Windhoek and Swakop — Beaches and Beer — Dunes and Deserts

Sometimes you get lucky, and you book into a hostel that’s also the gay refuge of town. That’s what I discovered when I booked into the Cardboard Box hostel. During my stay, I met all sorts of interesting locals: contractors, reporters, engineers, and assorted freaks, riff raff, and queers (I mean all of that in the nicest possible way). I talked life, geopolitics, and even faced off in a heated debate with a fervent Namibian Trump supporter who called 2 more of his Trump supporting friends to join him as reinforcements since the rest of the place thought he was nuts.

I also heard an incredible and tragic story from one guy who’s parents were both killed by a very famous, and very drunk at the time, Namibian who was driving twice the speed limit on a road I was set to drive next. The incident is well documented. The guy managed to tow his car from the scene before the cops came, his blood samples disappeared, and ultimately he pinned the entire thing on one of his employees who spent 2 years in jail. My new friend explained the web of corruption leading all the way to the so-called “Father” of the Namibian nation. There were additional suicides and deaths involved. It was a hell of a tale, and one I honestly feel hesitant to elaborate on for concern for the guy’s safety.

I still had a Congolese visa and tires to acquire, but unfortunately, I also had a weekend to wait before I could get it. I lounged around Windhoek a bit. I went fruitlessly in search of good pizza. I witnessed strange dance performances in malls, and was mildly concerned when a clearly unsanctioned parade of fancy tricked-out jeeps drove down the main street honking their horns, the drivers drinking, people hanging off the sides, running stoplights and catcalling.

Dance party!
The rich jeep owner gang dubiously rumbles through town.

When Monday finally rolled around, I headed to the DRC’s embassy. I worried there may be a line, security checks, and a lot of bureaucracy. Instead, I walked right into a shabby one-room office with a desk, a couple chairs, and one woman with the perpetual appearance of mild discomfort. She seemed confused when I told her I wanted a visa. Her immediate reaction was to explain to me how arduous the process was. They need the form, the money, photos, a copy of your passport, proof of good standing, proof of funding, and then they ship the whole thing off to the DRC, where they don’t expect to hear back for a month or two. I asked pointed questions about whether she thought the whole thing was a bad idea, or if she thought I stood a chance of getting a visa. She gave me an exasperated look that communicated clearly that she does not do pointed questions.

The DRC puts its best face forward in its embassies. Yes, those ceiling tiles on the left are falling down with water damage.

The Congolese woman handed me a Windhoek phone book to use as a backing, and I filled out the form. I still needed a copy of a bank statement and some passport photos before I could proceed, and she helpfully pointed me to a photo shop on the next block that did passport photos (the area was full of embassies, so this wasn’t terribly surprising). This looked to be the easiest task yet, but looks are frequently deceiving in Africa. Within 10 minutes, I’d gotten a decent photo snapped (“I don’t think you should be smiling. Let’s take another.”), but no sooner did the memory card get inserted into their ancient Kodak photo kiosk than the thing crashed and refused to start up again. They offered to put the photo on my phone so I could print it elsewhere, but my Pixel uses a USB-C port, which they didn’t have. And of course, they couldn’t email it. I said I’d return with a way to get the photo from them. “TIA” bounced through my head.

Next stop: tires. I’d gotten a run-around from Suzuki, but the local Yamaha dealer had tires that fit in stock, so I headed there. Everything went easy except they insisted the tires didn’t need to be balanced, and clearly didn’t have the machinery to perform that task. This greatly reduces the usable life of the tires. *Sigh*.

Look ma, no legs! Bonus points for the lines of dust dismantling the rear axle created on the floor…

I endured further frustrations getting my bank account statement printed at the local Kinko’s equivalent, but I’ll spare you the details. By the time I made it back to the photo shop, they’d also fixed the Kodak photo machine. Then, with photos, copies, printouts, forms, and N$1200 ($93 USD) in my pocket, I revisited the Congolese embassy.

The same lady presided over the same empty room. She looked at me blankly when I came back in, but when I jovially tried to hand her the pile of documents, she didn’t move to take it. She once again reminded me that the money is non-refundable, and the wait time is long, and that it’s entirely at the whim of the folks back in the DRC. We went back and forth for a few minutes as I tried to get her to give me any direct indication of my chances. It was fruitless. Eventually she took my money and application. Then she gave me her cell phone number and took mine, telling me I could get updates on my visa status by communicating with her via WhatsApp. WhatsApp! What a time to be alive…

Tuesday morning, I took off early in the morning headed towards Swakopmund (mouth of the Swakop river), a popular former-German settlement on the Atlantic coast, near the city of Walvis Bay, and nestled in prime sand dune country. Google is nice enough to propose two routes between Windhoek and Swakop, as it’s affectionately known: a shorter, more mountainous, dirt road, and a longer, less direct series of paved highways. I opted for the highways on my way in.

By this point, I feel compelled to say, I’d spent far more time in Windhoek than I needed or wanted to. I hadn’t, however, explored much outside the main areas. From a high vantage point, it’s easy to see how developments immediately cease at some point on one of the surrounding mountains where the grade simply became too much to cope with. Wikipedia claims they have plans to change that. As the proper settlements drop off, ad hoc ones take over.

My road went north, and what I saw was unfamiliar. Namibia was once governed by South Africa as South West Africa (they took it from the Germans, who can be blamed for the creative naming). As such, Namibia had Apartheid, and the baggage that comes with that. Townships dot the periphery of the major South African cities I’ve seen, and I’d seen some similar looking things in Namibia, but what I saw along the highway wasn’t the familiar rows of ramshackle tin and block shacks thrown together directly adjacent and mired in rubber, glass, and plastic trash. Instead, the landscape — small mountains sparsely covered with grass, cactus, and occasional trees — was spotted with the sort of temporary settlements ultralight backpackers would set up along a desolate trail, except these were made with plastic and cardboard, and everywhere you looked garbage wafted or settled. Looking in on townships, you see poverty, yes, but you also see community. It was easier to imagine every one of these individual semi-hovels occupied by a paranoid cowboy sleeping with his pistol under the cloak he used as a blanket. Consider all this commentary with a grain of salt, because while my eyes swept the landscape, and my mouth gaped with a lack of recognition, I didn’t stop and I know not of which I write.

The settlements continued for a few kilometers after Windhoek, then foothills, then my turnoff to head west towards the coast. The road was straight and smooth.  Over the coming hours, scenery ever-so-gradually faded from green to brown. The trees shrank and disappeared. The shrubs and grass seemed to spread out, leaving sand and rocks in their wake. Eventually, the mountains began to be tufted and ringed with sand, like massive dusty glaciers sliding down the sides. The road eventually met up with an impossibly lush river valley, and I’d found the Swakop river. From the desolate desert blooms a comparatively lush landscape of palm trees and grass, and the rows of block housing that are common of the middle class and up in southern Africa.

I’d booked a guesthouse in a residential area on the edge of town and checked in. I set my sights on a German pub for dinner and cruised into the cute little oceanside tourist town as the sun was setting. Still illuminated were the massive mountains of sand that wrap the so-called Skeleton Coast (named for the treacherous waters for sailing, and the sealed fate of any unlucky shipwrecked sailor on the inhospitable desert that runs for hundreds of miles in every direction). Luckily, life in this part of the desert has been made much easier with the addition of fine German beer and schnitzel, so I took advantage of the situation. It was a very welcome diversion from the more common Namibian fare.

Beer! Fabulous fabulous real beer!

The next day, I set out to do my first exploring of the beaches and barren stretches of the Skeleton Coast. Just south of Swakopmund is the larger, less touristy town of Walvis Bay, and I set my sights on the coastal highway that connects them. On the road, Swakopmund dissolves rapidly as one heads south, with endless windswept sand taking over the view. To the right, a gentle slope down to the clashing ocean; to the left, huge swelling dunes, formed into ridges like the Santa Lucia mountains. Beyond the coastline, a smattering of oil platforms loom in the mist. Traffic is light, and signs of civilization are minimal. Eventually, a turnoff to parking by the dunes materializes, and I hop off the highway.

Sandy!

There’s a completely empty pile of sand that passes for a parking lot, and footprints leading up to the dunes. Atop the closest one, 5 bodies dot the ridge, alternating turns sandboarding down the slope. I follow the footprints and ascend the towering dunes. The wind is hot and dry, the sand is loose, but summiting the peak, I’m treated to sweeping views of pristine desert coastline to the west, and endless jagged sandy peaks like a tan Torres del Paine to the east. I spend several minutes slowly spinning around, taking it all in.

Going up!
Civilization, where did you go?
Nevermind, that’s amazing.

Eventually, as I’m wont to do, I struck up a conversation with the adventuresome folks nearby. It turns out it was a local with two kids, and a father and son economist pair from the states, the father of which worked for the federal government, and the son studying at Berkeley. After about 10 minutes of chatting and explaining our respective circumstance, the young American Bay Area transplant exclaimed “Duuuuude, you are so Bay Area!” I took it as a great compliment. Before we parted ways, they loaned me a freshly waxed square of cardboard I was able to body surf down the dune with. Good times.

I carried on down the busy road to Walvis Bay, a bustling town of box-like houses nestled along the sandy beach. I cruised the broad thoroughfares, wound through dusty roads in the poor ramshackle neighborhoods on the outskirts, and stopped by for a beer atop a roadside bar to escape the heat of the day. Over the beer, I explored my surroundings on Google Maps and spotted a lonely coastal road hanging off to the south, seemingly escaping civilization and carving alone through giant pools of water. Curious, I plotted a course and hopped back on the bike.

Hugging the coast and heading out of town, I followed a particularly wide paved road. The only other traffic as the last of the town went by the wayside was large open-topped trucks with heaping piles of white and brown salt overflowing their tops, periodically spilling the stuff onto the pavement following bumps. The pavement ended at a large gated complex with heavy equipment swarming giant piles of salt.

Feeling salty?

The curious part of the road I’d seen veered right at the complex towards the ocean so I continued on the salt-caked hardpan. The path turned to washboard and wound between broad salty evaporation ponds and bays. Traveling inches above the waterline, the path finally swerved onto a sandy and secluded patch of oceanfront beach, complete with a tiny windowed outhouse. I had the windswept beach to myself, and took a load off in the salty air.

A piss with a view!
My private beach.

After the beach, I headed back to town, and meandered back through town and down the road back to Swakopmund, as the waning day and endless wind were making for cold weather. I had another night of good food and German beer back in town, as I was spending another day traveling before trekking back to Windhoek.

The lone highway that heads north from Walvis Bay passes through Swakopmund and continues north, with only scattered patches of civilization identified by mile markers. The next morning, after breakfast and some beach cruising in town, I followed the path north. The two lanes of pavement cut across a long flat patch of sand, varying from nearly-oceanside to a few miles away on the left. To the right, a pipeline follows the route. Here and there, the sand is packed into a track carving seemingly randomly across the landscape. I followed one to a rocky beach dotted with pickup trucks (“bakkies”) with fisherman posted next to them. On the coast, the surf tumbled the rocks over each other in a sound any good California hiker will recognize. It almost felt like home.

Rocks, bakkies, and anglers.

Back on the road,  I spotted a walled complex with odd towers and dishes sticking out off in the distance. Eventually, a dirt road added a bridge over the pipeline and seemed to head towards it, so I followed it. There was a distinct lack of signage as I approached. The closer I got, the weirder it all appeared, and eventually the barking of guard dogs and the flapping of a Chinese flag made the scene stranger still. The place was fully gated and surrounded by a high fence ringed with barbed wire. I rode around it, but didn’t approach too closely. Some internet research later identified the complex as the Swakopmund Tracking Station, one of China’s remote space communication facilities! Coolio!

Pipeline time
Beijing, we have a problem

Continuing down the random side-road, I also wandered into a desolate (but clearly still active) sand airstrip and skydiving center. You never know what random desert roads will lead you to!

Yes, yes I am.

I continued a few dozen more miles down the north/south highway before stopping for a beer in one of the remote tourist stops along the coast. It was oddly well-equipped and bustling, with random welded sculptures, a full bar, shady dining areas, and shipping-container chic. It seemed as good as any place to turn around and run my remaining errands for the day before preparing to head back to Windhoek the next day.

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