The first days in Namibia we stay in Windhoek. Everywhere in the city we are warned for water shortage. In some parts of Namibia it hasn't rained for eight years, we hear. The price for water is high and rises exponentially if you consume more than average. There is a special emergency number that you can call if you see a leaking tap or other water waste and when showering you are asked to collect the first cold water, that you normally let flow away, in a bucket and then use it for flushing the toilet for example.
To our dismay it starts pouring the evening before we want to cycle into the desert. We see children dancing through the streets; adults can't stop talking about how happy they are with the rain. Kathleen and I, however, are a bit embarrassed. We just wanted to escape the rain and now in one evening there's more rain falling than has fallen in total in the last eight years; more than 80 mm.
Because we are told that the roads in the desert with all that rain are not rideable, we postpone our departure for two days. Then we say goodbye to our warmshower-host Christopher and his family and cycle into the desert. This time we have prepared our route a bit more thoroughly than usual. Every ca. 250 km. there's a petrol station where there's always a simple shop that carries a very limited assortment. So there we can stock up on a new supply of food.
The bottom line is that we buy food in Windhoek for four days. Pasta, rice, various tins of brown beans and vegetables, biltong (dried meat that stays good even at desert temperatures for a long time), dates, nuts and raisins. For breakfast we eat muesli that we dilute with water and for lunch we eat 'beskuit', a kind of hard bread crusts containing raisins or nuts.
Besides the food we each take 15 litres of water with us, divided into four water bags. This is in addition to the usual two water bottles and three one and a half litre bottles of water that we always carry with us.
The first kilometres from Windhoek are still asphalt, but after less than half an hour cycling out of the city centre, the asphalt road turns into a 'gravel road' and we're on our own. We lower the tire pressure from 5 bar to 3 bar, so they get a somewhat wider tread and as a result they don't sink as deep into the sand, which makes cycling a bit smoother in the end.
Because the number of roads in the desert is very limited, we can navigate on the sun. All roads are on our map and because they are almost all straight lines, at every intersection we look at the position of the sun to determine where the south is; after all, we have to go that way. Still, I'm confused at the first intersection. It is around noon and the sun is in my back. Since we have to go south, I feel like we have to have the sun in our face, but that means we have to go where we just came from. Just in time I realize that the sun here is turning from the east via the north to the west. So it's true that if we want to cycle south in the middle of the day, we should have the sun in our backs and not in our faces.
After a few days we learn to read the road better and better. Shades of colour betray where it is good cycling and where it is not. In general the darker and the lighter spots are good for cycling, because that's where the leveller has scraped off the top layer, but those places we hardly see.
More often we don't reach more than 12 km/h due to different road conditions. First of all washboard; we hardly choose that. Only when we go down and have enough speed, our tyres flan over the tops of the washboard from 40 km/u. But when we do not reach that speed, we immediately cycle very slowly when it comes to the washboard, because we do not want to overload our bike with luggage next to our buttocks.
That leaves sand or pebbles. Pebbles we prefer to go uphill. We do bounce over the road, but it's a solid surface with some grip and because we only go slowly uphill, the bouncing is acceptable. Downhill we prefer sand. That is much flatter and therefore bounces much less. It is heavier cycling, but gravity does most of the work for us. Especially when we ride flat, it is looking for the right sand-gravel ratio; a solid surface that is fairly flat as well. That's why we often ride from left to right across the road. It is often the transitions between washboard, sand and gravel that we look for.
The number of cars passing by in a day can be counted on a maximum of two hands. They often leave behind a large cloud of dust, which makes us 'bite dust' for seconds. Yet we are glad they are there. They raise their hands as standard. When we stand still to take a picture or to take in new energy, they drive slower to see if everything is okay. They raise their thumb and wait for us to raise our thumb as well. At that moment they accelerate again. A single driver comes next to us to ask if we need water or provisions. It gives us confidence that if we are really in trouble, help is always available.
Stay the night
The lodges in Namibia are completely focused on tourists; they are luxurious and certainly not inferior to their Western European colleagues. As a consequence, the prices are not inferior to their European colleagues either. And because that is well above our budget, we have to rely on the campsites that are often located at farms. The campsites are about 50 to 80 kilometres apart. In between, there are often still one or a few farms along the road. 'Along' should not be taken too literally. At the gate along the road it says that the farm itself is five to ten kilometers up the 'driveway'. In between there is nothing; only desert that reveals itself to us in different guises. Mostly a stony ground with scattered low bushes and a single tree, sometimes a canyon-like brown landscape with hardly any plants and sometimes only red coloured sand.
One evening we arrive at a farm where according to our information should also be a campsite, it turns out there's nobody there. We contact the owner via the phone number written on the fence. The owner says he is not there that night and tells us that the campground is not in use at the moment. Without dropping silence to gauge our reaction, he goes on to say that of course we can spend the night in his house if we want; after all, he has a guest room there. By phone we get directions where we can find the key to the house and where our room is. It turns out to be a very luxurious room with everything we need. He also leads us by phone to the kitchen which we can use 'of course'. The next day we leave without having seen anyone. We are not allowed to pay anything, he already told us during the phone call. ‘Once a year those crazy cyclists come here asking for shelter. I think it's brave and I like to help them. In short, tonight you'll be my guest’.
When we camp at a farm we generally haven't finished cycling when we arrive at the main building. The land belonging to a farm runs in the thousands of hectares. A farmer almost apologizes to us, because he 'only' has 6,000 hectares of land. His neighbour has 350,000 hectares of land, 100 by 35 kilometres. So there's not much need to set up the campsite close to the farm. Regularly the farmer takes his car to drive us to our camping spot. We bounce on our bikes behind him. At farms we are always the only campers. However, we wouldn't be bothered by fellow campers either. The pitches we get for our 2 by 2 meter tent are generally the same size as an entire Dutch campsite.
The remote location has two consequences. On the one hand, at night we can enjoy the most spectacular starry skies we have ever seen. Due to the absence of any kind of activity and because the sky above the desert is so dry, the sky is exceptionally clear. On the other hand, there is no light pollution; we literally can't see a hand in front of our eyes at night. This combination of factors makes Namibia one of the best locations for stargazing. We see the Milky Way very brightly every night, but we can also easily see the two clouds of dust that are part of the Milky Way. This doesn't seem to be the case anywhere else on earth.
The other consequence of our remote location is that we have to pitch our tent in the middle of the desert, where, especially in the low season in which we travel, hardly any people come. As a result the chance of encountering spiders, snakes and scorpions is very real. So we have to close our bags and the tent properly every time. We keep our flip-flops, which we usually put on after cycling, in our bags and every morning when we get up in the dark around 5.30 am, we first knock on the tent canvas before opening it and then we also shake our shoes and carefully pick up our bags to see if there's any movement in between.
In the dark we clear the tent and have breakfast. As soon as it gets light, we get on our bikes; usually fifteen minutes before we see the sun rise on the horizon around seven o'clock. On the one hand we do this to avoid the greatest heat; sometimes our thermometer ticks the 40 degrees in the afternoon. On the other hand we want to be at our new sleeping place before the stormy wind, which comes up every day from 2 pm onwards.
One of the next days we arrive at the camping of Solitaire, a 'village' consisting of a lodge with camping, a petrol station, a shop, a bakery, a restaurant and a dozen rusty old-timers that honour the name of the village as decoration. There are no houses. At the reception of the lodge we ask if we can spend the night on the campsite. Of course that is possible. When we ask what the costs are, it turns out to be free for cyclists. ‘We are in awe of people who cross the desert by bike. They already have enough hardships on the way, so we decided to make the camping free for them, so they don't have to consider camping wild'. Apparently they have never been on a bike here before. It is indeed tough cycling, but 'hardships'... These weeks are definitely one of my favourite weeks in Africa!