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 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?