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.

Stickers!

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.

4 Replies to “Missing opportunities and panniers”

  1. Man…not sure why no one would stop? I understand the tour buses…they don’t want to lose licenses. But the regular cars. Hope you have a chance to go back. It’s truly awe inspiring.

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