Missing opportunities and panniers

Things were all looking up as I left Keetmanshoop. I’d had a decent breakfast at the Canyon Hotel (complete with an uncomfortable conversation with the waitress, who may have just been doing an extremely poor job trying to flirt), the sun was shining, and my motorcycle was fully functional. I hit the paved surface of the B1 with a straight shot to Windhoek. A troop of baboons scurries across the highway just outside of town, hiding in the throngs of trees and watching me as I ride by. It felt a proper goodbye. I wonder where their sunglasses, hat, pipe, and Coca-Cola cans are.

About half of the gas stations I pass in Namibia are gaudy affairs, sometimes with manicured lawns, large covered parking lots, and one or two integrated restaurants. I’m going nearly 500km, so I need at least one stop for fuel along the way. I pull into an Engen (a South African oil company) station, complete with burger shop, bakery, and automatic sprinklers throwing water, a rare commodity here, into the air. It’s a welcome reprieve from the road, and I take a breather.

The ride is easy and uneventful, with the sun perpetually hanging in my line of sight as I head North. As I approach Windhoek, I fly past a turnoff with a sign for the Tropic of Capricorn. I realize what I just passed, turn off the highway, and offroad it back.


I’d been trying to cruise at around 65mph, about 10mph under the speed limit, it saves a lot on fuel and just feels right. Windhoek is over 5,000 feet in elevation, and the light green grasslands give way to some decent sized mountains as I approached. The altitude and the shade of the mountains as the sun made its way towards the horizon caused the heat of the day to rapidly deteriorate into the 40’s(f). I was too lazy to stop and layer up, so I cruised in with traffic at the true speed limit.

You pass through a mandatory police checkpoint on the outskirts of Windhoek, a friendly reminder that you’re not in Kansas anymore. We stumbled through some miscommunication when the officer asked me where my disk was before I realized we were talking about license plates. I guess they’re not always on the backs on motorcycles here? I haven’t seen any to confirm… With a cursory check, I was waved through and into light Windhoek traffic, arriving at the Chameleon Backpackers hostel just before the sunset.

I was in lucky and snagged a room. The place made dinner every night, has a bar, and subscribed to a pleasant tendency in accommodations in southern Africa, including a pool.

It’s amazing the pic turned out with those white legs in the sun…

I snagged dinner, had some beer, worked on my writing, and got some sleep. I had some tasks for the next day: attempting to secure visas for the DRC and Zambia, finding replacement tires (mine weren’t new at the start of the journey,  my rear is nearly spent, and availability is limited outside of major cities), trying to secure a camping spot at Sossusvlei with the Namibian Wildlife Resorts (NWR) agency, and getting some wire to rewire my right turn signal (which seemed to have failed somewhere along the way). Miraculously, the embassies and motorcycle dealership I was going to try were all within walking distance of my hostel. In the morning I hit the road on foot.

As stated in my write-up of the weirdness that day, I failed with the embassies and the NWR, but at least managed to find tires. While it took four tries, I also managed to find two meters of automotive electrical wire. I know I’m late at mentioning this, but *fuck* this country loves receipts!

A full sheet of paper, three stamps, a check, and a signature… for 6 feet of wire (and less than $1USD).

The next morning, my sights were set on Sossusvlei, despite my failure to secure a camping spot with NWR. I had breakfast in the morning and hit the road, backtracking 80km on the B1 before turning off onto a series of dirt roads.

Google offered three routes, the fastest involving slightly more pavement, but I figured I could take that one back. Instead, I turned off onto one of the many C dirt roads, and found myself bouncing along washboards, sand, loose rocks, and potholes that were far worse than what I’d gone over before in Namibia. There were times when the road was so bad I’d be laughing hysterically into my helmet while my eyes watered with vibration, no matter the speed. I passed goats, cows, a bunch of something that resembled a squirrel, and a single ostrich.

I also chatted up a weathered and mostly-toothless cattle herder who wandered by while I was taking a stretch break. He carried a whip made out of a handmade rubber grip with a long braided polyester cord attached, and an adorable dusty dog named Suzie was tagging along. He didn’t seem to be in a rush to catch up with his cattle, and seemed quite taken by my motorcycle.

People in the countryside in Namibia wave when you go by. As you’d expect, the kids get super excited about it and initiate, but practically anyone who catches your eye will wave, and even more so will wave back if you initiate. There’s more than that, too. When someone passes you on the road, they flash their hazard lights when they come back into your lane. When I pass trucks on the road, I’ve learned to wave (I don’t have hazard lights) and they invariably flash their headlights to say hi. When I’m taking a break on the side of the road, people will honk their horns, some lean out their windows and wave. Thumbs get pointed up to double-check that everything is okay. People are just plain friendly.

So far in my time here, the roads had been relatively flat. Even the approach to Fish River Canyon, which ends with an overlook not-unlike those of the Grand Canyon, didn’t involve switchbacks or noticeable elevation change. My chosen route to Sossusvlei started out similarly, but without warning, signs proclaiming that trucks weren’t allowed, and prolonged steep grades were approaching showed up, almost as non-sequiturs.  Then the road twisted onto a broad overlook of a massive desert valley, affording views of a brick road winding aggressively down.

I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is no: there was no echo.

This wasn’t just the only “pavement” (bricks) I’d seen in miles… this was a wild, curving, swooping road with steep angles and sharp dropoffs. In summary: it was fun as hell. I dropped me into a massive desert valley, far sandier than the surrounding area, with continued teeth-rattling washboards up to the entrance to Sossusvlei.

Conventional wisdom states that the best time to see Sossusvlei (a valley nestled in the coastal mountains with a salt flat and the largest sand dunes) is at Sunrise. The main entrance to the park unhelpfully (and obviously intentionally) opens at sunrise, but is another 60km from the spot itself. Instead, if you want to catch the sunrise, you need to either charter a plane/helicopter/hot air balloon, or stay at the government-ran campground located *just inside* the gate. There’s another *internal* gate that opens an hour or so before sunrise, and allows those folks to get a head-start and catch the sunrise. Cool. So that was my plan.

I made it through the gate with over an hour to spare before it closed (at sunset, obviously) and went to reception. I was in luck! They had one last tent camping spot in the “overflow” area (read: a long-ass walk from facilities, with no power and hardly and shade). I was also out of luck: motorcycles aren’t allowed any further on the road into Sossusvlei. The woman recommended hitchhiking (which I’ve read is technically illegal in national parks in Namibia). Alright… it’s worth a try.

My home in the boonies.

I pitched my tent at the end of the known camping universe and had some dinner. Since I wanted to catch the early-risers and the sunrise, I wrapped up super early for the night, looked at the stars, read my book, and was in bed by 9:30p with an alarm set for 4:45am. Somehow (this isn’t really that abnormal for me…), I woke up at 5:15 without the alarm. Shit! I scrambled to get my things together and posted up on the road with a backpack and my thumb out. And there I stood, for nearly 3 hours, watching vehicle after vehicle file past. Most avoided eye contact. Those with no room shrugged. One van full of old folks rolled down their window, then drove off before saying anything.

In Namibia, hitchhiking is pervasive. Folks stand at major intersections with bags and get regularly picked up and carted around the country. Of course, Namibians aren’t the majority or folks passing through to Sossusvlei, foreigners are, and I guess something about my bearded self put them off, because eventually, I walked back to my camp disillusioned and packed up. I headed back towards Windhoek.

I took a different path back, the shortest of the options Google offered. I was in a less-than-stellar mood. The road back was just as brutal as the one in. Again, I had uncontrollable fits of laughing as every part of me vibrated down the dusty sandy roads. At one point, I caught a flash in my rear-view and realized the hat I had strapped down under a cargo net had managed to shake its way out and onto the road. I went back and got it back.

I passed cows, goats, and endless barren desert. I dropped to the reserve fuel supply on my gas tank part way along the road. Eventually, I ran out of gas in my main tank around 70km from the B1, the main tarmac highway (where there would be gas stations to refill). I hopped off the bike to get the jerry can off the back and noticed my hat was once again gone. I had no idea how long ago I’d lost it, and since fuel was now in a tight supply, I didn’t want to burn a lot of time and fuel going looking. I shrugged. No big deal. I dumped the jerry can into the gas tank, and as I went to put it back on the back of my bike, my heart sank once again: my left pannier was missing! There are four metal pucks that hold the panniers to the frame. The bottom two are bolted on, and the top pair are hand-tightened to allow them to tool-lessly removed. Somehow, the vibration must have worked them loose and somehow I hadn’t noticed!

This was bad… Not only do each of my panniers contain critical items for my travels, but they’re also uniquely utilitarian for carrying my things. Even if I were to replace the contents, replacing the metal box itself would be extremely difficult. Freaking out in my head, I quickly hopped onto the bike and deliberately backtracked at a reasonable speed to conserve fuel. About 7k down the road, I spotted the pannier, battered and on the complete opposite side of the road as it should have been on. It had a brand new dent (it must have been hit by something to get it where it was and in the state it was in), and some of my stickers had been pretty beaten up, but it was alive and all the parts were still there! I expelled a massive sigh of relief, and reattached the pannier to the bike, taking care to get make sure the attachment points were as tight as I could get them.

The moment we’re reunited!

I got back on the road, taking it easy to avoid any repeats. Excitement seems to come when you least expect it. Eventually I made it to the main highway and another wave of relief swept over me. While getting gas, a car pulled up and a friendly Namibian triumphantly declared he’d seen me a few days ago (I’d passed through this town on the way to Windhoek the first time) and asked me all the standard questions. It was nice to have a pleasant social interaction after watching car after car of folks averting their eyes to avoid admitting they weren’t willing to take a chance on me.

It was smooth sailing and familiar territory back to Windhoek, but when I pulled up to my old hostel, they were booked up. I’d made friends there the first time around who were still there, so I was sad to be turned away, but I found another spot about a mile up the road, appropriately named “The Cardboard Box,” and plotted my course. I cruised in, checked in, unloaded, and began the process of forgetting the stress of the day.

Baboons and Broken Bikes

I am not a morning person, and as such, I’ve always appreciated the incontrovertible truth that when you wake up in the morning in a tent, you’re committed to the day. As I climbed out of my tent, my swollen bladder at the helm, I found myself surrounded by baboons, busy raiding the campground’s trash cans. Fuck! I am in Africa!

Don’t mind me, I’m just here for the garbage.

I relieved myself in the comfort of the relatively clean campground services, and packed my things onto my motorcycle before heading to the canteen for the buffet breakfast.  I chose a table within view of my motorcycle (living in SF and traveling has made me endlessly paranoid), and twice I wandered down with my coffee to chat with throngs of gawkers poking and prodding my bike. I’m not complaining.

I was on the road early by my standards, bumping along the dusty washboards and through the desert. It’s just over 80km to the main viewpoint for Fish River Canyon from Ai Ais camp over rocky dirt roads, and as I’ve eluded to in the past, I enjoy the shit out of them. Traffic was light, as per Namibian standards, so dust was low, and aside from dodging particularly sharp looking rocks, boulders, and egregious potholes/washboards, it’s easy going on two wheels. After a slight stop to pay an affordable Nation Park entrance fee, I came upon the crowded main overlook. It did not disappoint.

Fish River-rama!

While standing on the relatively bustling overlook, I watched three motorcycles, the first I’d seen since leaving Cape Town, cutting through a 4×4 path that’s one of two other options available to witness the Canyon, the third being a five day hike from the overlook back to Ai Ais that I wasn’t quite willing to do. My temporary excitement about fellow bikers abated somewhat as they approached and it became clear from their kit that they weren’t in it for the long haul — they had beautiful bikes, but without panniers, top cases, or any other luggage to speak of, and instead appeared to be weekend warriors getting their kicks. No judgment, but no feeling of kinship for the moment.

I followed in their tire tracks down the 4×4 track. Have I mentioned the unbridled joy and feeling of freedom one gets when carefully navigating treacherous two-tracks? I suppose I have. I trundled from overlook to overlook, taking a few minutes at each subsequent spot, breathing in the views which seemed fresh and new every 500 meters. I eventually gave up before finding the end of the road; I consider that a measure of success for Namibia’s roads.

My stop for the night was the town of Keetmanshoop (please don’t ask me to pronounce it). In Namibia, roads are designated with a letter and a number. The letter indicates the road’s quality: B roads are nice paved highways. C roads are occasionally sealed, frequently dirt and rock roads. D roads are what you’d expect. When I left Fish River Canyon, I had another 130km of Ds and Cs (I’d already gone more than 100 that morning) followed by 32km of tarmac.

Things started off with a degree of desolation I was beginning to become accustomed to: open desert, a scattering of rocky hills, the occasional bird struggling against the wind or spider skittering across the road, and rarely a truck or offroad tourbus. Then out of nowhere, a sign of civilization appeared on the horizon. As I approached, old cars with trees greeted me in a kitschy site that would have felt at home along the old US highways (think: South of the Border and Wall Drug, but smaller).

Welcome to the Namibian roadside attraction!
Marvel at the mysterious car trees!
Apparently they ran out of room to stick these things inside.

I stopped for lunch (some abomination they called a burger) and a beer, and marveled at the surreal spot. Multiple tour buses were hanging out here, and Namibian drivers and European tourists found plenty of opportunities to ask about my trip. They even had free internet, so I was able to set my sites on a hotel for the night.

It was a beautiful ride: barely any civilization for the first 100km, followed by lush farmland with signs proclaiming it to be an irrigation project. There was a large impressive dam, the output of which ran directly over the road…

Oh dam, who put this river in the middle of the desert?

When things are going well on dirt roads, one has a tendency to get a bit cavalier, and I’ll be the first to admit I was guilty. This usually turns out as you’d expect.  For me, I was 3km from the tarmac when I decided to get one last stretch break while I was still in the dirt. I was in super high spirits, so much so that I took an opportunity to cheese for the camera before turning it off:

Hi mom!

Then I looked at my bike and noticed my top case appeared to skew at a different angle than normal. I leaned in for a closer look and spotted that one of the support pieces for the cargo rack (which the top case is attached to) was snapped cleanly in two. Fuck! I went to the other side… it was the same. Double-fuck!

Those should be connected.

At this point, the top case (and main part of the cargo rack) were attached to the subframe by two small bolts on the base. These aren’t intended to provide horizontal stabilization, to the entire thing was freely bobbing back and forth. It also meant way more stress on the small welded metal bar that now supported the thing. This wasn’t good, and I had no idea when it happened, and therefor how long I’d been zipping down washboard roads at 60mph.

Whenever I’m offroading, I carry extra fuel in a jerry can attached to the back of the top case. First step was to minimize some weight, so I emptied the can into the tank. Next, I reconfigured my bungee cords to pull the top case forward in a mostly vain attempt to reduce the torque of the thing bouncing back and forth. Lastly, I strapped my cargo net around the back in hopes that if the last attachment points failed, I would notice before the entire thing tumbled off the back and possibly into high-speed traffic (the road I was about to merge onto had a speed limit of 120kmh [~75mph], but cars and minibuses frequently went much faster).

The good news was I was only ~36km from my destination for the night: Keetmanshoop. I swallowed my anxiety, climbed onto the bike, and nursed it the last ~3km of dirt, wincing at every bump. For those unfamiliar, it’s not uncommon for washboard dirt roads to pass by much smoother at speed as you seemingly glide over the tops, but I couldn’t risk the occasional big dip or pothole.

I made it safely onto the main Namibian highway, the B1. Unlike the other roads I’d been on, this one actually sees a fair bit of traffic, but is also in far better condition than the 101 in the Bay Area. I nervously found a speed I was comfortable with, around 50mph, and whiteknuckled it the remaining ~32km, constantly checking my rearview, riding as far forward on the seat as possible (to avoid applying pressure), and holding the top case forward when conditions allowed it.

Keetmanshoop isn’t much by California standards, but at around 21,000 people, it’s the largest city in southern Namibia. The Canyon Hotel, where I found to stay, was on the south side of town, where I was coming from, but within the few bits of civilization I passed before it was a steel fabrication shop, around 200 meters from the hotel! Given the towns I’d passed through so far in Namibia, this was an unbelievable stroke of luck. The hotel I’d picked was much larger than I’d expected, a once-grandiose affair built of brick and ornamental stones in the 60’s, with a large bronze commemorative plaque at the front door, but there were only 2 cars in the parking lot. I checked in, unloaded, and got right to the task at hand of taking the broken parts off my bike while there was still daylight.

While I was wrenching on my top case, a pair of men approached me and started asking the standard questions, with some extra bits about the bike — they were both riders themselves. I chatted with them for a couple minutes while working, and explained the predicament I’d found myself in. They took a look, and started asking questions, such as the composition of the metal the rack was made of, I couldn’t answer. Then they explained that they were in Namibia for work on a Dam project to the west, and that one was a boilermaker (a fancy welder), the other a weld inspector. What are the fucking odds, seriously. I told them my plan to go to the steel fabrication shop up down the road, and they told me if I had any trouble, they’d find me in town and give me a hand. They also told me the food at the hotel was pretty good. If you’re the religious type, insert statement about providence here.

I got a beer at the hotel bar and proceeded into full-on chill out mode. I’d arrived at the hotel around 4:30pm on a Sunday, and it was well past 5 now; there was nothing more I could do that night. I had good company at the bar.

He stuck to coke all night… and don’t ask about how he became a eunuch.

At 6:30, the hotel restaurant opened. I walked into an elegant dining room without a single soul in sight. The menu included dishes such as escargot for just a couple bucks. You’re goddamn right I ordered them. The rest of the food was pretty good, too.

A slow night in Keetmanshoop.

Afterwards, I again retired to the bar, this time finding a more lively companion: the hotel manager, Enrico. To say Enrico is well traveled is an understatement. Working in hospitality all his life, much of which was spent on Princess cruise ships, the man has been to over 160 countries, speaks 4ish languages, and speaks with the breezy openness you rarely see outside of dedicated hospitality folks. He told me about his life, his love, his travels, and the hotel. He also performed some sort of magic by which my beer remained full, and my bill didn’t increase. The conversation was a very meaningful decompression from the tribulations of the day. If you’re reading this, Enrico, thank you once more.

There were something like 3 other guests at the massive hotel that night, which combined with its brick architecture meant I slept in a nearly-unheard of silence. In the morning, I took my broken cargo rack to the steel shop, where the boss nearly laughed at the simple task of repairing it, and quoted me NAD$60 ($4.53) to fix it. I picked it up less than an hour later.

I like how it’s all one piece.

I’d decided to take it easy, so after re-assembling my bike, I relaxed, caught up on my sleep, and set my sights on Windhoek the following night. More to come!

Saying So-Long to a Sense of Self-Security

N.B.: This post is out-of-order, but I felt compelled to type it up while it was still fresh in my mind. Apologies for the disjoint timeline, and greetings from Windhoek!

I had the day to run errands in Windhoek, and things started off a bit hit-or-miss. Miss, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo’s embassy here, but they were closed for a national Congolese holiday. Hit, I secured replacement tires for my motorcycle when I return from Sossusvlei. Miss, since I struck out at with the DRC embassy, I tried to proactively get a Zambian one since their embassy is nearby, but I got there at 1:30pm and they close at 12:45pm. Hit and miss, I got a Namibian SIM card since Google Fi doesn’t work here, but it requires special configuration to make the data work (trying settings from random internet sites didn’t seem to work). Miss, I tried (without data) to find the NWR (Namibian Wildlife Resorts, basically their National Parks Service) office to confirm a spot for myself in Sossusvlei, but ended up wandering around the area where Google claims they are unable to find them.

That last stop left me on the streets of downtown Windhoek, and I’d worked up a bit of an appetite. There was a British-style Fish and Chips restaurant on a corner just off the main drag, so I stopped inside to get some food. The place was setup like a fast food restaurant, with a big board with the menu, a cashier, and a separate counter to pick your up your food. Inside were 5 or so plastic tables with plastic chairs, but one wall of the restaurant was open to the sidewalk, and a handful of people sat on benches and milled around up front. I ordered my food and stood at the counter. The place was mildly busy.

As I waited, a woman in her mid-30’s walked up to the counter and stood very close to me, nearly grazing my arm, and said hello with a smile. She was dressed decently well and had white earbuds in both ears. My immediate thoughts were she was going to proposition me or ask for money, but instead she looked me in the eyes, still smiling, and told me “You must be careful when you leave.” I was still suspicious, and asked her plaintively: “Why must I be careful.” Her: “We can’t talk here. Just be very careful.” She then proceeded to casually walk around the restaurant, eventually finding her way back outside where she hung out with the 10 or so people out front, halfway inside the restaurant, none of whom were  eating.

I wasn’t sure what to think, but I was wearing my backpack with my passport in it (I’d been trying to visit the embassies, after all), and held it a little closer. Eventually my food came out, and I took a seat in the back, away from the open wall and sidewalk, and watched the scene while I ate. Casually, there was nothing suspicious going on, and  being in a busy area in the middle of the day, I wouldn’t normally be on edge, but the interaction was jarring, so I stayed cautiously hyper-aware.

I began to notice one of the folks on a bench looking my way repeatedly. I didn’t look like the rest of the patrons or staff, so again, it didn’t seem overly suspicious, but I kept his gaze in my peripheral vision, and he kept looking at me, at which point I’d make eye contact and he’d turn away. I ate my food, continually aware of his attention. Towards the end of my meal, I looked in his direction, and saw the woman who’d given me the warning standing behind the guy, who was looking another direction. Down by her waist, she casually pointed a finger towards him while looking at me. I nodded subtly and her pointing finger became a thumbs up, I gave her one back. What the fuck was going on!? I casually snapped a photo with my phone over my plate of food…

The man in the white t-shirt on the right was the one looking at me. The woman behind the window with the horizontal stripes was the one who warned me.

As I finished my meal, my mind played through all the scenarios: were they fucking with me, was he planning to mug me in the daylight in the middle of town, was he planning something more subtle like trying to steal things from my bag or pickpocket me? It was impossible to say with any authority, but I made a plan. My original path home would have taken me directly in front of the table the guy was sitting on, so that no longer seemed prudent. Instead I waited for him to become otherwise occupied, dropped off my tray of food, and went out the side and across the street in the opposite direction. I kept an eye on him, crossed to the opposite corner, went halfway down the block to where I was hidden by traffic, crossed again, and proceeded onto the main street continually aware of who was walking around me. I kept on edge my entire uneventful walk home.

I like to think of myself as having decent street smarts, and had the woman not come up to me, I’d have considered myself about as safe as anywhere I’ve been in my travels thus far. Her warning, whatever it meant, has unsettled my confidence in a way that’s hard to explain, and perhaps I don’t fully appreciate yet. Windhoek is a modern, diverse city, and while I stick out, I was far from uncomfortable with the amount of attention I was drawing. Worse for me, the feeling of a lack of safety that pervaded my thoughts on the way home was deeply unpleasant; it’s not enjoyable to be incredibly suspicious of your surroundings for reasons you don’t fully understand, and it’s mentally draining to maintain a heightened state of awareness.

In summary: I have no idea what happened, I’m not sure how long this crisis of confidence will last, but I’m certain there’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere.

Exit, Cape Left

With the burn over, it’s nearly time to begin my travels in earnest. First, as previously mentioned, my bike needed some work (that was fast!). I wanted my petcock fixed/replaced and an oil change. I dropped the bike off at 8am on Wednesday, confident such trivial work would be resolved in no more than two days. I forgot to think in what the locals assure me is standard Africa Time (or, perhaps even more popular, “TIA:” This Is Africa)… It took three days for them to tell me the petcock needed to be replaced (what I told them to do in the first place) and that they were just about to order the part from Johannesburg, eta Monday or Tuesday. Sigh.

I was stuck in Cape Town like this car is stuck in an ostrich traffic jam.

There are far worse places to be stuck than Cape Town. The weather, food, people, scenery, and side-trips offered here are world-class. I haven’t been suffering. Instead I:

  • Went wine tasting.
  • Revisited the Penguin Colony in Simonstown (Boulders Beach).
  • Revisited Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope (and found a year-old Black Rock Lighthouse Service sticker still hanging out by the lighthouse there).
  • Attended a super-hip night market in Hout Bay.
  • Climbed Table Mountain and hung out with cute fuzzy rodents and big scary eagles.
  • Went to a large AfrikaBurn decompression party.
  • Re-organized my things about a dozen times to come up with a better packing strategy.
  • Caught up on my sleep.
  • Vegged out on Netflix.
Table Mountain selfies!

Eventually, my bike made it back to me and I pried my way out of Cape Town’s comfortable clutches, heading North on the N7, the so-called Cape Namibia Route. The first thing you notice is that South Africa knows how to build a highway. It is beautifully paved and labeled, with no potholes and picnic areas every small handful of Kilometers. From this fine thoroughfare, you watch the landscape change — from urban to poverty to industrial to agricultural. The parallels between Cape Town and San Francisco are legion and worthy of a write-up in their own right, but among them are the presence of a large wine industry just to the North. I stopped at an organic winery and had 5 small glasses of wine for less than $2USD. Life is hard.

I finally managed to walk away from Cape Town.

Hitting the road again, things moved more gradually. The traffic dropped off, the wind picked up, the rolling fields of vineyards and grains slowly transformed to rocks and scrub-grass and eventually rocky foothills. The wind was at a fever pitch. My bike found comfort at the sustained wind at around 20 degrees from vertical, and buffeted uncontrollably when passing a fast-moving oncoming semi-truck. I rode past another truck that had been blown from the roadway, unfortunately directly into a power pole, where a team of people were unloading its contents into smaller vehicles as it lay on its side. I have no idea if they were in linked with the original transportation outfit, and their ragtag appearance didn’t provide any useful indication.

Goodbye cute little full-eye-contact rodent! I’ll miss you the most, maybe!

As the landscape became increasingly barren, the improbability of the continuing perfect road stuck in my American mind. Each subsequent small settlement seemed increasingly impossible to posses the necessities for life, and each seemed more unwelcoming as-if to confirm that thought. Eventually, I sought refuge from the evening in a combination motel, caravan park, and convention center, located just outside of the oddly-suburban/touristic town of Springbok (which locals have assured me is mostly famous for generally topping the temperature forecasts in South Africa). Despite a lack of hot running water, and an oddly institutional vibe, I slept well in the tiny bed, seemingly the only resident of the large operation.

Roads through wine country are the best roads.

Morning brought me an extremely windy ride to the Namibian border. The scrub-grass slowly disappeared into a truly barren desert with dust clouds blasting orthogonally across the highway. I pulled into one of the picnic areas for a break. I set my helmet down and immediately realized my motorcycle was about to be blown *over* the kickstand. I braced it with my body, and my helmet took flight across the desert, thankfully coming to a rest right off the roadway. I climbed back onto the bike and managed to walk it close enough that I could hold it upright while re-acquiring my helmet. I’ve rarely seen wind like this even on the tops of mountains.

I eventually came upon the Namibian border. I just beat out one of the giant overland buses into line, and was able to glide smoothly through immigration and customs, with only a few confused glances at the paperwork I’d managed to generate at the Cape Town airport when I imported my motorcycle. A few tourists asked me about my adventures, and a suspicious police officer casually pawed through one of my panniers, and I was over the bridge border to Namibia! Things there were even easier, and within the hour, I’d crossed my first African overland border!

The first thing I realized upon topping up my fuel tank is that Namibia appears to use South African Rand interchangeably with their own currency; the ATM I visited actually dispensed a mix of 100 Rand and 100 Namibian Dollar notes! Well, to each country their own, I suppose!

On the Namibian side, there was only a hint of scrub-grass, and a smaller helping of boulders. Instead, the landscape swept out onto the mountainous horizon in dirt and pebbles. A sign helpfully warned that they weren’t into painting lines onto the tarmac (and traffic helpfully indicated to me that they still insist on driving on the left), but aside from a slightly rockier tarmac, the road was equally flawless. My first night in Namibia was to be at a “Hot Spring” (more about the quotes in a minute) in a national park, and I decided to take the more-direct dirt road to get there. In 86 kilometers of dirt path, I saw one car and one tractor. This is a country of dust, rocks, fence, and small birds, not one of men. Once again, my DRZ proved it’s not scares of dirt roads, especially when they’re helpfully parallel to the wind, and I made it to Ais Ais National Park without further incident.

Ais Ais translates into something like burning water, and it’s a pretty accurate name… They claim to have a “spa,” but what they have is a  shallow, rocky pit of 60 C  (140 F) water that’s painful to dip a toe into, and a big swimming pool of cold water. I never saw anyone in either. They also have a few buildings full of what look like hotel rooms with no one in them (they claimed to have no rooms available), and nearly a hundred camping spots with power. It was tent time, and I was happy for it. I set up and headed to the restaurant — I was famished. Unfortunately, they didn’t open for dinner until 6:30, and it was 4pm! I think my disappointment was apparent (and a little charm can go a long way), and the server came back awhile later with a plate of chips (fries) telling me she convinced the chef they were for her. I devoured them and thanked her profusely.

Since there wasn’t much to do at the “spa” besides talk to the frequent rubberneckers that would gather around, poke, prod, and photograph my motorcycle (I hadn’t seen another since leaving Cape Town), I called it an early night.

Travels with Tankwa, or Adventures in AfrikaBurn

I hardly slept the night before the burn. It’s a common story. I forced myself to sleep around midnight, bags packed, clothes set out, alarm painfully set for 4am. I woke up at 3:30 and all hopes to eek out that last 30 minutes of sleep quickly went out the window. I oozed from the covers and prepared for the adventure.

AfrikaBurn lies in the Tankwa desert, a mere 3.5-4 hours out of Cape Town. The pavement ends a tad over 100km from the event, and the dusty rock-filled path is notorious for eating tires. I’d pre-arranged a caravan with some folks from my hostel, and at five past 5am, we hit the cold dark road.

In my mind, the trip would be hot and dusty, but the first 2 hours ascended through windswept mountain vistas. I’d not dressed for the weather, and the wind that tossed my bike around like a bag caught on a fence (and overturned a huge overloaded semi-truck) also chilled me to the bone. I didn’t want to lose my caravan, so I shivered and shook until we reached Ceres, the last town before the desert. We ate breakfast at a chain restaurant filled with fellow burners, and I aggressively cupped my coffee in my numb hands.

Welcome, indeed!

The last few miles of pavement passed by uneventfully, then ended abruptly with thick dirt and rocks. AfrikaBurn hosted ~13,000 attendees in 2017, and the size difference with Burning Man is thankfully reflected in the entrance traffic. Bumping down the washboard road kicks up massive clouds of impenetrable dust which are particularly arduous in the exposed seat of a motorcycle. Luckily, my narrow profile, offroad suspension, and weight afforded me the convenience of speed, and I mostly managed to pass slower vehicles that otherwise coated my body, helmet, and lungs with dust.

A loo with a view.

The dirt road was a goddamn pleasure on two wheels; my DR-Z400S floated like a dream. The landscape was pleasant in its stark emptiness. The occasional random pedestrian, seemingly unencumbered with bags or water, padded down the desolate shoulder at odd intervals. Eventually, there’s a road to the right, poorly labeled with the “Clan,” the analogue for Burning Man’s “Man.” Another windy kilometer down the road, and the familiar lines of a desert festival entrance unfolded on the horizon. There was no line — another lovely difference from the Gerlach regional. Within minutes, I had a wristband and was speeding 10km/hr towards home on the Welcome Road.

At the welcome gate, covered in dust

My amazing friend, former campmate, and artist behind the badass Black Rock Lighthouse service did me the great service of bringing me into his camp, and I headed towards its playa address (Lady Davina and B). The first face I saw was a campmate I’d also been in touch with through a web of connections. He pointed me to my new temporary home. I’d arrived!

I’ve had the good fortune to make it to the last 9 burns in Nevada, but never to one of the many regional events. Without a lot of ideas about what to expect, at AfrikaBurn I was a sponge. At first blush, it looks like Burning Man hit by a shrink ray: the campground is smaller, the camps are smaller, the art is smaller. The vibe is nearly identical. If you go out to the playa at night,  you could momentarily be convinced it was just another Burning Man until you squint enough to perceive depth.

But then you see that there are a lot fewer theme camps, and less events going on. You notice that nearly all of the shade structures are these incredible stretchy tents that were largely set up by rental companies. You stumble over rocks and scramble up and down dry riverbeds. You shit in a long-drop toilet, open to the sun and the stars. You marvel at how white the burn is, and realize that you’re thinking those thoughts from Africa.

It was a goddamn good time. That said, some part of the spark that Burning Man represents to me was missing. Missing were miles of campground frontage aggressively pulling you in to be misted, fed, launched, spanked, slapped, or plied with alcoholic snowcones. Missing were oases on the outskirts of the desert where you can perch on a shady beanbag chair and watch the wavering apparitions on the horizon crawl slowly across your vision, the occasional ball of fire reaching up and licking the mountains. Missing for me were the unending serendipitous meetings with close friends, often when I thought I didn’t want to be found. Sometimes the things you end up missing surprise you.

There was a distinctly wild-west vibe that I’m sure would be reminiscent of American burns gone by: police were present, but I never heard of any busts, and the ones I saw walked in large groups joking, smoking, and looking at the occasional uncovered boobs. Joints were rolled and smoked in plain view. The burn schedule was effectively written in pencil, with many postponements including the Clan itself, which much to my surprise, was burned a day late and after the Temple. Burn perimeters were routinely violated in an AfrikaBurn tradition of running naked around the fire. Art car speed limits were very much a suggestion. Got a flat-bed, some lights, and a sign? You’ve got an art car!

A stomach bug swept through the burn to epic effect. I’ve heard countless stories of burners vomiting through their last few days of the burn, or the ride home, or the worst: 30 hour transatlantic flights while regularly exploding out of both ends.

I fared better than this horny guy.

When it came time for my own departure, I lost my caravan in the dust and was quite concerned when I learned while waiting for them that there had been a fatal accident on the road a few minutes behind me. My bike was running a bit rough, so I had to goose the throttle when stopped to keep things moving, at which point I realized the fuel petcock was dumping fuel out the vent hole with each pulse of the piston (it’s vacuum-driven by the engine).

In summary: I’m back in Cape Town with a host of new friends, my bike is at the shop, and I’ve caught up on my sleep. And there are penguins, so many cute penguins!

Goddamn adorable little guys.