We re-join ABR’s editor Alun Davies in the wilds of Africa’s Namib Desert as he ponders that age-old question: cake or death…?
Here are a couple of things every adventure bike rider should know: the first law of nature states you can determine how far you are in to the wilderness by the distance to the nearest escalator. What this means is that unless you’re actually standing on a moving staircase you are in fact in the wilds. So, technically, if you’re hanging out in the women’s underwear department down at your local M&S you could be 30 feet in to the wilderness. The second law of nature helps pinpoint how close you are to death based on a formula involving the travelling time to the nearest café serving latte and freshly baked banana cake.
You’ll not find these laws in any scientific journal or in the back catalogue of National Geographic, as, like all practical and invaluable by-products of hard-won wisdom, they tend to be handed down through the generations by word of mouth. By way of example I offer up my son, Bryn, who knows the location of every escalator the world and has developed a bear-like sense of smell for banana cake.
I mention the above as I found myself considering my parental usefulness while sugaring a latte and ordering fresh clotted cream to have with my banana cake on the patio of the Out of Africa Coffee Shop in Swakopmund on the Namibian Atlantic Coast. Just 30 minutes earlier I’d been stood beside the bike with nothing else in view besides the seemingly desolation of one of the oldest, meanest deserts in the world.
Photo: Alun Davies
I was alone. The ground was parched in every direction and the scorch of the sun was unrelenting. I was also out of water and starting to feel a little heady, tired and weak. I’d already ridden 40 miles on reserve. On the face of it, my ride across the Namib Desert had the makings of a bleached Welsh skull in the sand epic.
However, if I’d been paying more attention to where I actually was and had read the glossy Namibia travel guide in my bum bag, I could have enjoyed what was the early stages of heat stroke and dehydration safe in the knowledge that the well-stocked Out of Africa Coffee Shop was just over the horizon.
And therein lies the paradox of travelling through modern day Africa, and most certainly Namibia. Just when you think you’re deep in the wilds and on the verge of turning all Bear Grylls, up pops a five-star surprise in the form of a luxurious wilderness lodge or a town like Swakopmund complete with an escalator and designer coffee shops.
Have a banana cake
Swakopmund is situated on the Skeleton Cost of Namibia and separated from the rest of the country by the huge Namib Desert. Early estimates indicate that the distance between death and a cream tea while travelling in the vicinity of the town to be one of the lowest in the world. However, if you ever find yourself stranded in the dunes it’s well worth putting in the effort to fight off the grim reaper and make it to this extraordinary relic of a German colonial past, which serves up not only fantastic coffee and banana cake, but some of the best beer and steak you’re ever likely to find.
Photo: Alun Davies
After a rest day in Swakopmund, which was spent admiring the German architecture and quad biking in the huge sand mountains on the outskirts of the town, we set off north up the Skeleton Coast on a trail known as the Salt Road. This route hugs the coastline and soon enough we spotted the first hulking shipwreck that’s made this region so infamous.
While the Skeleton Coast was named after the colossal number of whale and seal bones that littered the shoreline in the days when Captain Ahab was stalking Moby (or was it the other way around?), now it’s more synonymous with the number of rotting, washed-up hulls that have replaced them. This section of Africa’s coastline is notorious in nautical circles and is where the cold Atlantic Benguela current surfaces, producing an almost constant dense ocean fog that’s claimed over 1,000 ships in the past 300 years.
After a brief stop at Cape Fria to check out the largest seal colony in the southern hemisphere we turned inland onto a trail that skirts around Mt Brandberg, which at 2,606m is the highest mountain in Namibia. This section also represented the best – or worst – terrain to date depending on riding ability. Composed mainly of loose gravel and dirt, the conditions induced whoops aplenty, with tight, twisty sections and long sweeping dusty bends. Taken flat out, this is as close as it gets to riding a leg of the Dakar. And what made the Brandberg loop all the more interesting was that it includes longer sections of deep, unstable sand which you’d be in the middle of before you knew what was coming.
Riding through soft sand for the first time can be very unnerving and usually causes the inexperienced rider to ease back on the throttle. The consequential weight shift to the front wheel then makes it dig into the sand and sets off the inevitable long drawn-out fight to the finish where both bike and rider end up on the deck. And so it was for a few of our group, most notably Rolf, a surgeon from Berlin, who ended up being christened ‘Rolling Rolf’such was his penchant for regular close contact with the fine rock grain of Namibia.
Photo: Alun Davies
The next few days saw us continuing north through the area known as Damaraland where at times the wildlife was so plentiful it was as if we were riding through an amazingly well-stocked zoo. In one 20-mile stretch there wasn’t a single moment when we weren’t surrounded by either springbok, kudu, zebra, giraffe or some other four-legged mammal with horns. Once near the Grootberg Pass we even chanced upon two groups of rare Namibian desert elephants.
Meeting the Himba
As we continued north and rode closer to the border with Angola into the area known as Kaokoland we had our first encounter with the Himba. The Himba are a tribe of semi-nomadic herders that are probably most famous for the striking appearance of the women. By applying ‘otjize’ – a combination of butter, fat, red ochre and scented aromatic resin – to their bodies and hair to give them a dis- tinctive red hue and dreadlocks they have become an iconic image of Africa, and on first sight they are absolutely stunning.
It’s estimated there are around 30,000 Himba living around the main regional city of Opuwo and as we arrived into the hustle and bustle of what was our first ‘African’ town – Swakopmund was more like being in Bavaria by Sea – I was reminded of Kathmandu and the sight of the orange-clad long-haired Sahdu holy men mingling among the crowds of local residents, who were all dressed in western clothing. It really was an extraordinary and surreal sight to see busy streets full of locals dressed in modern checked shirts, jeans and sun glasses while walking in among them were the statuesque ochre-coloured Himba women, dressed only in a short skirt made of hide and going about their daily business.
The Himba are open to outsiders visiting their villages and the communities near Opuwo are the destination for tour groups who donate maize, coffee, tea, cooking oil and the like for the privilege of visiting a community. I have to say, though, that such a visit felt like being taken to a human zoo. I found that stopping off at remote Himba villages when riding alone was a much more natural experience, and one I enjoyed far more. Here the smiling locals were as interested in me as I was in them.
Photo: Alun Davies
An unscheduled brake
From Opuwo our route took us back down south, skirting the western edge of the Etosha National Park and once again through the spectacular Damaraland (think of the dramatic rock outcrops and messas of Monument Valley in the US and that’s Damaraland) passing by small villages, baobab trees, huge termite mounds and entertaining trails that took us up and over the Joubert Pass. It was here, on a rocky side trail leading to the hot springs at Ongongo, that my over exuberance on the throttle got the better of me and I ended up high-siding the XT, picking up a few bruises and totally knackering the back brake in the process.
The brake was fixed overnight, but was out of action again the moment I applied pressure to the foot lever just after setting out the following morning. It was an interesting day riding on gravel and dirt roads with no back brake, that’s for sure. At the next overnight stop, tour leader Ralf had another go at repairing the brake, which brings me back to where I started part one of this feature in the last issue of ABR…
I’d started the morning ride as the back marker of our group of 12 and felt in the mood for a little game of catch-up with fellow tour rider Volker, who’d set off as the front runner 20 or so minutes earlier. All through the morning the gravel and dust trails were fantastic for hard riding and all was going well as I worked my way up the group and eventually spotted a dust cloud about a mile ahead, which, I reasoned, could only be Volker. Five minutes later I’d powered by him with the throttle pinned open and a smile on my face when out of the bush walked a huge bull elephant, which promptly stopped smack-bang in the middle of the trail a couple of hundred yards ahead. Oh my.
We’d been warned by tour guide Ralf that Namibian desert elephants are generally more aggressive than their counterparts, which wander the African plains further to the east. They also move faster due to evolution providing them with longer legs and a larger footprint to better cope with the ground conditions. He also cautioned that should we come across any big tuskers then a safe distance would be no closer than 500m, a claim I was about to put to the test.
Photo: Alun Davies
I have to say there was a point when I stood on the brakes that even if they’d worked I was convinced crashing into that elephant was inevitable. I was riding at full tilt, the trail was loose gravel and there were far too many trees to make a side exit to avoid hitting the huge mammal stood four square up ahead. Things were happening so quickly it was impossible to be accurate with distances, but with the elephant at what I’d guess no more than 100m ahead, I was sliding almost sideways with the back wheel locked in a desperate attempt to stop while at the same time trying not to drop the bike. The Elephant for its part had turned to face me and showed no signs of moving.
Three’s a crowd
I eventually stopped about 20m from the wild Namibian dumbo and remember thinking, ‘What now?’. The elephant started flapping its ears, apparently the first sign of anxiety, which I suppose is something we both had in common (the anxiety, not flapping ears). Right then Volker, who I’d totally forgotten about, came sliding to a stop right alongside me and we both looked at each other with mixture of dread and stupidity, no doubt fuelled by the adrenaline. It was then that we both remembered that if there’s one elephant then there are usually more nearby. And so it was we spotted another three beasts, all relatively close and moving closer.
I was acutely aware that what we were experiencing was something very special but also very dangerous. We both instinctively knew that to try and move or manoeuvre the bikes to make a getaway would be the wrong thing to do and so we just sat it out for what seemed like an eternity while the bull stood its ground, flapping its ears. The confrontation ended when the bull decided he’d either seen enough of two quivering Europeans on XT660Rs or more likely spotted the particularly juicy foliage on a nearby tree just off the trail.
With the elephants on the move we edged the bikes down the trail for a better view and watched as they began to take a tree apart about 30m into the bush. The adrenaline was subsiding and the cameras were in action by the time the rest of the group started to catch up.
Photo: Alun Davies
There were many more magic moments that occurred while riding through Namibia – a leopard ran alongside the bike for about 50m and I sat in a concrete bunker out in the bush within touching distance of a pride of lions as they ripped apart a giraffe – but none were as special as a close-up confrontation with a wild Namibian desert elephant. Only in Africa.
Namibia is best known for its harsh, arid regions and huge sand mountain deserts, but it does, on occasion, rain, and when it does you could be forgiven for thinking that you’ve just entered the Congo as those gravel and dust roads quickly turn in to quagmires to rival those in equatorial Africa.
If you like your off-road riding – and if not, what are you doing in Namibia? – then it just adds to the fun. We were ‘lucky’ enough to have a half-day downpour, which turned a fast-paced blast on a hard-packed gravel trail in to a slow mud grind through a bog, and what a jolly time we had.
Photo: Alun Davies
Want to do this?
How long does it take? Gravel Travel offers a number of different trips in Namibia and South Africa, all of which take a couple of weeks to complete. The trip I’ve been writing about here is the Namibia Tour Special, a 14-day fully supported tour covering 2,000 miles of gravel trails around the highlights of Namibia. For more, see www.motorcycle-travel-africa.com.
How much does it cost? The all-inclusive package, which also includes flights, costs €4,340 (around £3,464). The only extra you’ll need to pay is the bar bill.
When to go? As Namibia’s in the southern hemisphere, its summer there during the UK’s winter. There’s nothing to stop you touring through Namibia at any time of year, though Gravel Travel tends to run tours between November and April.
Get there: Air Namibia flies from Frankfurt direct to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. The best alternative to a direct flight is to fly in to a main South African airport with a connection to Windhoek.
Solo or with a group? There are pros and cons for both independent travel and joining up with a group, but if you’ve only a couple of weeks to spare then signing up to an organised tour with full back-up will ensure you see as much of the country as possible in the time allowed with the minimum of hassle. It’ll also allow you to travel to places which you’d not be able to reach without remote fuel dumps. Plus, there are no guarantees that the fuel stops in Namibia will have fuel. We turned up at one petrol station 120 miles from the next and they were dry; the next expected delivery was in three days’ time. Fortunately, we had a back-up truck carrying fuel.
Accommodation: Even in the most remote areas of Namibia you’ll find a wilderness or mountain lodge at a standard that’ll blow you away. And they’re not that expensive either. It is possible to camp just about wherever you want in Namibia, but just remember there’s a lot of wildlife roaming freely in the country (including elephants, lions, leopards etc) and unless you’re sticking to the main tarmac roads, it may be worthwhile camping in a designated campsite for security.
Paperwork for you: My driving licence was never checked, though it’s probably best to pack both a UK and International licence, to cover all eventualities. You can pick up an entry Visa at the point of entry with no fuss.
Is it for you? The thought of riding 2,000 miles on gravel and sand trails around Namibia would probably frighten off most riders without any off-road experience. However, having been on a trip where 50 percent of my fellow riders had never been off-road, I can categorically say that, if you can ride a bike and you want an adventure in Namibia, do not let your inexperience put you off. There is nothing that technical about riding on gravel and sand that you can’t pick up in a day or two, providing you ride at a pace with which you feel comfortable.
Photo: Alun Davies
Namibian wilderness lodges
The wilderness lodges of Namibia are as stunning as the scenery. Great attempts have been made to blend the lodges into their natural surroundings and in that respect the architects have been hugely successful. The standards are five-star and they are generally situated in the middle of nowhere. If you’re ever passing through this part of Africa then whatever you do, make sure you check out the Grootberg Lodge (www.grootberg.com), my particular favourite. Situated up high just off the apex of the Grootberg Pass, the views from here are amazing and you’ll find yourself surrounded by wildlife including rhino, elephant, leopard, lion and huge numbers of game animals. I was told by one of the staff that they woke up one morning to find three lions sleeping in the car park.