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!
The time had finally come to clear out of Windhoek. I was twitching with anxiousness to be on the road again. My Windhoek host had kindly advised me on my next two stops: Peace Garden Lodge in Grootfontein, a small town on the edge of Namibia’s breadbasket, and Ngepi Camp, an all-outdoor riverside campground on the close side of the Caprivi Strip. Peace Garden Lodge was shy of 500km from Windhoek, and Ngepi about the same after. Neither day should be too much of a hike. I lazily prepared for the day, making sure I got my goodbyes in at C’est la Vie.
The time had finally come. My things were packed, and in an iteratively better way with the knowledge of my previous strategy, combined with the necessity of starting from scratch after heading back stateside. I hit the road. The bountiful joy of the wind passing through my mesh jacket was tempered only by the brutal heat of the day. The first several hours had become old hat — I’d passed this stretch of highway there and back from Etosha and Düsternbrook. I filled up my tank at the same gas station my Etosha truck had used on the way back, even managing to quickly hop on a wifi network from the next door coffee shop. The same familiar endless scrubgrass desert and open plains dotted with occasional mountains continued to unroll on the horizon. I stopped frequently to stretch and cool down in the shade.
Finally, at the town of Otavi, I turned off a previously-traveled road towards the oddly named Kombat, precursor to Grootfontein. An impressive mountain ridge dominated the skyline to the north. A few miles after the turnoff, I started noticing the occasional misfire. I was cruising around 67mph, my tank was more than half-empty, there was no backfiring nor did the issue appear to persist for more than a single rotation, and with the issues I’d had with my petcock after AfrikaBurn, my mind first went to vacuum. (NB, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want a short lesson on the fuel system of mine and many carburated motorcycles) The petcock is a simple little switch on the bottom of the fuel tank, meant to be easily manipulated while riding, that allows you to pick between a few simple options: “ON,” the default setting, only allows fuel to flow when suction is created by way of a hose connected to the engine, “RESERVE,” like on, but drawing from the bottom of the tank instead of an inch or two up, which you’re intended to switch to when the engine dies from lack of fuel, and serves as an indicator of low fuel levels since there’s no fuel indicator, and “PRIME,” which allows fuel to flow freely from the tank to the carburator without the need of vacuum. When the seals of my petcock dissolved after AfrikaBurn, the engine would only run smoothly at high speeds when on PRIME, as the lack of seals failed to properly use the suction to draw fuel.
The missfires were few and far between (think one every 2-5 minutes), but cause for concern; a properly running engine doesn’t behave that way. I switched the petcock to PRIME. A few minutes later, it happened again. I was in the middle of nowhere, nearly 100km outside of Grootfontein, and I was still able to soldier on at a good clip, so I thought it best to continue. The problem persisted, and the intervals shortened. I’d been worried about stopping for fear of whatever the problem was stranding me, but 12km from my destination, I needed a break and was concerned enough to follow through. I pulled into one of the many rest areas (a turnoff, occasionally with shade, with a picnic table and trash can) and took stock of things. Nothing was visually apparent, so my next thought was I’d potentially gotten bad gas at the last station. My reserve tank was from a previous place, so I poured it into the tank in the hopes that that would buy me some time (bad gas usually consists of setiment or water. Either way, adding more gas is far from a perfect solution). The bike started on the first crank. I hopped on and rolled up to the highway. When I went to merge, the engine stuttered and choked.
This was bad. I limped along what passed for a shoulder on the highway at 8mph, trying everything I could to get some power out of the bike. I tried the choke, I tried all the fuel settings, I tried giving it enough gas to overcome whatever was going on (backfire!), nothing worked. It idled fine. I could increase the throttle up to 8-10mph, but beyond that, it would shudder, lurch, a knock. I pulled over and tried the Software Engineer approach, turning it off and on again. Once again, it immediately fired up, and the idle sounded perfect, but even in neutral I couldn’t rev the engine beyond a handful of RPM’s over idle before it sputtered.
There aren’t a whole lot of usual suspects when an engine is running but poorly like this. Generally speaking, there’s fuel, compression, and spark (ignition). Given the sound of the engine at idle, compression seemed like an unlikely culprit, so it was on to the fuel and spark. Unfortunately, the only easily-accessible part of those systems, the choke and petcock, I’d already fidgeted with to no avail. I’d limped the bike about 2km before giving up on it, thereby leaving the relative safety of the rest area, so I pulled as far off the road as I could (not far at all), and resigned myself to digging deeper on the side of the highway.
I pulled out my tools and went to work. There were two issues I knew how to look into from my position, and at least one of them I could potentially fix:
A fouled or worn spark plug. I carried a spare.
A clogged or otherwise fouled carburetor. I could potentially see loose sediment, or hope to dislodge any grit or grime clogging a jet.
Of these, the carburator seemed like the most likely option. Given the idle was steady, I figured the spark plug was operating okay. (NB, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to learn about carburators) The carburator is a much more complicated beast. A carburator’s role is to mix gasoline and air (oxygen) and deliver it to the engine. The throttle is directly connected to the carburator, and acts to alter the internal geometry and therefor change the air/fuel mixture, effectively delivering more or less gas and air. The thing is, they’re remarkably sophisticated machines, with a multitude of ducts and jets meant to alter the composition of the mixture in different circumstances. If a jet for low rpm/idling is free and clear, but another for higher power is clogged, it could create exactly the situation I was in.
To get to the spark plug or the carb, I had to tank off the fuel tank. I did so, with trucks and cars barreling down the highway a couple feet from my bike. My money was still on bad gas/a dirty carb, so first I went about taking it out. I’d never done it before on this bike, but unsurprisingly, it’s a pain in the goddamn ass, and the first time around takes me a long ass time to do, but I get it out. Next, I’m holding a ridiculously complicated mechanical machine in my hands. I’ve seen carburators before — I helped my dad clean out one on his KLR when we were on our way to South America and his bike was giving him issues — but this one is another story. It’s not the stock unit; the previous owner has opted for a much more sophisticated high-performance model instead. There’s always a reservoir at the bottom, so I started there. Aside from having a billion parts, ducts, and jets, things looked pretty clean, and what gas I hadn’t spilled taking it apart seemed clear… But it wouldn’t take much to clog a jet. I just had no way to try and clear them all!
I dumped the gas that was in it, reseated it, threw the tank back on top, and started the bike up. Once again, it immediately came to life, but once again, had no power beyond an idle.
I killed the engine, pulled the tank, and got out my spare spark plug. Thankfully, with the tank removed, swapping the spark plug is a relatively easy procedure. The old plug was pretty crispy, but that’s no surpise after the backfiring. I reseat the new one, throw the tank on once again, and start the bike. Same thing.
I curse. I feel anxious. I wonder what to do. I don’t want to leave it where it is, but Google tells me I have 10km to go to get to Peace Garden Lodge. The sun is just starting to kiss the horizon, taunting me with a glorious tableau I can’t appreciate. At 8km/h, night will arrive before I do. I figure I don’t have a choice, and start re-assembling the bike.
The highway, like much of Namibia, is mercifully flat. I ride on the side of the road, a dangerously steep and sandy shoulder taunts me inches away, complete with shards of broken bottles glinting in the waning daylight. Traffic is light, and visibility is good. I turn on my left blinker (remember, Namibia is left-hand drive) whenever I see vehicles approaching in the distance. A couple small hills make my heart catch in my throat as I fear the tiny amount of power my bike is generating will be insufficient to summit them, but somehow it makes it. I hold my breath coming down the larger of them as I put the bike in neutral and manage to get up to 12mph before popping the clutch, hoping I can somehow pull the engine to where it runs again, but the bike just lurches and pops until it’s back to 8mph.
I’m getting good at nursing the bike along just on the edge of where it stutters, cruising at a consistent speed. The last bits of the sun are disappearing out of view. I’ve been hugging the edge of the road for over 40 minutes. I look down at my dash and realize I’m going 10mph. Cautiously, I increase the throttle. The bike responds, accelerating, then lurches, then accelerating again, and then I’m going 60mph. I’m in a state of shock mixed with awe. The last couple kilometers fly by, the wind finally putting the buckets of sweat I’m covered in to use in cooling me down.
I pull into Peace Garden Lodge at 6pm. It’s too dark and I’m too exhausted and filthy to camp, so I’m excited when they have cheap TV-less rooms for rent, and a restaurant that’s still open. I hop back on the bike and cruise to my room without incident, unload my essentials, and have a delicious schnitzel dinner complete with ice cold beer straight from a tap. After dinner, I give another once-over to the bike, but ultimately hope for the best in the morning.
Breakfast is included with my room, and checkout is at 10. I wander back to the restaurant, stoked to see genuine (if shitty) filter coffee. Syrupy disgusting juice, overdone eggs, floppy bacon, stale cereal with warm milk, white bread, and a bowl of apples and oranges (surprise breakfast standout!) were the other accouterments. I shoveled it all eagerly into my face before heading back to my room to repack my bike. I got everything loaded, handed the key back to reception, and started the bike.
The engine engaged on the first crank, but a quick rev yielded no power. I cursed, stripped off my helmet, gloves, and jacket, and started tearing the bike apart in the dirt in front of my room. Long story short: nothing I tried helped. I went back to reception to check back in and ask about the possibility of a motorcycle shop. They gave me back my keys and told me there was a motorcycle shop in town, 6km away! Motorcycle shops aren’t particularly common in Namibia, and Grootfontein is far from a bustling metropolis, so this was extremely lucky. I unloaded the bike back into my room, packed my tools, and started the long slow 8km slog into town. The shop was attached to a service station on the near side of town, and I rolled into the parking lot backfiring around 11:30am.
I was amazed. Here in Grootfontein, I was looking at a large motorcycle and quad shop with a huge variety of bikes in various states of disassembly. A father and son team with a handful of helpers, all of which were engaged in projects when I arrived, dropped everything immediately to help me. The father hopped on the bike and took a spin around the block. They changed the gas, they cleaned the carb, swapped the spark plug and its connector, they checked the compression, oil, etc. I helped insofar as I could with my tools.
The day crawled on. My confidence, despite the owner of the shop continually reassuring me, dwindled. The bike stopped starting. The battery drained from repeated starting events and had to be put on a charger. When 6pm rolled around, the wife of the owner gave me a ride back to my place and promised to keep me in the loop. She also offered to pick me up and bring me back in the morning (Saturday) when they’d continue working on things, which I was thankful for.
I was worried. It wasn’t apparent to me what was going wrong, or why things had gone from idling to not. While I was there, we’d taken the carb out a half dozen times. Likewise the spark plug. I went to sleep unsure of what would come.
In the morning, I got up and had another bleak breakfast, and renewed my room. I went back to my room and packed my backpack for the day, and just as I was finishing up, there was a knock on the door. Instead of the wife outside my door, it was the owner of the shop! I grabbed my bag expecting to hop in his truck, but instead he told me he had bad news. My blood ran cold. He said they’d worked until 9pm the night before until they found the issue: my stator had fried. He grabbed the oily object from his truck and showed it to me. He had ideas on where to find a replacement, but warned me that options were limited. He also said he may be able to have it rewired in Windhoek. Unfortunately, because it was Saturday, I wouldn’t get an update until Monday.
The owner left. I took solace at having a competent and friendly guy helping me. I sat tight the rest of Saturday, reading my book, enjoying the sun, another tasty dinner, and having a couple beers at the completely empty bar I’d discovered was next to reception.
The place I was staying had a minibus that went to town a few times a day (6am, noon, 2pm, 4pm) that I was able to catch to and from town, so on Sunday I escaped to Grootfontein proper. There’s not much to it, especially on a Sunday, but at least I managed to get some walking in, do some grocery shopping for snacks, and eat at a different restaurant.
On Monday, I caught the shuttle to the motorcycle shop for an update. The news wasn’t great. There were no replacements in Namibia or South Africa. They could send mine to Windhoek overnight and see if a shop there could rebuild it, but even then it won’t be as trustworthy as a new one. I told them to go for it, and ordered a replacement to get shipped to Rachel and then on to the motorcycle shop, which had given me an importation number to use as well. After that was a comedy of delays that would consume the next 12 days of my life, and cause an absurd amount of stress and boredom.
The days crawled past. Barely-functioning WiFi, a general lack of human contact, no stores within walking distance, and no personal transportation took its toll. I became a staple at the lodge, which was actually mostly detrimental. Every day, a dozen people would ask me about my bike, which only made the subject more sore. The women started asking me to buy them things, and one behind the bar even asked me to buy her a bottle of sparkling wine for “our date” she’d just invented. I became somewhat of a recluse. There was also some pity from the manager, who gave me a couple free nights and a couple nights in an upgraded room with a TV.
On Tuesday the 30th, almost 2 weeks after I’d arrived in Grootfontein, the motorcycle shop contacted me to let me know the rebuilt stator had made its way back, they’d installed it, and the bike was running! I caught the next shuttle to town and picked it up. I had to haggle with the owner of the bike shop to charge me more, as he’d only billed me for 4 hours of labor, and I’d been there for 7 hours of their entire shop working on my bike! These guys were ridiculously nice! I rode around a bit that day, and on Wednesday went to the one touristy destination around: a huge meteor in the desert.
It felt good to get some riding in, but I was still stuck until the replacement stator Rachel had shipped made it. On Friday, I made a new friend at the grocery store and found out about the happening spot in the low rent part of town and figured it was time for a change of scenery. Because I had to ride there, I had to take it easy, but it was by far the most exciting night I’d had in Grootfontein. Deep in a neighborhood of small houses along rutted dirt roads was a bustling scene in the night, with people and cars weaving through the street. The music was blasting, the dance floor was packed, and cheap drinks were flowing. Between pulling up on a motorcycle (which aren’t common in Namibia at all), and being the only white dude there, I felt the presence of many eyes on me, but far from in a threatening way. It was a weird feeling, and I couldn’t quite banish the tongue-in-cheek adage “stuff white people like: being the only white guy in an ethnic restaurant.” Folks were friendly and out in their party outfits: Chicago Bulls jerseys, Nike and Adidas hats, and more that wouldn’t be out of place in America. Personal favorite: a shirt that said “Santa Cruz Summer Camp” and had a soccer ball and watermelon on it. One guy gave me his number and wouldn’t walk away until I promised to call him the next day. During one song, a crew of four dudes did some sort of synchronized choreographed dance. It was a trip. I went home before turning into too much of a drunk pumpkin to ride home through the dark streets.
After 4 days in customs, the stator arrived Saturday morning. I was triumphant picking it up, and extra thankful for the motorcycle shop folks working Saturday to hand if off to me. By 10am, I was on my way to Ngepi, two weeks behind my original schedule, but with a new lesson in Africa Time hanging in my memory.
I was picked up in a car at my guesthouse at 9am (a half hour late) for my Etosha tour. There was a British woman driving, and another girl who’d been picked up before me. As per usual, I went into chit-chat mode, and within a couple minutes, I’d learned that she’d came to Namibia many years ago and ended up marrying her tour guide. I asked her if they were still together, and she told me he’d subsequently died in a car accident on a later tour. Awkward silence. The trip was off to a great start!
Me and the other girl were brought to the tour company’s office to gather the group. Folks started slowly trickling in, and I once again tried to get the conversations going, and with less awkward silences. Before long, we were 14 folks: 12 Europeans (A handful of Germans, an Austrian, Belgian, Pole, and a Dutch couple), a Thai man, and me representing the western hemisphere. A large overland truck arrived and our bags were loaded in followed by us, our guide, and a helper, both Ovambo. I ended up seated next to a German girl. We were told to buckle our seat belts, but mine was missing the buckle. “Hold on!” I was told. Adventure!
The ride was mostly uneventful, with a couple stops for fuel, an uninspired lunch, and a chance to shop for snacks, water, or alcohol. The girl next to me was a teacher in Munster, a town I knew of due to the cheese (which isn’t named for it) and its bloody history during Protestant Reformation (thanks, Hardcore History!). We had a great chat as our large overland truck cruised down the paved highway, baking sans-aircon in the desolate desert. By the time we arrived at the Etosha gate at 4, I’d firmly cemented my reputation with my travel mates as the ebullient American, just how I like it.
No sooner did we pass through the first little settlement inside the park when the animals Etosha is famous for started making their appearances. First, a massive bull elephant wandered out of a watering hole, gave itself a nice dirt bath, and wandered into misbehaving tourist traffic, releasing its bladder and bowels as it lumbered at foolish cars.
Etosha National Park is built around the Etosha Pan, a large flat salt lake bed that periodically fills with a thin layer of water, and subsequently (nearly completely) dries. Winter being the dry season, when it was in sight, it resembled the Black Rock Desert in summer, with the exception that the pan extends all the way to the horizon, seemingly endless. At 4,800 km2, the pan’s size is no mere optical illusion.
When water in the pan recedes, it leaves traces of water around the edge that animals use as watering holes even in the dry season. Not to rely too much on nature, interspersed in the human trafficked parts of the park are man-made watering holes with large water pumps standing a suitable distance away from camera lenses. Add in fencing around the entire park, as well as all the settlements that serve as overnight spots for people, and visiting Etosha feels like driving into the world’s largest African animal exhibit at a zoo for giants. We passed springbok, hyenas, warthogs, zebra, ostriches, and wildebeest (I never get tired of that word) within only a handful of kilometers of the gate; each appearance punctuated by the sharp staccato of camera shutters and vehicle traffic. It was super impressive.
Before sunset, we rolled into the settlement that would be our home for the evening. Our guides unloaded the bags and tossed heavy canvas 2-man tents down from the roof. Me and the old Thai man were the only solo males traveling, so we were paired up to share an old beat-up South African tent. Once we were set up, the guides set about braai-ing us dinner. In the meantime, at the edge of the settlement was an illuminated watering hole to watch wildlife, and our guide explained it was one of the best places in the park to catch animals. He wasn’t mistaken.
It was a hell of a night. Sitting with new friends, so much animal melodrama played out on the banks of the watering hole that there were time we couldn’t contain our laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. As the sun was setting, giraffes’ long necks appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky’s shifting red and blues. In the dark, elephants by the dozens came, drank, wrestled, and played out complicated social dances I couldn’t entirely follow, but sat rapt with fascination. White rhinos came and went; so, too, howling jackals. Bats and birds flew feasting on the flying insects drawn to the lights. A cornucopia of stars shined in the night sky. Photos were difficulty in the darkness.
Also, delicious dinner of stir fry was served. Beer was consumed and friends were made. We spoke of languages, culture, bad music, animals, religion and politics. I converted a few folks to Pastafarianism. This reverend has now done missionary work in Africa, how cliché. I enjoyed repeatedly mispronouncing “sternschnuppe” — German for shooting star — while witnessing said phenomenon over and over and over again. I tried halfheartedly to snap some photos of the sky, fully aware they’d never do it justice. Then I showered and slept like a baby. 6am was reveille, and tents and things needed to be packed before breakfast.
I woke up refreshed and broke down the tent myself in a few short minutes, gaining me a high-five from my tent mate who’d gone to brush his teeth. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but folks were already clamoring about a lion at the watering hole, so I set out once again to be amazed by the unending animal parade. In the calm morning light, a lone female lion stood alternating between gazing at the scenery and lapping at the shore of the water. Another jackal trotted by carefree. I took in the peaceful moment and headed back to camp. Breakfast was a nearly-full English breakfast, and afterwards the guides sent us to a nearby viewpoint tower while they put the finishing touches on the truck.
The group was in high spirits after the night of animals and banter. We’d connected. Even out guide got into the show, occasionally barking commands at or assigning blame to yours truly by name. We had a full day of so-called “game driving,” bouncing in our truck from watering hole to watering hole, taking in more animals: a pack of lions, hartebeest, eland, and impala.
I took several hundred photos. Our group joked and bounced and clamored over one another for the best views. We shared another middling lunch. Armies of zebra, roving bands of wildebeest, and playful gangs of elephants seemed around every corner and behind every thicket of trees. A lone black rhino chomped on shrubs in the distance. Eventually, we came to another settlement at the other end of the park, a former German military settlement complete with early-20th century fort, and it was time to once again pitch our tents for the evening.
I took in the sunset on the top of the fort per our guide’s recommendation. I befriended a cosmopolitan French family who passed along their contact info should I make it to Lyon. We were adjacent to another watering hole, but repeated visits granted a view of not much more than throngs of tourists and seething, boisterously loud flocks of birds. Instead I took my new German teacher friend aside to teach her how to take photos of the sky. I managed to get one half-decent shot.
Our final dinner was a hearty braai of sausage, mutton chops, garlic bread, baked potatoes, and salad. I ate myself stupid. I learned that my new Austrian friend (and future veterinarian) has access to baby capybaras I can feed, thereby adding Vienna to my list of destinations. Finishing the night was more beer, bonding, and bed.
Morning, breakdown, breakfast, and loading. I did my best to make myself useful. We swung by a final pair of watering holes on the way to the gate, but this side of the park was uncharacteristically quiet. Then we were rumbling down the road in relative quiet, the gang worn out from the excitement of the weekend.
We had a long drive back to Windhoek, and given my rapidly-approaching solitary status, I couldn’t abide the quiet. I kicked off a game of “two truths and a lie” and got most of the group in on it, each in turn revealing ridiculous stories about their past to talk about. We stopped in a small town along the way known for their wood carvings so folks with more space than me for such things could be aggressively harassed to buy things (aka shopping) by locals in small huts overflowing with nicknacks, then it was on to Windhoek for bittersweet goodbyes.
Before my accident, I had intentions of visiting Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. As I learned in Sossusvlei, motorcycles can’t enter National Parks in Namibia, so I either needed to join an organized group or rent a car and camp on my own. I figured it’d be nice to have the company (and guide) afforded by an organized tour, but in the din of San Francisco, I didn’t get around to organizing one before hitting the ground in Africa. Unfortunately, it was now the middle of the high tourist season, and things were remarkably booked up. Cars were readily available, but sadly, camping sites (what I wanted) were also fully booked up. I ended up booking a tour nearly two weeks out. Luckily, I’d made great friends with my guesthouse owner as I’d be here for awhile.
The time passed slowly, with ample relaxing, playing cards, making some easy adjustments and repairs to my bike (chain, mirrors, blinkers, etc.), hanging out with people and animals, and living the local Windhoek life. I learned a new card game. I taught the locals Euchre. We even played a couple games of Settlers of Catan. I made new friends, I talked about life, politics, race, and America. I learned some Afrikaans, and a lot about Namibian history and life.
I discovered that before my accident, a reporter I’d met at the Cardboard Box and corresponded with had written an article about my travels in the most popular newspaper in Namibia (The Namibian), and that it had been put in the newspaper! I managed to snag a couple copies from their office and send them back home. There was even a teaser about the article on the front page!
Before heading to Etosha, I also went to the Düsternbrook Guest Farm with my new guesthouse friends for a couple nights of camping and animal viewing. The place is a few hours from Windhoek, past a giant chicken farm, through a number of farm gates down a dirt road. They’ve got camping spots, chalets, tons of birds, kudu, springbok, hippos, and a few large enclosures with cheetahs and leopards. We camped by a dry riverbed, cooking and drinking the nights away, and drove/walked around looking at hippos and animals during the day. We also rode along for a cheetah and leopard feeding, which afforded close-ups with the impressive cats and tons of amazing photos.
After the camping trip, we headed back to Windhoek, and then it was time to head off on my tour to Etosha.
There are few enviable components of 37 hours of airports and air travel. Worse still is lugging two backpacks through the process with a sling and four broken bones. Addis Ababa airport is icing on the proverbial cake (if you’re curious why, ask me in person and watch the subsequent contortions of my face). Nonetheless, there were two high points to flying Windhoek->Addis Ababa->Dublin->Washington DC->San Francisco: I witnessed incredible (but sadly un-photographed) fires blazing in the dark deserts of Egypt from my window seat, and I met an awesome researcher from Berkeley working on a solar probe for NASA on the last leg.
San Francisco meant friends, family, recovery, and the pains of leaving once again. I turned 33. I had a party. I ate all the foods I’ve missed in Michigan and Africa. I drank beer that wasn’t middling pilsners and lagers. I witnessed a friend crush a reading comprehension test while getting a lap dance at a burlesque show. I danced on stage with Girl Talk. I sang along with the songwriters from The Animaniacs. My shoulder began to feel fine. My ribs improved remarkably. I got sunburned. I slept in, or didn’t. Mostly, I was reminded about the amazing community I have in what’s been my chosen home. To all those members of that community, you once again have my heartfelt love, appreciation, and respect.
Two months of love and amelioration and it was time once again to return to Southern Africa. The proverbial show must go on. My path was nearly the same as before, but became a nearly 40 hour affair due to an unscheduled stopover in Lusaka, Zambia, supposedly for refueling, followed by a dauntingly long immigration queue in Windhoek (thanks in no small part to a large group of Chinese passengers in front of me who took over every immigration agent while the one of them who spoke English translated for each and every individual member of the party). Finally, I was dumped into the morass of jet-lag and the friendly hands of Sam, the owner of the C’est la Vie guesthouse, who had agreed to pick me up at the airport and take me to my last African home. We stopped for a beer on the way back. Windhoek Lager never tasted so good. Cheers to more adventures with an extra helping of safety!
Having fallen into a somewhat reasonable schedule, I awoke with plenty of time to find a leisurely breakfast in Swakopmund and properly begin my day. Leisurely for me means avoiding packing the bike before heading out to food, as then I don’t have to keep an eagle-eye on my possessions while I eat. Extra points this morning went to a spot I’d found with proper coffee, a rare luxury.
After breakfast, I packed my things and checked out of my room. I was heading back from whence I’d came, to Windhoek, but along the alternate scenic route: a shorter dirt road through the mountains south of the main highway. Google estimated an easy 4.5 hours along C-28, with the first 45 minutes or so paved and hugging another of the ubiquitous pipelines. The road was flat and extremely straight, the road and adjacent pipeline making up nearly all the signs of human life. In all directions, barren desert greeted the eye. Eventually, the pavement ended at a turnoff for one of the many uranium mines in the area, and my nearly 300km dirt adventure began, arcing up into the foothills and mountains.
Rocks, scrub-grass, and scraggly bushes replaced the endless blowing sand. Larger and larger crags supplanted the great brown plane. About an hour in, a perfect pile of rocks rose up on the side of the road, and I pulled to the side of the road. I gathered up my various snacks and water and scrabbled up to the top of the hill to enjoy my lunch with a view. It was perfectly still and silent, with only the occasional large bird coasting on a thermal to differentiate the scene from a postcard. It seemed I had it all to myself. I devoured my food in a state of blissful content.
I repacked my things and continued down the road, winding through tighter turns and steeper grades. The road varied as usual between hardtack, loose sand, and loose strewn rocks. Cresting a mountain top, the road dipped into a decline and curved blindly right. I curved with it, but a little too fast, as the curve tightened as it went (a “decreasing radius turn” in the parlance of cyclists). Squeezing the brakes with time-worn skills, I attempted to slow, my rear wheel skidding through the thick loose earth. A few seconds into it, my conscious brain was fully aware of the rapidly-approaching reality: I wasn’t going to make it vertically through the turn.
My heart rate increased, my senses sharpened, but no panic came; I’d been through this before, and I wasn’t actually going all that fast (I’d estimate around 30mph). My mind quickly estimated some bruises and scrapes in my near future, but nothing more. I continued my skidding path towards the outside of the turn, eventually sliding onto the shoulder. Immediately, the tires sunk into the thick sand of the shoulder and the bike ceased all forward movement. The momentum translated into angular motion, with the bike swinging to the right. Hard.
The wind was knocked from my lungs. I was shocked by the feeling of pain coursing through my body. I began to sweat and curse. I turned the bike off, pulled myself out from under it, took my helmet, gloves, and jacket off, and sat on the edge of the road. Getting out of the jacket was particularly painful. I was breathing quickly, nearly hyperventilating. My side and shoulder hurt in a deep and sickening way. My mind immediately went to my clavicle, which I’d broken before. I ran my left hand across it and was happy to feel one continuous line. Then I raised my right arm and felt the bottom half of my clavicle separate. I sat down again and resumed cursing.
In that moment sitting on the side of the road, my head buzzed with thoughts and emotions. I felt like my trip was over. I felt like a failure. I felt sick with pain and buzzing with adrenaline. I felt alone and overcome.
But I had options. I could trigger the 911 setting of my SPOT communicator and be rescued, but my bike and the majority of my things would likely not come with me. I could wait and try to flag another vehicle down and ask for help. Or I could pick up the bike and ride the rest of the way to Windhoek and check myself into a hospital. Only the last option made sense. I would try my best.
To continue on, I had to right the bike. This was no easy task. I’d landed off the edge of the road, and in thick sandy dirt. It was hard to get a sure footing, and even harder to get under the bike (the usual protocol is to sit with your back to the bike as low as possible and more-or-less walk backwards while standing you and the bike up). I gave it a few tries as is and made no progress. I took off the backpack on the back seat to get a larger area to push. I sat on the ground and wrapped my arms under the handlebars and panniers. I began to push and lift. The pain in my chest was enormous. My field of vision narrowed. When the bike was halfway up, I nearly lost my strength, but adrenaline is a hell of a drug, and somehow I pushed through the pain with one last effort.
The bike nearly fell over the other way as I struggled in my daze to hold it steady while I got the kickstand down. I collapsed back on the side of the road, suddenly starving and dehydrated. I gulped down water in huge sips and devoured what was left of my biltong. Sweat beaded out all over my body as I looked over the bike from the shade-less roadside. My right mirror lens had been mildly shattered and its stalk loosened from its mooring, and my right highway peg was loose. I got up and gave it a once-over, but couldn’t see any other damage. I started it to make sure it still ran. It caught on the first turn. I turned it off and took out my phone.
I pulled up a map of Windhoek and looked up hospitals (thank goodness for Google Maps’ offline cache). There were a few options, the highest rated of which was the Rhino Park Private Hospital. Unfamiliar with Namibian health care, I was swayed by the word “private” and the high rating. I clicked navigate and steeled myself for what was to come.
I stared at the standing bike. Dual sport motorcycles like mine are high slung, and my first couple attempts at swinging my leg over the seat were met with sharp pain in my chest and guts. At one point, my foot caught on the far side of the seat, my other leg hopping for balance, and I nearly pulled the bike over sideways, the kickstand sinking deep into the loose earth, before extricating myself and stabilizing things again. I took a deep breath, stabilized my breathing, and tried to calm my nerves, old lessons from a round-footed Thai Chi instructor. I approached the bike, lowered my body slightly, and managed an incredibly awkward leaping high-kick that ended with my and the bike upright, my left hand clutching my side.
I restarted the bike, set my jaw, and set off. Controlling a motorcycle throttle involves twisting the right handlebar. This meant my right arm needed to stay more-or-less glued to the handlebar, forcing my clavicle to be in a constant state of painful stress. I continued slowly down the dirt road, every rock and bump a shooting pain starting deep in the pit of my stomach and rising through my arm. I navigated the winding road deliberately, extraordinarily aware that a miss-step now could have horrible consequences. Every turn flashed visions of tumbling down on my right side, and hideous images of the floating lower half of my clavicle punching through skin or lungs. Interspersed between these dark thoughts came the doubts about the rest of my travels, fear of the uncertainty of the state of Namibian health care, and the life-long impact of another broken clavicle (the left I broke in 2008 healed poorly and has effected my ability to lay on my left side ever since).
I continued steadily down the dirt road. The scenery was beautiful and desolate. Emotions welled in my head. After an hour, the sharp feeling of awareness and associated tolerance for pain associated with adrenaline began to ware off. The vibrations of the road took on new dimensions of pain. My breathing was shallow, as anything more triggered more unwelcome pain in my chest and side. An hour later, I had to switch the main fuel supply onto reserve. The beautiful desolation of the remote mountains continued.
Another hour passed. To the aches added soreness, but also relief as the dirt turned back to tarmac and the first signs of Windhoek loomed around the foothills of Windhoek. After a couple miles of smooth riding, the old familiar chugging of an empty fuel tank interrupted my internal homily. I pulled onto the shoulder and stood on the side of the road. I focused my willpower to jump off the bike and add my reserve fuel tank to the main one. While refueling, I realized my GoPro’s mount had broken and the camera had disappeared somewhere along the way (I know it was still present when I picked the bike up). I cursed to myself (I’d wanted the photos of the accident itself) but had other things to worry about. I repeated my graceless mounting and continued, tears welling in my eyes through the pain.
I pulled up to the Rhino Park Private Hospital, waves of relief and nausea pulsing in the back of my throat. I dismounted painfully and walked into the reception area. Through pitiful looks, the receptionist explained that this hospital had no ER, and kindly referred me to the Roman Catholic Hospital downtown, a few miles away. I held back my frustration, thanked her, and repeated the self-flagellation of mounting my motorcycle. I plotted a path to the Roman Catholic Hospital through increasing city traffic and arrived as the day was yielding to evening.
Park, dismount, snag my tank bag, and check-in. I was given a pile of paperwork to fill out and asked about my medical ID card. When I explained my situation, they asked for a credit card and placed a large deposit down for services. I thanked the universe for the miracles of credit cards and my high credit limits (yay privilege!) and was finally granted entry through the door to the ER. I begged the attending nurse to grab the large backpack on the back seat of my bike outside before it grew legs and was awash with thanks when he complied.
A hand-written ID bracelet was attached to my wrist. I was walked to a bed. Laying back in it brought forth a brutal reminder that any sort of abdominal effort had become excruciating. A nurse came forward to place an IV line into my arm. Never had I been so excited to see a needle destined for my flesh… which he proceeded to dig through for a solid 3 minutes as my teeth clenched searching for a vein. Eventually, another nurse overheard him repeatedly saying “don’t worry, we’ve got it,” came over, kicked him out, and started from scratch on my other arm. Next came my first taste of Namibian pain killers: basically liquid aspirin. Fuck it, it was better than nothing.
I managed to convince a kind staff member to type a stray conference room wifi network password into my phone so I could pass info about my whereabouts back home. One Dr. Karl Frielingsdorf came in and poked and prodded me painfully in the arms, shoulder, chest, and abdomen. Next I was thrown onto a wheelchair and I sent for a series of x-rays and my first CT scan to check for neck/spine damage. Again my credit card was ran (less than $50 for x-rays, obvious more for a CT scan), and had the pleasure of posing shirtless with my right arm raised painfully above my head. The CT scan was equally unpleasant, with an inexplicable watery feeling flushing through my chest as the contrast dye was pushed mechanically through my veins as expensive machinery hummer and spun around my head. Finally, I was wheeled into a private room with an en suite bathroom and TV. Unbelievably starving (it was well into the evening now), I flagged down the first nurse I could find and asked for food. I barely had time to look at what they brought me before it was gone. Sated, I finally had the opportunity to take a shower and change into clean clothes, amazed that my body appeared devoid of bruises.
I waited patiently for news. Eventually, the friendly doctor I’d met in the ER came in with a handful of x-rays. In an adorable accent and impressive bedside manner for someone who is clearly perpetually in a rush he broke the news (pun intended): I’d fractured my 2nd, 5th, and 6th ribs along with my clavicle. Because of my previous experience with a broken clavicle, I asked about having a plate put in to align my clavicle and ensure it healed where it belonged. The doctor said I didn’t need one, but that it was an option. In a rush to continue his rounds, he told me to get comfortable; I’d be there a few days recovering.
On another visit, we spoke more about the options. It turned out he was an orthopedic surgeon and would be the one to do the surgery if I went that way. Concerned in a distinctly American fashion about health care abroad, I pressed for details of the procedure to decide if my first real surgery (discounting wisdom teeth removal) would be in Namibia. He told me I’d be put under using the “Michael Jackson drug,” and be getting an “American made” titanium plate and screws from Acumed. I did my research. Dr. Frielingsdorf was a well respected surgeon, seemingly very well known in Windhoek, who graduated from Stellenbosch University, one of the top medical schools in Africa. Acumed is the first Google result for clavicle plates. Michael Jackson died of propofol, and he clearly had good taste in drugs. Namibian surgery it would be!
The next three nights dragged on in a manner familiar to anyone familiar with hospital convalescence. A string of disaffected nurses (sister in this Catholic hospital) paraded through my room at intervals, including in the middle of the night, taking vitals, swapping IV solution and shitty pain meds, and frowning. A friendly physiotherapist came by and subjected me to painful exercises including breathing in and out of a tube attached to a plastic box. Every morning, a bored and droning voice read scripture in an unemotional monotone over a pervasive intercom system. I watched TV. I read my books. I stared at the wall. I ate terrible food (though honestly far from the worst hospital food in the world). Every excursion in and out of bed was met with a horrible shooting pain from my broken ribs, always accompanied by a dull sickening feeling I associate with your body telling you you’ve hurt yourself in a significant way. One morning I discovered the unfortunate fact that hiccups with broken ribs is fucking excruciating, and simultaneously that significant pain is a pretty good cure for hiccups.
I began to consider my options for recovery. Broken ribs suck. A lot. There was no way I was going to suffer the inherent effort and pain of international motorcycle adventuring with the added pain of my ribs, not to mention the additional risk of injury before my bones were healed. I also wasn’t ready to give up and go home. There was only one path that seemed to make sense: find a place to keep the bike for awhile and go back home to San Francisco to recover, and return and continue my adventure when I was whole again. The show would go on, but there would be a 6 week or so intermission.
After two nights, the doctor came by to tell me I’d be discharged the following morning with a sling and a box of Tylenol with codeine, not to mention my trusty plastic box with a tube I got to painfully breathe into a few times a day. We made an appointment for me to come to his office for a final consult prior to the surgery, which he said could be done in two or three days time depending on his schedule. Unwilling to suffer the social requirements of a hostel, I booked a room at the C’est la Vie guesthouse, which had good reviews especially for the breakfasts, near his office in the Eros neighborhood of Windhoek for the following night.
I was woken the next morning at 6am by the nurses on their rounds. I couldn’t get back to sleep, and waited until 9 when I was handed my discharge paperwork. I hadn’t exhausted my initial deposit, and was told I’d be refunded the balance. I was relieved to see my motorcycle hadn’t moved from its location in the parking garage, and I cringed with effort as I packed my things for my travels. I took off my sling and put on my motorcycle jacket. I stared at the bike ruefully with the anticipation of the upcoming tribulations, took a deep breath, and winced as I got on.
It was still early in the morning, and my guesthouse didn’t have check-in until 2pm, but I headed there anyways in the hopes of parking the bike, unloading, and resting. I painfully rode through Windhoek’s streets and pulled up to the gate around 10am. There was no answer. I waited outside for awhile, feeling sore and exhausted. Eventually I went to the closest gas station to fill up since my bike was running on fumes. Dismount, wince, fill up, remount, wince, dismount, wince. This time a woman greeted me at the gate and let me in. Despite my motorcycle jacket and before I’d carried anything, she asked me if there was something wrong with my arm. My explanation was met with sympathy, and thankfully a place to unload while my room was cleaned for check-in.
I took in my surroundings as I waited. C’est la Vie was a gated plot of land with a large house in the front. In back was a large patio attached to the house, a yard with a pool (drained for the season, as well as the ongoing drought), and a building with three guest rooms. Wandering around were three dogs, three cats, and a tame rooster. As soon as I sat down, two of the cats approached and competed for my attention with an insatiable desire for affection. A tiny half-blind-and-epileptic dog named Sushi waddled up constantly licking its muzzle. Even the rooster came up, said hi, and let me pet it. It was just the animal therapy I needed.
When the room became available, I went in for a much-needed nap. The orange cat, appropriately named Garfield, followed me in. I got ready to collapse into a painful heap, the cat following me around my room like a pack animal. When I was ready for bed, I tried to herd the cat out so I could shut the door, but his resolve exceeded my own. I left the door open and climbed into bed, groaning as I lowered myself prostrate. The cat hopped onto the bed and climbed up onto my chest. I guided him into a position away from my broken pieces and passed out cradling him, contented far from the smells of sickness and bleach, interrupting nurses, and walls of medical equipment.
I woke up several hours later still pleasantly attached to fur and found a place for dinner. My body rejoiced the light exercise of the ten minute walk, and what appetite I could muster was well-rewarded by a steak dinner at a massive tourist-trap restaurant. Better still, a beer and a Coca Cola! Civilization, I’d missed thee!
The healing body has an incredible appetite for sleep, and who am I not to indulge it. The next morning, I walked out of my room and onto the patio for a huge and delicious breakfast spread prepared by Sam, the owner of the guesthouse and mother the trio of kids that lived here with the trios of dogs, cats, and other animal odds and ends (two rats, a parrot, and a wild bird with a broken leg she was nursing to health). Included in breakfast was a french press full of actual coffee, the first I’d had in ages in this land of the powdered shit so much of the world suffers. Ahhh, there’s my privilege again!
In the afternoon, I walked over to another hospital near my doctor’s office for more x-rays. I was reminded that a medical imaging waiting room is a sorry sight, but my wait was pleasantly short, and upon entering I was greeted by the same technician I’d seen on my first night of convalescence, who seemed genuinely excited to see me. More painful body contortions and I was off to the surgeon, large floppy x-ray film in hand. Amusingly, half the folks from the medical imaging waiting room awaited me in Dr. Frielingsdorf’s equivalent. Presently, I was ushered into his office, filled with diplomas and impressive-looking awards. I continued to be impressed by his charisma as he looked at my new x-rays and tried in vain to talk me out of the surgery. We then settled into specifics, which included my surgery date: the next evening. I was then handed off to an assistant who gave me paperwork on prices for the anesthesiologist, hospital, and Dr. Frielingsdorf himself, the last of which needed payment before the procedure in cash by the next morning! I’ll say, Namibian health care prices are pretty goddamn reasonable, but it still took 5 rounds through ATM’s at maximum withdrawal to assemble the required cash for the surgeon’s portion of the procedure, and between the hovering guards present at each ATM in Windhoek, and my previous experiences here, I was understandably nervous taking out and carrying that amount of cash…
I treated myself to a final nice meal before my requisite surgical fasting, and subsequent hospital fare, and then another good night’s rest at my guesthouse. In the morning, I was sad to leave without another of the fantastic breakfasts. Full of paranoia, I carried my backpack full of (the good kind of) blood money to the doctor’s office. The compassionate owner of the guesthouse agreed to let me leave my things, including my bike, as she’d drive me to the hospital! The joy of avoiding riding my motorcycle to the hospital, especially enduring the process of getting on and off, helped put off the small but undeniable existential fear of going under the knife for the first time.
At the hospital, a friendly and familiar face from the x-ray and surgeon’s waiting rooms greeted me and we chatted. He was a local who’d been assaulted with a board by muggers when taking out his trash before work. They’d shattered his elbow and he was scheduled to have it re-assembled after my own surgery. In a twisted way, seeing his injury made me feel better about my own simpler one.
I got checked in and brought to a room a few doors down from my previous one. I was handed a gown and some paper underwear and told to change. They were some sweet duds.
Restless with anticipation, I awaited my call to the theater. Eventually I was put on a gurney, wheeled to a preparation area, and left next to another surgery patient for my turn. The minutes dragged on, then were suddenly interrupted by a cacophony of activity as a be-gowned Dr. Frielingsdorf, two nurses, and an anesthesiologist burst into the area. My futile attempts at conversation, most of which were focused on repeatedly re-affirming they knew which side to cut, were quickly interrupted by an injection. Seconds later, my limbs grew heavy, my mind cloudy, and I was back in my room. Jesus, MJ! You were hardcore!
My mind struggled with the disjointed memories, and my hand went to my shoulder. Instead of flesh, I felt a bandage with my fingers, but my shoulder registered no touch. I poked and prodded the extent of the numbness. My mind went to warnings the doctor had given of nerve damage. My mind wandered to the implications of the potential loss of feeling. It also registered the relative lack of discomfort, and the ease at which my arm moved, and rejoiced. I ran my hand along the curve of my clavicle, marveling at the continuity and shuddering at the perceptible notches of the stitches below the bandage.
Sleep came easy with the exhaustion and post-surgical haze. The next morning I was sent a third time for x-rays to check on my results. They wheeld me back after with them in my lap, and I marveled at my own insides. Later, my surgeon came to check on me. I attempted a joke about how easy and routine my surgery must have been, but it stumbled as he replied with gravely that no surgery is routine. Then he smiled with pride at the x-rays, in which the fracture line is nearly imperceptible, then scurried off saying he’d see me later. What desire I’ve ever had to be a surgeon went with him — I have no desire for that degree of time management.
The day passed slowly, and I mentally cursed the nurse who’d connected my IV line, as there was no quick disconnect to provide me freedom from the wheeled IV holder. It meant I couldn’t even put a shirt on, or go for a walk without dragging the chrome IV tree with me like my best friend. In the afternoon, the surgeon came back and told me I’d be staying another night, leaving in the morning once again. I finally had a timeline, so I found the cheapest one-way flight back to SF from Windhoek and booked it, leaving four days later.
I hadn’t known how long I’d be hospitalized, so I hadn’t booked accommodations for after. I called the C’est la Vie guesthouse, but they were booked solid for the next night, but I went ahead and booked the last two nights before my flight there. In the meantime, I had one night in a cheap Chinese guesthouse down the street. Once accommodations were settled, I relaxed and waited for what I hope will be my last night in a hospital for a very very long time.
In the morning, I got a pile of medications (blood thinners, more pain killers, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories), and an even bigger pile of paperwork to ultimately submit to my travel insurance. I snagged a cab to my Chinese guesthouse for the night, dropped off my bags, and accepted my continual new painful and sedentary existence. The time passed uneventfully, and the next morning, one of the guesthouse owners was kind enough to drive me over to C’est la Vie and reunite with my things, and the friendly folks and animals there.
In my last two days in Windhoek, I made dozens of calls trying to find safe storage for my motorcycle, was forced to go to the Ethiopian Airlines office to “verify” my credit card, and eventually had all my needs straightened out by Sam from my guesthouse: she’d allow me to store my motorcycle in her garage for a good price, and arranged a ride for me to the airport. On my last night in Africa, while whiling my time away alone in bed, there was a knock on my door. Sam’s oldest daughter and her boyfriend were outside, and invited me to come over to the patio and hang out. It was a wonderful sendoff for a hard few weeks, as they plied me with wine and we chatted long into the night.
The next morning, I headed to the airport for my 35 hours of painful air travel excited to have such a wonderful place to come back to when I returned. To be continued…
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.
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 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*.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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…
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:
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!
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.
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.
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’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!
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…
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.