As Grootfontein disappeared into my rear view mirror, my grin was ear-to-ear. The scenery changed rapidly as I headed north towards Ngepi Camp. The sparse desert landscape slowly sprouted small trees and near-constant settlements. Instead of passing dozens of miles with no sign of civilization beyond the highway and fences, now every handful was a bus stop (a paved turnoff with a single bench used by the minibuses that traffic these parts). Small settlements dotted the landscapes, usually comprised of around a dozen little huts of various materials (usually rough-hewn wood, mud, or block structures with grass or tin roofs). Odd fences of sticks would often form impenetrable, but strangely small perimeters for structures. Many of the villages would have friendly handmade signs on the side of the road: “Welcome to Mbwassa Family Village!” or “Friendly Nedella Village.” Along the highway were endless people who would lazily meander out of my path. Thousands of longhorn cattle made no such effort, and it was a constant game of dodge-the-cows. Goats, chickens, and dogs were similarly unperturbed by my advance.
I was shocked at how quickly things had changed. Southern Namibia was incredibly sparse. Now there was rarely a time when I couldn’t look down the road and spot a few people and probably some huts. Minibuses passed every handful of minutes, and pickup trucks with their beds so loaded with people that they’d all be standing became a common sight. The latter moved slow, and it became fun for me to watch all their heads swivel as I passed. The architecture had changed, as well, presumably due to the changing flora. Kids waved or held out their hands and yelled for money as I passed. Women walked along the shoulder with bags of materials or plastic tubs of things balanced on their heads. Some wore brightly colored clothes with multicolored patterns, a contrast to the largely-western style I’d seen in the south.
It was hot. Ungodly hot. Sweat was pouring out of me faster than I could drink water to refill it. I survived by continually soaking a headscarf with water and putting it under my helmet, but in the dry heat it never lasted long. After 140 miles, I got to the first gas station since I’d left: their refrigerator was broken. I despaired at my warm coca cola. The trees kept getting taller and more dense. The world closed in around the road, becoming more and more of a jungle. Some of the trees bore deep red and yellow leaves, signs of an approaching autumn. Eventually I pulled off the main highway and onto a secondary road, and finally a 6km sand driveway for Ngepi. The driveway was an incredible burden, boasting extremely deep loose sand ruts I slid and skidded through. It took over 20 minutes to conquer it and arrive at my destination. Ngepi was cute: an all-outdoor campground along the Okavango panhandle. I booked into a campsite and met a nice South African couple at the bar before a set up camp. They invited me to have dinner with them after I set up my camp.
I pitched my tent right on the side of the river and marveled at the ridiculous outdoor bathrooms they’d set up. A family of hippos lazed in the river grunting 30 feet from where I’d set up. Afterwards, I headed back to the main building and enjoyed a buffet dinner with the South Africans, sharing stories of our respective adventures. The place was cute, so I decided to spend another day there to fully appreciate it. It was a pleasantly relaxing day, mostly spent riverside with my book. It felt great to relax away from Grootfontein. I spent another evening falling asleep to a cacophony of bird, insect, and other various animal noises the breadth of which I’d never experienced.
In the morning, I broke camp lazily, my sights set on the border town of Katima Mulilo, towards the end of the Caprivi Strip. Once packed, I again braved the sandy path to the road, sliding and bumping or 6 long kilometers to pavement. When I rejoined the highway, I proceeded through the Caprivi Game Park. The road was impossibly straight, with cow sightings (and associated dodging) at unprecedented levels. There were also an unending multitude of police checkpoints, where I’d simply be asked about my destination and sent on my way. Along the way, a dense cloud of smoke greeted me on the horizon, and eventually I rode past a raging wildfire pushed up against the side of the road. I was unwilling to pull over and take a picture due to the raging heat (on an already scorching day) and cloying smoke. For miles after, pockets of burning grass and trees dotted the charred landscape, with no signs of containment or control efforts to be seen.
I’d been banking on the first town on the other side of the park to refill my fuel, and when I rolled into the gas station the attendant frowned at me and informed me they were out of gas until the next day. He said Katima Mulilo should have fuel, but they were 110km down the road. I looked at my reserves and knew it was going to be close, but wasn’t willing to quit yet. I dumped my extra fuel into the main tank, but I was carrying less than a gallon there (I usually keep it only half full for weight unless I expect to need it, but the previous attendant who filled it up stopped early). I rode nervously, holding to a steady 60mph in an attempt to be fuel conscious. 38km from Katima, I first ran out of gas. My tank has an obnoxious geometry whereby the side where the fuel goes to the engine can run out while the other side is still full of gas, so I pulled over and attempted to hold the bike low to one side and move the gas over. That moved me another 18km, this time doing 55km and drafting behind a minibus for much of the way.
I once again shook the bike on its side to move fuel over, but it was getting sparse on both sides. I rode extremely deliberately the last few kilometers, continually eyeing the thin puddle of gas vibrating along in my tank. Finally, the familiar Puma gas company logo appeared on the horizon. A quarter mile from reaching it, a big rig turning across traffic into a cement factory in front of me forced me to brake. While braking, my engine died, out of gas. I found the cleanest stick I could on the side of the road, wiped it off, and managed to push enough gas from one side to the other to move me on fumes the last thousand or so feet. I wanted to hug the attendant.
I filled the tank and rode through town until I saw signs for a backpackers place a bit off the beaten path. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I got a cheap room in what I’d describe as a shitty motor inn. They claimed to have WiFi, but it didn’t work, and when I asked them about it they acted confused and insisted it worked for them. When I went to my room, several cockroaches scattered in all directions. I got ready to take a shower, and when I walked to the side table to grab what appeared to be a box of soap or shampoo. When I opened the box, another cockroach scrambled out, startling the shit out of me, and inside was three packs of Namibian government-made condoms. At that point, I shouldn’t have been surprised by the various noises I heard later that night.
I asked the folks at reception about where I could get dinner, and they gave the dubious advice of KFC. Instead, I managed to find a Portuguese restaurant and have the best dinner I’d had in some time.
In the morning, I made a mostly uneventful and short journey through the comparatively desolate (of human activity) Salambala Conservancy and to the Ngoma border crossing, where I went through one of the quietest and easiest border crossings I’ve ever passed. I’d finally made it out of Namibia. Next stop: Botswana!