A man at the petrol station in Swaziland had approached me, because apparently petrol stations are the place to make friends in southern Africa. He’d come from Nelspruit, where I was heading, and warned me about more intense fog. The sky was menacing, and as I rode through thick tree-lined ridges the fog came and went along with mild-but-obnoxious sprinkling rain.
I descended down a small pass and out of the clouds. Out on the horizon, I could even see a promise of sun that would remain unfulfilled. I was treated to 360 degrees of craggy mountainside, grey skies, and pale grass. There was wind, but it didn’t explain the overturned semi at the next T-junction.
I stopped at a roadside take-away restaurant for a boer-wors sandwich and to stretch. I chomped and chatted with some old and ever-curious locals. Aside from the weather and temperature, it was a pleasant ride through unremarkable (but still beautiful) mountains. Around mid-day, I took what I considered to be a mandatory 5km detour to the Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden. How could I possibly not??
I got in just in time to catch a tour already in progress, thereby missing all the establishing context for the place. Mostly, I just saw chimps! Dozens of them!
I’ll save you my ignorant musings and cut to what I learned from asking dumb questions later on. The Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Eden is a haven for rescued chimps of various sorts. Once there, they have no additional direct contact with humans. They’re kept in 3 distinct troops, with only two of them accessible to the public (the third are apparently too anti-social to even share a direct border with tourists).
Our guide related us facts about chimpanzees (mostly fascinating), the status of wild chimps now (mostly depressing), and the lives of these particular chimps (extremely depressing). Most of the chimps had had tumultuous lives before where they’d be used to sell sandwiches and entertain circus folks in Europe, or treated with chemicals in the USA. A few actually stuck to their stomping grounds in Africa. There were residual behaviors from their previous lives still playing out. One female chimp would make her own earrings out of vegetation. Another with PTSD would tear her and her friends’ hair out, bald patches standing out on her body.
We stood on a deck looking down on a reserve ringed in fence, electric and standard. The trees inside small enough to break had had all their vegetation stripped. We were told only this troop did this. Our guide tossed handfulls of nuts from a bowl to the chimps and explained their various tragic backstories and personalities. Nearly none of these animals had been raised by their mothers, which accounts for much their antisocial behaviors. For this reason, the females were regularly given the same daily contraceptive pills human females take. The largely idiosyncratic chimps came up to the fence, and seemingly-violently (which were assured is normal) interacted while they chomped on nuts.
We were led to the second of the two chimp enclosures visitors could see. Here, the trees’ foliage remained in tact, and among the chimps running around and playing on a jungle gym were both a relatively small chimp child, the oldest living male chimp (they live longer in captivity), and a large showboating chimp with special needs named Cozy.
The young chimp was born in captivity despite the contraceptives — as in humans, they’re apparently not 100% effective. Because none of the other chimps are mothers, and most also weren’t raised by their own parents, when the baby’s mother was diagnosed as pregnant, this presented a problem for the center. They kept the baby and its mother in seclusion while they tried to teach her some mothering. It took her awhile to learn to stop carrying her baby by its feet, but they struggled much more teaching it breast feeding. After failing with a video (she ignored it), a stuffed baby chimp and bottle (the mother seemed traumatized and convinced it was a dead baby), they finally had success by bringing in a new human mother and child and having her breast feed her own baby in front of the chimps. Then, momma figured it out immediately.
Born in a lab in the US, Cozy had been part of a roving circus act in Italy, and trained to perform and pose for photos. He had been put in a pair of blue jeans that he outgrew but which were left on, restricting his leg growth and blood flow, and leaving him permanently unable to sit or sleep like a chimp does naturally. When his owner died, the owner’s wife inherited it, but found it frightening, so she kept it in a cage for years, inadequately feeding it and making it live in its own filth, and even castrating him. When the new owner finally gave him up, they scanned his brain and found out he’d lost about 30% of it from neglect and abuse.
Despite his abuse, Cozy still seeks attention from humans. He smiles like a human (chimps normally wrap their lips over their teeth when smiling to avoid the appearance of aggression), appears happy when folks are looking at him, and his happiness seems to scale with the size of the cameras trained on him. If he doesn’t feel important enough, he’ll act out, as he did with me when he threw a macadamia nut shell and hit me in the chest with it while I was shooting a video. More so than any of the others, this special needs chimp, so abused by mankind, still seeking our affection, tugged at my heartstrings. It was hard to walk away as he stared with his unflinching gaze, still hoping for more reassurance that he was doing well.
I continued to Nelspruit towards the Funky Monkey Backpackers. The path took me winding through hills and fancy homes, and finally to a hostel that could be great with the right crowd. Once again, that crowd was very much absent upon my arrival. Also, their internet was down, so I couldn’t take advantage of the quiet to get work done. After checking in, I heard from Corey, the Australian motorcyclist Sean had referred me to. He invited me out for a pint at a nearby bar where he was out with a friend of his he was staying with. I joined him.
Corey is a bearded bloke just a few months younger than I am. He’s lived in Zimbabwe for years working as an anti-poaching ranger and had just finished a masters degree at the University of Cape Town in conservation. He’s traveling while waiting to find the right job. He’s riding a Suzuki 650 V-Strom, a much more street-oriented and larger and more refined dual-sport than me, but had just put brand new 50/50 on/off road tires on. Given I’m on street-oriented tires, I’d say we’re likely equivalently capable as long as we’re not racing (he’d win), and while getting to know him over beers, it became clear we had pretty similar goals about our travel. Neither of us is in a hurry, nor has a specific schedule. We left things non-commital, but I suspect we both figured we’d give traveling together a shot.
I’d come to Nelspruit to go for a ride with a dentist named Canzius. We’d planned on Saturday, but the weather wasn’t cooperating so we moved it to Sunday morning. On Saturday, I moved out of Funky Monkey Backpackers (which I really wasn’t feeling) to a guest house in hopes of getting a working internet connection so I could work through the oncoming rain. It was a good choice, and I was happy for the peace and quiet on a day full of heavy rain. I took it easy, venturing out for food and to track down some replacement headphones, as all but one of the three pairs I’d taken had died.
Early on Sunday, I met up with Canzius at a petrol station in town. He was a friendly guy on a 701 Husqvarna. After exchanging some pleasantries and making a plan, I followed him out onto the road. In just a couple kilometers, we turned onto an awesome dirt road. We passed mile after mile of little country homes and farmland, flowering trees and bouncy turns. After getting thoroughly out of town on this scenic byway, he turned onto a little dirt road that led to a locked gate with a small doorway intended for pedestrians. We squeezed over a step and through the door to the other side. I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.
Next thing I know, we’re riding up through dirt, mud, and rocks, climbing into the mountains. We’re on a logging road, with alternating dense forest and empty fields. Portions of the road test my skills, but in a way that’s fun, not terrifying like Lesotho. Canzius is a super-capable rider on a super-capable bike with proper off-road tires. As he guns his bike over hills to get off the ground, his engine braaaaping in the quiet mountains, I carefully pick and choose my route, occasionally sliding through thick red mud like ice.
Up and up through switchbacks and past streams, the road eventually opens to reveal a broad mountain ridge. We gaze down into the tree-lined mountains and foggy valleys below. It’s beautiful. After a short break, we head off down an analogous declining road, this one full of loose gravel. The lack of my panniers and bags reminds me of how capable my DRZ-400S is without all the weight. In the back of my head, visions of the roads and fear in Lesotho bounce around and minorly shake my confidence in alternating waves with joy for having an opportunity to do some proper off-roading. At one point, we stop at a ravine and I spot the remnants of a tire. We clomp down into the muck, pull it out, and set it on the side of the road in the hopes that someone else will get it out of there.
We descend all the way down to the valley, Canzius blazing the trail much faster than me, but patiently waiting ahead as I bump and slide carefully down. From there, we hop onto another dirt road and ride a handful of kilometers across relative flatlands. Dense mud punctuates the path. Canzius’ tires fly straight through them while mine leave deep curving ruts. We get to another logging road and again start to climb. It’s here that Canzius approaches me and tells me something is wrong with my top case.
There on the top of the mountain, I get off and examine my newest issue. Despite having emptied the case, both support arms from the support rack had failed. This was the 3rd time this failure had occurred. The case was now bouncing forward and backward, torquing the aluminum subframe below. I looked and could see two failed welds on the subframe. With not many options but to proceed, and no ropes or tools handy to otherwise secure the box, my entire outlook changed, now riding as gently and deliberately as possible. Now that I was aware, I could feel the big aluminum box bouncing to and fro.
Luckily, we were close to the top of the mountain. A vast grassy field opened up along its peak. Dozens of wild horses wandered the idyllic landscape. I followed Canzius towards a pile of large cairn-like rocks situated on a cliff. There was a solo hiker at the rocks sporting a backpack and hat. We said hello and I thought I heard an American accent so I asked him where he was from. He told me Seattle, but that he lived in Maputo. I told him I was heading there, and he responded that if I needed a place to crash, he has more bedrooms than he knew what to do with. He handed me his card, and the shiny gold seal at the top proclaimed U.S. State Department. He went on to explain that the rocks we were at were assembled into a stone calendar tool called Adam’s Calendar and explained how it was found after a plane crash and is disputed to be the oldest man-made structure in the world, perhaps dating back as much as 75,000 years. You can read about it here.
We said bye to the American and stood around appreciating the view from the cliff for awhile. It was beautiful. Then we turned around and rode a handful of miles to a small town with a tasty cafe to have breakfast and coffee. A handful of bikers came and went as we sat around and chatted over our food. Canzius was a really cool guy, and when the bill came, he insisted on picking up the tab. He also offered to have me over to his house for a braai that evening. How could I say no?
From the town, there was a tar road back to Nelspruit. I rode back slowly, trying to hold the top case on the bike the whole way back, struggling to shift and not snap the entire works off and onto the highway. Canzius warned that it looked like a storm was coming, and offered to come back and pick me up with his car after taking a shower. He followed me back to my guesthouse so he’d know where to pick me up then rode off. I immediately took off my case and told Corey I’d need to have some welds repaired before I’d be ready to leave. I was happy to hear back that that didn’t bother him.
When Canzius showed up to get me, the sky was ominous. There was no vagueness to the threat of incoming foul weather. We drove about a kilometer away to a gated community where he lived. It turned out he lived in a private nature reserve, and herds of antelopes dotted the green landscape and various unique and beautiful homes we passed on the winding private country road. We got to his home on a hill just as the first hints of water falling could be seen from the amazing view of his deck. Within 15 minutes, it arrived, and the intense rain was accompanied by some of the largest hail I’d ever seen in my life. The largest bits were nearly ping pong ball-sized, and they thundered on his metal roof. The wind tossed the things through the open wall of his deck and skittering across the floor.
The storm went on for what seemed like a long time given its sheer force. The roof began leaking. Hail accumulated in piles like snow. When it finally passed, ominously reminding us of its presence with thunder on the horizon, Canzius started a fire for a braai. Copious delicious food and plenty of beer was consumed. Afterwards Canzius took me for a ride around the animal-filled streets of his complex in a fun little golf-cart before driving me home with the number of a good welder in the area to try and get my bike fixed the next day. It was a damn nice time, and one I’m grateful of Canzius and his family for giving me.
I extended my guest house for yet another night and woke up early the next day in the hopes of having welding success. I called up a man named Andre at Fusion Welding and was extremely happy to hear they did steel and aluminum welding, as I needed both done. I headed across town with my top case strapped to the back seat.
Andre was a super friendly guy, and given my situation, he graciously set aside his other work to help me. The two of us stripped away the remaining parts to gain access to the subframe and see the extent of the damage. It wasn’t pretty…
Andre is the only certified airframe welder in the area, and it didn’t take long of working alongside him to see why. The guy was equal parts engineer, welder, and artist. He intrinsically understood what work I wanted done (not just repairing, but re-engineering my rack supports and strengthening my sub-frame). I was in awe of his ability to eyeball things and have them work out exactly right the first time. His welds were impeccable. He added a large aluminum plate that strengthened the sub-frame that looks far more reasonable than the stock setup, replaced the hollow square metal arms on the rack support with solid ones he welded to perfectly match the old ones, and also brought thick steel place supports down from the arms to prevent the torque problem that has been causing all these headaches to begin with. He also machined custom vinyl spacers to level out the arms of the rack support on the sub-frame. We spent four hours of his day getting it all done, and the result was beautiful. I had lucked-the-fuck out.
I had a celebratory meal after and let Corey know I’d be ready to ride the next day. It was finally time to leave South Africa for the last time!
Update Oct 7 2017: I’ve finally managed to get all the supporting photos uploaded for this post.
I awoke in the well-furnished confines of my Himesville Arms digs ready for an epic ride. I’d downloaded the offline map of Lesotho to Google Maps (the entire country fits in one downloadable region). I had a few points of interest I wanted to swing through, and a rough plan for how I’d get to them. I packed my things and hit the road.
The day was warm and clear, perfect for enjoying the broad mountain vistas of Lesotho. As I finished the first handful of kilometers of tree-lined pastoral landscape to get to the turnoff for “Sani Pass Rd.” my excitement was nearly bubbling over. The first 20km or so of the pass road are perfectly paved. The mountains seem to pull in around you as you begin your ascent. Then, abruptly, the pavement ends, and a decent gravel road begins. For the first few kilometers, you ride up and down, around bends, hugging a rock-choked stream. Towering light-brown/green ridges encompass most of your view. Despite changing elevation constantly, you don’t really seem to be rising much. You can’t get much of a view in front or behind yourself at any given moment. The struggle of maintaining the road is ever-evident. Every few turns is a huge washout with a construction crew. Elsewhere, huge concrete tunnels are being installed beneath the road. Luckily, the few 4x4s and construction vehicles on the road mean you’re waved through with little ado.
Then the road starts to change. It takes a decidedly upward trend. I passed some small un-labeled buildings and began to worry, as I’d heard the South African border checkpoint is at the bottom of the pass, and I didn’t particularly want to get to the top only to be sent back down to get a stamp. Then a small paved ramp appeared to the left — a sign of development — and further on, the border post appeared.
I parked, and a few moments later, a very odd couple showed up on an adventure motorcycle behind me. Excited, I tried to chat with them only to be uncomfortably rebuffed. No matter. I headed to the immigration office, and had a brand new stamp within seconds. I bid farewell to the weird pair of bikers behind me and headed off to the pass.
Sani Pass is gorgeous. Hugging the mountain, the dirt road quickly angles up and up, cutting a path to the sky. Across the winding river, huge stone pillars rise up from the mildly-grassy mountains like sentinals watching. The sun glints off of small rivulets of water running down near the top of the ridge producing the appearance of patches of snow. Sheer rock faces tower above the mountain slope, menacingly. The road continues to meander, the drop to the water becoming more pronounced, the surface becoming less dirt, more pebbles and shards of shale. The road is narrow and rarely flat or straight, so turning off to take photos seems like a poor idea. Instead, I ride slowly and deliberately, taking in as much of the scenery as I can. Finally, I come to the first of the tight steep turns that’s made the road famous. My spirits are up among the mountain tops.
I begin to make my way up through the curves. They’re steep and covered in loose rocks, but thoroughly do-able. My motorcycle was built for roads like this, and it shows. The odd folks behind me at the border come flying up past me in a hail of rocks, but my only thought is they’re missing out. Where possible, I stop, take off my helmet, and feel the not-insubstantial wind in my hair as I look out across the valley below, marveling at the snake-like path I’m on. From the middle of the curves, you seem to be sitting on a precarious spot, with a steep rock face to one side, and a perilous dropoff to the other. Maintaining the speed to continue up the mountain, but still make hairpin turns, made my palms sweaty and the hair stand up on my neck. I imagined the madmen who take this road in the winter, then quickly tabled the thought.
The last few curves are the steepest, and as I climbed up, I had to pass around a pair of massive BMW R1200GS bikes and an RV on their way down. Giving my bike enough power to overcome gravity, the horizon leveled off to reveal a broad steppe, border post, and 100 meters ahead, pavement! Off to the right, just beyond the border fence, the famous pub at the top of the pass could be seen. With only 17-or-so tight turns, the road to the top seems to stretch on forever, but I still felt a twinge of disappointment when it’s over, and that I couldn’t ride something so crazy and awesome for another hour or two. These thoughts rattled around the back of my subconscious brain while the rest of my conscious mind rejoiced in a sea of feeling accomplished.
I parked my bike and headed to the border post for a perfunctory stamp and to pay the small toll. Then it was off to the highest pub in Africa for some requisite photos, a pint of the local beer Maluti, a chicken wrap, and a hell of a view of Sani Pass. I reveled in the cognitive dissonance of the place’s WiFi, and after unnecessarily sharing on social media that I’d friggin’ made it to the top of the world (and highest African border crossing), I sipped my beer and planned my next step.
Lesotho is a small country completely situated in the mountains. As such, it gets a substantial amount of snow fall and is treated as a giant water supply for much of South Africa. There’s a lot of complicated history there that I highly recommend as reading for those curious, and that history has a non-trivial role in the political tumult Lesotho continues to struggle with, such as a top general being assassinated there the week before I arrived.
With all this water, the massive Katse Dam was built to harness it (proposed by a South African engineer and organized by the World Bank. The damn thing cost $8 billion dollars!). Situated near the middle of the country, the second largest dam in Africa, as well as its highest, this seemed like the next logical destination. There are a small number of paved highways through Lesotho, and Google Maps advised a rather straight and boring route there along one of them. I instead zoomed in and found a more direct, but substantially smaller and curvier option that I wanted to try. I was going to live dangerously. No matter how you look at it, this was an amazing decision. Depending on how you look at it, it was amazingly good or bad.
I paid for my meal in South African Rand and got my first of the local Lesotho currency (conveniently equivalent and interchangeable within the country with Rand, just like Namibian dollars) as change. The highway was beautiful in nearly all senses of the word. It was perfectly paved, relatively well labeled (aside from sudden, insane corners), full of beautiful views, and also super curvy, occasionally steep, and nearly desolate. In other words: it was a perfect highway for motorcycling.
Immediately after Sani Pass, my path down the highway swung again upwards, to an even higher mountain pass. No matter how many times I describe a beautiful mountain vista, no justice will be done to them, and this was no exception. The mountains of Lesotho felt a bit like the middle of the Andes, as if the mountains east of Santiago had grown grass that then were left to dry nearly to a golden brown, that is to say, they lack the jagged edges of the Rockys but maintain their impressiveness. It took a couple surprise curves to realize a little “>” or “<” sign took the place of a massive billboard with flashing lights that you’d see in the States for the types of curves placed on the highways here. The roads rarely had a speed limit marker, because there’d be no point. You could go as fast as you wanted… it was pretty damn slow if you wanted to live.
I followed Google Maps down the highway, passing a fast cadence of tiny mountain-side settlements of small round stone huts with pointed thatched roofs, goats, sheep, cows, donkeys, and horsemen. Lesotho (pronounced ‘Lih-SOO-too’) is the established homeland of the Sotho (‘SOO-too,’ obviously) people, traditionally mountain herding people. The prevalent dress out in the mountains is a thick heavy blanket fastened by a giant metal clip (similar but different to a safety pin) worn over the shoulders, and frequently a thick woven balaclava around the head, even in mid-day when it’s warm. Nearly everyone in the country older than mid-teen years carries a stick, riding crop, or whip, even when there are no animals in sight, an uncommon occurrence.
I’d heard that fuel was few and far between, so when I passed a set of ragged-looking pumps to my left on a flat bend in the road, I doubled-back and pulled up to them. A guy wearing (what I ignorantly consider) the traditional garb sans-balaclava was standing nearby, and stared at me with a slack-jawed wonder. The pump said “paraffin.” I asked if there was any petrol, and he tightened his jaw long enough to say “yes!” then loosened it again, continuing to stare directly at me, immobile. I was unconvinced. I pointed at my tank and again inquired about gas. Again, “yes!” Eventually, someone else came out of the attached store and said there was no petrol. I asked where I could find it, and he pointed back the way I’d come. I still had over half a tank plus my reserve, so I figured I’d carry on. The slack-jawed man continued to marvel at me in silence until I was out of view.
I took the first turnoff Google Maps recommended started in the village of Tlokoeng. The grass-covered road descended immediately and steeply downward into a river, with deep ruts and the occasional boulder. It looked brutal, and I second-guessed myself after only about 100 meters. On the insane road, I once again referred to Google maps and found another pathway to the road I was aiming for just a few kilometers up the road at Mapholaneng. I turned around on the steep and narrow grass path to odd looks in the village and again hit the highway. When I got to the second version of the turnoff, things looked far more promising, so I figured Google had just routed me on the worse of the pathways to the main cross-country route. Once again, I’d had a sign, but ignored it.
The road I’d turned onto was hard, but it was beautiful and totally do-able… at first. About a kilometer down the road, in a stretch clinging to a mountain and quite bumpy with stones, a large flatbed truck with a picker arm attached was slowly making its way towards me. I pulled to the side to allow it to pass, and it pulled up next to me. The driver leaned out the window and asked me where I was going. I told him Katse Dam. He asked if I was by myself. I said yes, and asked if the road was bad. He said yeah, parts are bad, but he looked at my bike, said I “could make my own path,” and that I should be fine. He continued off towards the highway, and I continued my poor choice.
There was no such thing as straight and flat, and instead I bumped up and down mountain pass after mountain pass, with little but small Sotho villages of more round huts for signs of human development. Dodging goats, horses, cows, and donkeys became part of the adventure. From the tops of the mountains, I could see the road etched into the dry muted landscape. Up and down I went, mildly intimidated by the whips and sticks the locals were armed with. Kids waved and held their hands out for money or sweets. Old women stared silently and questioningly as I passed by.
The first 41km passed just as such. I was enjoying myself. Then there was a fork in the road. I was using navigation and as such, failed to notice (in fact, I only did just now re-tracing my steps) that on Google Maps, the side of the fork I was taking was identified in smaller strokes, indicating a different grade of road. But I’m being generous. What I turned onto became something altogether separate than a road. It was just around noon when I turned right onto a waking nightmare.
Ignorant of what I’d done, I marveled at how the “road” devolved so quickly. Huge water-cut ruts began to appear and wind through the steepest parts. The dirt was replaced with rocks, nay, boulders! Eventually, I stopped at the foot of a mountain and just stared at the gnarly pile of rocks climbing up to the summit that I was intended to cross. I dismounted and walked the path all the way to the top, trying to identify the best course up to avoid tragedy. I went back down to the bike, rode up to what I’d thought was the top, only to find the path continued. I hiked again. And again. And again. Up and down, the path was so insane I couldn’t confidently ride many of the stretches without pre-planning.
I can’t remember the first time I dropped the bike. The times blend together. I’d be riding up and over huge boulders, bouncing literally from one to another, and my front wheel would hit at an angle and I’d be thrown off like I was riding a bucking bronco. Down was even worse with the additional effort of needing to ride the clutch and brakes to control speed, combined with the less forgiving additional weight on the handlebars. My panniers and handlebars absorbed hit after hit, gaining new scratches and dents. At one point, a massive rut was running through an incline I needed to pass. The majority of the road was on the right, but the water had also washed all the dirt away, leaving jagged and broken rocks loose and imposing. On the left was a mildly-less treacherous path, but one that was narrowly winning against the mini-canyon to its right. I chose the path on the left, terrified of the bike ending up in the ditch. Luckily it didn’t. Instead, when riding off a ledge and onto a pile of loose rocks that caused my bike to come to a crashing halt, the bike stayed up on the path. I, however, when rolling sidelong into the hole. I picked myself up and dusted myself off. The fall didn’t hurt at all, but looking at the surrounding situation, I couldn’t help but begin hysterically laughing. It was just too absurd.
I passed tiny village after tiny village. I hiked a huge portion of the road twice, scoping things out and returning. I rode through small rivers. The road frequently disappeared in a pile of rocks with no indication of where it was and where it was going, but Google Maps had a pretty spot-on path that kept me oriented. Occasionally the road passed right through what seemed like someone’s yard. The road didn’t improve. It only got worse. The first 6 or so times I laid it down, I picked it back up and continued on, but after that, I was getting tired, and I started recruiting the locals. Invariably, before they’d help, they’d demand money. No matter what I gave them, afterwards, they wanted more. Not that it’s an excuse, according to Wikipedia, “about 40% of the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.” I was paying far higher prices for a little bit of help.
Shit got intense. The roads were one step up from impassable. The worst of them I was too shell-shocked to photograph. There’d been no potable water supplies, and I’d run out of drinking water (I hadn’t brought as much as normal, expecting South Africa’s water bowl to provide with the aid of my water filter), I’d been on hard roads since the morning, and I’d picked up the more times than I was singularly able. I was exhausted. When I’d hike up and down the mountains to find a path, sweat poured out of my helmet. I could feel bruises growing and stiffness setting in in my legs from repeated tumbles.
On a particularly treacherous stretch of road, I took a tumble. I tried repeatedly, but I no longer had the strength to right the bike. I sat down on the side of the road and worked out my plan. Looking around, other than the “road,” there were zero signs of civilization. I was truly alone. I needed a break. I was completely exhausted and worn down. I didn’t want to keep going; I wanted to give up and just leave. I dreamt of another huge truck passing and just carrying me out of there. Looking at the path ahead and behind, the unstoppable notion in my head was just that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t want to fall and crash. I didn’t want to struggle and find paths that failed. I wanted a break, a respite, a nice meal and a warm bed. I thought about my GPS transponder and what it would mean to hit the help button, but then I thought of the plan I’d made up with my genius friend Michael. He’d assume far worse than my situation, and my loved ones would be terrified. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the fallout from that.
No. I would camp there on the steppe, next to the bike, and try again in the morning. I There was still an hour or two of daylight, so there was no rush. It was finally starting to get cold, which was a blessing. I’d try again in the morning. I’d persevere. I wouldn’t be beaten by Lesotho. I wasn’t personally convinced, but as I’d been all my life, I was stubborn. Then I spotted a figure on the horizon.
I watched from my high vantage. The figure wasn’t quite on the road, but was following it more-or-less. I waited, hoping they’d be kind and sympathetic. I felt vulnerable… because I was. As the figure approached, I made out a woman wearing nearly western-style clothes. When she approached, I asked for water and made the sign for it, but she either didn’t understand or didn’t want to (this ended up being a particularly confusing recurring thing). Instead I asked her for help picking up the bike. She set her coat down and helped me right it. Unprompted, I handed her 30 rand, so thankful for her help given my location. But the road was still a nightmare. I made it another 40 meters or so, then ended up back on the ground, a new bruise swelling in my right leg. The woman was subsequently making her way along the road, and again came to my aid. Together, we righted the bike, and this time, I crested the mountain.
On the other side lay misery. I was looking down on a field of stones, at at least a 30 degree angle. The path was inconsistent and dangerous. I hiked a bit of it, checked Google Maps to see my remaining distance to tar (26km), set my jaw, and decided to try and escape this cursed place. I made it about 100 meters before the impassable landscape once again claimed my upright status. When I achingly got up, I paced and cursed. I couldn’t do it anymore. I was too beaten, sore, exhausted, thirsty, hungry, and demoralized. The sun was about 30 minutes from dipping below the mountain tops. I looked at my steep and barren surroundings and I made up my mind: I’d set up camp here tonight, despite my lack of adequate rations (I have emergency dry food for these situations), pick up the bike, and continue on in the morning.
The woman who’d helped me out previously was still trekking, and in my direction. After contemplating my shitty situation for about 10 minutes, she trundled over the top of the mountain and came to my meager new home. She looked at my bike and me, her expression showing sympathy and saying “that’s some shit you got yourself into!” In Sotho I could understand (by context alone), she asked what my plan was. I held my hands up to my head and tilted it sideways in the universal sign of “sleep” and pointed to the brush off the road. She was having none of it.
In English, she said “no no no,” followed by “village,” followed by pointing, followed by her immediately trying to pick up my backpack to carry it for me. I stopped her and told her I could carry it, even though it was awfully tempting to suddenly acquire a porter. I was nervous of the massive cultural disconnect I was entering, but I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my helmet and tank bag, and set out down the mountain, following the woman.
We hiked in alternating silence and failed conversation. She had a handful of English words, but they seemed well practiced statements. She couldn’t tell me how far we were going. She seemed confused and just laughed when I asked her if she had water. But she told me in no uncertain terms that I’d stay tonight, and that she had to go to work tomorrow. It wasn’t clear, but it seemed she worked on a farm several kilometers away, and that she would walk in the morning. We hiked over two more peaks, my motorcycle disappearing completely from view, which made me very nervous. Then we rounded one last lump of earth and a small village of less than a dozen huts came into view. We’d came about 2km.
The woman walked up to the first hut on the right and went in. The base was round and made of stone, with a thick pointed thatch roof. A short wooden door stood in the singular opening, open. In the dwindling hours of the day, the inside was completely occluded. There were no windows. A minute after the woman popped in, she popped out again and gave me an annoyed look and signal: “come in you silly foreigner” she seemed to say. I ducked my tall backpack through the entryway and into the swept-dirt-floored hut and into another world.
There was another woman inside. I’m a terrible judge, but I’d wager they were both in the neighborhood of their mid-30’s. The woman threw my things on top of enormous bags of dry goods and gave me a tiny stool to sit on. She lit a match, then a small oil candle that provided meager light. It sat on a small table covered in various things. Inside, the thatched roof was dark and oily with soot. Dry goods and odds and ends ringed the structure. A group of very young children came inside and joined us and stared unabashadly at me. I tried to make myself small and respectful. Without words to indicate my appreciation, and with my attempts to convey it seemingly misunderstood (in retrospect, I think they just thought it would be rude to accept it), it was all I had. Outside, a rotating crew of locals passed by, taking turns getting a peak at the weird foreigner in a motorcycle jacket. They didn’t come in and talk. An older man came in and took a seat near me. I prepared to show my respect to what I assumed was the patriarch of the house, but he barely even glanced at me, simply sauntering in, hunkering down, and lighting a hand-rolled cigarette.
Presently, an older woman showed up with a large round metal can full of sticks and open at the top. She placed it in the middle of the hut. Another match was lit, and soon we had a full on blaze. In minutes, the scene became a haze of choking smoke. There was no ventillation except the open door. One of the kids gave a cough that sounded serious. He would go on to repeat it on occasion the rest of the evening. Everyone got low, as if gravity had increased two-fold. The children were on the floor. The women were toiling, one hand-washing clothes in a soapy yellow plastic tub, another messing with goods on the table. Two short pieces of rebar were thrown on top of the can. A pot was loaded with water. I was dying of thirst and again asked for a drink. This time, an enormous metal mug was produced and filled with water. Before it made it to me, a paper sachet was also produced, and its contents emptied into the mug. The red substance tasted like extra-sweet gatorade, but I didn’t care. I quaffed it with reckless abandon, downing a quarter of the big-gulp-style mug in a single go. I drank a full half before I reasoned I should share. It would be ages before the mug made it back.
The crew huddled around the fire, all wrapped in thick heavy blankets. The night was still warm. As a large saucepan was lowered onto the rebar over the fire, and some eggs were cracked into it, I moved to the floor next to the kids. Immediately, the woman came up to me with two large thick blankets, presumably assuming I was cold. Unsure how to handle it, I draped them over my shoulders. The kids and women all watched and laughed to themselves. I was happy to be amusing. As the meal cooked, I showed the kids how I can whistle by clasping my hands together and blowing into them. As anticipated, they repeatedly unsuccessfully began blowing into their hands.
Eventually, a plate materialized and was loaded up with the contents of the saucepan. I was served first, followed by the older man. I saw no other plates. In the meager light of the cookfire, I could hardly make out the concoction, but my mouth knew the truth: fried eggs and pap (a cornmeal porridge very common here). I greedily began to eat as soon as the man took his first bite. As I continued to eat, I waited for the others to be served, but nothing seemed to be happening. Before I was totally full, I was uncomfortable about this fact, and began to eat much slower. Then the man passed his plate to the women. I immediately passed my plate to the children. As an act, it went nearly completely un-acknowledged, as if it was neither expected or noteworthy. It just was.
After I’d passed on the plate, I pressed 100 rand into the old man’s hand. I wanted to be clear that I didn’t expect to just be fed for nothing. Though the women noticed the action, it passed without comment. I repeatedly thanked and praised my hosts, but it continued to produce little intelligible results from my culturally disadvantaged vantage.
After dinner, the woman who’d brought me slipped out without me noticing immediately. Ten minutes or so later, she re-appeared and motioned for me to come outside. I began to follow but she stopped me immediately, indicating I should bring my things. I complied. She led me about a dozen meters to another hut. Approximately the same size, from the outside I could see this one had a pair of windows worked into the stones. She led me in using an old Nokia candybar phone as a torch. Stepping through the entry, it took my mind a full second or two to process what I was seeing.
Inside the hut was a full bed frame with a mattress. The bed was made up, with a duvet and pillow. In the middle of the hut were more massive bags of dry goods, mostly corn meal, but also whole corn kernels. There was a wooden chair by the head of the bed set up like a nightstand, and a dresser with a mirror on it at the foot. Old calendars covered the windows. A tiny rug laid next to the nightstand/chair. She was about to walk out again, but still worried about faux pas, I asked her what to do if I had to pee using the lease uncomfortable sign language I could. She brought me a yellow plastic bucket and shut me in the hut.
It was still quite early, not quite 9pm. I climbed in bed with my book for a bit, then drifted off to the incredible silence of the surrounding village. I awoke at 6am to the sound of acticity. The village was already bustling. I found the woman who’d brought me in, and she immediately filled a tub with hot water, then got out soap and lotion. I washed my hands, face, and neck. She watched. It was an odd feeling. When I was finished, she motioned for me to get my stuff and to head back to the bike.
We began the hike back to the bike with three of the kids in tow. As soon we we left the village, I handed money to the woman and once again tried to communicate my appreciation, but to little reaction. We passed the same mountains, and eventually my bike became visible on the top of another. As we approached, it became apparent that something had changed with the bike: the seat appeared to be flying from the top like a flag. I got nervous.
When we got to the bike, once again my heart sank. The seat was at a 90 degree angle to the bike, its mounting bracket twisted wreckage. The right rearview mirror was smashed to bits. Next to my top case sat its padlock, a huge dent had appeared in its side, and the clasp that fastens the lid on was badly mangled. Something serious had battered my poor motorcycle. It looked like something had literally ran over it, but I couldn’t really be sure.
I got the bike upright and managed to reconnect the seat more-or-less. I checked the boxes. It turned out two of the padlocks had been ripped off, but none of the contents were missing. The lower strap for my tank bag, which connected only via the seat, wasn’t so lucky. It couldn’t be found anywhere. The woman left to go to work. The kids gruffly demanded “give me money!” with angry intonation. Looking down at the brutal landscape, I told them if they could help me get the bike to the village, I would give them money.
We had to get pretty creative to work around the stone wreckage in our path. With my cadre of village children, I trundled through a ditch, and down a long 300 meter animal path that circumvented a large part of the worst of the road. With much pushing, pulling, and careful riding, I made it to the village and paid the kids, and took stock of my situation…
I had an early start and 24km left to go. The road looked no better than what I’d been through. My legs were bruised and aching horribly. Despite the hour, it was already hot and I was on my way to being drenched in sweat. I hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass by since the truck I’d passed at the beginning of my trip off-road jaunt the day before. I considered hitting the help button on my GPS transponder and hoping for help, but I was dissuaded by both the panic I’d cause, and the knowledge that my issue would probably be misinterpreted as more severe than it was. I didn’t want another day of painful falls and bike brutalization. I wanted to rest. I wanted to put my bike on a truck and let it do the work. But I also didn’t want to give up. It took me a minute to steel myself, even taking a moment to pray to a god I don’t really believe in, both before and after painfully mounting my twisted ride. I hit the road.
The scenery and the mechanism I wound through my chosen path (frequently dismounting and walking the route to pick the best way forward) stayed the same. The folks along the path became somewhat less accommodating. I became numb to the phrase “Give me money!” I heard it from group after group after group of children. When they’d approach me on my steep jaunts, and thus have more time to try their luck, it was invariably followed by “Give me sweets!” Each time, the tone of voice was one of indignant demand. It was frustrating.
But it wasn’t just the children who had taken to asking for money. On one jaunt, I was staring at a particularly treacherous stretch of road, and a woman perched at the top tried to point me in another direction, but demanded money for the luxury of the advice. I refused. Also, her advice was woefully wrong, and led to another crash. It would be one of many. Throughout the course of the day, I would see young adults (17-29-ish) sprinting at full-tilt across the mountains on an intercept course to hold out their hands or even try and bar my path across the road. In the most terrifying of these interactions, a pair of hooded herders who had been perched on a bluff over the road jumped down and stood next to each other, both extending their arms and legs into the air, blocking the road and making threatening gestures. I stopped but kept the bike running. They were clearly pleased I’d stopped, and immediately broke ranks and made for the right side to (presumably) demand payment. Instead, I put the bike into gear and took off to the left around them. They briefly raised their hands and made threatening gestures with their whips, causing me to think I may be Indiana Jones-whipped off my bike while making my mistake, but they demurred. About 800 meters down the road, I again ran into a huge and scary decline. When I dismounted to take a look, I saw in the distance the two, who had once again perched upon the bluff, were sprinting down the street to get to me. I ran back to my bike, jumped on it, and took off sight-unseen down the mountain. I stayed upright and considered myself lucky and blessed.
I rode through the middle of villages. I lost sight of the road and found it again. I took a wrong turn and spent 30 minutes arguing with children about the best way back to the road, ultimately ignoring all their terrible advice and making it back in one piece. I talked to farmers on mules who were smiling and amazed by my presence, but who also just wanted to hang out and stare at me. I hiked up and down mountains. Sweat poured from the top of my helmet so much I had to take my sunglasses off and squint through the salt.
I had two low moments. In the first, I was confronted with a ludicrously steep decline full of boulders and spent minutes contemplating how I could possibly descend it. Eventually, I found a group of villagers and offered to pay them to help me walk the bike slowly down the mountain. For 15 grueling minutes, we panted and sweated down the path, nearly losing the bike on numerous occasions, but coming out safely at the bottom. On the second, on a particularly heinously steep section that would have been easy had there not been huge boulders randomly dispersed in the roadway, I was intentionally going fast enough to make it up the steep terrain when a huge sound like a gunshot rung out, and the bike jolted hard to the left and crashed heavily on the right side. When I stood up, I figured out what had happened: my left pannier had collided with a boulder and sat, ripped from its frame, mangled about a meter behind the bike. When I got up the energy from my sore, exhausted, and profusely sweating body to right the bike, it came up with the right pannier also too mangled to sit on its mount. I emptied the boxes on the roadway and used a rock to bash them into enough shape to carry on.
I can’t possibly communicate the depths of my morale that day. A dozen times, I stared at what lay ahead of me and wanted nothing more than to give up. It seemed too hard. I knew more painful crashes were ahead. My legs were bruised and swollen. My arms hung loosely, burned out from trying to keep a heavily loaded bike steady through a constant rock assault. I thought longingly about the GPS transponder, and how at a moment’s notice, I could plop down next to the bike and cook my emergency rations, confident I’d be on my way home to comfort and simplicity. At times, I laughed like an idiot into my helmet at the absurdity of the path I was on.
After getting stuck on a pile of rocks and needing to gun my engine and drop the clutch, I noticed after that it wasn’t nearly as responsive as it had been. I then had to perform the same operation about 3 more times in the next 300 meters, and before I knew it, I had to be gentle with the throttle or my engine would continue to rev, but my motorcycle wouldn’t be going anywhere. I considered hiking to the road.
I made a point not to watch the kilometers tick down on Google Maps. Whenever I did, I couldn’t believe how slow my progress was. On occasion, I’d be locked neck-and-neck with local pedestrians, and they’d win. With my morale scraping the barrel, the road passed through a dusty mountain town and became something remotely resembling a dirt road (90% of the time). With 6km to go, I rode in awe as my knuckles weren’t white, and every fiber of my arms and legs weren’t braced for impact. In the last 2km, I passed good looking 4×4 trucks that looked like they’d been recently cleaned. I passed a fenced-in school, something I hadn’t seen in well over 24 hours. Eventually, I climbed a super steep (but blessedly short and well-traveled) embankment onto gravel. Shortly after that, I hit pavement.
I wanted to leap from the bike and onto the surface, embracing it. Kissing it. Taking a silly photo to document my happiness. As soon as I stopped to stare in awe, much like the guy at the petrol station before I started my misadventure stared at me, a group broke off of a throng of people who were hanging out around vehicles (actual working moving driving vehicles!!!) and asked me for money. I figured it was better to move along.
It was nearly noon. It had taken the better part of 6 hours to escape the last 24 hours of my personal hell. I was dumped onto a small intersection in a small town stuffed with traffic, but once I made it out and climbing up to another high mountain pass, there was nearly no traffic. The pavement was perfect. I was running out of gas, and at the top of the pass was a petrol station. I felt like a million bucks. My grin was from ear to ear. Inside my mind, thoughts that rarely cross through my mind held a raucous party “Holy shit you made it! Holy shit you’re tough! Holy shit you’re a badass! You never gave up, even though things were crazy hard!” The thoughts were unstoppable. For the rest of the day, my modesty was put into a corner and told to shut the fuck up.
The station looked like a bomb had gone off. There were only two pumps: one petrol one diesel. After filling up, I had to guess which of the three doors in the bare concrete building went to something resembling a store. Building materials, trash, and other detritus covered the floor, but they had a working fridge. I ordered a 2-liter of coke and sat out front looking at the torn-apart cars and pallets of empty glass bottles in their yard. I drank my coke and alternated between shuddering at the thought of what I’d been through, and rejoicing at the break that was upcoming: there was a lodge overlooking the Katse Dam that looked fancy, and I didn’t care. I was staying there.
From the petrol station, I descended down the winding, perilous, and beautiful highway. I could make out the deep blue of the reservoir behind the dam. The reservoir level was clearly very low compared to its capacity. Eventually, a gigantic concrete dam appeared on the horizon, and the GPS directed me to turn directly onto it. There was immediately a fence, the guard asked me a lot of questions about why I was there, and threatened to charge me a fee for crossing (which I had no intention of paying), but eventually told me he’d let me cross for free because I was by myself. I had to fill out a form, and I passed over the top of the dam, rubbernecking all the way.
On the other side, I followed signs for the Katse Village, and once again found myself filling out a form in front of a guard. I followed the road to its terminus and found myself at a modest hotel. I winced as I dismounted, all my joints and tendons tightened from injury and inflammation, and found myself limping as I walked into the reception. I don’t think the receptionist knew what to make of me between my filth and excitement (especially when I learned they had cheap dorm rooms!), but I had a key to a room in my hands by 2pm. I limped my things to my room and collapsed in bed. I’d fucking survived.
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.
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…
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.