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!

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