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Published: September 1st 2010
Travel in Namibia without your own car involves a lot of waiting around
The World Cup - my ultimate travel goal in Africa - has been and gone. My clothes are torn with an uncountable number of holes in them. My ill-tempered tent has holes in it. Even my beleaguered, long suffering flip flops have holes in them, making walking a hazardous occupation (though they've been spared any action in South Africa as Cape Town's cold climes are hardly conducive to the donning of such flimsy footwear). I am exhausted after many months stuttering down this continent. I am in dire need of regular sleep, regular meals, just regularity full stop. A flight home really should be the next step.
The obvious remedy for such tortuous woes is, of course, Namibia. There's a bus from Cape Town to Keetmanshoop? Oh, go on then, you've twisted my arm. After initial plans to take a car fall through I still team up with two travellers I've met in Cape Town, C (Canadian) and K (Hong Kong Chinese), both a few years older than me and both just touched down in Africa for the World Cup.
It feels fantastic to be moving again. Despite waves of nostalgia for Cape Town I soon get
that sublime rush from heading into the unknown; the tingle of excitement that motivates me to travel. The hypnotically barren and unremitting wilderness of the Northern Cape does not deter my enthusiasm for being on the road once more. Arriving at the border late in the evening we breeze through the South African side only to be confronted by a power cut at Namibian immigration - welcome back to Africa! It takes a long time for them to process everyone on our bus as the lights go on and off more times than a disco strobe. Consequently we rock up at Keetmans late, around 1:30am. With no desire to hunt for accommodation in the cold and blustery night we hunker down in the surprisingly well equipped petrol station where we are deposited by Intercape. They even have a large flat screen TV on which we get to enjoy/suffer five hours of South African Idols.
As the sun breaches the horizon we hike the 4km into town, stopping at the turning to Luderitz. Unfortunately, having watched plenty of traffic go by from a distance, the flow of cars dries up to coincide with our appearance at the junction. We
wait for a while, watching the spectacle of a Chinese foreman trying to direct a bunch of Namibian labourers on a nearby construction site. It is a hilarious contrast in work ethics. The Chinese man runs about lambasting his charges, and physically encouraging them to work by doing things himself, though his frequent howling in Mandarin probably don't make it easy for them. As soon as he charges over to another part of the site they down tools and proceed to lounge about. It's not even 9am but already they can't be bothered with the rest of the day's work. Spotting him about to return they return to a half-hearted pretence at being industrious, digging randomly with spades or wheelbarrowing rocks to nowhere in particular.
Hitching turns out to be rather a futile endeavour with three people and their luggage so we relocate to another petrol station where we are told minibuses stop. It's well over five hours after our arrival before we finally get going post-lunch. An agonising three of these are spent waiting for the minibus to fill up. During this time we set off and return five times to the same garage with no discernible
purpose except to procure a trailer on one occasion. The driver shows no interest in picking up more people, maybe he's just as bored as us. In our rounds I get to observe just how wide and dusty the streets are. The houses are spaced out with plenty of grassless garden fenced off. The place is frighteningly empty apart from two rambling children and one lady who I spot galloping about on a horse. Namibia has a population of just over two million in an area of 825,000 square kilometres, which is one of (I think the second) lowest population densities on the continent. It shows.
Back at the gas station I watch as one guy cleans his ear using a screwdriver as a cuetip, and the obligatory gaggle of guys, who are floating aimlessly about, wolf-whistle a bunch of barely teenage girls, which is rather disgusting. Unsurprisingly they are shown the finger. I also become aware of the fondness of the locals for hats. I have a real pet peeve about people who wear hats for any other purpose than protection from the sun or warmth in winter. Yet I am fascinated by the variety of hats
displayed by Namibians. Women almost always prefer the colour and frilliness of flowery shawls, while men go way beyond the usual baseball caps and angling hats I've routinely seen on my travels. Trilbies and especially wide brimmed cowboy hats are in vogue and already I've seen a few men with the flat woollen caps of a style your grandfather might be overly fond of.
Cruising along the 300+km to Luderitz allows us to appreciate the overwhelming, inhospitable beauty of the Namib Desert, with its seemingly limitless sea of sand and looming rocky outcrops. The road shimmers with the pounding heat of the sun and I marvel at the survival skills of a Gemsbok and Desert Fox which I spot. There are frequent signs indicating the remaining distance, probably to reassure drivers that they are actually making progress (otherwise how the hell would they know!) and to stop them nodding off. The last town before Luderitz is Aus. From here there is a now defunct railway leading to Luderitz - I always find railway lines which have been overpowered by nature a fascinating spectacle. One hundred years ago the German colonisers constructed the 120km line in just ten months.
An impressive achievement in such a hostile environment! Especially considering that, 100 years later, the current Namibian regime has undertaken to repair and re-lay it. They began in 2003 and the earliest estimate for completion is 2013, a minimum of ten years!
I like Luderitz with its funky, German flavoured architecture. It's very much a white enclave, with a significant Afrikaner population for such a small settlement; despite people's claims of a significant German impact on Namibia, from my experience this is limited to the buildings, while Afrikaner culture acquired from South Africa is far more dominant. We camp at the only cheap hostel for a couple of nights before moving to a Peace Corp volunteer's house via the medium of Couchsurfing, which is something I intend to pursue much more in the future!
On our third day we manage a side trip to the diamond boom ghost town of Kolmanskop. With no transport of our own we are obliged to hitch. We don't have our big packs with us now but still people don’t want to pick us up, despite the gaping emptiness of many a 4x4's back seat. It doesn't escape my notice that
almost all the traffic is white people (many of whom look like tourists). Clearly when researching their holidays they've read too many apocalyptic warnings about the dangers of picking up hitchers here and in South Africa. I can't deny that we probably look a little rough around the edges, but their refusal to even acknowledge us is a little galling.
Fortunately we are picked up by someone working at Kolmanskop just in time to make the 9:30am tour, where we are joined my many of the people who so callously sped past us. It is short and well presented with plenty of interesting facts. I'll rattle off a few. Although it only lasted 51 years, in its heyday Kolmanskop boasted a bowling alley, Olympic standard swimming pool, casino and hospital which could hold 250 patients for a town that never exceeded 500 inhabitants. The hospital, now one of the most sand swept and eerie buildings, even contained the first x-ray machine in southern Africa: to stop people smuggling out diamonds in their stomachs. At its peak, between 1908 and 1914, 20% of the world's diamond supply was processed in Kolmanskop, a mere 5 million carats worth! The inhabitants
would literally crawl along the sand on their stomachs and make a fortune in a single day.
We shuffle about the dunes now lapping over the abandoned settlement, enjoying the brooding atmosphere of the place, which surprisingly isn't too spoilt by the ample number of visitors or the distant activity at a tiny domestic airport in the background. After three hours we decide to submit to the sun and look for a lift out. Nobody seems to have come for the 11am tour because all but two cars have vanished. Both have space, but of course neither offer any sympathy. A couple more show up too late to make the 1pm closing time and after glaring at us promptly turn around and drive off, kicking up a storm of dust. Kindly, a different member of staff takes pity on us and we make it back to Luderitz for a late lunch.
In all, we spend six relaxed nights in the town, mostly playing volleyball with some local guys and wandering about the windy streets marvelling at the architectural beauty of the place. It is an excellent start to our time in Namibia.
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