AFRICA 2016 – Journal eight

DAY 45. THURSDAY JANUARY 21st, 2016. CLANWILLIAM, SOUTH AFRICA

I quite like the word ‘blagging’: ‘to obtain by using persuasion or guile’, says the dictionary. I’d add a bit of charm too! A valuable skill. It worked again. I said to Megan, daughter of the owner, who’s in Cape Town (incidentally, only about 150 miles south) that I didn’t want to push my luck and I doubted they’d let me have a second night in their rather delightful four star guest house for less than half price…”Oh,” she said, “well, here’s my number. It’s always worth a try! I don’t know how the bookings are.” She agreed that they’d rather have a filled room for half price than an empty one.

So it was worth asking, at the end of the day, and here I am again, in luxury – and really without much guile or guilt. It’s a gamble. They could say no after all!

*

This trip is proceeding at half the pace of most, and I am enjoying it correspondingly more. I’m taking it very easy and exploring the areas in a bit more depth; relaxing a lot more; taking my time. For today’s entertainment I rode into the nearby Cederberg mountains, visited the local tea factory and saw the Atlantic, proving to myself that I have crossed the continent – as if the very long ride across the interior deserts wasn’t enough to convince me. And I added a few eccentric facts to my eclectic knowledge. Perry once said that I should have a PhD in unrelated, odd facts. Of course, I pick these up on my journeys. Very good for pub quizzes, but the right utterly obscure questions seldom come up!

Rooibos tea, for instance… I don’t like tea, a constant source of disappointment whenever I work in USA. I can tolerate a cup of fresh Earl Grey but the rest, no thank you. But rooibos tea(literally red bush tea – although the bushes seem green), I rather like. But I never knew that ALL rooibos tea comes from the Cederberg mountains around Clanwilliam. It’s VERY specific to this area and the factory up the street is responsible for 70% of the world’s rooibos tea. “Is it really a TEA?” I wanted to know. “From the same genus as the tea bush of Sri Lanka, India, China?” But the lady in the factory shop, thinly disguised as a visitor centre, assured me it is. I wonder… Mr Wikipedia says it is a herbal infusion from a ‘broom-like’ bush but tea is from the Carmellia plant. Who am I to argue?

Rooibos (’roy-bos’) has many healthy attributes. It’s caffeine-free, good for stress and anxiety, soothing, and has many health benefits. The extracts are used for skin complaints, in pregnancy-related and infant ailments. To read the brochure I picked up, you’d wonder why we need anything but rooibos. Well, it’s a pleasant enough infusion…

The Cederberg mountains rise behind and to the south of Clanwilliam. The cedars are pretty well gone now, raped for their ancient, slow growing wood long ago. The bare rocky mountains are bizarre: huge steep piles of red and brown rocks, apparently burned black by the sun, weathered into extraordinary balanced shapes and crenellated, facetted horizons. One hill reminded me of a close up of old fashioned typewriter keys, all sharp granular shapes detailed by the harsh shadows. Red and black tinged rocks climb one upon the other, thrown casually together into millennia-old heaps, weathering infinitesimally slowly in the hard, hot sun and the cold, icy winters.

From the mountains I hammered to the coast, here about 40 miles away. This is the chill Atlantic coast, where the cold Benguela current washes the western shore of the continent, bringing hard weather conditions and dense fogs where the warm land air meets the cold seas. It’s an unforgiving coast littered with shipwrecks of all eras.

Lambert’s Bay is an ugly, industrial fishing port with little to recommend it. It’s smothered in South African holiday homes and factories – not an attractive place. I stayed there in 2002, and my main memory was of the Cape gannets that gather to breed on Bird Island, the barrier of the small harbour, that has been exploited over centuries for guano, rock, birds and even used as a dump. Now it is a small sanctuary with a fake rock bird hide looking out over twenty thousand noisy – smelly – gannets; about 7500 breeding pairs this season. Now the chicks are large and will be flying off to other bird islands down the coast in a couple of months. It’s an intriguing, chaotic scene with the large birds (average wingspan 1800mm – 6 feet) huddled closely and squawking loudly. Younger offspring are still rugby ball-sized bundles of fluffy white feathers but the older ones are obstreperous brown youths, noisy and busy. The birds stand about 90cms high – three feet – and weigh about 2.7 kilos. They live about 17 years and always mate and hatch their young on the same islands, returning year after year, laying only one egg per pair and incubating it in that melee for 40 days. Their predators are seals and in 2005, a group of aggressive seals decimated the colony, which was only enticed back in subsequent years by planting decoys. In 2005 there were no breeding pairs on ‘Bird Island’.

It’s fun to watch the comings and goings and the antics of so many of one species; their formal displays, interaction and behaviour. I was glad I went to see them again, for I had forgotten how entertaining they were. Gannets can dive into the sea, stream-lined as arrows at 75mph, catching fish up to 30cms long at depths up to 5 metres, usually swallowing them before they even resurface.

But the sea air was cool and I was happy to turn inland again from that cold coast. I had thought to ride by gravel roads up the coast, the sea on my left for 40 miles, but the chill and the gathering mistiness, along with thickening cloud, made me decide to go back and turn on the charm at the four star guest house! I’ve another very pleasant room and felt duty bound to eat the food here, although I could have eaten for half the cost elsewhere. But can anyone tell me why calamari is so well liked? I’d as soon eat my key fob. For all the flavour is of oil and batter as you chew that unpleasant texture. Honestly, I wished I’d gone up the main street and chewed a bloody pizza!

*

At other times there are Cape penguins here at Lambert’s Bay. I found a telling information board, which I will quote:

‘South Africans lacked sea going boats until the arrival of Europeans. Birds and seals bred on the islands free from human disturbance. Europeans initially plundered the islands. They killed the seals for their skins and meat, and melted their fat into oil. Penguins were declared to be fish so that their meat could be eaten on Fridays (an otherwise meatless day for Catholics)‘

No comment.

*

The beds here are the best I have enjoyed on this journey. Probably worth twice what I am paying!! It’s drizzling outside and the night is quiet. Were it not for the clouds tonight – and nearing full moon – I am not far from the clearest skies of the southern hemisphere. The South African Large Telescope (going by the acronym SALT of course) isn’t far away, back up on the Karoo at Sutherland.

As a generalisation, I find the more expensive the hotel, the less friendly the holiday makers staying. Rich people like to keep apart. Needless to say, everyone here is peak white. As a tiny percentage of the population they are astonishingly visible and live a good life in their four star accommodations and driving huge 4X4s. Even such a smart (white) place – it feels like a rich part of Europe – as Clanwilliam has its black beggars gathered round the supermarket exits…

*

Tonight, a gentle drizzle and damp verandah and drips from the mango in front of my door.

DAY 46. FRIDAY JANUARY 22nd, 2016. SPRINGBOK, SOUTH AFRICA

Some days I ride too far. But, honestly, if you’d seen Garies and Kamieskroon, you’d understand the instinct that made me ride on. A quick ride round both was enough to know that I didn’t want to be stuck in either for the night: both one-donkey towns that had no attraction whatsoever, and whose hotels were grim beyond contemplation. So I rode on, knowing that in the largest town of the region I would find more choice of accommodation and a bit of diversion for my evening.

And so it’s turned out. Springbok is the capital of the North West Province of South Africa, the biggest and least populated region in the country, home to only a million or so people, spread across a VAST area that boggles the mind and blunts the bum. It’s not much of a town, measured on a worldly scale, but at least it’s been here for a while and has a certain patina and settled-in feel to it. Garies, by contrast, was a village of run down buildings along potholed streets beneath a thick cloud of grey gloom. So I continued, thinking Kamieskroon couldn’t be worse. But it was. It was so grim I can’t even recollect, as I sit here over my second rather strong craft beer, a single thing about it except that I really didn’t want to be marooned there tonight. Oh, yes, as I write it came back… A small village of not even tarred roads, a ghastly supermarket, a couple of ‘drankwinkels’ (booze shops) and the gloomiest hotel I have seen in years, with a dirt car park fronting a low, tin roofed place with the highway behind it. Everything at that point dripped with fog, not even confident enough to fall as rain, just drizzly, drear greyness. I rode on.

The Masonic Hotel at Springbok has most of its 1940s architecture intact. Including the plumbing, but it’s my style. I laughed as I realised that my style is so different these days! I toured the small town looking for likely rooms. I inspected three rooms – the Springbok Hotel is a two star place with a dull, dark, shadowy room for £14; the Springbok Lodge seems to own half the town, their orange and white livery defining a whole block of buildings all turned into rentable rooms. A single there was £16.75, but it was dingy, dark and chipped, with unsmiling Afrikaans owners. I rode back to the Masonic Hotel, where cheerful Charmaine (bloody hell, the balcony on which I am sitting just dipped, I am sure it did, as four HUGE Afrikaners waddled to the next table), anyway, where the charming Charmaine had shown me a bright en suite room, all white tiled, for £17.60. Well worth a pound more! Time was, though, that I’d’ve battled to save 50p, let alone squander a pound! How my travels have changed. But then, how I have changed – forty years older, if nowt else.

*

North of Clanwilliam I rode through expansive vineyards. This is the coastal wine region of Namaqualand. Doubtless much of the wine is blended into the cheap wine boxes popular in Britain: Namaqua Wine. The vineyards are mainly well irrigated by dams and canalising the rivers. It makes for a neat landscape of regular rows of vines. And green, in this drought-ridden year.

Namaqualand (now Namakwa, since the many name changes after 1994) is famous for its flowering deserts, one of the great sights of South Africa. In spring – about September – the rains that fall on the parched region stimulate the richest bulb flora of any arid region in the world and the deserts flower with vast carpets of daisies – a sight I hope I will see one day, but that unfortunately occurs when I enjoy summer in England! More than 1000 plant species are specific to Namaqualand; unknown elsewhere.

*

It’s quite a long ride out to the coast from the main highway, the N7 from Cape Town to Namibia. This is a remote coastline, notorious for its currents, created by the cold waters. Further north this is the infamous ‘Skeleton Coast’, last resting place of hundreds of ships and thousands of sailors. I rode to Strandfontein and Doringsbaai, the last villages accessible by tarred roads for about 150 miles to the north. Doringsbaai was an ugly sprawl of a small village dominated by an ugly fish landing port but Strandfontein at least supported a pretty fine long beach, stretching north as far as the eye could see, just two people visible in the faint mist that usually pertains here and the spray of the chill waters. There’s a rich ecosystem caused by very heavy concentrations of plankton, particularly famous for its dolphin population.

After a coffee I turned inland again, turning onto a gravel road that cut fifty miles off my return journey to the highway northwards. The first few kilometres almost persuaded me to take the long route, so corrugated were they, almost bouncing the teeth from my head. But I persevered and the track improved. But now the weather was closing in to a drear afternoon. The clouds dropped to just above the dry hills, covered in ‘fynbos’, the heather-like plants that flourish in the dry desert conditions of southern Africa.

Back, at last, on the highway north, I was constantly reminded of the Scottish Highlands. I seemed to be riding over Glencoe for mile upon mile. But of course this was 100 times bigger, brown not green, and there wasn’t a caravan in sight – or much else on this unpopulated road. For a few unpleasant miles the rain set in; first in six weeks. The clouds came down to the road and it all felt even more like Glencoe as I rode in fog after weeks of burning heat!

*

I’ve eaten my lamb curry (£3.70) tonight on an upstairs terrace overlooking the main Voortrekker Street of Springbok. But I always forget just how much South Africans smoke! I will have to leave as I am asphyxiated from all around, restaurant or no. This must be the last bastion of heavy smoking on the globe. I only remember Japan being like this… Oh well, after 280 miles of riding, I am ready to leave anyway. The streets are noisy. I see here, as everywhere I travel in Africa, the problem of alcoholism. In this town there are many ‘drankwinkels’, most surrounded by decrepit old black men weaving in the road and begging inexpertly from a passing white motorcyclist. It’s the worst problem of Ghana and so many other African nations: the inability to control alcohol. It has killed so many tough young men and women since I started travelling to northern Ghana, and this is the pattern of the entire continent. (The ‘stomachs’ are leaving, so I can complete in smoke-free peace. Extraordinary pear-shaped people, one of whom smoked no less than four cigarettes during his meal).

Now the street is noisy from a nearby bar, rather bad thumping music. This is Friday night in Springbok, North West Province, South Africa.

Not a pretty sight. But the Skeleton Coast IPA was good. Anyway, I am pleasantly exhausted.

DAY 47. SATURDAY JANUARY 23rd, 2016. SPRINGBOK, SOUTH AFRICA

Funny how things work out! I was just crossing the street in Springbok, where I had no intention of being tonight, and a car hooted and a voice cried out. Couldn’t be for me, as I know no one within 500 miles.

It was my recent Swiss friends, Hilde and Bernhard! We met at Himeville on the 3rd, again in Clanwilliam this week and now in Springbok. I have sent them off to my hotel across the road and settled in with a craft beer to await their company. And tonight I needed some company: this was one of those pointless days, when travelling just didn’t seem to go right. I did a lot of riding – 350 kilometres (220 miles) and was disappointed by my ride. I went to Port Nolloth, a town on the coast, 55 miles down a tarred desert road. When I got there I found, instead of the tourist brochure’s description of: ‘a cluster of seaside cottages, houses and camping sites make this idyllic bay a popular boating, fishing and cray fishing spot’, I found a spreading rash of nasty seaside bungalows with tin roofs dumped amongst patchy, scrubby dunes and forming a spectacularly untidy, grim place. Not helped by the fog, so commonplace on this coast where the cold currents meet the very hot land, and being accosted by a raging drunk (at 2.00pm), I decided the place had no attraction whatsoever and turned round to ride the 55 miles back to the highway. Once there, I had a choice: ride 70kms north to the Namibian border and search for a suitable hotel or ride 47kms back to the south to the pleasant, bright Masonic Hotel in Springbok. Wasn’t a difficult choice, especially considering craft beer! Of course, I will still have to ride those 47 kilometres yet again tomorrow, for the third time. But for now I have the prospect of drinking and dinner company here in Springbok instead. A happy chance. It’s the way travelling always goes: just when I am dull and grey, something turns up.

*

On my way north to the turn off for Port Nolloth and MacDougal Bay – with its ‘attractive fishermen’s cottages, – Huh, ‘crappy bungalows’ – I rode off up a sandy track to visit some geological formation about which the same tourist brochure waxed academically excitedly. Well, it was fun to ride out into the desert amongst the rocks that seem like a giant demolition site, with vast piles of random rocks casually bulldozed together by nature without vegetation. It’s an astonishing landscape, terrifyingly arid and only giving life to the most tenacious and bizarre forms of aloes and fynbos. The wonderful kokerboom trees seems to be able to find enough sustenance to raise their peculiar forms from amongst the hot, red rocks. The kokerboom is a great life form. It’s not really a tree, but a giant aloe that can grow up to six metres tall and looks just like a child’s drawing of a top-heavy, stumpy tree with thick branches spraying upwards above a thick trunk that is orangey or grey in colour and ‘plated’ like armour. It is a sight that just says ‘desert’ more than any other. Out there in the fynbos, the red piled rocks and the yellow sand tracks, they were terrific to see. The geological formation left me a bit cool: it’s a rare occurrence of molten rock cooling quickly to form sort of flat bubbles in the rock. Interesting, no doubt, to geologists and there’s not much to write about in tourist brochures round here!

Sadly, though, as I clambered amongst the bizarre rocks and kokerbooms in the intense heat, the worst impression – as always in South Africa – was of broken bottles, plastic trash and food wrappings. No on ever takes their rubbish home in this country – and no one comes along and picks it up either. Every viewpoint and touristic stop is surrounded by litter, as are the roadsides almost everywhere – a glitter of broken glass, waving plastic and once-used plastic bottles that bring vast profits to the Coca Cola Corporation at such immense cost to our ecosystem, let alone the view. I am constantly framing trash out of my camera compositions. The camera lies more these days than ever, and mine lies by what I try to leave out…

*

So I turned back to Springbok, oddly silent on Saturday evening, while Friday was so noisy with cars racing up and down Voortrekker Street, and checked back in to room 28 at the hotel. After an unsatisfying day, I needed diversion – and what turned up was good company from Hilde and Bernhard from the small village of Malans in Switzerland, supper and a few drinks together on a balcony above Voortrekker Street, good conversation, comparing travel notes and an amusing evening. They are in the room next door, satisfied with my choice of accommodation. Funny how things turn out.

DAY 48. SUNDAY JANUARY 24th, 2016. GRÜNAU, NAMIBIA

Tonight I am in the middle of nowhere, but that’s not an unusual occurrence in Namibia. This is an absolutely enormous country of 825,000 square kilometres – something over three times the size of Britain; more than twice the size of Germany – with a tiny population of only about 2.1 million, of whom 15% live in Windhoek, the capital, still over another four hundred long miles from where I am tonight – in this middle of nowhere. The town of Grünau is no more than a settlement of a hundred or so people, I guess. There’s a wild west station halt, a semi-closed hotel, a few bungalows, a petrol station and the Grünau Chalets, a group of concrete chalets set in an acre or two of dust beside the petrol station. Desert stretches as far as the eye can see to every horizon. The main north/ south highway steaks away in lines of classic perspective to vanishing points on the distant horizons. That is Grünau.

My chalet is comfortable, quite large, and includes a cooker, sink, fridge, crockery, cutlery, a braai pit, microwave, TV and bathroom. It’s £15.65 but there’s nowhere to eat, so I have cooked a makeshift meal: a huge lamb chop, half a tin of peas, an egg and half a tin of pineapple. The other halves will probably supply tomorrow! There’s a shop of sorts at the petrol station and Roenel, the very helpful manager, with a terrible Afrikaans squeaky accent, sold me the meat from a freezer in the chalet office. It was difficult to believe that I can buy half a kilo of local lamb for £1.25. For LAMB!! “Ya! We sell it to yeww at 60 Namibian dollars a keelo! This is 500 grams. See, theer’s tou single charps and one double one. It’s the best lamb yew’ll eat!” she squawked in her hideous accent but very kindly manner. I told her I’d probably have to pay ten times as much (it’s a long time since I checked the price of best lamb in Britain. I just know I can’t afford it!). “YO!!” she exclaimed, mouth open. And it wasn’t a bad meal, pan-fried lamb chop, peas and an egg. Sadly, Namibia is ‘dry’ from Saturday lunchtime until Monday at 8.00am, so I could only wash it down with fruit juice.

*

I have seen a lot of desert today – well, I’ve been seeing it all week. I slog along under a hot sun at a steady 60mph with desert to every horizon. But even desert, that I always imagined before I experienced it for myself would be so boring, has infinite variation. These are landscapes of such subtlety, changing mile by mile: new colours, new shapes of the hills, great random piles of rock rising from the sand and dust, different vegetation struggling to keep a hold in the arid miles. The clouds drift across the skies, dropping black blots onto the expanses. Distant mountains hold up silhouettes on the boundaries of sight. Bald, smooth granite dome thrust, buttock-shaped, through the scrubby fynbos and scattered rocks. A cliff closes in, millennia of strata visible as I fly by. The wind picks up a spiralling whirl of sand and runs playfully across the surface, twisting it into the shimmering, clear sky. Lines of wires stretch their ugly modernity into the farthest distance, a fragile link between remote habitations, miles and miles apart. Every inch of the road is bounded by an endless wire and mesh fence and I often wonder at the contracts signed to provide literally thousands of miles of fence, and then maintain it. It was in Namibia in 2002 that I met a telegraph pole inspector, one of the most bizarre jobs imaginable, for he had to make a test bore in every pole along the ceaseless highway to check for termite infestation. Boring holes in many ways…

*

Hilde and Bernhard progressed eastwards from Springbok after breakfast, on the long road back towards Johannesburg, while I rode northwards, so we won’t meet again. Their company came at just the right time to lift my spirits yesterday. It’s always the way, and I enjoy the ships that I pass on my roads. We exchanged addresses and they promised they’d be by to drink beers in the Church House Inn some day. The bike tends to detach me somewhat from company of other travellers: many bum-numbing hours riding along on auto pilot, pondering life – and the constant anxiety of an inept mechanic listening for new sounds that presage mechanical disaster!

*

So to the edge of South Africa and the fairly straight-forward formalities of entering the neighbouring country. Eased by linked and interchangeable currencies and similar traffic regulations, laws, excise, languages and habits. My South African machine just needs a £6.50 road tax payment that extends my basic South African universal third party insurance (paid for by petrol duty) and I need no visas as it’s all one linked area. Had I not arrived moments after an overland expedition truck filled with pale, wraithlike teenagers, I’d have been by in minutes.

Then the long ride began again. I am now 100 desert miles from the border, inching my way into this colossal thirsty country, sometimes known as the ‘land God made in anger’. 100 miles of relentless desert, with thousands more to go, makes you appreciate the allusion…

*

So far, this journey is working out about 15% cheaper than last year’s. The exchange rate is suiting my travels very well!

*

Writing just now of the dust devils that rise, twisting over the deserts, reminded me that it’s not often that one overtakes me and I ride through them. Once a few weeks ago it did happen…

…Just as I passed the filthy Wepener landfill site and was engulfed in swirling plastic bags, empty plastic bottles, packaging and paper amongst the brief grit storm! Haha! I rode on laughing and spitting dust from my teeth and brushing scraps from my jacket.

DAY 49. MONDAY JANUARY 25th, 2016. GRÜNAU, NAMIBIA

Some days make all the weary miles of bum-flattening riding worthwhile. This was one. I have been so fortunate, I was reflecting in the hours of today’s riding, delving into the world inside my helmet – so fortunate to have seen so much and been to so many extraordinary places.

Fish River Canyon is generally acknowledged to be the second largest canyon in the world, the only doubt being how you measure them. Fish River Canyon is between 90 and 160 kilometres in length, 27 kilometres wide at its widest and 549 metres deep. It’s pretty huge, in other words. And, unlike the Grand Canyon, not many people even know it exists. It is heavily un-commercialised and difficult to reach, down sixty five miles of sand and dirt roads in the deepest Namib Desert landscape. Without four wheel drive it’s a pretty slow journey. Not many people make it to Fish River Canyon and for most of the time I was there I had this immense split in the earth to myself. It’s formed of two levels with a vast terrace half way down that then drops away dramatically to the mud-filled river far below, audible from the rim in the intense silence. The whole world out there is reddish brown and grey, with the extreme blue of the huge African sky domed overhead. The scale of everything is mind-expanding. The clarity of the air makes distance impossible to judge and increases the scale of the vistas. It is a privilege to be standing on the very edge of that rocky defile just gazing in awe. This is why I keep on travelling.

*

To get to the canyon I had to ride many miles across the desert on a wide sandy and gravel road. These roads need some concentration, for here and there the recent rains (Namibia has bucked the southern African trend and had good rainfall this year) have washed out the surface, leaving patches of soft sand. Generally only ten or twenty yards wide, I have to lock my elbows straight and allow the bike to weave fluidly through the sand, changing down a couple of gears to maintain traction. But l need to see them, so daydreaming isn’t an option! And having no rear brake (Steven’s best attempts failed a day or two after he fixed it and I now have a BMW replacement on order – from Germany!), having no back brake means I need to slow down more carefully on gravel and loose stones.

But despite my concentration I had time to look about from the wide graded track that swept across the desert, largely flat and level and supporting thin dry vegetation. There were warnings of animals and I was, of course, thrilled when five Hartman’s zebras fled across the trail in front of me. A gaggle of ostriches grazed and a few antelopes of various sorts turned and sprang athletically away from my speeding bike. Oddly enough, though, it’s often the almost insignificant things that delight – a six inch lizard running across the rocks, its body sunflower yellow and its head viridian green, scurrying away, an exotic being in this dry, red-brown landscape.

The visual reveal of Fish River Canyon is positively theatrical. Approaching on the long grey dust and stone road from the east, it just isn’t there. Not until you reach the very edge and look down into the plunging depths of barren rock, is it visible. Then it is stupendously big!

*

I roamed the rocky rim for a couple of hours. There are no fences except a hundred yards either side of the newly provided viewing platform (that actually doesn’t have the most spectacular view – that’s half a mile away on a terrible 4X4 track to the north) and the park entrance is ten kilometres back down the dust and stones. In winter you can hike through the canyon, taking five to eight days but it’s closed now for the intense summer heats in the depths.

At last I set off on the journey back to the middle of nowhere chalets at Grünau, stopping at the popular ‘roadhouse’, an upmarket guest house based around an old farm station with collections of antique vehicles dotted amongst the bar tables. All in mid-desert. Lunch is a thing I seldom contemplate on these journeys, but this year I am taking it all a lot easier and more relaxedly. I have no pressure, no real plans and no restrictions of money, especially with the exchange rate at present. I ordered a coffee and a ‘wild wrap’, apparently a ‘wrap’ made from bush meat. ‘Order and be surprised’, said the menu. The surprise was to find the thing blathered in salad cream, smothering any flavour of whatever wild meat it was. Southern African food is frequently a disappointing experience. But then, the wild meat will be very lean and Afrikaners have to keep up the fat content somehow, so that explains the salad cream. If I thought South African Afrikaners were grossly fat, I hadn’t seen the Namibian variety. In two days I have seen two of the biggest men I ever saw. I didn’t imagine they made shorts that big – inverted bell tents! Afrikaans is a major language here amongst the white population. There are also MANY German tourists, oddly attracted to what was for a time a German colony. I discovered today that Namibia was a theatre of the First World War. It was later governed by South Africa and had, I believe, a particularly nasty brand of apartheid imposed for a while. Hopefully, I will find out more if I visit Windhoek.

What’s wrong with silence? Every place in which I have eaten in the past weeks has been filled with universally AWFUL muzak. Sitting in the middle of the Namib Desert I do not want to hear screaming and wailing unintelligible lyrics of the worldwide ‘cultural’ colonisation of the USA. It’s even worse than the ghastly Afrikaans style of country music that has to be heard to grasp just how bad music can get. Afrikaans is an ugly language in any form. In the form of sentimental ballads it is dire. And the Afrikaans nation has a serious propensity for sentimentality – oh, you should see the knickknack shops! Oh boy.

*

Riding back along the desert road I spotted a tree filled with two enormous nests. The social weaver bird is a natural wonder. They nest in giant colonies, perhaps the biggest vertebrate societies based round single habitations apart from man. The nests can be 20 feet long and dozen feet thick. They can get so heavy that they collapse the tree that supports them. The nests can be home to colonies of 500 birds; stay warm in winter when the nights here can be frosty and cool in summer; have their multiple entrances facing downwards, which confounds many larger bird predators, and are astonishing structures. I clambered over the wire road fence to get closer. At the foot of the tree lay a huge nest that had broken the branch that had recently supported it. The size of a small car, the woven sticks and grasses made it an enormous weight and of remarkable strength. It is said that these nest structures can last up to 100 years. On a branch nearby sat a pygmy falcon, which has an interesting relation with the weaver birds, discouraging other predators, but occasionally taking a weaver for themselves. Snakes love these enormous nests, causing great consternation amongst the inhabitants for they are there for the eggs. Each nest has a separate entrance, yet several birds may occupy a single nest. A wonder of nature. I was happy to have spotted it and investigated.

*

Ronoel, the manager with the accent, is the first person who, before even greeting me when I pulled in yesterday, exclaimed, “how OLD are yeww!?” Just as with my mother before me, everyone guesses a decade or more in my favour! No stress, a smile on my face; I feel 36! It’s been a terrific day! Another one. This trip is turning out very well. Fish River Canyon, an African wonder indeed.

DAY 50. TUESDAY JANUARY 26th, 2016. KEETNANSHOOP, NAMIBIA

Sometimes I really piss myself off with my stupid behaviour! One thing about travelling as much as I do – on my own – is that I know myself rather well. There’s not a lot to do but sit and think and analyse one’s own character on some of these journeys. It’s as much an internal journey as an external one, is travelling. I had set my mind, by late afternoon, on staying at Seeheim, a bizarre place I stayed in in 2002. It’s 30-odd miles from Keetmanshoop. Now, a few moments’ delay to visit the tourist office, that was probably open by four o’clock, even though it had been frustratingly closed for a long lunch break when I was in town, would have perhaps elicited the information that Seeheim Hotel has gone considerably upmarket and is now way outside my budget. But did I stop and ask? No! I rode off for 30 miles with a ridiculous faith that it’d be as it was in 2002 – a decade and a bloody half ago.

So it was in high dudgeon – with myself – that I had to hammer the 30 miles back again and start looking for accommodation at 6.00. Fortunately I found it at second strike: a hotel that charges £23, but found me a perfectly adequate en suite broom cupboard for my budget of £17.50. But by then I was hot, dusty and bothered. All my own fault. Bah! Idiot!

*

Well, it wasn’t a very interesting day, on the whole. For 10 Namibian dollars (40pence) I bought a sim card that makes my cheap South African mobile speak Namibian, and with that I had arranged for a new tyre to be brought to Keetmanshoop from Windhoek. My old tyre, bought last year near Cape Town was getting bald – but, oddly enough, only on about one third of its surface – its circumference, not its width! Now how is that? I can only surmise that it was left standing on the same bit of tyre for eight or nine months and that affected the wear pattern. Anyway, I needed to think about replacement before long. Sadly, though, the only tyre the dealer here could get is the very one that I hated so much that I was delighted to find an alternative in Cape Town! Shame, as I am now back to a tyre I really don’t like. With the one we took off today, my bike was like a different machine, one I bonded with much better. I suppose I can use this tyre until I can find the one I like. It will get me back to Bloemfontein at least. But I have no confidence on gravel and sand with this one…

Well, a tyre change and then to a garage to change the oil too. I am a dreadful mechanic but I do rely on my machine working as well as possible. And I do test it rather, the way I ride it!

*

It was 100 miles between Grünau and Keetmanshoop. A hundred miles of nothing but desert. But it’s tinged with green here, for the last few weeks have seen some heavy rain that has given life back to the landscape. Distances are huge, habitations scarce; those that do exist must house people content with their own company and with some insights into a contented life alone in wildernesses. Or, of course, they are barking mad and better alone out there. But truly, you have to be of a certain character to be able to even contemplate a life as lonely as it must be on those farms.

And it will be 100 miles – at least – to the next town…

*

I’m not finding the Namibians naturally warm and friendly. No one smiles. And it’s difficult to raise a response to my smiles. They seem a taciturn lot and suspicious of any friendliness on my part. People look away, or through me. It’s so remarkable how one can instinctively feel these differences between nations. What causes it? How do national characteristics become entrenched?

I also notice the body language between white and black once again, maybe even more pronounced than in even South Africa. The whites around me in the hotel garden tonight, where I ate an undistinguished dinner, seemed to have an impatient, overbearing manner with the black staff. There’s no smiling, no laughter, no social lightness. It’s just business between two people: one serving, one consuming, servant/ baas… Maybe I am oversensitive to the mores and manners? I can only judge by a fairly well-honed instinct and observation.

I talked of the fatness of white Namibians. At the next table tonight, in the garden, sat a huge pear shaped man, sitting quite far back from the table, to accommodate his enormous bulging belly. Then he got up and walked away, his capacious shorts half way down his naked bum. It wasn’t a sight to encourage appetite.

*

About ten miles out of town on a sandy road is the kokerboom forest, now a national heritage site. Here are a large number of the strange kokerboom aloes, naturally growing amongst brown rocks blackened by the intense heat. Here they get a foothold assisted by the rocks against wind. They are a primeval looking tree, a life form that looks out of place in the modern world. Dinosaurs might roam here, but not twenty first century world motorcyclists.

*

My budget box room is home for now. I was reflecting just how many hundreds, even thousands of these sort of rooms I have inhabited over ten years plus of cumulative travelling? They provide respite for a few hours: a door to shut out the world and a place to sleep. My eyes are shut for eight or nine hours, so who cares about the decor? In fact, tonight I have fine starched sheets and complete silence. There’s a window, but it looks out into a three foot wide gulley between buildings. There’s an adequate bathroom and an unwatched TV. I don’t even accept the TV remotes at reception in these hotels any more. I haven’t watched TV for the last nine weeks (nine years?) and I’d have to be pretty desperate to be watching crap South African or Namibian TV now. In a day or two I will be quite unable to put any image to this room that surrounds me as I write. Home for a few hours; forgotten forever, along with thousands of others. It’s not often one stands out!

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