‘And the boxer shorts as well’ – my masseur after lying down on my back on the massage table
This was a country that besides my research for this trip I knew little about. That’s besides the famous documentary of the previously mentioned anthropologist and social intellect ‘Alby Mangels’ trips to the Skeleton Coast.
This country as with all in Africa was colonized from the ‘Berlin Conference’, which split up the continent along arbitrary straight lines with Namibia handed to Germany. For us this meant pork schnitzels for dinner, town names I had no hope of pronouncing (like Aussenkehr) and for the locals it meant seemingly on the surface a class difference between the whites and blacks.
As soon as we entered the country on track for the capital the roads were undulated which for me was a welcome relief from the previous very flat roads of Botswana. It actually added some definition to the riding experience. With these topography changes the vegetation started to offer some variance from the previous constant site of scrubby bushes. With some longer kilometers on these first few days we again fell short of our intended daylight arrival on the first riding into town well into dark. With seemingly nothing open besides the well visited local bar we knocked on the door of a shop and after much pleading were let in and allowed to sleep on the floor between the shelves whilst the shopkeepers shifted their mattresses to an opposing corner. We were also able to purchase from the shop, which made our dinner that bit more exciting along with a dessert of deserved ice creams.
Finally reaching the capital we were touched with the joy of seeing yet another foreign city along with the inevitable sadness that this was the departure point of our 5th member, Shaun. He easily gelled into the group with his impressive strength and the opposing appreciated sense of humour. The fact that he lost the only lock nut key to remove his rear wheel for the last week only added to this, thankfully he had no punctures otherwise it would’ve been an interesting situation. Really appreciated being able to share this experience with him.
The capital was a surreal place with the surrounding hills dotted with out of place modern architecturally designed housing whilst the opposing valleys which snaked around these peaks featuring the centre of town. What seemed like a peaceful place during the day apparently changed at night going by the guards and the abundance of electrically lined perimeter walls. My first port of call on our rest day was the local ‘Canon’ distributors where I took in my cameras in the hope they could be fixed which in the end the couldn’t so they kindly gave me a replacement point and shoot - much (much) appreciated. The rest of the day was spent taking in various sites from the national museum featuring very dated and dusty exhibitions to numerous souvenirs shops to try and find something that could resemble a half descent gift. Spending time in this modern city certainly reiterated the feeling that we had left the ‘real’ Africa, the one of masses of greeting locals, the small community villages and certainly the lushness of those countries based around the equator. With a final dinner at the tacky renowned local bar over some beers and amarula it was a sad farewell to Shaun.
Halfway through the next day we took a turn to start our course towards the Atlantic Ocean and with this came the first of many dirt roads. An enjoyable alternative surface that featured on 10 out of 12 days we spent in Namibia due to the remote and rewarding route we took. At our lunch stop we enquired off local’s information about the road conditions ahead, a question by now we realized the answer wouldn’t be through a cyclist’s experience. In a car changes in elevation or even surface condition isn’t noticed as much as when trying to cycle across it at an approximate fifth of the speed. Therefore comments of a flat section with smooth rides often turned into numerous climbs with continuing corrugations. It was also hard for locals to comprehend the fact of where we were cycling to especially in the northern countries. With people in some of the smaller villages not knowing of much outside of their own areas talking about a town several hundreds of kilometers away or a different country couldn’t at times be comprehended.
These days heading in a western direction off the beaten track were some of my favourite. It literally involved waking from our tents, riding, see amazing scenery, spotting wildlife, sorting out a camp and then wake to do it all again the next day. The joy of pulling off on the side of the road as the sun was swiftly setting to locate a suitable camp i.e. not seen from the road and hopefully not featuring those reported lions was a joy many times over in Namibia. Assessing the landscape around us thanks to the dry river beds (which we camped in) and the lack of vegetation assured it wasn’t about to rain soon so our tent flies were often left off allowing you to view the vivid stars and bear witness to the trajection of the moon as it swapped over with the awaiting sun. Oh I should add the fact that despite waking several times throughout the nights to re-inflate my seemingly punctured mattress I wasn’t bothered.
The roads were all gravel and with recent grading allowed 30km speeds, despite the good conditions we barely experienced any other traffic. Taking a secondary (secondary) road we were a bit challenged with a sign noting no caravans due to steep grades, but with no signs crossing out fully laden bicycles we pushed on. Speaking to some locals confirmed it was a very steep and dangerous grade although for our direction it was actually a descent, the preferred option. In this instance the locals were actually right! The path, which offered amazing panoramic views over the surrounding plains, was steep enough to warrant paved sections between sections of gravel. The constant smell of brake pads as we continued on the downwards spiral was testimony to the sheer drop. It was on the flat plains surrounded by the ranges we just descended that offered some of the best cycling of the trip, some that won’t be easy to ever eclipse. Flat gravel roads that sliced through the fresh grasslands offering glimpses of wildlife whilst we aimed towards distant red stained mountain ranges. At times I stopped to take it all in, giggling with glee from its surrealism, taking photos with the projection that the scene will be captured for a awaiting frame at home.
The wildlife that we were fortunate enough to see as we cycled past included giraffes, mountain zebras, kudu, springbok, gemsbok, antelopes, ostriches and warthogs. Throughout the country it was quite common to see on the menu (and our plates) some of these animals which at first shocked due to their wildness and beauty but in reality as explained by many locals its not much different to using our own wildlife as a food source and possibly more preferable/sustainable then mass farming.
Our first rest day for this section was in Sesriem, a collection of hotels/camping options randomly dotted on the edges of the gravel road for the surrounding ‘biggest in the world’ sand dunes. Lapping up the beauty of the space and the pure joy of the past few days we celebrated with a couple of drinks engaging with other travelers, which for us was a bit of a novelty. With the intent of seeing the sunrise a 4:30 wake up didn’t work out for some, it seemed that despite the shaking of the tents the responses sensed the late night took its toll. Gavan and I along with our car traveling Canadian friends headed at break neck speeds to dune 45, ensuring we caught the sunrise in time. Once at the bottom of this specific dune out of field of many its actual scale was realized and then emphasized when we spent 20 minutes climbing to its peak. Once a chosen viewpoint was reached (being the top) we perched ourselves in the early morning cold and watched as the day started with the sun appearing through the gaps of horizon edge dunes, offering its ranges of colours to the recently darkened landscape in its own direction whilst in the opposing it slowly burnt off the low hovering blanketed clouds. In opposition to the bright evolving colours we just witnessed we also made our way to ‘deadvlei’ translated as ‘dead marsh’. This was a flat area of parched ground scattered with dead acacia trees, cut off from its forming water sources by the encroaching sand dunes. A differing landscape that was striking through is simplicity of colours whether it was the vibrant red of the dunes the bleached whitened surface to the dotted vertical shades of black from the striking dead vegetation. Certainly two unique environmental environment formations to be seen and all by 9am! Back at the camping ground we found the other two lounging around the pool either for the relaxation or the opportunity to hang out with the 15-poolside Dutch girls. Subtle starring proved we had been on the road for a while now!
Rest days were a great luxury although often rushed considering they were more then likely nominated for a site to be seen. Personally I always ensured I could see as much as possible despite at the end of the day being a tad frustrated that I didn’t put the put the feet up as an attempt to actually rest. For me it was the realisation of knowing that I wouldn’t be back in a hurry and I could rest once in Cape Town!
Back on our gravel roads we soon hit a sour note with our first encounter with the feared wildlife of Africa, where the many comments of ‘isn’t it full of dangerous animals’ unfortunately all came true. Its something I can write about now although the traumatised victim Shane would still struggle. It was whilst innocently sitting under the shade of a farmhouses tree that we were viciously attacked by a meerkat, that I should note was bigger then normal and as it turns out most likely had rabies. Having encountered these cuddly creatures previously we were in shock when this one kept coming after us despite throws of gravel to ward off its continual deadly approaches. Eventually it got through our defenses and clamped its ‘fangs’ into Shane’s ankle just before he managed to boot it through mid air. With blood gushing (just visible) we leapt back on the bikes before it could claim another victim. With Shane’s leg barely hanging on it was at our destination for the night ‘Helmeringhausen’ (no German influence here) that we were told that due to the abnormal behaviour it was highly likely that the perpetrating meerkat had rabies. With visible signs of frothing throughout the night (not really) Shane was keen to get to our next town, Luderitz in time for a doctor. Despite all having our shots for rabies as neither of us were too keen on a blood transfusion in Africa you must still see a doctor in a short space of time to get additional shots. With this in mind Shane and I pushed hard all day for the 115kms, on gravel roads stopping for a 5-minute lunch to ensure we reached the town in time before he started to grow his own fangs. I think that’s what happens… I can now happily report 4 months later all is good.
We were fortunate to have 2 rest days in Luderitz, a town that from our research prior to departure had a strong German feel. With this colonist influence in mind our reasoning for the large detour was to get some bratwursts and steins of wheat beer. We found neither of these but more so a town that was clinging both geographically to the Atlantic Ocean and economically as the desert reiterated its remote location whilst the dwindling diamond industry teased of its affluent past. Perhaps in an attempt to reignite some life or character many of the houses were painted in lavish colours, maybe it was just for way-finding but it did highlight the town from the surrounding vantage points. Oh we did find beer, just normal beer.
Just outside of town was the centre of the once flourishing diamond industry where reportedly these gemmed minerals were as common as pebbles. Unfortunately Kolmanskop now resembled a ghost town a place that once held the lure of diamonds now represented a continuing demonstration in the power of the desert and a site for us, tourists. A guided tour explained its once thriving community and what it took to sustain a town in the absolute middle of nowhere. With the diamonds now being located offshore the remaining derelict buildings have been retained for tourists and movie producers. Horror ones I’m thinking. Back in town we utilized the seaside location of Luderitz by sampling the local oysters (and white wine) along with a personal favourite meal of fish and chips. Having time to wander to these fine dining restaurants and generally around town it certainly felt that it might end up as a second ghost town, just a little bit more colourful.
We were quite fortunate in our last few countries to meet some beautiful locals, people who were just keen to find out a little more about trip (i.e. why?), offer some insight and to generally be hospitable. These encounters, which generally occurred throughout our entire trip allowed opportunities to learn that little bit more about the places, we were lucky enough to see. We got offered lifts, meals paid for, beds offered, prayers preached, cake (although Shane said no for all of us for some reason), coke support vehicles, self drive taxis, kids pushing our bikes etc… Each of these individual moments not only allowed interaction but also bought intrigue and general support. Many of these great times came about by stopping during the day utilizing the advantage of being on a bike compared to a car. The times we stopped for a drink, food or to simply engage with our surrounds where opportunities to not solely focus on the daily destination but to enjoy the incredible journey of getting there.
Back on our modes of transport we headed away from the coast inland on a sealed road to eventually make a right turn in a southern direction at the end of the day, approximately the 170kms mark and with this back onto the gravel. The road did its best to avoid the surrounding ranges with a predominantly flat gradient although as we got closer to our destination early signs of the awaiting canyon started to show itself and from here it was ups and downs but seemingly more ups.
The continuing theme of gravel although at times fractured by constant corrugations was a joy as it offered the chance to see locations that few would. The remoteness was reiterated by the lack of cars and the ranges, which seemed to close in around us, offering the feeling of defenseless in the vastness of it all with moments to reflect on the reality of our location. Fortunately our bikes held up really well on these rides again testimony to the research dedicated to each and every part. Due to the constant corrugations bolts were often checked and screws tightened but considering the treatment they endured all were going really which was simply amazing. Especially knowing that in many situations if only the smallest thing went wrong or a part needed replacement we would be waiting for a while for possible assistance or the ‘dreaded’ option of having to get a lift. The only dramas at this point were Shane’s occasionally loosening cranks, Justin’s cleats and his front pannier rack coming apart although this was fixed with some roadside mechanics. Oh and we held up pretty well, with us all mentally knowing that in the end we had a destination to reach and we simply had to cycle the length of a day (and sometimes a bit more) to get there. Continuing moments to increase physical and mental strengths.
With our next tourist site being the Fish River Canyon Shane and I set of early to the awaiting natural spectacle, with our early arrival meaning we were the first visitors for the day. Its grandeur didn’t disappoint as from the vantage points with it resembling a destructive gouge from the earth’s surface revealing the river and vegetation below highlighted through the various shades of defined geology layers on its surrounding walls. The river forming depression is popular for hikers to walk from one of the other at a hot springs reserve, Ai Ais over the course of a week. We left the starting point choosing the much more direct route of the road along the gorges rim and arrived there in a day.
With Ai Ais hosting our last rest day of the entire trip we did our best to put our feet up by utilsing the numerous hot springs from the warm to the unbearably hot. Whilst we didn’t do much besides spending more time in the water then out the other guests were entertained by our ‘subtle’ tan lines which for some had to actually had to ask if they were tights.
Our last day in Namibia reiterated its position as one of my more favoured countries. I ignored my tired legs (which were telling me that perhaps 11,000kms was enough) and instead again focused on the incredible landscape around us. As previously stated it was barren… It really added to huge amount of diversity that we had cycled through from deserts of Sudan through the lushness of Zambia to again experience the beauty of nothingness in an arid environment here in southern Namibia.
Our last day in the country offered us a supermarket stop for lunch and afterwards sealed roads all the way to the South African border, our final country.