“I shed a proper tear the night before I left Walvis Bay. My friends and I had gone out for dinner to a brewery in Swakopmund, and it was in the car on the way back that I felt really sad. This was very unusual for me. But there I was, with tears rolling down my cheek. The best reason I could come up with for feeling sad was the anticipation of the loneliness that was about to come again.”
I spent very little time in Botswana. It’s a beautiful country, but I was eager to get back to Namibia. I grew up in Walvis Bay, a ‘small’ coastal town situated where the dunes of the Namib Desert meets the Atlantic. Some of my best friends still live there. But more than that, traversing the Namib desert east to west, and then south through the heart of it to get to South Africa was the one thing I was both most excited and scared about, even before I departed on this adventure.
Beaten by Mongolia only, Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world. And, although the Namib is not the driest desert in the world, it’s the oldest. The unforgiving harshness of the desert allows for spectacular, unspoiled landscapes and, believe it or not, abundant wildlife. My heart has always belonged here, and I was eager to experience it by bicycle.
The road I took from Windhoek to Walvis Bay was a 377 km gravel road completely devoid of towns and villages. There were some farms and lodges, especially in the highlands, but once I descended from the plateau there was nothing. Fortunately I anticipated this to be so and, for that reason, carried 21l of water with me. That was enough water for about three days.
Fortunately, I found a wind-powered borehole at the end of day two, although I had to sneak over a fence to get to it, and then near the end of day three a lodge-owner allowed me to top up my water in his kitchen. So I always had plenty of water, but I reckon it all must have weighed around 85 kg, maybe slightly more. With all that weight, staying upright on the loose gravel roads was not always easy.
Scary as it may have been to be out there all by myself, without another person around for 100s of kilometres, it was absolutely spectacular. As I cycled down the plateau the landscape changed from savannah to arid desert, and once I passed through the Kuiseb River Canyon there was nothing but sand dunes either side of the road.
Besides the sand there was an abundance of wildlife. I saw everything; kudu, gemsbuck (oryx), zebras, warthogs, baboons, ostriches and lots of birds of prey. I saw more wildlife in this harsh, arid environment than I did anywhere along the way. And finding a place to sleep was never a problem. The Namib is so barren and devoid of people, I felt completely safe pitching my tent right on the side of the road and in plain sight. Not once was I disturbed during the night. In fact, it was so quiet that the silence was almost disturbing.
It took me four and a half days to reach Walvis Bay, where I stayed for two weeks to spend some time with old friends. I also visited my old high school, where I was granted an opportunity to present a shortened version of the TEDx talk that I had given earlier the year. The best part of that visit to my old school was a good-long discussion I had with a dozen or so kids that were interested in going to university to pursue studies in science. I myself would have loved the opportunity to talk to an actual scientist when I was in school, and I could see that the kids were really grateful for the conversation. It was a real treat.
I shed a proper tear the night before I left Walvis Bay. My friends and I had gone out for dinner to a brewery in Swakopmund, and it was in the car on the way back that I felt really sad. This was very unusual for me. But there I was, with tears rolling down my cheek. The best reason I could come up with for feeling sad was the anticipation of the loneliness that was about to come again.
All throughout my adventure I had been in almost constant contact with people. There was a village every 20 or 30 km or so all the way from Kenya to Botswana. But Namibia was different. In the four and a half days it took me to cross the Namib from Windhoek to Walvis Bay I saw maybe three people. There were days when I did not see a single person. And I knew that, when I leave Walvis Bay to head southward through the desert, it would be the same and over a much greater distance, in even harsher conditions.
But the sadness was unnecessary. While I camped at Solitaire, four adventurous travellers saw my bicycle and came over to say hello. They invited me to ride with them in their rental 4×4 to go see the sunset over the dunes at Sossusvlei. Sossusvlei and Deadvlei is the heart of the Namib desert. The dunes there reach over 300 m high and form a natural amphitheater around a salt pan, white as paper and filled with the carcasses of dead trees.
Coincidentally, Gunbritt, Henri, Rosy and Thomas met each other at Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay, the same place I camped at for three weeks in Malawi. We instantly hit it off. They were a ‘wolfpack’, and before I knew it, I was part of their pack.
Following a decision made in an instant, I loaded my bicycle in the back of their 4×4 and accompanied them to Luderitz. Luderitz is a small historical harbour town at the edge of the Sperr Gebied diamond mine in the south of Namibia. It was not on my itinerary of places to see as it was too far out of my way. But the route I had planned out to get to the border near Rosh Pinah was going to cross the road that leads to Luderitz. So I figured they could just drop me off at the cross-road after we left Luderitz, and then I’d just carry on cycling from there.
That was the new plan …ha ha ha…. but the night before we were due to leave Luderitz we celebrated Henri’s birthday with way too many beers and Jagermeister. Consequently, we were terribly hungover that next day, and I was in no condition to cycle anywhere. So instead of saying goodbyes at the junction I carried on riding with them to go see the Fish River Canyon – the second largest canyon in the world and also not on my original itinerary.
The Wolf Pack dropped me off at Grunau, a small town in the south of Namibia on the road that leads to Cape Town. A day or two later, while making my way towards the border, I learned about some terrible storms heading towards the Northern Cape region in South Africa. I was immediately relieved that I deviated from my original plan. If I continued towards the border crossing near the coast as I originally intended, I would have been caught up in the middle of those storms.
I cycled hard to try and stay in front of the foul weather. At one point, while riding down a mountain pass south of Springbok, I reached an exhilarating 72 km/h. But then, as I went around a sharp bend, a gust of wind suddenly pushed me from the side into the opposite lane while I was leaning into the turn. I nearly lost control of my bicycle and quickly realised that I was being highly irresponsible. I needed to cycle with a pace, but it was irresponsible so close to the end. I won’t lie though, it was crazy fun going that fast on a fully loaded touring bicycle.
I managed to stay out of the storms and covered the 815 km in just 6 days, not too bad considering the strong winds were generally against me. The last day was the weirdest of the whole adventure. If you’ve ever watched the series Friends, you’d remember that the final episode was filled with flashbacks of all the happy, funny and sad moments in the lives of the characters. This was exactly my day, filled with surreal, bittersweet flashbacks. My adventure was at an end. All I had left were the memories, and that made me sad. But I was about to be reunited with my family, and that made me happy.
In hindsight, I finished my adventure with more than just memories. I did something great. I took a risk and quit my job to fulfil a life-long dream to travel adventurously. I did something great that showed friends, family and others that Africa is not the deep, dark dangerous place the media portrays it to be. I did something great for #ScienceInAfrica, by showcasing some of the research and institutions this continent has to offer, and by inspiring the students I met along the way to pursue their dreams. I did something great for the fight against #AntibioticResistance, by reaching out and educating those willing to listen about the need for better antimicrobial stewardship. But most of all, I did something great by doing all of this #MyOwnWay. And I couldn’t be more proud of myself.
Until next time (this was not my last adventure).