Beyond the flat bush, the wild seringa, the Kavango, is Angola. Below Botswana, the delta, the thousand square miles of reeds and snake skins, where tents are circled by hyena and trucks sink in the dirt.
Hunched in the middle of the combi, my knees around my shoulders, my bag underneath, I sit surrounded by people I do not know. I am used to being the only white face, used to the curiosity and the disregard, used to fewer hours sleep, fewer meals, fewer conversations. 3 hours out of Katima and the road has barely curved. Back in town I had slept on the banks of the slow sprawl of the Zambezi and ate Pap and greens on plastic chairs.
Further along the river runs away to become fields of pearl millet and the sun falls low enough for every shadow to mimic the long limb of the Caprivi Strip, pointing as far back as the border. Always I am nervous. But apart from a long wait for the bus in Kasane, the ride across the Chobe to the Namibian post was uneventful. And Katima, its main street busy with dust and feet, was welcoming.
I ate dinner with Adam, a young American teacher. He had singled me out, shoeless, solitary, as someone similar, with which to swap tales of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and the swathe of the continent.
The following evening we drank a beer on the bank side. Watched the Zambian lights across the water pierce the bushveld and feared the jaws unseen of crocodiles. We planned to move on together in the morning.
At dawn I watch two otters tumble in the silent current outside my tent. I shower. Adam vomits in the sink. He laughs between heaves. ‘No way I’m gonna make it. Just a bug’. He tells me to go. I worry. He reassures me. I pack and walk to the combi station. It is a mess with people. Once I find my vehicle I throw my bag in the trailer and find some breakfast, knowing that African transport has no fixed times. It frustrates and it adapts but it is never early.
We leave at midday. We stop at various shacks for reasons explained in Lozi. The journey is cramped, monotonous, wonderfully lonely. It is just after dark in Rhundu that the combi breaks down. Everyone becomes a mechanic and the vehicle is surrounded. I sit well away under gas stations lights. 3 hours go by before we leave. I would rather it were longer as then I would arrive at my destination in the morning rather than the middle of the night. Every delay thereon is welcomed. The moon bathes the night, but the driver is still cautious. Kudu and Impala dash across the road. Phantoms that leap over headlights through windshields with thrashing antlers.
A new place is always terrifying at night. At 2am the combi left me on an empty street. ‘Always head toward the light, keep to the main streets’, I repeated like a mantra. I found a petrol station, pissed in a ditch out back and took shelter on its forecourt, leant up against my bag. I stared west into a morning dark like no sun had ever lit it. 300 miles further out, over the Pan where a thousand thirsty animals wait for rain, ran the skeleton coast. 2 years before I had been here and not made it to their shores, promising myself on my next trip I would. But sat there unslept and unwashed, the stitching loose on my bag, I knew it had beaten me again. I rubbed my beard and remembered that’s what next times were for.
There is a wanderer’s fear that your idealisation of a place will always leave you disappointed with its physical reality. I often try to avoid this. But to stave off the cold and sleep I imagined the coasts utter roadless isolation. A towering uniform of pale dunes, inseparable from the sky on days when the cold Atlantic pushes banks of fog over it. Nothing is stationary here. Survival is movement. The beached tankers rot whilst further inland nomadic Himba, the colour of the earth, hunt and march their cattle from place to place, raising fire to confide with the dead, killed by drought or Angolan guns. Maybe even a few lions stray from whale bone to bone.
A pump attendant invites me inside and I briefly sleep on bags of grain, alongside two drifting workers, moving to live.
A security guard arrives and throws me back out into the night. I sit with the drifters for a while, until with no sign of dawn I wander off.
Miners emerged from their homes for the early shift, some with their faces covered by rags, oblivious to the occasional blasts of explosives that ring out. Each side street became darker. Each one similar. Each miner became a silhouette in the white streetlight far back on the main road. A hundred huddled bodies at the station.
I found a hostel, still dark and surrounded by a high wall. I hesitated. I rang the bell. An Afrikaans man, sleep filled eyes, bed hair, opened up and on the brink of anger ushered me to a bed.
I lay awake, sleep had passed me by. When the sun felt warm enough I showered and found breakfast in town. In the light, the fear from my arrival became shame, as I had misjudged a clean well kept town of parallel, ‘block’ roads and fresh, desert gardens. I took my bearings, found the combi station, the market, brought pasta and oranges.
By midday my limbs shivered with exhaustion and I spent the remains of the day reading in the garden of the hostel, sheltered from circling sun by a wide awning. By 7pm I was asleep and by 6am I woke with the seasonal workers who slept on the lawn. I packed and walked down the avenues to the main road and hitched out of town with 3 locals. Brought them coke and biltong at the gas station. Stared through the window as the grass grew thicker and rolled over ridges and hills all the way into Windhoek.
Like once in living memory there was a great flood, Windhoek stands upon hilltops. The city becomes thicker, township, to factories, to retail parks, to shimmering city. The Herero, once herdsmen, now line bank counters and the business district, tamed like the rocks of the desert at the city limits, by the promise of billboards and German generals.
My ride dropped me at a hostel. Adam emerged from the front gate as I arrived. We embraced and laughed about our re-acquaintance. He told me of a 21 hour combi ride, I spoke of midnight Tsumeb.
We walked the city. Brought torn paperbacks and ripe pears in the car parks. Wandered alone in the botanical gardens photographing Welwitschia and Weaver nests. Were silent in the museum interpreting white women on cave walls, and were respectful and guilty before Samuel Maharero.
At the hostel, lain out on the sofa’s, we appeared as unwashed hobos before the researchers and volunteers, laughing at our secrets and half bush mad. We planned our route together over 2 night’s dinner, enjoyed the showers, got drunk on the bar stools, befriended ranger. He told us about back-fanged boomslang and trapping rhino, and drove us to the city limits in the morning. Where two white faces either get ignored all day or pick up lifts within moments.
The road led west to the ocean. The man crammed in the car next to us is a rapper. He shows us his CD. He poses predictably on its cover. He loves God, his family, and his producer.
The vegetation disappears, the land flattens and the sky opens up for the Atlantic. Swakopmund, a portrayal of order, compact between the Skeleton Coast to the north, the Namib Desert to the south and a fierce ocean. We camp at the old army barracks.
German settlers arrived here in 1892; the language is first on menus and first for greetings. We often bumble an apology in English for our limitations. The buildings mock the gothic, and ancient beams are painted on plastered walls in recognition of the motherland. I wonder how many of the inhabitants have ever been there. Here, like the Portuguese fleeing from the north and Afrikaners trekking from the south, they concentrate their identity against the formidable blankness of the deserts.
We drank on the beach, played pool in the Shiben’s, walked to the deserts edge where it topples into the ocean and found side-winder tracks in the concave of dune valleys.
Every morning we would wipe the brackish condensation away from our tents and eat in the village café. We found a snake house further inland. Three rooms, humid from the generators, two dozen glass cases. Feeding time was 10am. We sat like an audience baying for blood, as live mice suffered the inevitable from Black Mamba and Horned Adders. We held Pythons round our neck and awed at striking Cobra’s.
We would fall asleep early, rise early, and drift amongst the citizens
The Coloureds & the Bastor
The only road out of town led us back to Windhoek, God-fearing and closed on a Sunday. We brought train tickets and rested on the empty platform. At dusk it fills. A coloured man preaches to me, removes his shirt to reveal his prison tattoos, to show me where he has been misled in life.
The cabin is small, but we have a bunk each. I roll out my sleeping bag and watch the city move away lain upon my chest.
The train rattles south throughout the night, 300 miles across the Central Plateau, moonlit and featureless whenever I awake.
We pull into Keetmanshoop at 6. I try to remember the town I had been in 2 years before. The streets run in crumbling lines, traversed by telephone wires and stray dogs. I see the store on the corner and then turning it, the small hotel. I recall sheltering on its step under the blackest rain storm. The same young woman sits at reception, a beautiful boer se dogtar, black haired, confident in her shyness. We eat breakfast in the same dinning room, overlooking the same courtyard. Civilisation is in stasis while the desert circles.
We consult the map. Run our grubby fingers down the course of the Fish River. Discussed the difficulties. Hitching is illegal in national parks. If we hitched in getting out would be a problem. We filled our canteens. Took fruit from the kitchen. Walked to the southwest tip of town, past gas stations and churches. Climbed the shingle embankment to the highway and sat on our bags watching for traffic in the phase of the heat. A boy, shoeless, bright yellow t-shirt, pushes a toy through the dirt and glances at us as we look away.
It takes us an hour to catch a ride. A thick set Afrikaner, fat fingered with heavy gold jewellery, stops for us. He loads our bags in the boot and waves away the black man who asks for a ride. Namibian roads are good. He cruises at 150k. He is a salesman on his way to Luderitz. ‘Where are you heading’. Seeheim I reply. ‘There’s not much there’.
True, all Seeheim appears to be is a gravel road leading off the tarmac up into the high country. He asks us if we’ll be ok here. We nod and thank him.
15 minutes down the road another track cuts off west. Here a large sign points to the Seeheim Hotel, but there is no building in sight. We decide this would be the best place to stop and we throw our bags under the sign. We tie a large sheet of tarpaulin to it at an angle to shelter us from the sun.
And here we wait. Hours pass.
Very few vehicles pass. Those that do eye up the strange apparitions on the road side. Two vehicles even stop to take our photo. I turn to Adam ‘we’ll be labelled in their photo albums as, how refuge camps start’
We eat a little, read and become minutely sensitive to sound of approaching vehicles. Fine points of far off rumble in the yawning silence. I kick an avocado stone from our lunch into the sun and watch its isolated retreat.
After 6 hours a young French couple stop and offer us a ride. We explain the impossibility of hitching with tourists ‘we’re all robbers and murderers, even leopard bait white boys like us’. They understand and tell us of 2 years spent in the Congo as charity workers.
The shades of the desert change with the day and by the time we arrive in Godowana the blood reds are being teased from the earth. Gemsbok and Ostrich become visible far off in the thin lines of scrub.
We pitch camp as the sun sets, and eat the little food we have left, whilst watching it become a distorted needle of light on the copie tops. The aura of peacefulness is overwhelming and we both sit barefoot in silence.
The French couple camp nearby. We share a beer with them that evening and they offer to take us further into the park the next day.
Fish River Canyon is a monument to extraordinary numbers. Some 160km long, 27 wide and 550 metres deep, it is worthy of its own creation myth. We stand on its edge. Walkers become lost within its mass. The river is visible only by texture. We pose for photos and remain silent before it.
Later the road falls downward. Vegetation appears along the riverside, as do hot springs. It is good to roll out our sleeping bags early. I lounge in the warm water, floating on my back, looking up at the canyon walls that envelop us.
We say goodbye to the French. Hugs and kisses are worthy for the kind of short, intense friendships you forge on the road.
Towards dusk I walk by myself along the river. The heat and the desert have turned it into a patchwork of slowly drifting pools. The vortexes of fishtails spin as I jump from sandbank to sandbank. Baboon tracks appear along the brittle embankments. I am cautious in front of the unseen interiors of caves created by the approaching rock. A dam stretches the water. Baboons call from the other side. I climb up onto it and look out across the deeper water. On a far off bank side I see the monkeys picking through the mud. An infant tumbles. The still water becomes a perfect replica. The canyon walls become islands afloat in an encompassing sky. I fool myself with impossible desert crocodiles and fear leopards above me, but mostly I think of tomorrow and the South African border.
Copyright © 2011 Ben Cook