Out of Namibia
For four days in the African desert, I braved heat and cold and big cats to reach the ocean
My trip to Namibia had its roots more than three decades earlier on a forbidden island with a diminutive communist operative for a dinner companion.
The year was 1976—the bicentennial year of our great nation. Time to celebrate in style! Except, for the moment, I was in communist Cuba. For five days, I stayed in an aging hotel right on the Malecon, the famous sea promenade in Old Havana. I was never informed of any restrictions, so I freely explored the island. That, however, is a different story. Besides, what does this have to do with Namibia? You will soon see.
When I ate at the hotel, I normally had my own table. On one occasion, though the large restaurant was empty, a blonde woman was directed to sit with me. I wondered why. Was it simply because we were the only ones who did not seem to fit in, or was this part of some communist recruitment attempt? I never found out.
Probably in her mid-30s, the woman wore thick glasses that made her eyes appear huge. They never seemed to look directly at me. She was a small, frail person and spoke Spanish with a strong American accent. “So, what got you here?” I began our conversation. At first, she was a bit hesitant, but then as she got going, she became louder and increasingly more agitated. Her story as I remember it: During anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Kent State University, several students were fatally shot. She claimed one of them was her husband (although both the men killed that day were unmarried).
Chased by U.S. authorities, several students with apparent communist leanings narrowly escaped into Canada and found a safe haven there until some of them moved on to Cuba. Sharing her experience became dramatic, and I felt the pain of her memory. I could not discern whether it was her dedication to the cause of communism or her disdain for our government or both that were driving her so strongly. Did she know who I was and why I was here? I was happy to live in America, temporarily stranded here in transit from Germany to catch planes to Mexico and home. That, however, I did not share with her. Did she assume I was here in training for a communist mission like herself?
“So, what is your function then or what will it eventually be?” I asked.
“When I am ready, I will be assigned to Namibia to set up an underground print shop to produce and distribute fliers and pamphlets,” she said. “The purpose will be to form resistance cells against white tyranny in Africa.”
As Angela was talking, I sensed the flashes of anger increasing in her eyes.
“So, what would you do if you got discovered and cornered by the authorities?”
“Oh yes, I know how to use a pistol or a hand grenade, and I would kill as many of them as I could.”
Wow! I shuddered, feeling enormous anger and hatred from this little woman. I decided this was neither the right place nor the right time to point out the ineffectiveness and senselessness of violence. Though I feel strongly that violence is an expression of incompetence, I kept quiet.
On March 21, 1990, without much bloodshed, Namibia gained its independence.
Get ready for the heat
“You picked a bad time to bike across our country,” said the driver of a pickup who took me to a bike shop in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. “We are now heading into summer, and it will get increasingly hotter.”
This was Sept. 2, 2008. It was supposed to be the early part of spring and cool. I had arrived at the airport at 1 p.m. When I set out to unpack and assemble Wilhelm, my bike, and my luggage, I realized that I had forgotten the small Allen wrenches that I needed to fasten the rack. Hence, I used a string to keep it in place to hold my knapsack of 10 pounds. I was then ready to roll into the Namibian desert, so much like ours in Nevada.
Was I wasting time trying to make it to the bike shop before it closed at 4:30 p.m.? It was already after 3 o’clock when I got started. I had almost 30 miles to go and did not even know where in town I would find the shop. In addition, I faced rather strong head winds. As so often on my trips, it just worked out fine. A few miles along, a pickup stopped. I talked with the driver, an Afrikaner. Lucky me, not only did he give me a ride into town, but he also dropped me, just in time, directly in front of a bike shop.
The driver had been on his way to a clinic for an antibiotic shot for his flu. I told him I would fire any doctor who would administer antibiotics unless it was the last resort in a matter of life and death, for antibiotics do not resolve any problems, just drive them deeper.
“If you were to build a strong immune system by natural means, you may prevent to ever experience disease again,” I said.
English is the official language, but the country’s got strong German connections. Beginning in 1890, Germany claimed most of the region as one of its colonies, known then as German South West Africa. Shortly after the outbreak of World War I, in 1915, the White-controlled government of South Africa “iron-fistedly” took over the colony. Most German settlers stayed on and over the years new immigrants arrived, all maintaining a strong connection with the motherland.
For the pickup driver, though, Afrikaans, a Dutch-related language, was his mother tongue. At the bike shop, I was addressed in German. The owner was an immigrant from northern Germany and others like his manager, though born there, had attended one of the German schools in town.
I bought a set of wrenches. All adjustments to Wilhelm were made free of charge. With a fully functional bike, I felt confident to take on African city traffic, alas riding on the left side.
My objective, as part of my fourth ride around the world, was to bike across the width of Africa, namely from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Though the folks in the bike shop told me it would be dark in an hour, I was anxious to get started and left town riding westward. It was still warm but totally dark when I made camp about 19 miles along in the “bush.” Was I in for a surprise! In the middle of night I woke up shivering. Though I put on all the clothing I had, I just could not get warm. Sleep was my best solution.
The big cats are faster
The morning of my second day, my joy at seeing the sun did not last long. Not yet noon and it was already so hot, I was outright miserable. I estimated the temperature to be above 110 degrees Fahrenheit. I drank plenty of water, adding spirulina for energy. It did not help. I was getting worse. I found a little shade under a tree, where I stretched out on the dirt. I did not care any more. Fortunately, I fell asleep for a while. That helped a little. There were road construction workers out in the blazing sun, laboring hard with pick and shovel. Some did not even wear a head cover. Amazing! Was I just out of shape, simply a wimp, or was I, at 67 years, getting too old for this?
By mid-afternoon, it began to cool off. My spirit returned. Now I could more fully appreciate my surroundings. Troops of baboons, in wild flight, would occasionally cross the road. To them I must have been a strange sort of animal. They were accustomed to the sound, sight and smell of motorized vehicles. Now, what kind of threat is this big and quiet thing coming towards us? They were not tall enough to see me when they were running through the high, yellow grass growing on both sides of the highway. It was so amusing to see them jump high and turn their heads towards me and then immediately back into the direction they were racing. Mothers would carry their little ones on their backs. All this, though fairly close, happened so fast that I never had a chance to take a picture. It was similar with warthogs. I thought pigs were supposed to be smart. Well, one did not appear to be. While the sounder of a dozen dashed away into the bushes to my right, a single one ran parallel to the road. Why? I wondered. You can’t get away that way. More amazing yet, the porker then ran back towards the road and crossed it just a little ahead of me. Maybe it decided it was safer on the left side of me.
This was “safari” country. Actually that word in Swahili simply translates into “trip” or “travel.” Its meaning in our world relates to the adventure of a wild game experience. For that purpose, tourists typically frequent game parks like “Etosha” in Namibia, still about 300 miles to the north. I had my own “safari” right here. I could watch giraffes, kudus, elands and gazelles right from the road. That was not to last. The farther west I headed, the more sparse vegetation became. Eventually I rode through full-scale desert. Though I could see far into the distant hills now, I no longer observed any wildlife.
So what business would leopards have here? Two fellows I believed to be local ranchers stopped their pickup next to me. “There are two leopards just ahead of you!” They were about 500 yards ahead. I had hoped the ranchers would take my bicycle and me beyond this potentially challenging area. Why did I think it would be challenging? Because the majestic cats were “caged” within the fence that flanked both sides of the highway. Before I could ask the fellows for that favor, they had taken off, leaving me, the complete novice, behind with these formidable animals of prey. What was I to do now? I remembered the advice when one faces a mountain lion in our neck of the woods to appear big. Would that work here too? I sat as tall on my bike as I could and slowly advanced. I knew that these wild cats could develop enormous speed but only for a short distance.
I was 400 yards away when they noticed me. Was that safe enough should they decide to attack? Of course, I would not wait for them, but turn and ride away as fast as I could. I must have appeared tall enough. The cats ran away from me. Why would they not simply jump across the fence? It was at most only about 4 feet tall. Even I can jump that high. I would, however, have to take a run to clear it. Maybe the leopards were too close to the fence to consider that route of escape. Now they were just walking and then turned around to face me. I just kept advancing slowly on them.
Good, they took off again running, but only a little stretch. Were they exhausted? Where would they get their water here anyway? As far as I could tell there wasn’t any water, far and wide. Only later I learned that they can go three days without a drink. Also, they get moisture from eating the game they kill. But, I thought, not even a springbok could live in this arid terrain.
Would that increase the odds for them to consider me for a meal?
How long would this go on? Come on guys, jump the fence and get this over with for you and me. No such thing! They had meanwhile stopped to look at me again as I approached sitting as tall as possible. Were they considering me for dinner? They ran away again for a little while, but covering less ground this time. Then they slowed down, faced me and ran a little more. Eventually, they only trot. Were they running out of strength? Would they then feel cornered and make a stand? This went on for a bit more than a mile. Ahead I could see an overpass over railroad tracks coming up where the fence on both sides made a 90 degree turn to continue under the overpass. Unless they jumped across, this created a dead end for them. Did we have a situation here like wild mustangs being driven into a corral?
As I approached the bridge, I could not see the beasts. They must have been in the tunnel section. “Just stay there until I cross over!” They did! Good animals. As I descended on the second half of the overpass, I knew I was safe.
Later, a tour guide to game reserves told me how lucky I had been. Not just because no harm came to me, but for having had a close encounter with these wild cats, often so difficult to track down. I will always treasure this great experience, the kind that is more likely reserved for cyclists. I thought of an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt always glorify the hunter.
The highway, all along, had been sealed and was excellently maintained. Not once did I come upon a pothole. I had no problems biking after dark when it was pleasantly cool. Eventually, I came upon a dry riverbed. By again lifting my things across the fence, I could now walk a little “upstream” and made camp on a surface of fine sand.
Push on to the Atlantic
It was on my third day when I left the community of Usakos by late morning. The heat was back in full force and getting to me. No, it could not have been for lack of nutrients depleting my energy. I had enjoyed a great breakfast at a restaurant in town. I had to bike uphill for the next 10 miles. No shade anywhere! Maybe this was not a good time to be riding here. Should I go home and come back at a cooler time of the year? I knew this would not be an easy decision. Fortunately, I did not have to make it at that moment. So, on with the struggle! I started to get shaky. I needed to rest. When I crossed the Atacama Desert in Chile under similar conditions, I had occasionally found shade next to parked trucks. Ahead stood what looked from the distance like a huge vehicle. Ah, the trailer for a tar tanker. When I came closer I noticed the spills below. I did not care any more. I just dropped on the ground where there was some shade. I must have dozed for about an hour. It helped. I felt better now and continued the ride.
That night, while biking until late, I was not cold anymore.
When I woke up in the morning everything was wet. With this heavy layer of dew, I thought flora and fauna could thrive. Instead, the closer I came to the sea, the more arid the terrain became. Finally, right along the coast stretched an enormous expanse of sand dunes.
When I had this bout with heat over the last days, I comforted myself with the vision to soon dive into the Atlantic Ocean to cool off and to rest on balmy beaches. It all happened a little differently. I had not seen a single cloud thus far. Naturally, when I had an early start, namely by 5 in the morning, it was still dark. With increasing daylight, I became aware of the extent of fog over the land. A stiff breeze from the sea increased the chill factor. I had had similar sensations coming from brutal heat in Vacaville, Calif., and within an hour reaching the numbing cold in the Bay Area.
All bundled up, I arrived at the ocean by 8 o’clock. No, this was not for swimming. Or just not yet? I asked local folks when typically the mist would lift. “Anytime or not at all” was the sort of answer I received. I bought a few food items and settled for breakfast on a bench facing the sea. I watched the mighty surf with fascination. A class of black schoolchildren passed me. Is it so unusual for a white man to picnic like this? First, they just stared at me, and then they laughed and poked some fun, most likely in Oshivambo, the major African language spoken in the country.
Similar to Windhoek, though much smaller, Swakopmund is a very orderly, clean city with even stronger German characteristics. I set out to explore the community. By the time I settled in a park facing a historic lighthouse and the old imperial court, the sun had come through. The cool air from the Atlantic did not allow an “explosion” of heat. This was a good time to ponder a decision I had to make. After a bus would take me back to Windhoek, would I bike on into even greater heat deeper in the Kalahari Desert or would I head home to return at a cooler time? Since I do not consider myself a quitter, this was difficult for me to decide. In the end, reason won out, and I flew back to Reno. However, that was only a postponement of my plan to bike across Africa, a dream I fulfilled last summer. But that is a different story.