Sunday, February 19, 2017

The End Of The Road

I settled into my hotel room, which was conveniently right in front of the ocean, and slightly inconveniently halfway between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, which are about 25 miles apart.  It’s a long story, but when Germany originally took Namibia it had to cede Walvis Bay, the only possible deep water port between Capetown and Benguela, to Britain.  Thus until 1994 Walvis Bay was actually part of South Africa.  And today Swakopmund gets the tourists and Walvis Bay gets the cargo ships.  In between them is mile after mile and uncounted tons of orange-pinkish sand.

I drove down to Walvis Bay.  Truly not much to see.  But at the southern end of town all of a sudden there was this upscale totally First World housing development.  And white people jogging and bicycling and kite surfing.  After many blocks of that the paved road stopped and a dirt road curved along the bay and towards ever more sand.  First I passed a salt operation with brilliant white mini-mountains of salt.  Then brackish ponds and flamingos.  Hundreds and hundreds of flamingos.  Flamingos to the left of me and flamingos to the right.  All walking with their heads upside down in the water.

Okay, that was cool.  At the end of the road I walked across more sand until I reached the ocean.  Then I turned around and walked back.  Then I drove back up to Swakopmund in search of dinner.

Little had I grasped until then just how severely Namibia shuts down after business hours.  And business hours means 6 PM at the latest.  Even the fast food places shut down.  Streets are deserted, both of pedestrians and cars.

The restaurant I was looking for was closed on Mondays.  It was also closed for all of February.  I stopped what looked like an upscale, sophisticated black Swakopmundian and asked where I could find an, ugh, pizza.  He told me, but as his white wife and multiracial kids showed up I took a wild shot and asked if there might be an Indian restaurant in town.  Yes, they both said, there actually was.  So I went there, stuffed myself with an overpriced thali dinner, and returned to my hotel.

I don’t want to keep sounding like an old man, but this trip had been really wearing.  So once again I slept in on Tuesday.  Anyway, for being such a Namibian tourist magnet, Swakopmund really doesn’t have anything to see or do.  The beaches are okay, but in general the water is too cold for swimming.  As I’ve already mentioned, the ‘old’ German buildings are so spruced up that there’s nothing remotely quaint about them.  I don’t fish.  I certainly don’t dune buggy.

There is a small National Aquarium, and I passed some time there looking at fish swim round and round.  Then I found an area of about thirty craft vendors where I was the only customer, and I haggled over a few small items.  (Maureen doesn’t let me buy large ones.)  Then I tried to find the new mall that I had heard about.

Northern Swakopmund is way bigger and even whiter and more upscale than was southern Walvis Bay.  Apparently South African Afrikaans people are frantically building and buying vacation homes here.  And why not?  Sun, virtually no crime, other people who you can speak Afrikaans to.

You see, Namibia may be technically independent, but in actuality it is a wholly owned subsidiary of South Africa.  And no matter how many black presidents smile down from pictures at government offices, it’s the whites (and the Indians and the mixed race and now the Chinese) who actually run everything.  Apartheid definitely no longer exists, but the situation appears to be something that is somewhere between segregation and integration.

What makes it harder to read is that Afrikaans people and German people aren’t especially known for their smiling cuddliness, so it’s hard to tell what they really feel about all the black people who work around and for them.  They’re not all that open and friendly to me, either, but sometimes when I talk to them they turn out to be the kind of person who would give you the shirt off their back.  If you were another white guy, at least.

The black people are almost uniformly polite, almost demure.  And they really enjoy it when I crack jokes.  (Maybe because no Afrikaans person ever smiles, let alone jokes.)  For all I know they all could be secretly seething with anger.  But I don’t think so, because they really seem to be cup half full types.  And they’re not dumb.  They know that it’s a symbiotic relationship, and they know that they are light years ahead of blacks in Zimbabwe or Zambia or Angola.  After all, the great majority of people walking around these fancy First World supermarkets are black.

Speaking of which, I finally found the new mall and walked around it a bit.  Then I drove around the upscale enclave some more, marveling at how much like Southern California this was, only newer, neater, and nicer.  Then I found a branch of the downtown restaurant which was closed for February, had my meal, and drove back home across the sand.

Wednesday morning it was time to leave civilization behind once again and head out towards the great Namibian desert.  First a hundred miles across featureless sand and gravel on a gravel road on which I could easily do 65.  Unfortunately, so could others, and a flying rock chipped my windshield.  And it wasn’t even my fault!  Hopefully Platinum Credit Card will come through for me once again.

The road then turned south, got much slower, and interesting mountainscapes started appearing.  After another hundred miles or so I came upon a gas station/rest stop conglomeration called Solitaire.  As I was filling up I heard an American accent, and it turns out that some American guy owns the place.  He was only the fifth American that I’ve met since I started this trip.  But he was too busy running his business to really hang out and talk.

By now of course the sun was hotter than hell on an empty highway.  And soon I was driving into the darkness for one more day.  Almost all of the lodges out here are super expensive, but there was one in my guide book that was somewhat out of my way but semi-reasonable.  When I pulled in, though, the reception guy sadly informed me that there were no available rooms.  What?  Most places I’ve been I’ve been their only customer.  And then a lady pulls in after me and says that she’s been turned away at six lodges in a row.

I start mentally preparing for a night sitting in my tiny car.  But there was one other place, a Christian retreat some 25 miles back.  Surely a Christian wouldn’t refuse a weary traveler!  When I got there though I discovered that it was no longer a Christian retreat, but now an upscale lodge.  Howsoever, since they were new and off the road, I was now their only prospective customer for the night.  We agreed on $65, which got me a room that really wasn’t very upscale at all.

It didn’t really matter, because I was up at 6 the next morning.  Today was my day for the sand dunes.  You see, that’s why there’s all these tourists and upscale lodges around here: Namibia’s famous thousand foot high pinkish-orange sand dunes.  And if you don’t show up to see them near dawn, the heat of the day will kill you.

However, by the time I drove to the entrance along a long, slow, bumpy road, then paid my fees, then drove another 40 miles to the 2 wheel drive parking lot, and finally hitched a ride with a 4x4 for the last three miles it was 10 AM.  And hot.  I then joined all the other tourists in trudging a half km or so up and over deep sand to get to a place where there were dead trees on a small salt pan surrounded by sand dunes.

So here’s my report on the place: The dunes are all pinkish-orange and fine and dandy if you’re already in the area.  But don’t drop everything and mortgage the house in order to see them.  Like most of the rest of the world, they’re over-hyped.  They didn’t even look 1000 feet tall.  At least I wasn’t idiotic enough to climb one, like all the tour group ants working their way up the spine of Dune 45.

Of course, on my way out Dune 45 was empty.  It was now really dreadfully hot.

But although the National Park wasn’t incredibly astounding, the drive to and fro across the desert was certainly fulfilling.  Empty, empty, empty, with spiny mountains all around and the occasional oryx, with their 4 foot long absolutely straight horns, walking by.  There was a lot of distance to cover, and I was doing it slowly and rattlingly.  I was also kind of wiped out from the heat.  So when I got to the absurdly isolated gas station at Betta I inquired about a room, and, once again being their only customer, was given room number 1.

Now this was as middle of nowhere as nowhere can get.  Not even wifi.  Although in Namibia there is always hot water.  In fact it is scaldingly hot, and you have to do a 1 to 10 ratio with the cold.  I had a little canned food, which was good, because, like I said, that was all she was going to write.  When the sun went down I finally remembered to go outside and look at the stars.  As you may know, the Southern Hemisphere has way more stars than the Northern.  After a long while I ended up figuring out that I was seeing the circumpolar Southern Cross, but it was presently sideways.

Friday I was up and out early.  The dirt roads were really empty now, the sand had turned to ugly light brown, it was all around me, and at one point I was all alone driving uphill through sand like I was trying to get through 6-8 inches of snow.

But I finally hit the paved road again at the non-town of Aus.  A right turn and then 80 miles or so into Luderitz.  At this point all pretense of scenery had vanished, and it was endless ugly sand and gravel.  And when you get to Luderitz you realize that you’ve really reached the end of the road.

How to describe Luderitz?  Let’s start with Death Valley By The Sea.  Then throw in old German buildings, not grand ones, but boxy loaf-of-bread ones from the turn of the last century with a few striking Lutheran churches sticking up here and there.  This is true honest to God bleak desolation, and the reason for its existence is, incredibly ironically enough, a diamond boom from 1900.  This is still a diamond mining area, and travel anywhere for several hundred miles up and down the coast is strictly verbotten.  There are also palm trees.

As I checked into my hotel I was informed that there would be a hurricane this weekend.  Hmm, something else I hadn’t planned for.  Actually, there was a giant typhoon slamming into the Indian Ocean coast of South Africa.  And by the time it reached Namibia there would just be lots of rain.  Except that we wouldn’t get the rain.  Only lots and lots and lots of wind.  It was already constantly 30 mph.

Well, the weekend was just going to be for resting up anyway.  And I had achieved my goal of finding a place which was sufficiently weird ass for me to do it in.  I mean, seriously hard core weird ass.  I was in end of the road heaven.

On weekends in Namibia everything shuts down at 1 PM.  Everything.  No traffic, no pedestrians, the whole town is on lockdown.  But it was all so windy that there was nothing to do but stay in your room anyway.  Fortunately mine looked out over the small bay.  And I really needed the rest.  At around 3 I made an attempt to drive out to the Luderitz peninsula, but the wind was so ridiculous that my car was getting sandblasted.  I gave up, returned to my room, and watched a ridiculously bad Nicholas Cage movie.

By Sunday the wind had died down somewhat, but I was busy resting, writing and trying to organize the gigantic mess that my possessions had become.  At 2 I made another attempt at the peninsula.  No sandblasting this time, so I took the 18 km gravel road to Diaz Point.

This was now desolation cubed.  I had always considered Patagonia to be the bleakest place that I’ve been to, but here I had a contender.  Ugly sand, ugly gravel, ugly rocks, but all jumbled around so that it had an omigod-this-is-bleak air about it.  To top it off, the ocean surrounding it was ugly and grey and choppy.

When I reached the end of the end of the road the wind was at least 50 mph.  I staggered across the short rocks to where up on top of a tall rock was a cross commemorating Bartholomew Diaz’s stop here in 1488.  It was quite the poetic evocation to imagine some Portuguese guy in a 15th Century boat trying to find his way around Africa and ending up here.

It was also a fitting end to my own journey.  And although I am slightly annoyed that no one else knows or cares how fiendishly difficult this was to plan and execute, that’s okay.  I know and I care.  Because this was a capstone to all the other little trips that I’ve taken, starting with that overland passage to India in 1970.  I’ve pretty much done it all now.  And I can retire.

Except of course if Libya miraculously stabilizes.  And then there’s that circumnavigation of Australia.  And then…  Nah.  If I’m stampeded by a herd of oryx tomorrow I’m not going to regret that I never made it to the Maldive Islands.

200 is plenty enough.


At 4:02 PM, Anonymous Eric said...

Maldives have the most beautiful beaches on earth... Why don't you go with Maureen as a conclusion to your journeys : "end of legendary trek" honeymoon ;)

Otherwise I'll go there and to timor leste for you :)))

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