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Pwned in Namibia?

[still] Namibia 14-24/02

Damaraland

The gravel road unwound through some of the most thinly populated and driest Namibian countryside. Long before we ever learnt about this place and dreamt of riding our bike across, its native nomadic inhabitants, the hunter-gatherer San (Bushmen) and the herders Khoisan (Hottentots) had been almost entirely chased away by white settlers, missionaries and venturers alike. Leftover villages were scattered in the [insert yawn here for the predictable adjective] vast territory. From time to time a Himba man with his cattle would appear in the horizon, a speckle in the infinite stretch of ochre, white and blue.

As time passed by, the occasional paths stopped turning into the bush to indicate a village or the remains of it: we were finally alone, hundreds of miles between us and the next human settlement. This was Damaraland, one of the driest environments on Earth.

A chameleon crossed our path, so we stopped to check it out (sorry for the man-handling little fella’).

Above the barren veld rose a flat gradient of blue. Thorny shrubs, tufts of grass and acacia trees swarmed the reddish earth like stubs of hair on an unshaven face. We drove across this sameness for hours, like an alien craft interrupting the astonishing vacancy of the veld. No typical African mud-and-dung huts, nobody walking with their stuff on their head, no women crouching alongside the road, waiting for a lift. No-one. Then the gravel lost its tan and shone white in the midday haze. Luring us to push on, the Khowarib Gorge, where the land suddenly swelled from zero to 1600m.

In the 20s Germany had to let Namibia go, so the country went to join the Southern-African Union. Until the 1990 independence some 6000 fenced farms were leased or sold by the aperheid government to the new white settlers who flocked in, leaving the “natives” no option but make house in the 10 “reserves”. In the North there was Kaokoland (nowadays Kunene), home to Herero and Himba; the fringes of Kalahari in the South-East became the last frontier of the San; the Topnaars retreated to the Namib. And on the central plateau the Damara, one of the three groups that use a click-accented dialect, established Damaraland. Even today the arid territory is not officially protected, but offers sanctuary to wildlife: zebra, Springbok, Oryx, Kudu, giraffe, suricates, birds and reptiles. Rumor has it that even desert elephants and lions still roam some of the more remote corners of this veld. And this time the animals that wandered about were not unfazed by our sudden and noisy apparition, like the Etosha herds. The encounter would last only for a brief moment, leaving us dumbfounded, wondering if it had been a day-dream or not.

Curand drumul s-a frant spre est prin pasul Grootberg, unde mileniile sunt lizibile in lava impestritata de tufe fragile, cactusi inalti si copaci ciudati, cu ramuri schiloade si tulpini umflate de apa.

Clusters of enormous rocks were laying around in the fuzzy veld, strange toys forgotten behind by some nowhere-to-be-seen giants.

Pass the granite Lego, we rolled into the newest Namibian overlanders’ joint (complete with overland album where we could spot familiar faces like Margus & Kariina, Alper & Esther, the Vidals). Our original plan was to take our first shower in a week, do some launder and feast on the famous Namibian farmed game, but this place was to become more than just a pit stop for us, protein hungry, dirty vagabonds. For one, as we arrived on the infamous 14th of February, we celebrated the Valentine’s Day for the first time, the main incentive being the specials on the menu: butternut soup, zebra sirloin with veg and, yes, ice-cream! As camping was free, splurging on the very reasonable dinner set menu was a no-brainer.

And as South Africa was already on our radar, it was time to start practicing our braai skills, sporting boerwors, farmed game and the famous termite mushrooms we had chased in vain in Etosha a week ago.

The rest camp was a hippy garden of sorts: prickly bushes, cactuses, pod bearing trees that Ana felt inspired to wear as instant jewelry.

An unedited photo with our campsite scalded in the surreal sunset.

Malaria Strikes Back

Two days later we were ready: showered, shampooed, hairstyles, well rested. We had started to get used to and take for granted all these first world luxuries – heated water (actually running water), T.P., electricity and easily available plug, right by the tent. Long were forgotten our scruffy days in the Congo, when we would save any drop of water and milligram of soap, washing our hands by squeezing a tuft of  grass heavy with morning dew. But one of the bad memories, if not the worst of them all, was to come back and haunt us once more.

That dreadful morning debuted with a weird feeling in my stomach. By midday my bones and knuckles were aching like hell. At night I was sporting a decent fever, but not too high, so we decided to postpone our departure, to see what was up with that. The next day the cycle restarted: more fever, more head aches… al day I was laying down in my tent, powerless, weaken. The paranoia was on: Ana was reliving the Matadi moment, I was growing more convinced by the hour that I had malaria. On top of all these, we knew that Esther, with whom we had traveled in Congo and who was a bit ahead of us now together with Alper, has been hospitalized in Windhoek with malaria. She had started the treatment with some delay, maybe a couple of days, and she was now suffering from kidney failure, a common but nasty malaria complication. She had been receiving dialysis for about a week and she was about to be repatriated in Germany. Their adventure was over. We decided it was not the moment to take risks, so I started taking Lonart, an equivalent of Qartem, immediately.

Malaria candy, bought from Zambia.

The next morning we were helped by locals to summon medical assistance at the newly built, but quite desolated village clinic. They had malaria tests alright, the kind that had already been proven unreliable in Ana’s case. I had already taken 2 doses of antimalarial medicine, of course the test came out negative. A proper blood test was available only 500 ams away, in Windhoek. And the nurse, who I can’t imagine had ever treated or even met someone with malaria, assured me I was fine. 10 euros and two cute ziplocks with Indocid and multivitamins later, I was back home. And back on Lonart.

Pain-killers + multivitamins from the “doctor”

As it is the case in Romania, Europe or the US, in Namibia not a lot is known about malaria. The country is out of the severe transmission map, besides, we were in Kamanjab, a few thousands inhabitants village. My best bet was to follow the correct antimalarial treatment scheme. So I did, taking my time to recover and rest. A few days later in Windhoek it was too late to trace the plasmodium germs in my blood. So this will remain a big question mark. Was is, or wasn’t it? I guess I’ll never know. Three days later I was back on my horse, pushing on westwards.

Saying good-bye to Melissa, the daughter of Vital, owner of Oppi-Koppi

On the road again

The record mileage was hard to believe, even for us

The Namibian touristic agenda is quite extensive, and of course nothing is free. Lonely Planet has never been our traveling bible, so we skipped the local “must-see”s and took the sketchiest off-road route towards Skeleton Coast. Our plan was to reach Walvis Bay by sunset. The daylight had a surreal quality to it, tempering colors, melting away topographical features that were fighting for contrast under the scorching sun. Every time we would stop for a brief water break we could hear nothing but our own voices: the land appeared lifeless, smelling of heat and drought, only interrupted by twisted corpses of thorn trees without their melted Camembert clocks. The sky was wider and higher than any we had seen before, smeared with theatrical cloudscapes that kept coagulating and dispersing.

Namibian veld

It was one of the greatest rides of them all. The Namibian veld dissected by this adrenalin-pumping clutch-burning tyre-roasting road. We were discovering it kilometer by kilometer of rock crumble, stopping at a vantage point from which we could view it all. Rushing up on a blind hill, bent down into a corkscrew like the famous Laguna Secca turn. This stretch would make a beautiful rally stage, negotiating a water thirsty desert that eventually fades away into the ocean ravaged Skeleton Coast. It was rainy season, but rain rarely falls here. All the river beds were dry, their sandy bottoms ghostly reminders of a once breathing body of water. At some point we took a small road, a thin line on the map, and got lost for some time in a labyrinth of sandy deviations.

Dry riverbed: wide, deep, sandy, difficult to cross 2up

The massive Brandberge, the “burnt mountain”, towered at 2573m over the unmitigated flatness of the veld.

Then all that was left was formlessly horizontal. West, east, north and south, ever the same, only the wood poles with their sagging electricity cables still standing. The sky was smudged with cloud, and the wind was bringing in from the frozen coastal waters a salty smell of thunderstorm. Through the distant rains that were hanging down from the clouds like soaking laundry, we could barely see Mt. Spitzkoppe, to the left of the road.

Then we entered on the Skeleton Coast through a strange field of lichen in bloom (a reserve and national park).

The cold Benguela current was blowing mercilessly, so we rushed by the swish white suburbs of Swakopmund, the capital of all adrenaline-junkies. For wads of cash one can skydive, sandboard or do anything here, so this was not our place, not our budget. On the outskirts of the outskirts of the town we drove by the Topnaar township: shacks of any description in the sandy plain littered with all sorts of debris, a landscape where mountains were man-made out of trash.

We had last seen the desert 8 months ago, in Mauritania, and the Atlantic more than 2 months ago, in Gabon. We would see them both again, side by side, dunes melted right into the ocean, in the Namib Naukluft. Ochre dunes, a salty crust wrinkled over the land, ocean roaring beyond the horizon.

Walvis Bay to Windhoek

Only a couple of manic gourmet travelers like ourselves could drive for hundreds of miles through the desert, bushcamp in the sketchiest spots and save every penny, in order to afford half a dozen of oysters. But we had been obsessing over the Walvis Bay oysters since 2008, and our efforts and stinginess was rewarded: the mollusks were plump, nutty, with a perfect brine. Mmmmmmmmmmmm……

It was already night when we started driving again in the direction of Windhoek. We were determined to push as mush as we could, so that we would have less Ks in the morning till the South African embassy, where we had to apply for our visa.

We had no idea when we stopped that we were bushcamping again in an exceptional place. Then the sunrise was more than convincing.

The capital city felt exhausting. From the manic streets to the black township where even the public grill was on the way to become some sort of meat mall.

But we had driven all this way only to submit our RSA visa application, a simple enough affair, we naively thought. Romania is not part of Schengen (and will not be for a long time), so Romanian citizens must apply and pay for a quite expensive visa. Immediately we understood that was not going to be easy: spartan working hours, aggressive and condescending personnel, high fees. Firstly, our application was denied: they suggested we apply in our country of origin. We considered crossing directly to Botswana and try there, or simply cut South Africa from the itinerary. The third day they agreed to take our files in, but only after we payed 85 euros in visa fees and 70 euros for the faxes that this embassy would presumably send, we were informed that we were now facing a minimum 10 working days waiting time for a response. That meant while our passports could be rotting in some drawer at the RSA embassy, our Namibian visa could expire, placing us in an even more delicate situation. We tried to plead with this people, they just don’t care, though. 99% of all overlanders don’t need a visa for South Africa, they just roll into the southernmost point of the continent. Is this the end of our 28000 km adventure, will we be denied access to a classic overlander’s milestone? Will we have to scramble for a last minute exit out of Namibia? We just don’t know. We are sad, we are hopeless, we are angry.

Update: a week has passed since, and nobody could be bothered to process our visa applications. We keep calling the embassy, wasting more money, more time. It feels like we hit a dead end.

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