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Namibia Part Two

Epiphanies are a strange thing. I’d been relaxing in Windhoek for nearly a week getting easily accustomed to sleeping in the same place and enjoying Wi-Fi. Heck, I even enjoyed that I knew the cleaners by their first names. But, one sunny afternoon, my sojourn was cut short by two white guys from America with braided cornrows, bandannas, pantaloons and ukuleles arriving at the hostel. It was here that I had my moment of sudden and great revelation that I’d enjoyed creature comforts a little too long. I didn’t come to Africa for this shit.

I left the hostel to the irritating sound of amateur guitarist swooning Peace Corp volunteers with horrible renditions of Jack Johnson. I couldn’t even count the number of clichés and the road beckoned like it never had before. I’d originally planned to ride east to Botswana, but decided against it as Namibia had more to offer.

The ever-present headwind once again blew from the north as I slowly made progress along Namibia’s arterial highway. Why did I decide to cycle against trade winds? The landscape became similar to that of the Northern Territory, Australia, with large termite mounds, pastoral properties and a slight yellow hue to the surrounding mediocre landscape. I would have thought it was home if it weren’t for the lack of Bundaberg Rum stickers and mullets.

I’d reached Outjo after a few days and then, for the first time on this trip, turned my wheels west and was on the receiving end of a tailwind. I salivated at the prospect of cycling some serious kilometres – and I would have – if it weren’t for the onset of saddle sores, which felt like I was sitting on sandpaper. Barely being able to sit down, I reached Otjikondo by early afternoon and sought refuge in a small village. The church pastor chaperoned me to the church floor where I set my inner tent and slept in my unwashed, probably skid mark stained jocks and devoured a 2L Coke and packet of chips. If I ever needed a Godly intervention, this was probably it.

I woke in panic as it had dawned on me that the people outside were waiting to enter for their Sunday service. Frantically, I got dressed in my least dirty clothes, packed up my gear, and joined their service. It was quite the experience hearing 200+ children singing hymns and the enthusiasm was a far cry from my high school days where Reverend Davidson sang with valour; alone. The priest acknowledged me and my ‘mission’ cycling through Africa in the name of God, and I would have shouted from the back pew that I’m proudly atheist, but who was I to correct him after he’d given me a free bed for the night?

After the service I rolled out of the village and kept progressing to Kamanjab and the end of tarmac roads. A grimaced smile came with the sound of crunching gravel under my tires as I looked forward to stunning vistas, hard days in the saddle and an end to regular traffic. Alas, dirt roads can be a fickle thing. Like a meandering snail leaving tracks all over the road, I was constantly left trying to find the smoothest path forward. I’d look at the other side of the road and see a smooth oasis, only to venture there and find out it’s just as shit – utterly heartbreaking. The animals wouldn’t have had any trouble tracking my trail, and the overlanders probably thought I was drunk.

On the way up Grootberg Pass

I crested Grootberg Pass and arrived in Palmwag by early afternoon. The town’s entire existence was established to serve the surrounding nature reserves, which according to nearly everyone I talked to, contained an abundance of lions.

An elephant print on the road

I pondered thought of wild camping and enquired about the costs of pitching a tent at Palmwag Lodge. I nearly fainted when the lady coldly said $27. I could imagine The Advertiser’s front page, ‘Adelaide man eaten alive after avoiding $27 campsite’.

Further down the road I asked the quarantine station if I could camp in their compound and was thankfully welcomed. A quiet night was on the cards, but a bar exclusively serving the workers kicked into full gear and distorted Calypso style music blared until 2am. Perhaps that kept the lions away? I rode to the checkpoint early next morning and gave a motherly look of shame to the hung-over worker – only wearing his jocks - who couldn’t even muster the energy to slumber out his chair and lift the boom guard, so I had to lift it myself.

Namibia’s road system is often regarded as one of the best in Africa with 36,000km of gravel and earth-graded roads, but I had trouble believing that. The sheer volume of roads that need grading often meant that you were in the hands of the road grading God’s. From Palmwag, the road was nothing short of deplorable. It wasn’t uncommon to cycle for 8+ hours daily and achieve nothing above 100km. Headwinds, loose sand, giant rocks, steep inclines, lack of water, lack of villages and a general lack of sleep was the story over the next few weeks.

Climbed some rocks to show the surroundings
One of the better roads out north

Whilst I am aiming to cycle to Cairo, this considerable detour on questionable roads was for a purpose (other than sheer lunacy). Kunene Province, formerly Kaokoland, is home to Namibia’s tribal areas; notably the Himba and Herero. Semi-nomadic, these tribes inhabit the harsh land tending to goats, sheep and cows whilst delicately balancing the fine line of sticking to traditional customs and becoming more like their vain, hedonist western counterparts. With the innocence that the bicycle brings, I’d staked my hopes on asking to camp with the Himba under the pretence of safety from the lions (partly true). But, in earnest I wanted to see how they live and shamelessly watch in a voyeuristic manner.

Just past Sesfontein I could smell the village from afar; I wondered if they could smell me too? I asked the Himba village if I could stay and was immediately welcomed in. The Himba are remarkably famous for covering themselves with otjize paste; a cosmetic mixture of animal fat and ochre pigment, to cleanse the skin over long periods due to water scarcity and protect themselves from the extremely hot and dry climate of the Kaokoland as well as against mosquito and insect bites.

The women also don’t wear tops; exposing their large, swinging breasts.

I swear this wasn’t the only reason I came out this way!

Pregnant Himba couple
A young Himba boy

After a half hour conversing with the tribe all the mysticism dissipated as I began to see how much alcohol plagued this specific community. Every time a local car drove past all the men would run out, flag them down, and try to get them to drive into town to get beers. Some of the men even suggested that I cycle back 30Kms to bring them back beer. No, thanks. This charade culminated in a man chasing down a chicken, tying its legs together and bartering with a passenger for a few cans of beer. One of the Himba ladies sensibly ripped the chicken from his hand and released the bird to live for another day…or beer.

I had to chuckle a little as I was somehow reminded of home and men instigating drunken debauchery and women pulling them into line; possibly sending them to the ‘dog house’. Two completely different cultures dealing with the same shit.

Go figure.

A common scene in any village; fire, beer crates and pap cauldrons

The next night I camped in front of the only shop in the village and watched the town go about their business. Women collected the firewood, prepared all the meals, fetched the water from the borehole and tended to the children. The men were drinking homemade spirits under a tree. Perhaps the hunter-gatherer theory is to blame? Whilst hunting has been taken care of with supermarkets and packaged meat, someone still has to cook, clean and fetch water. Men really have lucked out on this one. Alas, next time Tamika complains about me not doing enough chores I might have to remind her, ‘Babe, at least we’re not in Africa’.

I’m sure she will understand.

The Kunene River marked Namibia’s northern border with Angola. I had cycled the length of the country over some pretty average roads, and my bicycle had copped the brunt of it. On the way to Ruacana Falls, along a dry season only road, it all crescendoed into one of the worst days on the road.

The indiscreet shop I slept next to turned into a boisterous bar and played music until 3am, affording me an hour sleep. I woke to two slow leaking flat tires that took a considerable amount of time to fix. I was now starting late and decided to skip breakfast in the hope of the markets selling fat cakes. The market was shut. I started cycling on a pitiable packet of biscuits along one of the worst, most remote roads so far.

Three cars had passed in the last two days and the road’s hazardous conditions continually made me dismount and push through patches of sand, big rocks and steep inclines. I couldn’t even cycle five minutes without hopping off the bike. After pushing tirelessly through the midday heat an instant flat tire was a sign that I should have some lunch after fixing it. My bicycle pump leaver snapped at possibly the worst time of the entire trip, effectively leaving me stranded. I accepted my dreary fate and mulled over Nutella and bread. Attempting to cut another slice I felt the sharp, serrated blade of my Letherman knife slice deeply through the top of my thumb. Blood started to rush out as I clenched my fist trying to put pressure on the cut. Whilst blood filled my one hand, my other was unclipping my pannier and digging through for my first aid kit. I’d eventually applied Betadine, followed by gazettes, and then wrapped it in Band-Aids and strapping tape. The blood still seeped through but eventually stopped, which was lucky as the next passing car was nearly four hours away. I used my good hand to scoop Nutella whilst I waited.

Two Namibians loaded the bike and I into the back of a Hilux and drove me to Oshakati in haste with the strong smell of marijuana seeping from the cabin.

“Be careful bro, in Namibia you get more jail time for stealing or killing goats than you do for manslaughter,” one of them remarked whilst unloading.

I shuddered at the thought of a drunken Namibian choosing to run over me, rather than the goat. Surely I add more value to the world than an animal that has rectangular pupils?

A simple Himba hut

After purchasing another pump I made a slow transition from the tribal west of Namibia to the eastern Caprivi Strip. Dangling off the edge of Namibia in obscurity, the strip was named after German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi, who negotiated the acquisition of the land in an 1890 exchange with the United Kingdom in order to give Germany access to the Zambezi and a route to Africa's east coast, where the colony of German East Africa was situated.

For the lonely bicycle traveller, it provided a soft transition from German influenced Namibia, to a more stereotypical Africa. I had to cycle through a national park. I stayed in police stations to avoid wild camping with elephants. Music blared from every village, people were more curious, and unfortunately, more young people began begging; this is more what I envisaged Africa to be like. As I sat by the roadside on sunny afternoon eating peanuts by a tree a teenage girl approached;

“Give me your food”, she said abruptly with her hand stretched out

“Why?”

“Because I am hungry!!”

“I’ve cycled for six hours already, I’m hungry too. So no, I’m not giving you anything”

“Please! Give me!”

“Goodbye”

Many people at home might be wondering how I can be so callous and not give to people who seek something. Firstly, it sets a bad precedent that white people are glorified money machines - and whilst my standard of living is drastically better than those begging – if I gave to everyone that asked, I’d be broke. Secondly, the teenage girl weighed more than me. She wasn’t starving, she just wanted something for nothing; a problem that has organically grown ever since NGO’s and aid agencies started arriving in Africa.

After cycling out of Namibia, I entered Botswana for a total of two hours. Cyclists aren’t permitted in Chobe National Park and I had to load my bicycle onto the back of a truck for the 70km’s to the boarder. The Zimbabwean drivers showed me their ink-died pinkie finger, a testament to voting in a Mugabe free election. They hoped for a new dawn by voting for the opposition, but felt melancholy with predictable news of election rigging by Mugabe’s former party.

“The same Mugabe party, with the same Mugabe problems,” one quipped.

At the border town of Kazangula, I bore witness to the farce that is African border crossings. The border divides Namibia, Zambia, Botswana and Zimbabwe and you could technically be in either country when taking the river ferry. Trucks line the road for miles each way, with the wait time being anywhere between 1-3 weeks. Recently, truck drivers had began complaining of diminishing wages after forced expenditures whilst waiting; including hot showers, food and prostitutes (READ ARTICLE). I smirked as I rode to the front of the line and saw every fatigued driver nearly fight with the ferry staff. Everyone was exhausted.

I hopped off the ferry, got my visa for Zambia and Zimbabwe and then cycled off to Livingstone and Victoria Falls. Namibia had been amazing, but whilst it had been welcoming, I often felt it lacked a genuine connection between tourists and locals. I’m not really surprised as the country receives over one and a half million tourists a year. Hopefully Zambia provides something different.

I am cycling through Africa not only for the personal challenge but to help raise some money for The Reach Foundation. If you've enjoyed reading the blogs please consider a donation by clicking the link below. Thanks!

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