I crossed the Orange River, which defines the divide between South Africa and Namibia, to find myself in what can only be described as Tatooine, the harsh desert world where Mark Hamill first steps on scene as Luke Skywalker. A vast and imposing expanse of featureless sand extends to the horizon, where mountain peaks resembling the great pyramids can be seen protruding from beyond. By the roadside, a young infant wails for attention from its mother who is hurryingly collecting scraps of cardboard discarded from the huge trucks which penetrate the expanse which extends before me. Life is harsh on this side of the border.
I’ve seen but a ribbon up the breadth of this remote and unyielding country. I do really wonder what has driven people to live in this part of the world. I pass small settlements of not much more than breeze block homes and ramshackle dwellings of scavenged materials with corrugated roofs. I’m greeted with such warmth. People are amazed at what I’m doing, though they can’t think why I would want to. But they are even more shocked and amused that I have no wife or kids. It’s nearly the first thing they ask, ‘But what have you done with them?’
In some ways I feel slightly awkward. Here I am, the white man who can afford to take a year off from work to have a jolly around the world. Whereas countless people like Ellricho, a short young man with soft features who I met at a service station, is working six days a week driving freight up and down the country whist listening to, what can only be described as, 1990’s Euro pop. Ellricho, along with most working people here, get a mere two weeks off a year over the Christmas public holiday. All he wants is a nine to five at home in Windhoek so he can see his girlfriend more than one night a week.
I didn’t notice at first but, as I’ve pedalled north, the landscape has been subtly changing. At first ,it was just a few more tufts of grass shooting up from the cracked earth. But one day I looked up and realised that I was surrounded African savannah. A wide expanse of summer grasslands bleached yellow in the sun. Nestled in the grass are corse bushes with green foliage. But keep your distance, the Karoo Acacia has a sinister side. In amongst the leaves are two inch bone-like thorns. They make heather look huggable and, if given half a chance, will pierce a finger or a tyre.
Trees populate the savannah, rising through the grass breaking up the horizon. Their bark is as dark as charcoal blacked by fire and their branches are adorned with small water retaining leaves. Some find themselves host to swallows nests, dangling from the branches like straw baubles. Termite mounds of rich iron coloured soil reach up like skyscrapers, each one home to more individuals than Manhattan or central London.
It feels like “Africa” now, with the occasional troop of Baboons making sorties across the road ahead of me. Sadly, there is even more evidence of animals slowly turning into biltong in the sun. Carrion lie beside the road victims of the traffic; hyena, porcupine and a few game number among the dead.
Namibia has been a good training ground. Whilst camping in service station forecourts and under road bridges, I’m becoming more comfortable with this tramp-esque lifestyle. In the afternoons the hay collectors who line the road sides first thing have put down their sickles and are reclining in the shade, in a heat induced slumber. I’m yet to join them in the relative cool, though it is tempting. I’ve realised that I have to align the apex of my tent with the southern star, for every night like clockwork a northerly wind hammers across the plains, hounding my tent as the turbulence makes it seem close to lift-off. But, when I emerge in the morning, there are no ruby slippers poking out unceremoniously from beneath my tent and I find myself following a yellow line not a yellow brick road.
It’s Botswana for me next where, unlike in Namibia, I will not just be a commuter. I need to return to Namibia one day to see the Skeleton coast, Sossusvlei sand dunes and Fish River canyon, only dwarfed by the goliath sized Grand Canyon.
I approach Botswana with some trepidation. This is a land where they do not have an affinity to fences, as one might expect for a nation with so many interesting animals. It’s a nation of people and wildlife, from the Basawa people of the Okavango Delta to the lions and elephants with which they cohabit. I’ve been assured that little old me on a bike has nothing to worry about, ‘they wont be interested in you,’ but my night wild camping will undoubtedly by a fitful one.
I’ve come to respect Namibia for its unapologetic harshness.