A tough cycle through the desolate beauty of Namibia

Namibia is a vast country of harsh beauty, desert, mountains, heat, and a wild coast littered with skeletons (of whales and ships, but mainly whales). Human habitation dates back far into prehistory, colonisation came in the form of Germany (trying to get into the empire game?) and with it the horrors of genocide. After the defeat of Germany in world war one, it fell into South African hands and thus lived through the dark days of apartheid. In 1990 it became an independent nation and what exists now appeared to us rather eclectic.

Out of all the counties in Africa I have been to, it is Namibia that felt both the most familiar, and the most confusing. Because it felt a little like both the cultural identities I have grown up with. And it is also clearly, very much Africa; the people were as kind, hospitable and welcoming as they had been all over the continent, maize was the staple, the wildlife as wonderful as ever.

However, it was also the strangest mix of Germany and Australia I have ever encountered. It looks and feels like the outback; the open skies, kilometres of nothingness, large cattle stations with kind but tough farmers, the peculiar villages which appear to have a similar socio-economic and substance abuse issues as back home, and even the road houses and pubs felt like they’d been pulled from northern Australia somewhere.

Then there was the rather peculiar German aspect, which you catch sight of every now and then; an older lady chatting in German in a deli which mirrors any deli I’ve ever been to in Germany, local ladies dressed in traditional 19th century German attire (I told you it was weird!) and German brew pubs.

In Namibia we felt so comfortable. The kind of comfort one gets when you know at the end of the day there is really nobody around. Not everyone finds space a comfort, but I do. I like nothing more than a starlit sky, a campfire and the feeling that no other human is nearby. And we had so much of that. Many of our friends talked of the endless fencing of Namibia and it’s true; most of the country is fenced, strangely. They spoke of having to lift their bikes over at the end of each day and push out into the bush or desert, away from the road. We did this the first night, but found it so cumbersome we never did it again. Nor did we cook on our stove. Most nights we lit a fire, and often we didn’t even pitch the tent. Our days ended by simply rolling our bikes off the road. We still made an attempt to hide; a depression, a dry river, perhaps behind a bush. But in reality, in the 12 plus hours we would inhabit the space, perhaps 3 cars would pass us. And from years on the road, we knew most people weren’t serial killer-robbers.

Two days from the border we had a delightful stay in Windhoek where Charis and Dieter took great care of us, and to our delight we also caught up with Richie again. He’d decided to return to Namibia to figure out where he wanted to go next. It was a great crew and we even managed a magical camping trip the the beautiful Spitzekoppe.

Spitzkoppe
Also felt so Australian in a way
Magnificent in all lights
Exploring
Moonrise
Sunset
coming down from our sunrise spot
sunrise
It’s so hot during the day, this is the answer
Ostrich comes to say hi

Namibia then became a test of resilience for Astrid and I. Not since long ago out back Australia had we ridden such tough roads, in such harsh conditions. It began easy enough, while almost all roads in Namibia outside of towns are unsealed, they were at least at first in good condition. Then however, things got harder.

Warning giraffes! Not sure where. We never saw any in all of Namibia.

The road deteriorated to where it was a constant zig zag to find a rideable section. Our daily average plummeted, sometimes as low as 4km an hour. At one point our tent bounced off the back of my bike and I didn’t notice until 5km later. I nearly had a melt down (well, I kind of did have a melt down) but I was saved when after only 1km of back tracking I waved down some Germans who said they had seen it and kindly went back and retrieved our home.

Resting

The road kept getting worse and it kept getting hotter. And the tourists often sprayed us with dust as they passed too fast in their hire 4×4’s. One day, just when I’d really had enough, my inner tube rapidly deflated. Pissed, I stopped to change it, Astrid already too far in front to notice my absence. Changing a tube in the blustering heat of the mid-day Namibian sun is no fun at all. This was made worse when once fixed, 20 metres down the road it happened again. I was so mad I wanted to scream. I probably did, as I was completely alone. Turns out the stem of the inner tube had been severed. This is usually not repairable.

In the end I hitch hiked with some Germans (always) to our destination, a very glamorous petrol station. Like Australian outback camping, Namibians charge a ludicrous amount of money for a piece of dirt. Luckily, as cyclists there was a loop hole. They let us camp for a fraction of the price on some dirt behind the petrol station. And we still had access to the pool and showers.

Petrol station home of luxury

We were now in a dire situation with only one spare tube between us and two of mine severed at the stem. And more than 400km of rough roads ahead of us. I needed to fix one of my broken tubes and take Astrid’s only spare in order for us to keep going. We tried desperately to get a spare from Windhoek, but had no luck. So like any modern nomad, I turned to u tube. With a bit super glue, determination and u tube inspiration I managed to super glue the stem together and then put a small hole in a patch and shimmy it over the stem to secure it. It held for another 200km.

Crisis averted. So now it was time to actually appreciate the beautiful Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan surrounded by immense dunes. We’d taken up residence as the Sesriem petrol station so that we could experience the magical beauty of this area . So we hitched hiked in with some friendly Germans and had an amazing morning exploring this alien and super unique landscape.

Unfortunately, I also had a really high fever that left me shivering and freezing in the hot desert sun. On return to Sesriem I lay in a miserable heap, trying to sleep and somehow muster the energy to cycle. We needed to leave as we had been evicted from the petrol station. I felt truly awful and had no idea how I would possibly pedal 1 km, let alone the several hundred we needed to cover. It’s these times on the road that you feel the most vulnerable. We had nowhere really to go. The idea of spending days lying in a tent, especially when the midday heat hit well into the 30’s was not appealing. Nor could we afford the nearby hotel, which was some kind of fancy resort. I suppose we could have hitch hiked, there’s always a way in Africa, but it would have been cumbersome and unpleasant and we still wouldn’t really have known where to go. Instead I decided to take my chances with our last antibiotics. Not something I recommend! However, it was either going to work, or not.

Chapped lips and sun burn

Luckily, either the antibiotics began working, or the fever passed. For I woke the next day (we cycled a few kilometres and camped with a French family who had met Clo) weak but afebrile. We also woke to a howling, cold head/cross wind.

Crazy morning wind

Namibia had already been getting tough. Now it upped its game. The wind blew sand in our faces. The road was so bad we were constantly weaving from one side to the other, sometimes stopping dead in the soft sand. My neck ached all day from the concentration it took to steer the green fairy, and the kilometres inched by. Everyday we said to each other: tomorrow will be better.

But it wasn’t.

Days began before sunrise, where the joy of a breakfast fire was the only thing that got me out of bed. We’d eat and drink coffee, already weary. Once on the bikes it would be hours of terrible roads, sheltering behind trees, or fences to eat, the only time that we’d escape the wind. By midday it was hot. Really hot. And our bikes were heavy with the extra kilos of water we had to carry. We had to push until dark just to get within the ball park of the kilometres we wanted to achieve. Everyday we re-calculated, slipping further and further behind where we wanted to be.

It was tough and a little soul sucking. Our resilience was certainly tested and neither the road, nor the wind improved. This was compounded by the fact that Namibia was challenging anyway; big distances, heat and like outback Australia, very little services. We carried days worth of food and often up to 15L of water each.

However, because cycle touring is a microcosm of life we knew eventually it would get better, and it did. It happened at a rest stop where we had planned to camp the previous night. But due to the wind we’d had to stop 15km out. So we arrived early morning, probably looking rather grim. The kind owner immediately welcomed us warmly and then proceeded to offer us a free hot shower. What a legend. His small shop was the first time we’d been able to resupply in days, so we happily bought a heap of food, including fresh bread. They were kind enough to let us cook up our second breakfast (washed down with ice cream) and then just as we were leaving we met a very kind South African couple who gave us a very nice bottle of red.

After this lovely exchange, our souls felt lighter. The wind was still howling however, and in fact a storm blew up which made everything even more insane and wild. But our fortunes began to turn because after some lunch at a turn off (with some lovely goats for company) the road turned, meaning the wind was now more or less behind us. AND the grader had been through. After so long inching along, we were now flying. It felt amazing.

That night we found the most perfect sheltered spot, lit a fire and shared the fancy bottle of wine while watching the sun set. Life was perfect. It is these quiet moments I will forever treasure. I don’t think life can get much better.

When life is kind of perfect

The road continued to be kind. One day while refilling water at a large fancy resort near fish river canyon, we were invited to partake in the buffet breakfast in exchange for an interview. Then we managed to hitch hike into fish river canyon, saving us many kilometres. Fish River Canyon was immensely impressive, if a little drought ravaged.

We had somehow managed to make up the kilometres we had lost and as we approached the border with South Africa. From Fish River Canyon we had climbed all afternoon, making camp in a dry river bed, surrounded by rocky mountains. In the morning we finished the climb and then descended, mountain zebra and oryx, running alongside us in the golden morning sunshine. A moment of pure magic.

The next moment of magic came, after weeks of reds and browns, dust and heat, we spotted the green slither of the Orange River. This marked the border with South Africa and the end of Namibia for us.

Astrid’s chain busted on the last full day in Namibia.

Well, almost.

We still needed to ride to the border post, a further 50km or so along the river. The first stop on the river was Aussenkehr where we came face to face with crazy inequality. We’d been somewhat sheltered from this, given that Namibia is so devoid of humans. A dusty shanty town with no sanitation sat alongside rich green vineyards and a Spar supermarket. Those in the settlement looked like they were the labour for the vineyards. We stocked up on food and decided to continue on, to try and reach Felix Unite, a camp on the river many Namibians had recommended.

With 80km already in our legs we still felt confident in making it another 30km. Unfortunately our tailwind turned into a headwind and everything became epically hard. Namibia wasn’t quite ready for us to have it easy. After all we had come through, it kind of seemed fitting. We did make though, just after sunset, utterly spent.

Felix Unite was as lovely as everyone had said. We lad a lazy rest day, swam, ate, made friends and then somehow sunset whisky turned into some kind of party with a German guy and a South African who lived in Namibia. I remember falling asleep to them both speaking in Spanish. One never knows how the day will end up.

Or what will happen next. Turns out, the South African guy owned a farm 100km up the Orange River and invited us to come stay. With a few days left on our visa, we thought; why not?

So the bikes and us jumped into Franz’s buckie and we drove 100km out into the middle of nowhere. His farm really is surrounded by no other humans. I think his closest neighbour is 50km away. It’s right on the Orange River, and I really got to appreciate the life giving force of water. Everything around Franz’s farm is dry, except for his orchard of dates and limes and pecans. In a way he was practicing permaculture, without knowing it. Growing different plants together, trying to harvest and store water, and rather than having one kind of animal, he has several, in small numbers.

Our days with Franz were full of laughter and fun. We went paddle boarding and kayaking on the river, cooked bread on a fire, made tortilla’s from pap (Franz had once lived in Mexico), swam, read, napped, slept under the stars, chased pigs back into the paddock they escaped from, drank whiskey and watched the sunset over the Orange River. It truly was a marvellous end to Namibia. Our souls felt restored and refreshed, ready for our final country on the African continent.

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