Once I’d pushed north of the Tropic of Capricorn, the desert all but disappeared. At last, lush green hills and cloud cover as I climbed the final miles up over 5,000 feet elevation, to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. Along the road, a baboon fussing around in some leaves. I slammed on the brakes and reached for the camera but she got up and lumbered off.
After almost three weeks pedaling over 870 miles, having had no real preparation, my body is fundamentally tired. I plan to rest for three days and four nights. Take little walks around the city. Eat everything in sight.
In one upscale Windhoek eatery, I bumped into a foxy farm wife. She told me all about their 10,000-acre game reserve, how they host wealthy hunters from the U.S., and how she trains and arms herself to fight off native people who might return to the farm to settle grudges from this region’s rampant white supremacy days.
It’s pretty wild west out here.
I should confess, a couple of days before Windhoek, I hitched a ride. It was a 145-mile day, back in that yawning desert, nothing out there except the sound of the wind and my thoughts. I’d been suffering for 10 hours, alone, fighting a steady headwind, utterly bored, miserable, all my water and endurance, depleted. Sure, I almost could’ve pushed that last 25 miles to Mariental. Instead, I had a moment of revelation:
I am not a two-wheeled racer.
I am a two-wheeled wanderer.
So I stuck out my thumb. In no time, someone slammed on the brakes. As we sped down the highway, a big friendly Namibian named Simon told me all about China’s development in his country, while I sat silently, maintaining consciousness. This is what wandering is all about, anyway. Chance encounters. And consciousness.
That confession now aside, I explored central Windhoek. The tallest building in town is the historical museum. Designed and built by North Korea, in a distinctly North Korean style, it was constructed in exchange for access to Namibia’s vast uranium deposits.
It’s no secret. Now you know where the Kims get their key ingredient.
After Windhoek it was hundreds of dead-straight miles north through the villages of Okahandja, then Otjiwarongo, then Otavi, on through Kombat and in to Grootfontein.
The gaps between watering holes have become shorter. I don’t seem to mind the headwinds anymore. They just have the effect of making Africa a bit bigger, that’s all.
Highways are narrow, no shoulder whatsoever, and while there’s little traffic in general, semi trucks are prominent. I’ve been riding facing traffic, which in Namibia means the right lane, so I can see what’s coming and pop off onto the grass if necessary. Cycling against traffic is against the law here, but I figure the added safety is worth the risk of arrest. The police haven’t bothered me, yet.
Afternoon breaks are often spent in my hammock, hoisted up in the twisted branches of an old tree, surrounded by lush green grasses. One rest site featured grotesque baseball-sized crickets crawling on everything.
A bright-eyed native woman passed by. She told me the crickets are out after all the recent rain. Half joking, I asked if people eat these cricket buggers. She instantly shot back, like a machine gun: “No-no-no-no-no-no!”
Massive termite mounds, too, thousands of ‘em, dirt narrowly packed and stacked on more dirt, averaging perhaps four feet high, some over seven feet. The whole countryside is littered with towering termite skyscrapers.
In spite of improved fitness, diet, hydration, and rest, I still get knackered. Slightly bonkers sometimes. There’s this thing about forcing pedals with all your willpower all day. It’s a bit like basic supply and demand in economics. Demand is your willpower, supply is the body’s limitations. Sometimes, all the willpower meets the body’s natural shutdown mechanisms. I usually crawl into my final destination, oftentimes on the limit of madness, irritable, exhausted.
This is part of why I like pedaling. Unlike my former career, there’s no politics out here, no fragile bureaucrats running their fiefdoms, no institutional structure to constrain me, no corporate culture of competence and conformity trying to slowly kill my spirit. Just me out there, alone, a force on nature.
Halfway between Grootfontein and Rundu, at the Murunani Gate, there’s a tiny community built around a guarded crossing station.
Everything changed when I crossed through the Red Line. That’s where you might say I finally arrived in Africa. Real Africa.
The Red Line is the quarantine fence. It runs in a jagged pattern all the way across the northern third of Namibia. It was built long ago, ostensibly because of a hoof-and-mouth epidemic. It has the rather obvious effect of separating white-owned, fenced farms in the south from the open range, communal farms of the north, which are run by black communities.
I suspect the fence is not just about racism, though; it’s more about economics and even more about ideology. Some folks north of that line proudly wear some sort of tribute to Fidel Castro’s Cuban Revolutionary Forces, who fought the firebombing Apartheid Forces of South Africa, and successfully beat them back.
You just have to wonder if the Red Line fence is really about animal health standards, or just another way to keep northern livestock out of the mainstream market, and keep northern black farmers, especially communists, disadvantaged. Much as the U.S. blockade does to Cubans, who are also overwhelmingly of African descent.
Regardless of politics, I prefer it up here in the north. More friendly communities scattered along the road, more cold drinks for sale, even more smiles. Kids whistle at me from their grass huts and wooden shacks, dash out and sprint alongside, giggling, extending their little hands for a big five.
It’s a lot less lonely up here. I’m the homecoming queen, in my own little parade, waving to each side, left, right, left, right all the way, rolling slowly along.
Fewer razor wire fences, less truck traffic, more people gathered under giant shade trees, just enjoying the afternoon, kids and parents up through elderly.
Women wearing the most beautiful clothes. Colors and patterns beyond the taste of most European designers. Transporting all and sundry on their heads — burlap bags, boxes, baskets, bundles, buckets of all sizes — filled with everything from fresh water to clothes to colorful fruits and vegetables. Infants wrapped in shawls riding on moms’ backs.
There are many “Shebeens” on the route, boxlike buildings manned by some tired-looking person offering staple goods plus some cold drinks and brewskis. Always featuring a plastic jukebox with tunes you wouldn’t recognize, plus one almost totally trashed pool table, guaranteed.
Seems like more people are free to be tiny entrepreneurs up here in the north. As in Latin America, modest shops, running out of huts or housed in corrugated steel boxes, clever names painted by hand on the exterior. Names like “Think Twice,” “Enough Is Enough,” “Bone Up,” and one Shebeen with a name so laugh-out-loud hilarious I couldn’t possibly get it printed in a community newspaper.
Yes, they’ve got a sense of humor. They can’t figure out why I’d ride a bike across Africa for no money, though.
One memorable lodge, Shamvura Camp, is something straight out of a Hemingway novel. Met Mark and his wife, Charlie, the two starring characters running the show since forever. Mark is a retired game ranger, a vocation macho to the core, akin to a Navy SEAL in these parts. Their rustic lodge is filled with exotic antlers, mounted tiger fish and other dusty works of taxidermy, all situated overlooking the Okavango River, which forms the Namibian border with Angola.
The slow-rolling Okavango River runs east, not west to the sea, but for hundreds of miles downhill into a giant delta on the Moremi Game Reserve, a swamp in Botswana’s Kalahari desert.
Of all the risks I face, at this time I’m perhaps most alert for malaria. It wasn’t a problem back in Central America or the Amazon, but here, now that I’m in Africa and back inside the tropics, it’s real. There’s no vaccine, as with yellow fever. One can take prophylactic pills, but they’re awfully expensive, and I’d have to carry a truckload of those pills for the time it will take me to get north of the Tropic of Cancer. So I just have to keep my body covered, drink tonic water with quinine (the quinine seeps out through the skin, deterring mosquitoes), sleep under my fine net, and most realistically, just accept that I will probably get malaria, that I should be on top of the early symptoms, and I should get treatment fast, because unlike COVID-19, I think malaria has a higher chance of sending me off to eternity.
On that note, who cares? We can’t go around adding up and avoiding all risks. If I did that I’d still be in Idaho, and you’d be stuck reading something else right now.
It’s Africa out here, though. Plenty of risks. More than enough to pucker up.
I’m near to the Caprivi Strip, Namibia’s panhandle, so I’ve got my eyes peeled for those legendary African beasts. I did spot a gnarly grey snake near the road, either a black mamba or a spitting cobra. I don’t even want to think about those guys. Let’s just say I take my pee breaks carefully.
Ran into a platoon of lady doctors from Switzerland, out here volunteering, thickening their skins, getting tough. We hit it off. They invited me to stay in their container-box village.
They’re with a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving medical training and standards practices in northeastern Namibia. The founder is not herself a medic but much more like a trailblazing philanthropic entrepreneur. She has all the organization and efficiency one expects from the Swiss.
In exchange for a place to rest, I volunteered to do all the housework and maintenance, so the women can better focus on their medical work. Indeed, gender roles are history.
Their housing complex, made of four steel container boxes, has six private rooms, two bathrooms, a big pantry and a kitchen. It is built on land donated by the Catholic Church. A big green water cistern sits up high, its level is getting low, one of my tasks was to kick on the pump and refill. If anyone requests a hot shower, I have to actually light a fire, and they wait awhile.
Meals are prepared by me promptly at specific hours. I’m not known for culinary skills. Nevertheless, my cooking is well-received, which is proof that any moron can boil pasta, whip up decent pasta sauce and chop up some zesty salads.
The country hospital they serve has 120 beds and is also built and run by the Catholic Church, which is just tremendous. The odd one to reconcile is the way Catholic doctrine prohibits any form of contraception. They believe sex is exclusively for intended procreation. As a result, many young native women have three to 10 children. It makes life here much harder, in my opinion. The challenges just seem to compound.
At the core of these philosophies is the question of the mix of faith and science. As I see it, at one end of the continuum, 100% faith and no science, at the other, 100% science and no faith, and in between, many shades of grey, which is where most of us exist. Obviously, conservative Catholics aren’t completely anti-science, or logic would suggest they shouldn’t offer any medicines at all.
In defending the social utility of faiths like Christianity, people often cite the hospitals they build. I would offer that Muslims also build hospitals. So do Marxists. I remember fondly, years ago, my visit to the Vladimir Lenin Hospital in Holguín, Cuba. Yes, it’s absolutely possible to run a good hospital without having the names of mythical saints attached to the whole premise.
Magic and faith fit well in Africa, though. This is nature in the raw. It often seems as though all things conspire to kill me. A 5-year-old boy died of malaria the other day. I met an angelic teenage girl who lost her entire arm to a crocodile. In this precise region, 24% are HIV-positive, and it’s above 30% over the border in Botswana. Tuberculosis ravages. Malnutrition is everywhere. Try looking up “bilharzia” sometime.
There are even grasses coming out of the ground that are as hard as nails. They will puncture right through your shoe and into your flesh.
That’s to say nothing of the animal risks. Africa is a meat grinder. Hippos, rhinos, buffalo (utterly dangerous, nothing like the Wyoming buffalo we know), hyaena, wild dogs, elephants, crocs, and many more — a chance encounter gone slightly wrong, and you’re lucky if you only lose limbs. Run into a black mamba snake and get struck, you might have 30 minutes to reflect on your life, and it won’t be a pleasant half hour, either.
Whilst pedaling I spend a lot of time critical thinking. How fortunate Europe came to be over the past 1,000 years, and how these forces of raw nature, and then the forces of brutal colonialism from Europe, all conspired to structurally disadvantage wide swaths of Africa. Geography and micro-climates are big drivers, which deter nation-state education systems and lead to a lack of language cohesion. Centuries of the slave trade plucked out the young and strong, leaving all else vulnerable to attacks from all sides, damning generations to come. Simple latitude, agriculture, seasonal variations … yes, latitude is everything. I won’t go into detail, but I think you might find my positions to be credible. I’ll just say, if you’re reading this, chances are you stand on the shoulders of compounding generations of good fortune.
Since I’m running the doctors’ container house, that includes the kitchen, which means food procurement. Out here, there’s really no grocery store of any significance, just “Shebeens” and “Tuck Shops,” which only sell the most basic household goods.
Divundu, a nearby town, does have a grocery store, but it bears little resemblance to American ideas of grocery stores.
The Bush People, who I see and admire from afar, aren’t too dependent on grocery stores, grids, or supply chains. The Bush People know how to hunt and harvest right off the fat of the land. They’re my go-to source in crisis. At least, I can hope.
Most locals speak some level of English, but here many only know Thimbukushu. I keep it friendly and rolling. Body language and tone of voice are universal.
Part of the challenge are all these tribal languages. A few thousand people speaking a distinct language, which often changes every 50-100 miles. It makes inter-societal cooperation a challenge.
I do a lot of work, I’m proud to say. Meals served like a Swiss train, that is, smoothly and right on time. Dishes and laundry by hand, fire-making, tree-trimming, you name it. I even set up a wireless printer network. In another unlikely victory, I fixed an electrical problem in the doctors’ Land Rover Defender.
When I see someone working, engaged in economic activity, it’s almost always a woman. Women with huge bundles of sticks lashed together, centered on their heads, walking in their colorful dresses with their perfect poise. The wood they carry is generally for campfires or hut improvement projects. Termites eat huts. Women keep huts standing.
Men, in general, get drunk on homebrew but seem harmless.
In a pharmacy back in Rundu, there are several dozen plastic canisters with a reptile bottled up inside. Witch-doctor medicine.
People here sometimes call me “Corona,” playfully, like it’s my name. They ask me, intently not casually, how long I have been in Africa. They know the coronavirus has been carried in by “whiteys” riding in on planes from Europe.
Women sometimes cover their mouths with a shawl when I pass. Men often tell me politely to wash my hands. Kids chant “corona, corona, corona” at me, teasing, it would seem, for now.
Those witch-doctor pharmacy bottles, though. They’re evidence that many here have very different ideas about medicine.
I still don’t worry about this coronavirus, personally. I do, however, consider the natives’ possible response to my presence here, if and when it takes hold. Ominously, I could become a convenient Caucasian scapegoat.
Things in Europe are bad right now. The Swiss medics were all called back home. Sadly, our happy container home cleared out overnight. I will miss those women. One in particular. Alone again, I saddled up and soldiered on.
After 200 more miles through the panhandle, I arrived into Katima Mulilo, at Namibia’s border with Zambia. I passed the COVID-19 screening test, paid a $50 visa fee, and was stamped into Zambia with a smile.
With corona fears stalking the globe, where this journey is going, I couldn’t guess.
On the one hand, I feel lucky to be here right now, rather than on lockdown in the U.S.A. Africans are crazy, sure, but they’re nowhere near as crazy as Americans. They are accustomed to disease and survival.
On the other hand, if the virus arrives in force into Africa, with so few hospital resources, things could get desperate, fast.
This cushy two-wheeled-wandering holiday may be about to turn into a real adventure.