Deserts and desserts

Something didn’t feel right. We were in Swakopmund, a small Namibian town on the Atlantic coast, it has a one way system and a bicycle lane. I noticed that people walked small dogs, there were lots of grand houses as well as a ‘Super Spar’ supermarket and even a few fat people. Once I saw someone running, and not after a wayward goat, but for pleasure. This wasn’t Africa. This was Europe. It looked like someone had surgically removed part of Germany, airlifted it to Africa and stitched it into place.

After a two minute conversation with a total stranger at the Malawi / Zambia border two months before Nyomi was handed a business card and an invitation ‘Give us a call when you get to Swakop, you guys are welcome to come and stay with us’. We arrived and made contact. Signet, Pierre and Willy… A fantastically hospitable Namibian family who night after night cooked us great food and introduced us to Braai, barbecue Afrikaans style. We stayed for an action packed week which included sand-boarding, a German festival, taking a boat out to a seal reserve, visiting a snake park and then to top it all off Nyomi jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet.
We left Swakopmund well rested, keen to continue. The coastal road was where the dry Namib desert met the sea. On our first night we pitched our tents on a huge granite mound which rose of the sand. We watched the sea fog roll in behind us, consuming the land and enveloping our passage east in a mysterious shroud. I had missed the desert, the clear skies, the emptiness and the fact that you never have to think about where to pitch your tent. But I had made a school boy error. On our way out of Swakopmund I asked a local guy where I could next find some water ‘what about here?‘ I had innocently suggested, pointing to a small dot on my map. ‘Yes’ came the rapid reply. I’ve been traveling in Africa long enough to have known better. I’d been sucked in by a phenomenon known as ‘The African Yes’. Whilst people are often eager to help they don’t always understand the question thus reverting to the default response of ‘Yes’. We were waterless in the Namib Desert, the dot on the map was a mountain, not a village. If I’d had my suspicions about the African Yes I might have put it to the test…

‘Can we get water at this village?’
‘Can I get a double Bourbon on the rocks at this village?’
What’s your name?’
Do you believe Elvis is alive and well?’
‘Who would win in a fight – a penguin or a badger?’
‘What’s the opposite of yes?’
‘Do you know the meaning of life?’
‘What is it?’

As always it was locals, this time motorists, who came to our aid and filled our bottles. We pushed on to the sprawling metropolis aptly named Solitaire. I found it amazing that a place that consists only of a petrol station, a lodge and a bakery had found its name onto road signs advertising it’s existence one hundred kilometres away, but this was Namibia after all. It’s the bakery I was interested in. Even before we had arrived into Namibia I had heard rumours about a bakery in the middle of the desert run by a legendary figure known as Moose. People assured me that this bakery was home to The Best Apple Pie in Namibia. I was so lost in pastry-based fantasies that I had got well ahead of Nyomi on that sandy track leading to Solitaire. A car stopped beside me ‘your friend’s hurt’ said the driver ‘she crashed’. I pedaled back to the accident site; Nyomi was flat out staring vacantly upwards and complaining about her leg. I looked her over, it would be big bruise but probably no lasting damage, although clearly she couldn’t ride today. She hitched a lift with her bike, I arranged to meet her in Solitaire. But when I arrived I faced a short lived dilemma…

Check to see if Nyomi’s OK
The Best Apple Pie in Namibia
Check Nyomi
Best Apple Pie
Apple Pie

My conscious mind could barely recollect who Nyomi was, I had to find Moose, thankfully he wasn’t hard to find. Moose had the physique you’d expect of a man who’d been baking apple pie in the middle of the Namib desert since 1992. His pies were evidently so good that pretty soon he was going to need to stop looking at pastries and start looking for a good cardiovascular surgeon. He was closing shop when I arrived

‘I’ve only got Apple pie left’ said Moose
‘That’s all I need Moose. Tell me, is it the Best in Namibia?’
‘Well it’s the best in town’

Moose had been selling apple pie to travellers for years. Solitaire is remote but also relatively close to the huge red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Namibia’s premier tourist attraction, relatively being the all important word. This meant that the bakery was adventurer central and Moose had met them all. He’d met people who’d arrived in black London taxis, in double decker buses and a Chinese man who arrived on foot. From China. He’d met a Dutch cyclist whose journey dwarfs mine; he was on his third circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. Not much impressed Moose these days. I checked on Nyomi, she said she felt fine. I didn’t. I’d overdone it on apple pie. The next day we continued to the famous dunes, for the last section we left our bikes at the campsite and got a lift with a French family – mum, dad and three children aged 3, 6 and 10. They were traveling around the world for two years in a converted fire engine. Check them out…

We got out of the truck just before sunrise and climbed ‘Dune 45’. The world abruptly became a computer screen saver. Only two colours existed in this peculiar and angular world – the blue of the sky and the fierce orange of the sand. But I couldn’t help feel a bit shortchanged. The appeal of the desert, for me at least, is the lonely serenity, the space and the silence. I found myself amongst a hoard of hysterical Overlanders trying to get a photo of their mates doing star jumps. And then there’s the helicopters, ever-present in sites of natural beauty because there’s rich people and money to be made. It all began to feel less like a wilderness and more like a theme park. But despite the chaos, this was the desert at it’s most luminescent and stark. A photographer’s paradise.

We got moving again and ran into another family, the third to take us in the last week. Mike, Carol and their four kids fed us more braai, beer and information about our increasingly chilly route through South Africa. We were out of the tropics now and this was winter time. My Buff has gone from sweatband to neck warmer, woolly hats and gloves have been unearthed from the ‘pannier of doom’. The mornings are what a British weatherman might describe as ‘fresh’ or ‘crisp’, what I’d call XXXXXXX cold. My body’s confused; it had been stuck in a perpetual summer. I realise I’m a bit like a farmer in that I’m always talking or thinking about the weather. But I suppose that’s because, like a farmer, I’m always in it and it matters. A downpour or a headwind can really spoil my day. Nyomi’s eccentric appearance had reached new heights. In the chilly mornings she would emerge from an ice covered tent wearing everything she owned, including socks on her hands. The human cocoon would pedal off looking somewhere between Kenny from Southpark and the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. As the day gets warmer she sheds layers until she’s stripped down to a pair of lycra shorts over lycra leggings, a vest top and a headband. In three hours she goes from Eskimo to aerobics instructor. If she continues this commitment to increasingly deranged fashion statements once she goes home next month it will only be a matter of time until she is pounced on by six orderlies and forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.

We zigzagged through Namibia on dirt roads, occasionally happening upon dusty backwaters and end of the road towns where I always expected to find fresh fruit and veg and where I was always disappointed. I still hadn’t learnt to lower my expectations. A shop with ‘mega’ or ‘hyper’ in the title might sell crisps and nuts, a ‘supermarket’ – some penny sweets, and in a ‘retail outlet’ there might be a couple of empty shelves, occasionally a front door, never anything for retail and sometimes a sign saying ‘back after lunch’ that a neighbour tells you has been up for three days. Finally we got back to tarmac and were heading south once again. It felt good to be facing Cape Town, our noses pointed south, or my nose at least, Nyomi’s was hidden under buff headwear, neck warmers and polo-necks. We were heading to a town called Keetmanshoop. It didn’t sound much like a town to me, it sounded more like a lesser known member of the Wu Tang Clan. Nyomi’s family arrives into Cape Town at the end of the month so we had to push on quickly down the B1. We were interviewed in Swakopmund for a national Namibian newspaper after which the reporter happened to mention the ‘B1 Butcher’. That’s right, Namibia had it’s very own serial killer. But it’s OK, the reporter reassured me ‘we think he’s dead’, ‘you think?‘, ‘yeah, someone died and, well, it might be him’. Great. Keetmanshoop was a good venue for our day off, we explored the Quivertree forest, the quirky rock formations at the Giant’s Playground and then fed some captive cheetahs.

Quiver trees
Once again we were on the receiving end of warnings from passers by, South Africa was apparently crime-ridden and full of those ubiquitous ‘Bad People’. It was clear we were closing in on our final African nation when I saw this sign in the window of a bakery…

So back onto the B1 but still 210 km from the South African border. We’d never make it in one day. The ups and downs of life are more pronounced when you’re always moving. I get excited about little things and banalities – smooth tarmac, a meal I didn’t have to pay for, a shop selling cheese, another cycle tourer, a tailwind, a strange insect on the road, a quirky road sign. I was about to get really excited. An hour after starting out through the Southern Namib desert the raging northerly wind hit gale force. It was so strong we found ourselves freewheeling on the flat at 40km/hr, giggling and screaming like children. We were swept off the desert plateu and descended to the Orange River marking the border. That day I broke two records – the first was the greatest number of kilometres I have cycled in one day and the second was the most days I have gone without a shower. It was an unfortunate that both records coincided, after a hearty 209 km and 8 days without a shower I ‘hummed’ (Nyomi’s words). In the border town I gave everyone a wide birth, everyone except the petrol station attendant who tried to charge me ten Namibian Dollars for use of a cold shower. Curiously the fee was quickly wavered.

At last we were in South Africa, only 120 km to the next town, Spingbok, we’d easily make it. But we’d used up all our good karma, first hills, then flies, then punctures, then a headwind, then pointless squabbles bourne of frustration impeded our progress. At first the landscape reminded me of Sinai in Egypt, a dead world of rocky outcrops, crags, boulders, scree and beige. The land grew a touch greener and I recollected my time in Western Greece and Central Anatolia. I have cycled so many roads that de ja vu is almost a daily occurrence. A sudden suspicion that I’ve ridden this road before, the sun is in the same position in the sky, the landscape looks eerily familiar. If I think hard enough I can work out which road in which country it reminds me of.
South Africa
We made it to Springbok. Whilst strolling around town a guy leaned out of a green Golf GTI, jeered and then shouted me over. He wore huge sunglasses and an off kilter baseball cap. Perhaps he was one of these Bad People. I cautiously approached, he fired out some questions and I replied, telling him briefly about my journey before saying farewell. A minute later he bounded down the street after us and thrust a 100 Rand bill into Nyomi’s hand ‘Have fun in South Africa’ he said smiling. South Africa may have one of the highest murder rates in the world but perhaps it also has one of the highest getting-handed-money-by-complete-strangers rates as well.

The gift came at a good time. South Africa and Namibia are more expensive than anywhere I’ve passed through since Western Europe. Most travellers spend the majority of their funds on accommodation and ‘tourist’ activities. We spend little on these, as a proportion of our budget much, much more goes on food. Here are Steve and Nyomi’s ten ways to save money (Nyomi’s the really thrifty one, I could be more frugal were it not for the twin vices of beer and chocolate).

1. Have a ‘quick look’ around a five star hotel and then steal the toilet paper. A special thank you to The Livingstone in Zambia. My saddle sore arse got the five star treatment it deserves.

2. Rough camp. It’s easy to free camp in the bush but we also ask at police stations, schools, churches and hospitals when we get to towns, even when there’s a perfectly good campsite or hostel around the corner. When you have to stay in a guesthouse never choose one with ‘oasis’, view’ or ‘resort’ in the title. I’m sure each adds 50% to your bill.

3. Don’t buy new books… use hostel book swaps. You will occasionally find a gem but be prepared to sift through the rubbish. In one Turkish book exchange, next to an autobiography by Richard Hammond, I actually found a self-help guide to genital herpes. It was good to see it in the same vicinity as the autobiography though, I can think of many similarities between Richard Hammond and genital herpes, but I can’t help wondering what they swapped it for. Did they saunter off with a smug grin and War and Peace tucked under their arm?

4. Internet… in Europe you can ask a student. If you’re lucky they’ll lend you a card or password and you can use the university computers. In Africa you just have to cough up at internet cafes.

5. We love it.

6. Repair, don’t replace. Africans are much better than we are in the wasteful west. My shorts are a patchwork quilt. Hole in your tyre? Just put a piece of old tyre inside to plug the gap.

7. Always wash your own clothes. Scrub, rinse, black water down the drain, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, oh that’ll do.

8. Avoid other tourists and their hangouts. Eat with the locals.

9. Haggle, trade things, shop around, let people buy you beer.

10. If it’s free… go to town

Unfortunately I don’t own a laptop, I have to use internet cafes to write this blog. Internet’s not cheap in South Africa so this post and the next few will cost a fair bit. I could cut down on food and eat less to save money but let’s face it, there are few images more bleak or farcical than a grown man in baggy lycra. So instead, if you want you can help contribute to the cost of this blog by donating three quid… just click on the blue ‘Support’ button in the right hand column and at the top of this blog, underneath the map. Bar The Apocolypse, my next post will come from Cape Town, the end of my African odyssey.

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Comments (4)

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    Kevin Kato


    Good stuff as always Stephen.
    'Eat with the locals.' Love it. Sage advice.


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    Love the pic of the garden plot–looks completely like those all around Ortahisar and Cappadocia!

    Beer, chocolate, and Internet are three things worth paying for. Get your women for free,and it call evens out.

    We head back to the States in 9 days…end of our year here…amazing to think how much you still have in front of you. Let us know if we can help hook you up with West Coasters when you get to the U.S.


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    Blue button didnt work! Another amazing adventure Stephen well done ! see you in cape Town Mumx


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    Connaught Delhi


    But finally you have done a great and impossible work.


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