Tuesday, November 15, 2011



Languages: English is official. Recognised: German, Rukwangali, Setswana, Damara/Nama, Afrikaans, Herero, Oshiwambo

Money: the Namibian dollar is approximately 7.50 to $1, and matching the South African Rand, which can also used without any penalty.

Price of gas: $5.15 a gallon, or $1.30 a liter (about same as S. Africa)

No visa or carnet required

Namibia proved to be just what I needed to get myself back into “the game”. My idea of a quick in-and-out trip to see the dunes turned out to be a three-week tour of the northern half the second least populated country in the world (Mongolia is first).

I had not originally intended to go to Namibia, but after talking to several people in South Africa, I decided to venture away from my northerly course to see for myself if the dunes of the Namib desert were in-fact just that amazing.

To get to Namibia, I had a 16-hour two-day ride across the Trans-Kalahari Highway in southern Botswana. “Kalahari” is one of those truly African words that invoke a sense of Dark Continent adventure, but in reality, the road was boring as hell. Two straight lines on the map connected with a dogleg turn westward across a scrubby uninteresting desert. The road was good and border crossings straight forward, as SA, Botswana and Namibia share an open trade “agreement”.

The country of Namibia was colonized by the Germans in the 1800’s and thus has a very Germanic cultural influence and continues to draw many German tourists to the area. The country was taken away from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, but the influence remains. Independence was later won from South Africa in 1990. Today, it is a young stable country with vast diamond and mineral wealth. Windhoek is the capital city with one main street and few tall buildings, but not much more. There are some restaurants and decent coffee, but the highlight was just walking the busy sidewalks people-watching. Namibians are beautiful people, and friendly. I pitched my tent alongside a pool at a local backpackers (hostel). I caught some live music with some German med-students doing an internship at the local hospital and left the next day.

My itinerary was loose, but I knew I wanted to see the dunes at sunrise in Sossusvlei. The roads in and out of the country and one road going north - south is paved, the rest is well cared for gravel roads. The turn off from the main highway lead me to some fast dirt roads but also to several small “run offs” or creek beds that crossed the roads. I ended up crossing some of the deepest water on the trip, albeit short distances. I don’t know what I would have done if it had rained recently and the water was any deeper. The junction stop of Solitaire consisted of a gas station, bakery and small hotel/campground. I filled up and got a slice of Moose McGregor’s famous apple pie at the bakery. There was evidence behind the counter that Ewan and Charlie had also crossed through these parts. It was over 100-degrees so I chose a glass of cold water to accompany the pie rather than hot coffee. I had two-hours more before getting to the campground.

Luckily, the national park campground at Sesiem had a bar and cold Windhoek Draught on tap. I sat with a group of retired Brits who were drinking gin at the sunset. The ritual of a “sundowner” cocktail at sunset has new significance for me. Since leaving South Africa, the mid-day temperatures have been up around 110F and shade is hard to find. When the sun goes down, often with a brilliant pink sunset, the evening air cools and becomes quite pleasant, and stays comfortable until about 9:30-AM the next morning, when it starts to heat up again. A few beers helped the cooling down process and it was off to bed early.

At 5:15 the next morning, I thumbed a ride into the park with a Swiss couple, as motorcycles were not allowed in the park. A German traveling on a bicycle also jumped in and we explored the dunes together until the heat became unbearable. The most remarkable thing about the dunes for me was the abundance of rich colors. The intense rust red of the sand contrasted beautifully with the clear blue sky, and the soft celery color of the ground foliage complimented the blues and reds perfectly– none of which was done justice by my camera.

Back at the campground, I desperately wanted to rest, but my tent was like an oven and there was no refuge from the unforgiving heat. Actually, the best place to be during the intense heat of the day is on the bike, creating your own breeze. More gas and another slice of Moose’s apple pie, and I took the road toward the Atlantic coast. The road was not as good as the day before, with patches of thick sand and long stretches of numbing corrugations (washboards). I arrived in Swakopmund just before sunset and checked in to the “Bauhausian” Schweizerhaus Hotel for a few nights near the beach and a mellow birthday celebration.

Swakopmund has been described as being “more German than Germany” and gives you an odd feeling of not being in Africa anymore. It is a favorite weekend tourist destination for urbanites living in Windhoek and is the main kick-off point for catching sightseeing flights over the Skeleton coast - a graveyard of rusting hulls of old shipwrecks now half submerged in sand 100’s of yards inland due to the changing coastline. The only other way to get there is to spend many hours in a 4x4.

It was a pleasant little town with streets so clean, they were sterile and a very impressive curb-painting program. The cool ocean breeze, fresh seafood and cold German lagers made for a nice birthday. However, I also saw the local chiropractor everyday I was there for an aggravated neck/shoulder condition - feeling very much my 48-years.

The true Skeleton Coast is further north up the coast, but I stopped by a beached Angolan fishing trawler on my way north to get just a taste of the insatiable coast. Heading east back to the dirt roads towards the mountains, I was now on my way to Damaraland and the ancient rock carvings of Twyfelfontein. I toured the 2-6,000-year old carvings with Günter and Barbara from Germany. The carvings of animals were interesting enough, but what I really enjoyed, was the buzz I was feeling from traveling again. Whatever, I had lost while crossing Brazil, was coming back to me in force. I found myself easing back into a daily rhythm.

One of the most noticeable things about Namibia, besides the solitude, is the sky. Vast cloudless blue sky during the day and infinite stars at night. I was camping every night in organized campgrounds, and though I was often eating canned food from gas stations, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Gasoline and bottled water were readily available throughout the country, however “Patagonia rules” apply and you never pass a gas station without topping off. More of a problem was forcing yourself to drink 110-degree water, which is about as refreshing as drinking a cup of sand. As a rule, I carried nine liters of water with me and tried to drink four a day. The flies could be tenacious, but as of yet, there had not been many mosquitoes.

Over a couple Jamesons and water at Günter’s campsite, he told me of an unmarked Himba orphanage a day’s ride going north –my whole reason for continuing north towards the Angolan border was to see more of the Himba people. The Himba are a striking group of people, the women especially, that have remained true to their cultural past. I had briefly read about them, but it was not until I saw a couple of them selling trinkets in the street of Windhoek that I became fascinated with them.

There are many attractive features of the Himba women, but it is really how the whole package comes together to create an incredibly exotic visual experience. The fact that the women are topless does not hurt any and I found myself having flashbacks of when I was a 12-year old scanning National Geographics for nudity.

At the core of the “dress” is the practice of crushing the rust red rock, or ochre, to create a fine powder. The powder is then mixed with butter and bush-herbs and smeared all over their bodies. Not only does this change the color of their skin, but acts as a sunscreen and insect repellent. The same compound encases their braids. Himba women do not shower – ever. They create a mild steam room in their huts and then reapply the ochre mixture. Their dress is made up of a head-dress made of an animal hide, an elaborate system of jewelry around the neck, a belt or waist piece, loin cloth of leather softened by the same butter mixture, anklets made of metal wire beads, multiple bracelets and thin leather soled sandals. Almost everything they wear has symbolic meaning behind it.

I found the village and was met by a young man who would be my guide and translator for N$200, and two young boys in braids and loin clothes agreed to watch my bike. It was incredibly hot in the midday sun. There were 35 children at this orphanage started by a couple that have a farm nearby. Six resident women share the responsibility of raising the orphans and their own children. Only five of the children are enrolled in school due to cost and their desire to preserve the Himba culture.

I ended up meeting several of the women there and found them incredibly genuine, very friendly, and even a bit “sassy”. Three women sitting on the ground, one getting her hair done (a two day long process) and one making jewelry, were quick to pester me about not being married. “But why, you are gorgeous?” They could not understand why I was not married, and quickly ask me to choose one of them. Now, most times when I visit an indigenous village like this, the people are withdrawn, shy and rarely make eye contact. These girls, all in their early 20’s “stood tall” and looked me directly into the eye sometimes rather intensely. I tried to be diplomatic and joked about marrying all three, but they would have none of that and prodded me to basically declare who I thought was the most beautiful.

I have learned since that their beauty is the paramount thing in their lives – it is why they get up in the morning. Not just their beauty but also of the children. Their culture is built on this physical beauty, along with the near worship of the cow.

(Their daily diet is made up of about 80% of a yogurt type soured milk drink, and when the rains are favorable, they have dried corn to crush into meal, which is eaten as porridge. Wealth and standing is determined by how much livestock you own. Interestingly, women can have children out of wedlock and own their own livestock, making them quite independent. At the age of twelve the middle bottom four teeth are extracted to mimic that of the cow.)

Later, I had another marriage proposal (one that I briefly considered) and got teased some more, but enjoyed all the attention. They really “buttered my toast”, which made for a nice belated birthday gift. On the drive back to the campground, I could still smell the earthy butter mixture in my nostrils and had a smile on my face. They may be the vainest people on Earth that do not own a mirror, but I liked them. (And oh, I gave the two boys watching the bike a loaf of white bread and a fresh jar of peanut butter.)

It is hard to describe, but this day was one of the best travel days that I have had. It doesn’t happen often, but when everything aligns in your favor it feels as if you have ceased moving, while instead, the scenery starts passing you by - like the world is rotating just for you. As I covered rolling hills and sweeping curves the loose gravel moved beneath my tires. I passed a group of the seldom-seen desert elephants, while around another turn eight ostriches sprung up from the grass and rustled their “Vegas showgirl” plumage as if on cue, seemingly, just for me. Later a jackal crossed the road in front of me. After my time in the Himba village, I capped off the day with a medium-rare T-bone and a cold beer in a campground catering to overlanders. It does not happen like this often, but I sure appreciate it when it all comes together.

The remainder of my time in Namibia never dulled and my last stop was in Opuwo, a town deep in Himba country near the Angolan border. There I camped at the luxurious Opuwo Country Hotel, where I could use their pool and other amenities. I visited another Himba village and then returned to Windhoek on paved roads before heading to Botswana.

Life is good.

Here is a map of my route: Map

Here is a video of images of my time in Namibia: Video

Here is a brief video highlighting my time with the Himba: Video