Sand, empty landscapes and dirt roads. That was more or less all I expected of Namibia before going there. But if I had known what this country would actually offer in terms of hospitality, wildlife and sceneries I would probably have been over excited. Just like Sudan, Namibia with its vaste deserts would turn out to be a real highlight.
Sam and I had only been on Namibian territory for a couple of hours when we got our first share of hospitality. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting. Paradoxically, we couldn’t find anywhere to camp, despite the remoteness. We were surrounded by empty landscapes that would be ideal for bush camping if it wasn’t for a tiny little detail: the fence. The problem for stingy cyclists (who are used to wild camping for free) in Namibia is that most of the land is private property. What a shame, we thought, as we desperately searched for an opportunity to get away from the road. Finally, we found an unlocked gate where we sneaked in to try finding a good spot. Then suddenly a big pickup showed up and stopped right by the gate. It turned out to be the land owner’s son in law. But instead of telling us off he simply asked if we wanted to stay at a real campsite instead. Then he gave us a cold beer each and told us to jump up on the back of his car, with the bikes obviously. And so he took us to a campsite (Kalahari Bush Breaks) about 10 km from there.
Suddenly we had a five star camping spot, with bathrooms, a powerpoint and a fire pit. All for free, thanks to our Namibian star. ”You guys must be starving, should I get you some meat?” he asked without really accepting anything but a yes. Then he left us and came back a while later with his brother, a bunch of cold beers and nearly a kilogram of kudu sausage. Sam was the luckiest carnivore in the universe. ”You must enjoy yourselves, huh!”, we were told several times (we would soon realize that this was a common Namibian thing to say). Obviously, that wasn’t very hard.
After that first encounter with Namibian hospitality we continued pedaling on the Kalahari Highway that would take us to Windhoek, about 300 km west of the border with Botswana. For a capital, the size of Windhoek is strikingly tiny. Only about 400 000 people, which actually is a fifth of the whole country’s population.
Apart from the spectacular mountainous and deserted sceneries in the background, there was something west European about Windhoek. Perhaps it was the organized traffic, the brand new fancy looking buildings or the huge shopping malls with the parking lots full of shiny white land rovers. If we had passed through the townships of the capital we would undoubtedly have got a less polished impression.
In Windhoek we would get an overdose of Namibian hospitality, thanks to our couchsurfer hosts Carice and Dieter. We ended up staying three nights at their lovely house. No risk of getting bored. We were taken out for Saturday market, rugby evening with our host couple’s friends and barbecue with their family. It was nice for a change to move around town on the back of their pickup, powered by fossil fuel instead of soy meat and rice.
Maybe the car rides were even too good for a change. Because when it was time for us to leave and Carice and Dieter suggested taking us up a steep hill outside of town, we didn’t refuse. The hitch hiking element is one of the things Sam and I disagree about. While he doesn’t mind at all (especially in Namibia where the roads were partly sandy and corrugated dirt roads) it just makes me feel bad afterwards. Sam is probably the wise one among us, because what does it actually matter? I mean, why are we cycling – to get the most out of our trip or to get the most flattering comments on our Facebook pages? But a bad conscience is a bad conscience anyway.
And without Sam I might have been what he mockingly calls an ”ELK”, an every last kilometer cyclist. But fortunately Namibia would help us getting our wishes fulfilled later on – I would get a chance cycle a few kilometers extra as compensation and Sam would end up hitchhiking another fair bit with a good reason.
Our next destination was a luxury lodge in the middle of the Namib desert, about a two days ride from Windhoek. We had heard from a couple of fellow travelers that this place, called Rostock Ritz, offered one night’s free accommodation for cyclists. It surely sounded to good to be true, but it was (!). Spending the afternoon by the pool looking out over the desert was well worth the sandy cycling there, although we were quite drained when we arrived. Another bonus was meeting up with a French cyclist, Gautier, who’s been ahead of us since we left Cairo. Now our roads finally crossed (with a little help from Facebook).
After a real sturdy breakfast buffet the next morning, the three of us left the lodge and headed south towards Solitare and Sesreim. Our next destination was the unmissable tourist attraction in the Namib desert: Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red sand dunes. The highest dune, called ”Big Daddy” is over 300 meters high. By the time we got there, the place was full of tourists. To get the most spectacular photos you might have to hike up one of the dunes, which the major part of the visitors were doing – well equipped with cameras and large sun hats. Nearly anyone seemed to be going up Big Daddy though. ”Big Daddy is for the hard ones. I heard you can get lost and buried in the sand up there”, a German tourist told us as he headed towards the slightly smaller ”Big Mama” dune.
But how could we not chose the dune where we were more likely to get some spectacular views for ourselves? Obviously, we didn’t get lost in the sand (I think that bit was a bit over dramatic). Involuntarily, I doubt that it would even be possible. Anyway, walking around up there on the bright orange sand edge felt quite surreal. When we looked at the photos a couple of weeks later we found it hard to believe we had actually been there.
Later that afternoon the surreality turned into to bitter reality when Sam’s derailer broke in the middle of the desert. We had over 200 km to go before the next shop, after having left the filling station in Sesreim behind. The closest bicycle store was in Windhoek, that we had left five days earlier. Sam eventually got his hitchhiking, and with a fair reason. His ride back to the capital with a bunch of artisans is a story in itself. From what I know it includes a lot of beer, sausage sandwiches and a detour for the sake of a pit bull terrier that one of the men was about to buy. He also got to spend some more time with Carice and Dieter while sorting his bicycle out.
Meanwhile, Gautier and I continued pedaling south. Although we had to struggle a little bit on the sandy and corrugated roads, it was a pretty scenic and worthwhile ride. There were some beautiful passes and we also went through a national park where we met loads of springbok antelopes, kudus and a few mountain zebras. A few times we ended up being a little bit short of water and food, but then there would always be some nice car driver who stopped by and solved the situation. These road angels offered us cold beers, fresh water, sandwiches and snacks. Amazing!
After about one week of desert cycling Gautier and I reached the little town Keetmanshoop. The first thing we did, as usually, was heading straight to the biggest (and cheapest) supermarket we could find. Just as we were about to leave, without any clue of how or where we would manage to meet up with Sam again, he showed up behind a corner. Same old Sam, but with a thicker beard and a few new parts on his beloved bicycle. That day was a good one. Just after the little reunion we were lucky to bump into a guy on a mountain bike who casually invited us to stay with him. Our wonderful host, Chris, is a peace corpse volunteer who’s living in a three room flat next to the school where he’s teaching. We had a great little stay in Keetmanshoop, where I initially wanted to go to visit a clinic run by one of the organizations the Africa Groups of Sweden (for which I’m doing a fundraising – read more about that in the previous blogpost) supports. Chris showed us the nightlife – beer and pool in the local Africaans bar – and took us around town for new inner tubes when we had managed to get a large number of new punctures from the thorns in his backyard. Gautier, who already had some plans for South Africa, left before Sam and me and cycled on by himself again.
After Keetmanshoop we had basically only one destination left in Namibia: The Fish River Canyon. Smaller than the Grand Canyon but bigger than all the others in the world. What can I say more than that it was another spectacular site worth seeing?
Riding from the Fish River Canyon to the South African border was just as scenic as the previous stretches had been. One of our last mornings in Namibia we got a last experience of the wildlife – a highlight that could easily turn into a lowlight. I was fully focused on avoiding the most sandy spots on the gravel road and hardly saw the long black spitting cobra right in front of me. As I nearly ran over the poor snake, it got up and rose its head to the height of my handlebars. Terrified, I pedaled away as fast as I could. The more fearless Sam stayed and tried (yes, tried) taking a good shot of it before it disappeared in the bushes.
Well, as you might already have understood, we obeyed the locals and enjoyed ourselves in Namibia. Until the very end actually. I still clearly remember the feeling of almost flying the last 20 km down to the South African border crossing by the Orange River. Downhill and sunset in the desert, we definitely got a beautiful goodbye. And this time we crossed the next border with slightly higher expectations than last time.