Bundu bashing through Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe: Noisy generators and peeling Ghost Towns

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We were back in the land of cell phone reception and an internet connection, after a week of travelling through southern Namibia. It was a blisteringly hot Friday in Windhoek (no wind in the ‘windy corner’). The dadster had gone off to get the side seals on the Land Cruiser fixed and buy some provisions. I was hogging the shade of the tent trying to write and not keel over because of the previous night’s over indulgence.

A quick recap. Last Saturday we crossed the South Africa – Namibia border at Vioolsdrif. Due to the combination of a slack border official and our own inattention we managed to leave South Africa without exit stamps in our passports. So we got chased out of Namibia, recrossed the (very dry) Orange River and returned with the exit stamps. You got to love officialdom.

Since one of our travelling philosophies was to try and stay off the beaten track where possible, we took the D212 gravel road through the Aussenkehr Nature Reserve, in stead of the B1 tarmac that cuts an artery through the middle of Namibia. A vast (and I mean VAST) moon landscape with not a blade of grass in sight. Not even an hour in the country and the place was already making me feel insignificant.

After about 30 kilometres of the area’s stark beauty, we headed north on the C37 to the Ai-Ais Hot Springs. Expecting to see a run down generic resort we were pleasantly surprised to see a neat and well maintained place. Apparently it had a recent N$30 million face lift and some of that showed in the spacious restaurant and bar/patio area. We skipped the spa though, since no treatment could make us look any prettier, and pushed north to the Hobas campsite. Usually quite busy with overlanders, wanting to do the short 10 km stretch to the Fish River Canyon, we were in luck and almost had the whole place to ourselves. There was just one other vehicle parked on the far side of the campsite. The excitement of erecting my roof top tent for the first time was quickly subdued by almost toppling off the Land Cruiser’s roof and breaking my neck. I could see a love/hate relationship developing soon.

With the tents up, we drove the 10 km road to an impressive look-out over the Fish River canyon. I took a few scenic pictures and moped, because usually you are able to do the five day hike through the canyon during the dry season, but due to heavier than normal rainfall the canyon was still flooded. Since I am a big fan of Johan Bakkes’s travel memoirs, and especially the one in which he described his last hike with his father through the canyon, I really wanted to do the hike. C’est la vie.

Back at the camp we had our first braai (or barbecue in international parlance) on Namibian soil. I made a carrot salad and got out a few apples to munch on before seeing to the meat on the grid, while my dad was struggling with his tent. Remember, I’m upstairs in my rooftop tent and he is downstairs in his ground tent, just like Downton Abbey. As I turned my back, a baboon that was lurking around earlier, strolled up and grabbed some apples in an almost lackadaisical fashion. I shouted at my dad to chase the bastard away. I mean, I was not getting involved with a potentially rabies infected wild animal – I was the cook. Baboon gone, good food, clean amenities, quiet camp site; we thought we had struck it lucky. Not to be – after turning in early, we were woken up by the roar of the camp’s generator kicking in at some ungodly hour. Perish the good night’s rest.

Sleep deprived we set off early the next morning towards Luderitz on Namibia’s west coast. Once again vast open plains, this time with a sprinkling of desert grass, and a back drop of mountain ranges shimmering in the distance. All that open space would be an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare. Alternatively, those who are choking in the daily rat race of city life, would feel like they could breathe properly again. First pit stop was at the Canon Road House – a bit of a tourist landmark with its ’50s automobile wrecks and signature cheese cake.

Our second stop was at Seeheim, which used to be an old German outpost and now boasted one hotel, the Seeheim Hotel, which in effect was the whole of Seeheim. The hotel was rather quirky with a small bar full of bizarre bric-a-brac, and it even offered a taxidermy service. After a few beers we hit the 333 km road west towards Luderitz. Just before the village of Aus, I spotted what I was convinced were the legendary wild horses of the Namib. Since they are usually only spotted in the distance, being feral and all, I thought I was quite lucky to be able to take a few close up pics. My dad was not convinced, he thought I took some really good pictures of a farmer’s free roaming horses. After a brief stop at Aus’s information centre, where they had pictures of the wild horses and their distinctive markings, I was not convinced either. But hey, horses + desert = wild horses in my book.

After Aus the road ran between the Sperrgebiet (Forbidden area) in the south and the gigantic Namib Naukluft park in the north. The Sperrgebiet is one of those human constructs that tends to give me an uncomfortable feeling about capitalism. It is a no-entry zone where alluvial diamonds were mined by first German, then South African monopoly concessions. Once again local people were marginalised from the wealth of their land. All over the world there are unscrupulous fat cats who made their fortunes from assets that weren’t theirs to start with. Basically stolen riches. Fractional banking and derivatives, anyone?

Closer to Luderitz things started getting windswept and desolate with lots of sand on both sides of the road. Luderitz itself was not exactly an oasis in the desert. A weak winter sun illuminated peeling German colonial era buildings, many of them derelict. And being a Sunday, not a soul to be seen. I actually expected a film director to jump out from behind one of the buildings, shouting at us to get off the set of Ghost Town 2. Bravely we continued to Shark Island, a promontory jutting into the freezing Atlantic, where the local camp site was located. To make a long story short, the camp site looked like something out of Lord of the Rings, and not cute Hobbiton, more like an orc nest in Mordor. The icy wind howled and dust covered everything that was not occupied by gigantic boulders. I almost wet myself at the idea that my dad will want to tough it out and submit us to a night of horrors in that awful place. Fortunately the lack of sleep the previous night was a reliable ally and we went in search of a cheap backpackers. Eventually we were rewarded with a run-down backpackers situated a few blocks from the ocean. Occupied by a sole guest – a very strange Englishman with a Mancunian accent, who looked like he got lost, ended up there and just made peace with it. That or he had smoked enough ganja to cook his brain.

After dumping our bags in our separate rooms, we went for a walk down to the Luderitz Yacht Club. I use ‘yacht club’ in the broadest sense – more like a bingo hall with a bar counter. We endured two beers before we left again, due to a bearded troglodyte hurling racist comments at the barman and swearing like those were the only words his pea sized brain could manage. Luderitz was not earning any credit points. My dad decided to go to bed early and I decided to find a bar. A bar called, wait for it – Rumours. Yeah, there are rumours that Rumours is as dead as a doornail. Not having any other options – seemed like Sundays in Luderitz were not big – I stayed and watched Manchester City claim the Premier League title for the first time in 44 years. As if I cared.

Boredom creates opportunity I often think. Opportunity to get yourself into deep dang. The Nama barman, Ferdinand, asked if I wanted to play some pool. Two hundred pool games and four hundred beers later I stumbled after him to a shebeen in the location. I don’t think those guys have ever seen a rat-arsed whitey in their local before. After enduring lots of beady eyed looks from the patrons, who all looked unemployed and unemployable, I put my best Hollywood smile on, and with a gregariousness enhanced by a truck load of beer, I introduced myself, professed an interest in the Ovambo and Nama languages, and complimented the head unemployable on his Manchester United scarf. Buddies for life. After watching Ferdinand munch through an impromptu dinner of tripe (intestines and stomach of some animal), my intestines and stomach decided it was time to crawl back to the backpackers.

Luderitz is not a pretty town, but I am glad we went there. Too often visitors steer away from the not so picturesque areas of a country and miss an opportunity to gain some insight. I definitely had my first introduction to Namibians, a fascinating Nama, Herero, Damara, Ovambo, German Namibian and Afrikaner tapestry.

Ferdinand was a slight guy with a gap toothed smile because of a missing tooth. He didn’t make much money as a barman, and didn’t even get a meal during his twelve hour shifts, but he gave this drunken lout the time of day and showed me a part of Luderitz that most tourists don’t see. He spoke fluent English, Afrikaans, Nama, Herero and Ovambo, and told me that he had done a diploma course in tourism. My question is: are there enough sustainable opportunities for competent people like him? Luderitz may be a bit of a dump now, but there is definitely potential to cash in on the tourist market. But then the local role players would have to show initiative and maximise the assets they have. I mean for goodness sake, at least make a plan to paint all those peeling buildings. OK, I will get off my soap box … for now …

[This is an extract from the travel memoir, The eat, pray, drive chronicles, by Marc Steyn. Get your copy of the ebook here.]

“A semi-serious, often tongue-in-the-cheek account of a two month trip through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe. Join the author and his dad as they explore the beautiful landscapes of southern Africa, confront inner demons, and always seem to be within reach of a cold one …”

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