot-holed dirt roads of the vast park over the next two days. In contrast to our previous trip, we didn’t get to see any elephants. They gather near the water-holes in the dry but scatter out in the bush in the wet when the foliage is lush and water more accessible. Benison was ok with that, and remarked, ‘It’s just nice to know they are there.’
The long drive back to the capital was prolonged by the inexplicable decision of the police to hold a road-block check on cars as they re-entered the city at the end of the Easter break, leading to a ten-kilometre traffic jam. While we welcomed the obvious police presence around Etosha, with regular road-checks to discourage poaching of the endangered black rhino, the purpose of this particular police intrusion completely escaped us.
Our patience, and that of our safari guides, Ian and Job, was further tested by a particularly ‘entitled’ fellow traveller (whom Benison and I had already nicknamed the ‘Peruvian Princess’) who complained about not getting dropped off to her accommodation first! We finally landed back at Chameleon in the dark, exhausted but well satisfied with our safari.
Over breakfast the next morning, Sam, Benison and I were surprised to run into Gabriel, the guide who had taken Sam and me through southern Namibia on our last visit. He had been one of the best connections Sam had made on that trip, with he and Sam really getting along. Unfortunately, after quick handshake, he had to head off, leading another truckful of backpackers from Chameleon off on safari.
That afternoon we met up with Petra Autnam Dillman and her adult son, Michael. Sam and I had met them two years ago, and Benison was delighted to finally meet Petra, the chairperson of Autism Namibia, with whom she had formed a Facebook friendship since that last visit. Michael is autistic and largely non-verbal but is a gentle and engaging soul. Sam was interested in and respectful of him, which I was proud and pleased about.
On the ‘stoep’ (verandah) of Petra’s house, overlooking a leafy Klein Windhoek, Petra and Benison chatted about autism, disability and services in Namibia and Australia, respectively. Petra estimated the prevalence of autism in Namibia to be around 1 in 110, similar to other countries, and that the usual problems, especially lack of resources and funding, plagued the local autism community as it did elsewhere.
We expressed our bemusement at Sam’s revived interest in children’s TV shows from his past.
‘He’s anxious about change,’ Petra said. ‘He wants things to remain simple, like when he was a child.’
Sometimes you need someone wise outside your sphere to see the obvious.