I first saw them standing in the queue at a supermarket check-out; two teenage girls buying a loaf of bread and some milk. In such modern surroundings it came as quite a shock. They looked like they’d walked off a ‘Lord of the Rings’ film set. There was the orange and oily skin, the long, thick, snake-like braids of hair, an over-powering and unpleasant body odour, and perhaps most noticeably of all, the absence of any clothing other than an animal-skinned loincloth.

A supermarket wasn’t really the location I was first expecting to encounter the Himba tribe of northern Namibia, renowned for their orange skin and fact that the women wear practically nothing. I soon discovered the rest of the town of Opuwo was full of them. Bare-breasts and the smell of whatever animal fat-based cream these women use to smother their skin dominated this otherwise unremarkable and dusty place. Namibia all of a sudden was becoming interesting.

There were other tribes too; women wearing broad colourful dresses and hats made to resemble cow horns. These were the Herero. And then more bare-breasted girls, without the orange skin cream, but jewellery and beads particular to what I’m told is the Dhemba tribe.

There was a natural temptation to stare and reach for the camera, but these days visitors are encouraged to join a guided tour of a village – one which the Namibian tourist board seems to favour calling a ‘living museum’. Here, in exchange for the price of your tour and probably a gift or two, you can take all the pictures of bare-breasts and Himba lifestyle you like. Well this didn’t really appeal, but I suspected there would be Himba villages on the road ahead.

It was from this point on that the gravel started. My first 1300km of cycling in Namibia was all on beautifully tarred and flat surfaces. It was easy-going, but somewhat monotonous and boring. Now there were hills on the horizon and the paved smoothness had finished. The landscape began to open up and the vegetation changed as I headed south from Opuwo. There were mopane woodlands with grazing cattle at first, then arid thorny scrublands and rock-strewn expanses of inhospitable and prehistoric-looking terrain. Springboks nervously leaped across the road, Zebra kicked up clouds of dust as they galloped off to safety on a hillside, Giraffe nonchalantly looked up and Kudu and Oryx watched from a distance before they too disappeared beyond the range of my camera lens.

 

Out here it felt wild and remote; a totally different Africa from before. There were few people and I was starting to see what a country with almost the lowest population density in the World was like.

 

I fortunately came across Himba women in more natural surroundings than a modern-day supermarket. One yelled at me from the roadside not far out of Opuwo, shouting’ photo photo’, before I stopped and watched her run over, body parts naturally swinging with those long locks of hair. Well here was my chance. She wanted a photo and she wanted money. I kind of wanted a photo, so reached into a pannier and produced a packet of chocolate biscuits. It was a fair exchange, uneasy and voyeuristic as it somehow felt.

 

Most of the people I encountered out on these gravel roads were tourists or white-Namibians. The latter drive quickly and often recklessly. I guess if you know the roads well and there aren’t any obstacles or police road-blocks it becomes an open invitation to drive at 140km/h+, sometimes with little or no consideration for the flying stones that might shoot out from under the tyres and clouds of dust that gets left behind. Tourists on the other hand, much less familiar with Namibia’s gravel roads and with more of an interest in seeing the landscape for the first time, drive slowly. With four-wheel drive, suspension, air-conditioning and windows to keep out the dust, Namibia’s raw nature can be experienced in relative comfort. Some tourists stared at me as they drove past, some slowed down and smiled, and a few stopped with the curiosity to know more about my journey. On some of these gravel road stretches there might only be one vehicle passing every few hours.

 In a country as dry and sparsely populated as Namibia, where there are big distances between places, cloudless skies and a thirst-driving heat, the main issue out on these long gravel roads is finding water. In most of rural Africa I feel confident in saying  that there is some degree of certainty in finding a small village alongside a road, which won’t be marked on a map. And with a village naturally there must be water. Not so in Namibia. A faint track leading off to a farm might be an hour’s cycle ride away, and there is no knowing if that track will only be passable by 4×4. And so I’m back to filling up with 7-8 litres for consumption during the day, and a 10-litre water bladder when I know that come sunset I will be wild camping alone, rather than pitching up in a village or an official campsite.

 

Rural Namibia might be wild, but these tracks have been passed many times by people who’ve logged information on an online mapping site called tracks4Africa. If I had a GPS with the ability to download maps onto it I could probably know a lot more about the road ahead and where I could get water.

 On Namibia’s smooth tarred roads I was happily cycling 130km plus daily, but gravel roads are energy sapping, particularly with corrugations that make for a bone-jarring ride. On one occasion I turned off from what is labelled a ‘C’ road to a more minor ‘D’ road when signs directed me to ‘World Heritage rock paintings and an extinct volcano called Burnt Mountain. I got halfway, camped for the night in an expensive campsite, and then turned back the following morning having had enough of the corrugations. With the punctures that seem to have been plaguing me of late (not just from thorns, but patches on old tubes occasionally split on these corrugations) I’m content to make 90km per day on the gravel.

Most nights thus far in Namibia I’ve been sleeping in my tent. Official campsites exist, but are often in the wrong location come sunset time, and some are just too far off the road or overpriced for what they offer. Basic rooms start from $30 per night, so it’s just as well the weather is conducive for camping, and pitching up at the side of the road is easy.

 

It was a relief to get back onto a tarred surface as I approached the capital Windhoek. The scenery and surroundings on the way here have less of the wild feel than being on the gravel roads, but having cycled 13 days continuously I needed a rest.

Windhoek might well be the cleanest and quietest African city I will visit. There can’t be many capitals on the continent where you can sit on clean grass in a city centre public park and not either be surrounded by rubbish or hawkers of some description. There is also a wonderful fresh climate, the skies are endlessly blue and the girls seem prettier than many other capitals…

But I’m told it will start to get colder as I head south. There are some more gravel roads ahead and a few high passes. As long as the skies stay clear I’m happy, but down in the Western Cape of South Africa I’m told it’s windy and rains a lot. Perhaps that will be good training for a return to England this summer.