• South from Windhoek June 9th, 2012

    There’s too much to write about in this blog post. I’m currently sat in a restaurant in Springbok, South Africa, wearing the warmest clothes I have. The temperature outside is about 10 degrees Celcius and I doubt it will get much warmer in the days to come. “You’ve arrived at the wrong time of year”, says Jan, the restaurant manager whose house I was invited to stay in last night.

    I was soaked to the skin and freezing cold when I rolled into town yesterday afternoon. Talk about a change in weather conditions having crossing the Namibian border the previous morning. There the skies were characteristically blue and I was cycling in familiar shorts, vest top and sandles. Now my tan seems destined to disappear and it’s hard to imagine wearing those clothes again between here and Cape Town.

    Earlier today I booked a flight back to England. In exactly one month’s time I will be packing up the bike, loading it onto an Air Emirates plane and leaving Africa behind. It doesn’t seem like a fitting end to what will almost be another 3-year long journey. The Big Africa Cycle is very much in its finishing stages. As for what’s next, well I’ll leave that for another blog post.

    The Namibian landscape continued to impress me as I cycled south from Windhoek, but rather than write about the wonderful sand dunes, breathtaking landscapes, irritating roadside fencing, numerous punctures, wild camping experiences, hiking the Fish River Canyon and the time-warped two donkey towns, I’m sharing some of the pictures I’ve taken in the past several weeks. Click on them to be taken to the Flickr page where I’ve added some notes.

  • Radio Interview in Windhoek May 14th, 2012

    For those of you who probably never got to hear me being interviewed on Radio here in Windhoek last week, here is the recording. I’m off again tomorrow. Back on the gravel and heading south. Another two weeks and I should be crossing into South Africa.

  • Grinding along gravel May 11th, 2012

    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.

     

  • Video from the road: Northern Nambia April 23rd, 2012

    More long, straight and flat roads in the past week. I didn’t expect to have good enough Internet connection to upload a video, but recorded this a few days ago heading west from Rundu to Oshikati. That map in the journey page of this website is now finally accurate. I’m heading a little bit further to the west from here and then turning south. I think/hope the landscape will become a bit more varied, but the distances between places look equally as far.

     

  • Beers and braais on the Zambezi April 17th, 2012

    I saw elephants on the road out of Zimbabwe. They saw me too. First it was the back end of one, and metres later the front end of another. They were only 10-15 metres away, munching away where the edge of the bush met the roadside fire-break. I wouldn’t have seen them in a car, and it was only at the last second as I turned to make eye contact and receive a startled ear flap did I suddenly think “Shit”.

    Well I had been warned. There was plenty of fresh poop on the road and the folk from Vic Falls had told me to be vigilant.

    Seen from a distance and within the safety of a vehicle, elephants appear prehistorically majestic and peaceful. Up front without warning they are massive and scary.

    It was probably a good thing then that when I continued into Botswana and arrived at the gate of Chobe National Park the following morning, the security guard yelled at me to stop. The main road that connects Zimbabwe with Botswana and continues onto the Ngombe bridge border with Namibia some 70km later cuts through the northern stretch of this wildlife rich wilderness.

    At first I was a bit annoyed, and probably would have stayed that way had I seen nothing from the pick-up I was asked to load my bike into the back of. Instead I soon lost count of the number of elephants crossing the road, not just in their twos and threes, but herds of one or two dozen. Now that would have been scary alone on the bike. No lions mind you.

    And that was the end of Botswana. One night camping in the popular Chobe Safari Lodge and then several hours in the morning before I was receiving an exit stamp and entering Namibia. In total I cycled some 20km in Botswana.

    It will be considerably more here in Namibia. The World’s second least populated country (Mongolia is the first I think?) contains just over 2 million people and has a lot of long distances between places.

    I biked the first 70km in less than 3 hours. It was Saturday, I needed to change money and the banks close at midday. It didn’t make any difference “These notes are old”, said the Standard Chartered clerk holding up a moderately grubby $5 bill, “and we’re not buying small notes”. In Malawi they would have salivated at the sight of US$, be they big or small in denomination, clean or mildly grubby. Here in Namibia it seems not.

    Fortunately another foreign cyclist bought some off me in exchange for South African Rand (used here in Namibia as well as the Namibian $, which is tied to it).

    Shane and I have been in contact for some months now. In November last year he flew to Cape Town with his bicycle, and is cycling in a roughly opposite route direction from me back to the UK.

    “This town is about the most African feeling place I’ve been to”, was one of the first remarks he made about Katima Muillo, where we had agreed to meet. Well other than the sand encroaching on the roads, for me it felt like one of the most western. Large supermarkets, service stations with enormous forecourts and what appeared to be a lot of Chinese-run shops dominated this riverside town.

    What the town lacked in character though the campsite setting and company easily made up for. Shane had already been lazing on the banks of the Zambezi all week, and would spend another 4 nights there when I arrived.

    One thing I’ve missed cycling alone in Africa is a drinking partner – someone to share a cold beer with at the end of a day of cycling, and who enjoys the real atmosphere of Africa away from the western comforts of backpacker hostels and tourist lodges. Shane easily fitted the bill, and as he planned his route north into rural Zambia I pondered for more than a brief moment during those blissful several days of drinking and barbecuing what it would be like to turn back around and join him. Why not? Zimbabwe, with its prices and history of southern African influenced segregation has already given me a feeling for what I imagine aspects of life in Namibia and South Africa to be like. Or perhaps I’m just sad that his real adventure is just starting and mine is coming towards its end? I’ll be keenly following his progress as he slowly heads north.

    For me the road out of Katima Muillo led in one direction – west, a long, straight, flat and largely featureless ride of 500+km through the Caprivi Strip. Geographically this looks like an exciting part of the country – wedged as it is like a dagger between Botswana to the South and Angola to the north. On a level of mental stimulation when seen over 4 longish days from the saddle of a bike it’s hard-going. Highlights include a couple of elephant crossings, some beautiful cloud formations, wild camping made so easy by lack of people that I could almost have done it blind-folded, and a wonderful tailwind. Long may the latter continue throughout the rest of this country. I have 470km separating me from Oshikati to the west of here, and then it’s on into Himba country– land of the scantily dressed.