Namibia 3, then on to Zambia

Turns out that after a six week bike expedition through north west Namibia (3 showers, 4 kilos of rice, 4 jars of peanut butter) I needed a bit of a rest, which turned in to almost a month off the bike, which I spent mostly spent on farms around Windhoek. 

I saw some cool things.

I said my goodbyes to my cycle buddy Killian in Swakopmund. I’m on the road solo now! Killian has been on his bike for three years. He rode from France, through Morocco (where we met 2.5 years ago) then down the west coast of Africa. You can see some photos of his travels on his blog http://lesrayons-desoleil.com. He’s now making his way towards South Africa and I wanted to go north to Angola (big crayfish there I hear!) so we parted ways.

I caught the bus with my bicycle from Swakopmund to Windhoek (for some Angola visa admin) and I got in touch with Gawie, whose farm I stayed at last time I was in Namibia 6 months ago.

I didn’t actually hang out with Gawie last year, he just passed us on the road and told us we could stay alone on his farm for a few days while he was in Windhoek. So I thought it would be nice to properly catch up and see the farm again, 6 months on. 

I meet Gawie at his house in Windhoek where he lives with his family, 3 German shepherds, 2 beehives, a cat, a cockatiel and an albino hedgehog. I lean my bike up against a giant freezer in the dining room. I’ve seen many freezers this size in Namibia. They’re usually full of delicious top quality Namibian meat and enormous fish, fished over the Christmas break in Henties Bay. This freezer is no different. But it also contains a frozen leopard. Really.

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I pack my bags into the back of the bakkie and we are off to the farm, with a stop by the biltong shop to get a huge bag of thinly sliced dried beef meat and fat rolls (sheep fat wrapped in dried beef).  Car snacks.

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First thing we do when we arrive at the farm is we go see two hyena cadavers that have been left on the side of the road. They were trapped then shot after they attacked some sheep.

The heads of the hyenas are propped up on big stones, making them look like creepy werewolf witchcraft offerings. They’re much bigger than I imagined. One of them has been dead for a few days and smells full on. The other is fresh. They’ve been left on the side of the road “for the blacks to eat”. 

I don’t believe the “for the blacks to eat” part but a few minutes after we arrive a car pulls up. Three guys get out and throw both hyenas into the boot. The fresh one will go “in the pot”. The other is for the dogs. It explodes a little bit of juice when they shove it in the boot.

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Next morning I explore the farm and say hello to the cows, the chickens, the giant parrot and the pet kudu called Kudu. Gawie shot Kudu’s mother because it had rabies (a big problem for the kudus here. A whole bunch were wiped out) and cut the unborn foal from her belly. It survived and is now a nice pet. Except it likes to come in to the farmhouse uninvited and chew on things, like the cables of the karaoke system in the lounge room. 

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That afternoon we slaughter some chooks. Two big fat ones, dead, plucked and in the pot. They’re for lunch tomorrow. Some guests are dropping in. A reverend and his family. It’s Sunday and there will be a bible reading at the farm.  The reverend explains to me he is a “Topper”. Weird, my favourite Namibian biscuit brand is called “Toppers”. I didn’t realise there were religious biscuit brands. I ask him about it and he quickly corrects me and explains to me the Protestant branch of Dopperism (oups).

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The chickens are delicious. It’s the start of a basically 100% meat diet for the next two weeks. And I mean 100%.

I spend a couple of nights with Liza on her cattle farm near Otjiwarongo. We have a meat marathon.

The night I arrive we have spaghetti bolognaise. I’m about to go to bed when Johan lights the braai up and cooks pork cutlets, because mince meat isn’t real meat and we must have real meat for dinner. It’s 11pm but sure, why not, I’ll have some delicious organic free range pork chops. Next morning we have leftover pork chops for breakfast. For lunch we have awesome organic beef steaks at the Omaruru Rest Camp.  Before we head home we stop at the supermarket to get dinner: steak. And chicken wings and pork cutlets and lamb cutlets. Next morning Johan fires up the braai and we have leftover meat for breakfast. That night we have steaks for dinner. It’s time for me to get back on the bike at this stage. I want to have a look at the Waterberg Plateau, the dinosaur footprints (be careful of dinosaurs when cycling Namibia, they're dangerous) and the Hoba Meteorite (biggest meteorite in the world!). Liza sends me off with a care package - meat wrapped in silver foil and a bag of home made dried sausages.

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The Hoba Meteorite was big. But there was also a freezing cold head wind (and my water bottles started frezing overnight). I was glad to get to Grootfontein and to hitchhike the busy tar road to Oshakati. But first I went to a national CrossFit competition in Tsumeb and stayed for the after-party at Marlinda’s house. As I’ve said before, every day on the bike is a surprise. Marlinda is a national CrossFit champion and top gymnast. I share with her that I’m feeling a little nervous about cycling solo, with not much of a plan (especially about getting a puncture and breaking my crap plastic tyre levers). She tells me “if it doesn’t scare you it’s not big enough”. Noted.



I spent a week in Oshakati waiting for my Angola visa. The big outdoormarket there is great. You can get all sorts of things. Dried mopane worms (I finally tried that worm I found a few weeks before! Salty. Oily), all kinds of deep fried things, all different kinds of maize meal, big dried fish, small dried fish.

My visa for Angola didn't come through in time. Re-plan. My Namibian visa was about to expire so I made a quick overnight bus dash to Katima Mulilo (“quick”. It took 20hrs. The bus broke down) and from there I crossed over into Zambia.

My time in Zambia was short and sweet. About 6 days all up. Time to see the epic Zambezi river and some big baobabs. 

The road between Katima Mulilo and Livingstone is very straight. And quite flat. And very potholed. Sometimes the road is actually just one big hole. Be careful. There are also a lot of trucks.

For my first two days in Zambia I was constantly chased by enthusiastic kids squealing “makua!” (white person!), “how are you!” and “gimme money!”. Quite a change from quiet Namibia. And very intense.

Secretly camping along that road just wasn't possible Too many people and villages everywhere! So every night I asked to pitch my tent nearby a house or village. But I was never allowed to sleep in my tent! Each night, the families would insist I sleep with them in their house. It was such a delight. 

Arriving in Livingstone after the very boring cycle from Katima was a relief. The town is busy, green, with hundreds of mango trees (so many mangos in December!) and big baobabs. I spend most days at the big market,. You can buy everything, from dried fish to peanut butter to pots to second hand clothes. I make a quick plan for my next stop - Zimbabwe.

North-West Namibia 2 - Kamanjab to Swakopmund

On the bike, every day is a surprise. You never know what you’ll see, who you will meet. On the not so exciting road between Kamanjab and Fransfontein, we are lucky to meet Daan and Sarona and to stay on their sheep farm for a couple of days. Daan “Lightning” works dawn to dusk fixing fences broken down by the elephants, keeping cheetahs and leopards away from his prize winning fat-tailed Damara sheep stock and otherwise fixing a thousand things on his farm. Classic Namibian hospitality, we feast on home-made sausage and delicious stewed oryx and listen to stories about Afrikaans farmers, 4x4 adventures into Kaokoland and fishing at Torra Bay. Sarona sends us on our way after a hearty breakfast of minced oryx and eggs with a serious portion of biltong.

Dinner when we are camping is basically the same staple every night – white rice and half a tin of veggies. But we also get some surprise extras. Like Sarona’s biltong, or a bag of dates from Eersbegin date farm. I found a mopane caterpillar near my tent one morning but didn’t feel like trying it for breakfast. It’s apparently delicious, pan-fried with salt. We also meet plenty of tourists who stop their 4x4 pop-top tent cars wondering what we are doing “in the middle of nowhere” and gift all sorts of wonderful things, edible and not. A Parisian Prada rep gives me some fancy facemasks and sunscreen, a nice French couple on their way back to France gives us their stash of French organic quinoa. For breakfast one day we have chocolate porridge from a French army ration pack (note that the army porridge ration is 100g. I eat about double that now!). I also picked up a new book - an Icelandic thriller, and an Air Austral hairbrush. Four tins of chakalaka veggies. A hot tip on where the waterholes are in Desolation Valley. Every day is a surprise.

After our stopover at the sheep farm, we have a pretty luxury night at Vingerklip Lodge. If you are visiting the “Finger Rock”, you should have a drink or watch the sunset from the lodge’s Eagle’s Nest restaurant, which is perched right at the very top of a plateau, with uninterrupted views of the weird rock formations and surrounding mountains.

From the Vingerklip we ride to Khorixas and on to the Petrified Forest, a must see for your fix of whacky natural wonders. The site has huge petrified trees, some lying 30m long. Looking at the bark or tree trunks up close is very trippy. Looks like wood but is actually stone.

From there we ride north again towards Eersbegin, along a very rocky, rough road. The ride down into the Huab River valley is a surprise. Rough but do-able by 4x4. Just. A steep descent into a green, lush valley, with yellow flowers everywhere and Eersbegin date farm (the dates go off to Cape Town by truck then up to the Middle East by boat).

Then we ride on to the Grootberg Pass - most memorable mountain pass experience yet, for all the wrong reasons.

Some big storm clouds are brewing above the pass when we get to the bottom of the mountain. Killian is way up ahead and I lose sight of him as a couple of big rain drops start falling. No worries, it’s warm and muggy so the rain will keep me cool for the climb. But then disaster, I see my front tire is flat. And suddenly the wind has turned and it’s feeling very cold. And the couple of fat warm raindrops have turned into a steady sheet of freezing rain. And then I look down and my back tire is also flat.

I had always wondered what a flash flood in the desert would be like. Well I got to experience it first hand. Within minutes it was bucketing down rain and the road was basically a river of mud (revealing some nice agate stones! The only upside of the situation at this stage). What to do? It’s getting dark at this stage too. It’s so wet and windy that pitching my tent is out of the question. I’m so cold I don’t really want to stop moving. So I push my bike up the Grootberg Pass, in the rain, in the dark, almost dropping dead at fancy Grootberg Lodge at the top. It took me 2 days to get my arms back.

It was worth the effort. The ride down from Grootberg Pass to Palmwag was spectacular, with views of bright red tabletop mountains against blue blue skies, and lots of green trees, leafy still from the late rains. Looking down across the valley we saw 10 desert elephants, and further along the road some giraffes. 

Top tips of the day from the policemen at the Palmwag veterinary barrier:
1) how to escape a charging lion - stand still, even as it runs towards you (ha!). Don’t try to run away. When it stops (if? I want to ask) watch it’s tail. Stand still until it’s tail stops flickering. Then slowly make your way. Ha.
2) how to escape a charging elephant - climb a step, jump over an obstacle. A running elephant can’t lift it’s feet too well.

After a cold damp night (that coast wind again!), we hit the road towards Bergsig, turn right to Torra Bay then left again onto a small road into the ominously named Desolation Valley. We fill up all our drink bottles in a small waterhole left by the last rain (8L for me and 10L for Killian). Our last water for a few days maybe. While the first km of road are tough (rocks, sand and gravel), the rest of the road is basically flat and totally rideable. The landscape, colours, weird rock formations, sand, stones, desert flowers, are all mind blowing. My top road of Namibia yet. We haven’t seen a car in a day and a half. Instead, as we ride down into the valley we see...a tiny airplane landed a few km’s away. Turns out we are right near “Kuidas Camp”. The owner of this rustic, picturesque camp has just flown in for lunch with two American guests. They are just making a quick stop-over on their flight up to the Angolan border. And so they invite us for quiche, salad and cake, before they fly off again in the afternoon, leaving us at the camp, with beers, coffee and permission to set up our tents for the night.

Our next water point is Save the Rhino Trust Camp. I'm getting an in depth knowledge of where Namibia's waterholes are it seems! Save the Rhino Trust monitor rhinos in the area. There’s plenty to read on rhino conservation in the info centre and the camping facilities are nice. Two nights ago a solo male lion came down the riverbed past the camp. It’s tracks are still fresh in the sand. 

I’ve heard a few animals lying in bed in my tent at night. Near Palmwag I got a bit of a fright hearing an elephant ripping up trees somewhere too close by. Then in the night I woke up to some heavy breathing outside my tent. Or was it wind? People have warned us though, Palmwag, desert lion area bla bla. Someone told me that as long as you’re in your tent the lion won’t eat you. So when the breathing starts again, I very slowly and silently reach out of my sleeping bag and grab...my earplugs. No point listening to the lion and worrying about it! The next day I check for footprints around the tent. Nothing! Maybe it was just the wind. I do make a mental note to review my night-time lion response plan though. 

Namibia is sparsely populated but we've hardly every been completely alone for more than a day or two. In the Desolation Valley, seemingly "in the middle of nowhere", two guys appear in the distance, walking along the road. They’re pulling home-made trolleys and are dressed for some sort of safari adventure. Turns out they are on their own expedition, walking up to the Angolan Border in 14 days.  They are followed by 3 carloads of film crew making a documentary about their trip. The crew have some extra packets of freeze dried hiking food (“posh pork and beans” anyone?) for us before we head off for another 5 days of desert.

We ride down the west side of the Brandberg Mountain stopping at a couple of mine camps for water and a chat. There are all sorts of crystals in the area but amethyst is really the stone du jour. Gobobos amethysts have good colour, good lustre, and are special in that they are often combined with clear quartz and smoky quartz. My panniers are filling up with stones!

From Gobobos we take the road through the Messum Crater (and now it looks like we’re on mars! No vegetation, just rocks), where we are actually alone and by this stage rationing water to 2.5L a day. More unplanned bike-pushing through sand. But Messum Crater is worth it. At the centre of the 25km volcanic crater is a huge rock formation and a mysterious archeological site – the “Damara stone circles”.The crater area is known for its lichen fields that thrive off the cold ocean air.

And then it’s the ride down towards the coast, and the famous freezing, grey, misty, windy microclimate I’ve heard so much about. It doesn’t disappoint. It’s freezing, grey, misty and windy. We shelter the night in our own mini crater (an old salt mine hole). Highlight - some jackals trot past in the morning. Plenty of jackals at the beach as it turns out. They feed on the seal carcasses that wash up every day on the sand.

It’s too cold and windy to cycle on the coast. So we hitchhike on a salt truck to the coastal retreat Swakopmund for our first cycling break in six weeks. Where to next?

North-West Namibia - Ruacana to Kamanjab

One of the best things about going on bike adventures is that I completely lose track of time. No idea what time it is. No idea what day it is. Only three things matter: a) is the sun up? b) is it too hot to cycle and c) is the sun down? I carry all my stuff with me – tent, water, food, so can start and stop riding whenever I like. No time pressures, no itinerary. Forget the time.

The start of my trip at Ruacana up North on the Angolan border feels like a long time ago. But the sight of Ruacana Falls feels like yesterday. Definitely worth the trip if you are in Namibia during or shortly after the wet season.

After catching the overnight Intercape bus to Oshakati and meeting my bike travel buddy Killian (more on him later), we hitched a ride to Ruacana then rode to Ruacana Falls to find a spectacular wall of white water crashing down tiny-looking baobab trees (two South Africans told us it was more impressive than Victoria Falls!). And the sound! The falls aren’t set up as a tourist spot. You’ll find no barriers, no signs, no walkways. The car park attracts a cheerful weekend crowd, with car boot sound systems competing for the loudest tunes, freshly slaughtered goat, beers and braais (Namibian BBQ. A national dish?).

After spending the afternoon at the falls, we hopped on the bikes and took the dirt road from Ruacana to Otjimuhaka (also called Swartbooisdrift). At the top of the first very steep, very slippery gravel hill, we find a family from Western Namibia, having peanuts and beers, watching the sunset. They’d driven 600km from their cattle farm in Gobabis to see the Ruacana Falls. In true Namibian style, they sent us on our way with six giant raw steaks from their farm. Task of the night – improvising our own braai on the campfire. Tick.

 

We thought we would get to Otjimuhaka in a day but the road was completely flooded out, which meant unloading the bikes and wading through water crossings. We found out a few days later about the crocodiles in the river. The day we were wading thigh deep through the water, someone’s arm was torn off a few km away. Glad I didn’t know this at the time.

We stay in Otjimuhaka for a couple of days. The town is a hub for the smaller Himba villages scattered along the river and the “location” (the main street of Otjimuhaka) is buzzing with people playing dominos, eating “fat cakes” (delicious deep-fried doughnut-like bread) and drinking a spritzy millet alcohol.

We then ride south towards Opuwo, along a quiet stretch of gravel road through very green plains. Opuwo is an interesting town, a real crossroads for different cultural groups of Namibia. Walk down the street and see Herero ladies with their German-style colourful dresses, red-ochred Himba women, colourful beaded ladies from Angola. Tourists are filling up fuel for their expeditions into remote Kaokoveld. It’s definitely worth a stop over to eat fat cakes and fill up on water.
 

The road from Opuwo southwards towards Ombombo is where the real magic starts. Red soil and bright green vegetation, yellow flowers blooming along the side of the road after the recent rain. After Ombombo the road is flatish, winding between tall mountains. It suddenly opens out onto electric green grasslands and there, zebras! Plenty of fresh elephant footprints too, but no luck (or luck?), they stay hidden.

There are plenty of villages in the area and we stop by to fill up our water bottles at the bore holes and to have a chat. Devert village is especially beautiful. Houses made of mudbrick and wood, beautifully painted with geometric designs. And what a treat – we get a sip of delicious omahere - cultured milk kept in a big gourd recipient.

People are so welcoming in the villages, always offering us some “porridge” (boiled maize flour) and milk. Always the same questions – where do you come from, where are you going. Devine, from Ombombo asks me whether cycling is hard. I say yes, some days it is, when it’s uphill, or when it’s raining, or when I’m tired.

She pauses then tells me oh yes, well some days you have to suffer to learn something.

The road between Ombombo and Warmquelle is beautiful. A windy, rocky road through a gorge, then shades of green and pink with steep mountains on the left and sweeping plains on the right. So many landscapes in a day.

Having filled up on 2kg of rice, tinned veg and peanut butter at the shop in Khowarib, we head into Khowarib Gorge, towards Umbaadje. Definitely in my top spots of Namibia.

I definitely wouldn’t take a rental car into the “Living Canyon” towards the waterfall. The guys at the lodge told us the road would be “ok, for a bicycle”. It was pretty rough, more like a tough mountain bike trail (not so great for a fully loaded tour bike). Worth every bump though - dark red and green sharp rock mountains with the clear stream and waterfall. There’s a camp site near the waterfall, and we met a few Namibians game enough to drive their big 4x4s in for the weekend.

If I had my time again, I would ride from the waterfall straight back to Khowarib Lodge and back onto the main road. Getting out of the gorge towards Erwee and Kamanjab was a real mission. Definitely not bike friendly.

After a day of pushing our bikes in sand under boiling hot sun for most of the day, we arrived in a small village Okondjou at dusk, where Johanes quickly told us we shouldn’t camp along the road because of lions. Right.  So we pitch our tents by his house and spend a great night with tea and goat’s milk, porridge and “omboa”, a type of green leafy plant with a white flower that’s boiled then dried, then reboiled for eating.
 

Fuelled by a big breakfast of maize porridge, delicious curdled milk and tea, we set off for another day of mostly pushing bikes. We ride across a windswept dust plain where we see zebra, ostrich, springbok and giraffes. But then we take a narrow road into a gorge, where we push the bikes through rocks for the whole day. Scarily we were following some very fresh elephant tracks. Nowhere to run when you’re in a narrow rocky gorge. But again, they are nowhere to be seen. We find out the next day that they were 8km in front of us, on their way to a nearby waterhole at Palmfontein Farm. Close.