Not much mentioning of the bike recently? Apart from one puncture (the first since Ghana, 8,000km ago) it’s been a smooth ride. Good tarmac roads since I left Lubumbashi – that’s 3,000km of excellent roads – and barely a hill in sight. Easy pedalling. Time to think; time to look around. Time to ponder and time to wonder.
About time for some fun. Time to hit the gravel and leave a trail of dust.
Just out of Khorixas I got what I was looking for. But with gravel roads come corrugations. They are not so much fun. Time to shake, rattle and roll on slowly. Dust in my hair. Grit in my teeth. Time to grit my teeth and bear it. With a dramatic change of scenery and plenty to look at I now had to carefully watch the road. Lose concentration – lose contact with the bike. Simple. I was not about to fall off. But it was hot. Scorching. Draining. Must stop frequently. So I took lots of photos. Photos of rocks. An arid landscape of rocks. A few trees. Last week life was green. Now it ranged from golden yellow to a burned rusty red.
Selecting a route that passed through as many of the ‘sights’ marked on the map as possible was the plan. First the petrified forest. Clarification – pay some dollars to see a large lump of stone that looks like a tree trunk. Alternatively just pull off the road at night, pitch camp under some trees and see three chunks of petrified tree being used for cooking over a fire. Second the rock art of Twyfelfontein. Clarification – pay some dollars to see the child-like engravings of oryx, giraffe, lions and many footprints. Alternatively go for a walk in the mountains, and where you find rocks and caves, you find more animal outlines. Third – by this stage don’t even bother to see the ‘burnt mountain’. Clarification – this mountain looks like it’s burning in the setting sun. Alteratively keep your eyes open and see all the other mountains here glowing a similar hue at that hour of the day before day turns to night.
Sarcasm aside, this region, Damaraland, is simply stunning. And I might have missed it had those ‘tourist sites’ not been marked on the map.
Next stop. The Brandberg mountains. But first, getting there.
The sun rose in the blue sky and beat down without remorse on anyone or anything that dared stay out. Which as far as I could see, was just me. No shade. Nowhere to hide. Or take cover. Take a stand. Hold out. Endure the heat. What you know has an ending can be endured. It’s the same with a race or a bad book. With the end of the day, the sun’s siege would lift. But first it must get hotter.
The atmosphere was alive. High voltage buzzing. Electric Static. But the air was dead. Airless and Dead still. Not an animal in sight. Only me. Not a blade of yellow grass moved. Only I tried. But then I would see a cloud of dust rising in the distance and I knew that a vehicle was on it’s way. Tourists in air-conditioned cars. In a bubble of cool, flowing air. They were not seeing the same scene I was. Same rocks rising out of the orange earth. Same yellowing grass and maybe a tree here or there. Maybe if there was an observant passenger he would see, as they rush past, the perfectly constructed weavers’ nests in that tree here or there. Unlikely. But what they see is just a real-time photo. Could be back flicking through the National Geographic. Your eyes cannot truly see the whole picture unless you can hear and smell and feel and taste it too. Hear the buzzing of the insects and smell the sweat that runs down your neck onto your salt-encrusted shirt and feel the hard earth defiant under your feet and taste the fine dust that sticks in the back of your throat with your tongue sticking to the top of your mouth that even a gulp of your sun-warmed water cannot moisten and never satisfies your thirst either.
I take a chance and take the back roads to the Brandberg mountains. Advised against it. Easy to get lost on the many tracks. Sounded like fun. Not possible to get lost as far as I could see. Follow any of the tracks in a downhill direction and eventually you get to the riverbed. Rivers do not defy gravity. Besides, I could see trees that must flank the riverbed, for trees need water, if only occasionally. Follow any of the tracks along the riverbed in the direction of the mountains. The Brandberg, the only mountains in that area, could be seen days away. I knew there was a lodge by the riverbed at the base of the mountains. Impossible not to find. Especially when you have a GPS!
So as the day wore on and the sun passed it’s zenith so I wore out and passed my peak too. A long day on gravel roads. But as the gravel turned to dirt and took a meandering course like a stream, and rose and fell and wound it’s way down so I could enjoy the biking. No more corrugations to shake and slow you down. Only your nerves and the strength in your legs to limit your speed. For me, just the strength in my legs and I still had more than enough (enough strength that is, I only have two legs).
I pass a farm and stop. Best to get more water. A farm, falling slowly into decay. Fencing fallen. Cars stripped and rusting. Donkeys stood, heads down, dejected. The fierce sun has won this fight. Even the colour of the earth here was a faded greyish-brown. The survivors sat in the shade silently. All around was silence. It surrounded and enveloped as real as a blanket wrapped around you to keep warm. Only now there was a gentle breeze. You could feel it gently cooling on your damp skin and see it in the spiky yellow grass that rustled and you could follow the wind’s path like an animal in the undergrowth. A tiny red lizard would dart across the track and a curious croaking would cause you to stop and investigate the source of the sporadic sound.
Down by the river I kept a keen look out for elephants. But the only sign was of trees stripped bare. I dragged my bike through the dry, sandy riverbed. Sweating profusely. And push on up the other side. Eventually I reach the lodge and cool down with a cold beer and then warm up with a hot shower.
From the mountains I head to the sea. In between is desert. Not much else.
A pit stop to refuel in Uis and I take refuge from the sun in the shade of a bar. Late in the afternoon I leave this mining town and cycle west. The wind is strong in my face. Unrelenting and unforgiving. My shirt flaps wildly behind me. With the sun low in the sky, it is surprisingly cool now. But still I am sweating and barely moving on this gradual upward incline battling against the elements. Out of Uis and past a few weather-beaten shacks made of scrap metal and old wood. Large Castor oil barrels beaten flat and bolted together now someone’s shelter. And then into a barren wasteland with just one road and a line of telegraph poles running to the sea.
Stopping just before sunset, I pitch my tent and watch the kites against a orange sky. They leave the thermals and fly over my tent to their nesting grounds. Hundreds of them. They watch me watching them until they have all settled on the ground and it is too dark for me to see any more.
Predictably, the wind dies down in the night too and the morning brings with it a beautiful sunrise. Smoothing and soothing this stark desert landscape. I would like to linger longer but the longer I leave it the more pedalling under the intensely hot sun and unforgiving headwind.
The road is long and straight. Gradually the peaks of the Brandberg disappear out of sight and the landscape is flat far out to the horizon. The rocky ground is now bleached white. The coastal fog lingers low in the distance but where I am the air is crisp and clear and the sky a bright blue.
Kilometre after kilometre is the same. Mindlessly following the road. Empty thoughts. Eyes seeing everything. The goshawk on the telegraph pole. Gems for sale at unmanned roadside stalls – large rocks of crystal pink and jade green. The rusty shell of a burned-out car and blown-out tyres now marking some unseen track into the desert. A pool of water shimmering in the road ahead… but this is the desert and there has been no rain here. As Ernest Hemingway said, “In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect”. He is talking about “the lovely perfect weed-fringed lake you see across that sun-baked plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is absolutely true, beautiful and believable.” In the heat of midday your eyes truly can be deceived. And so when I see the outline of buildings faintly flickering through the haze I am not sure if I really am seeing the town of Henties Bay on the coast or just seeing what I want to believe.
But it is Henties Bay. And now it is cooling down again with the refreshing salty sea air. I cycle towards Swakopmund and camp on a lonely stretch of beach. Watching the clouds come in and the last light fade over the white crashing waves and the fog slowly envelope a wrecked ship in the distance that I had passed earlier and spoken to the solitary fisherman sat by his bakkie sipping a sundowner and admiring the harsh beauty where the desert meets the Atlantic sea.