Miles on the clock: 35,930
Two months off the bike: Cape Town, summer, friends, food, wine, an 80p/hour bartending job, beaches, the sad theft of my bicycle "Old Geoff" (a hardy veteran of 50 countries and 34,000 miles), the building of a new bike.
undersized (and as yet un-named) bicycle and within a couple of days I had aggressive blue bruises on my sitting bones from breaking in a brand new, hard leather saddle.
unfitness was thrown at me painfully each morning when I woke in the tent and
groaned pathetically while forcefully bending and unbending legs that hated me.
An afternoon off with a friend of a friend overlooking Langebaan's turquoise
lagoon allowed some respite before taking a dirt following a railway. Passing a
farmstead, I saw two coloured men beating hell out of each other. Locked in
combat, they rolled across the dusty road with limbs flailing and shirts
ripping. Ten or so other farm workers looked on silently. I didn't linger.
Onwards and upwards, into dry hills with the seemingly sterile, sandy earth that somehow nurtures rooibos ("red bush") tea. The Bergh family took me in for a day and showed me the tea planting, harvesting and processing. We waterskied on the Clan William dam in the evening and drank home-brewed ale with dinner.
Now the N7 road led me into still more arid landscapes. Afternoon
temperatures nudged 50°C and headwinds dried my mouth in seconds if I was foolish enough to breath through it. The towns become few and far between. Without exception they had a loitering collection of drunk coloured men draped along the Main Street. I met less and less people. I must carry more water.
The nightly joy of finally lying back in the tent after wolfing an apathetic rice dinner is compounded by the magnificence of the infinitely speckled sky. There's no chance of rain so I sleep in just a mesh inner-tent and am beckoned into slumber by the twinkling overhead. When I finish reading and switch off my head torch, the stars dot and fade into focus as my pupils swell to see in the
dark. The effect is not unlike the numbing peace and vague, paisley-like patterns that one's eyes think they see during a concussion; but without the pain of a blow to the head.
chubby rock dassies trundled to the nearest hiding place. Small herds
of springbok leapt and bounded across the scrub-strewn landscape as if in
celebration of nimbleness.
And then down. Down across desert plains of orange dust. Descending to the
Orange river and over into Namibia. The tarmac traced the river seaward for a
while and showed me tidy, river-fed green vineyards. Men in blue overalls drove
tractors and a district of empty straw huts sprawled across the surrounding
rocky landscape, awaiting their harvest-time inhabitants.
The smooth tarmac ceased as I veered north and began several hundred miles of
desert tracks: no shade and very few vehicles. These routes connect the
scattered tourist attractions of southern Namibia and citizens have little
reason to travel them. Passing traffic carried only visitors to the country.
Mostly middle-aged Europeans (largely German) on self-drive holidays.
They peer quizzically through the windows from their air-conditioned,
fridge-equipped environment and wonder at the waving fool on the bike. I
occasionally received a flashed headlight or curt honk in acknowledgement before
being swallowed by the dust cloud that plumes magnificently in their wake.
If no tree was forthcoming to shelter and doze under in the afternoons I
opted to skip lunch and sweat on through the cruellest hours. Normally something
appears eventually and I am happy to ignore the inhospitable thorns it sheds for
a carpet as I am simply grateful for the partial shade its withered branches
offer. A dwindling water supply pushed me to detour deep down into a
valley and fill my 12 litres of bottles next to Ai-Ais hot springs which soon
sluiced away my all over accumulation of body grime.
only to the Grand Canyon. The Earth gapes and the distant silver ribbon of water slips silently past below. I wasn't spotted when passing the gate to the
National Park and so, as night fell, I took the liberty of illicitly camping next to the canyon. From my precariously-pitched tent I could, and did, spit into the darkening depths with ease. At dawn I watched (coffee in hand: a lonely, illegal voyeur) as the light slowly seeped into the world and the recently-black chasm beside me yawned ever wider and deeper. It has done this every daybreak for 650 million years.
Further north I shared the road with abundant oryx, ostrich and mountain
zebra. A village marked on my map turned out to be merely four walls,
abandoned not only by people but also by their roof. Resultantly my water again
ran out and had me fretting until I later stumbled upon another abandoned
building by the little-used rail tracks. It had a working tap that filled my
bottles with smelly water; brackish but drinkable. I camped two meters from the
road that night, feeling weak and dried out. No vehicles disturbed me while the
spread-eagled Orion hovered above like a skydiver frozen in time.
A brief stint westward on tarmac found me snoozing in a thorn bush when a
parched roadbuilding team asked for a sip of water and then drained me of four
precious litres. Thankfully I found squatters in the ruins of another abandoned
village and they kindly replenished my supply.
in a vice and saws off his dead and blackened frost-bitten fingers, I decide I
must stop whinging to myself about heat and discomfort. I am here because I
chose to be.
North again, more tracks. A couple of meerkats stood and watched me pass with
a comically curious swing of their heads. Hills appeared and carried me up to
1800m where rain had recently rendered the valleys green. I stopped into a farm
to ask for water and was soon enjoying my third beer with David, Penny and
Leslie. The decision to stay was made on my behalf and we feasted on a plentiful
braai that night. It was chilly after dark. Although surrounded by desert, this
little island of hills has annual snowfall.
The next day, at a lonely petrol station, an Ovambo girl called Inaccessia
spoke to me wistfully of her northern desert home while we lazed away the
Many of the trees in this area play host to vast weavers' nests that look
like a haystack pitched thoughtlessly amid the branches but has actually been
built one blade of dry grass at a time by many birds. These nests are a
favourite haunt of the egg-eating yellow cobra so sitting under them is not
The fences that line the road both protect the wildlife from vehicles and
equally trap animals when they manage to get past one fence. I saw an apparently
distraught young leopard fleeing from me for about five minutes before it hid in
a bush and I passed as fast as the corrugated gravel road would allow me; all
the time glancing over my shoulder, looking for a killer's approach.
here to visit the unearthly Deadvlei and the world's tallest sand dunes at
Sossusvlei. I rode through the park entrance, again unnoticed, and continued for 40 miles to the point beyond which the final few miles is deep, soft sand. After my post-prandial snooze, all the other tourists had departed in 4x4s so I followed the deep tire tracks by foot and found myself in the heart of towering dunes. An hour or so of scrabbling around on the baking dunes and getting thoroughly lost was enough to satiate my pretensions to "real explorer-dom" so I trekked across to Deadvlei.
Sat amid the vast orange sand walls, Deadvlei is a large flat pan of
bleached-white mud dotted with the ghostly remains of trees that died almost a
millennium ago. The absolute absence of moisture that robbed them of their lives
has also robbed them of the chance to decay and they have stood and baked in an
eternity of sun.
I visited this spot at sunrise eight years earlier and it was a peak-season
tourist circus. However, with the place entirely to myself, I couldn't resist
stripping down and setting my camera to timer for a naked photo. My clothes
(and, indeed, my camera) were the only signs of human progression in the place
so it seemed right that doff them. Just as I was stood in a silly pose, waiting
for the shutter to click, a light aircraft flew overhead, evidently carrying
tourists on a sunset scenic flight. I danced around, gave a five-limbed wave and
a few cartwheels while it in turn wheeled a couple of times overhead before
leaving me again in silence.
The sun sank and the dunes turned a furious red while the sky's blue grew
deeper and richer. It was a scene of absolute majesty and all the miles of hard
roads were suddenly, unquestionably worthwhile.
pitched my tent up against the foot of "Dune 45" (the forty-fifth dune east of
Sossusvlei) and slept a few hours. The morning saw me packed up and sat 100m
high on the dune an hour before sunrise. It was cold, windless and utterly
silent. As dawn approached, colour slowly bled into the faint black-and-white
world in which I had trudged blindly up the steep sand.
The stillness was finally broken when headlights flickered in the distance
and the convoys of tour trucks began to arrive. Somnolent groups spilled out of
their vehicles and began to climb the dune. Cadences of German language and the
odd twang of Australian-English floated over to my perch which was thankfully
further along the dune ridge than they cared to climb.
Back on the northward road and taking lunch rests at the strategically spaced
petrol stations that drag in tourists and horrendously overcharge them for
everything in their little "general store".
At one of these remote outposts (aptly-named Solitaire), I sat and watched
for a while from a distance as a steady stream of tourists climbed out of their
cars in their crisp safari suits and scrutinised/photographed my laden bicycle
with its tatty panniers and a pair of pants drying on the handlebars. They would
then retire to the cafe to sip coffee or ice cold drinks while I hunkered under
a tree eating cold rice from last night and ignoring my attendant flies.
from/to? How long? Why? Why? Why? I either answer truthfully and sound (at
least, to my ears) arrogant and self-satisfied, or I play down my journey and
inevitably seem evasive and odd, surly even. Either way, the overriding
impression usually seems to be one of incomprehension. So be it. I see the
secret things that only a camping vagabond can see.
That night I was woken by a noise at 3am. An almost-full moon dazzled overhead. I had been too tired to lift my bike over the fence so had once again camped next to the road. A zebra stood no more than 5 meters from me. Its crepuscular white stripes glowing in the moonlight. I was obviously stuck between the two fences. It wandered off along the fence only to reappear five
minutes later and pass at arm's length from me. After a couple struts up and down this eerie witching hour catwalk, the zebra began testing fence posts with its head, soon found a weak one, knocked it over and was free again.
Glorious clouds rolled over the land and I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn as a few drops of light rain fell, my first since Cape Town. In this cool air I made a small pass through some odd looking hills and was approaching the coast
again when my rear axle snapped. I'd never known this to happen before and sadly
had to hitch a lift for the final stretch to Swakopmund.
A weekend of rest set me straight and, with a new axle (and a few replaced spokes), I headed a
little further north. A salty haze hung heavy and thick over the coast when I
woke on the beach. I turned inland once again and began climbing. The grey pall
over the water shrank behind me and the sun bleached everything in sight to a
dizzying white. My increasingly-familiar bike and I gradually rose up to 1700m
and rejoined a main national road for the final 150 miles to the capital.
tarmac. On one of these occasions the jagged edge of the road made an eight-inch
long tear in the side wall of my rear tire. It was evening so I pitched my tent
behind a bush and stitched up the rent in the tire. When I got up in
the dark to fit it to the wheel I stepped on an ants' nest and a few hundred
small biters streamed onto my bare feet. While hopping comically around in my
pants, trying to brush them off, I narrowly avoided stepping on a scorpion as
long as my thumb. It turned to face me for a while then backed cautiously away
before I could grab a sandal to swat it.
Thousands of large armoured crickets strove to cross this road. One would be
flattened by a vehicle and then another would scuttle over to feed on the
yellowish mess. This cannibal interloper would inevitably be crushed in turn and
a third hungry fool would wander into the line of tire. Thousands of splodges of
these crickets dotted the road and, for variety, the odd foot-long millipede
with a shiny black shell and countless orange legs would join the foray and
become a leggy pancake.
dealt with four punctures in one morning. I crossed a bridge where I was mugged
with a friend by (seven men with knives) in 2006 and found a place to stay.
My time in Namibia is nearly over. I've seen little of her people. There are
only two million and few live in the areas I've passed through. But I feel the
country's land has revealed itself to me. It is as bewitching as it is barren
and vast. It has been a good place to re-acquaint myself with the routines and
surprises of life on the road.
My new bicycle (built from the parts of several old bicycles) is now a little
better known to me. I don't love it: it's too small for me and we've had some
problems but we seem to be building a reasonable working relationship. I dub him
"Little Bastard". Maybe I'll grow to love him.