TheFinalLeg

“Good morning”, I was greeted politely. “Good trip?” Dumbly standing at the desk facing the pretty Namibian Immigration officer I wasn’t sure what language to address her in, so it was a relief to hear her English. “You look smart in your outfit!” She smiled, referring to the grubby, road stained riding gear! The formalities were quick and efficient and within five minutes I was done. The carnet was stamped into the Southern African area so wouldn’t be needed again for a while.

Crossing at the border post to Oshikango in Namibia from Namacund on the Angolan side was truly a culture shock - Third to First World. Though only separated by a few metres the contrast was marked. A seemingly disorganised, colourful, noisy and heaving mass of hopeful migrants on one side - belongings in bundles, on backs, carried on heads, used as seats - milled about the emigration office. I chatted to a group of five young women laughing and flirting with the official while waiting to get their permits stamped to leave Angola. They were regular visitors to Namibia to buy clothes to import back up to Lubango and Benguela - everything apparently is cheaper south of the border. Except petrol. The Namibian side was impressively efficient - from the air conditioned border control buildings to the white direction arrows in the neat car park like any modern shopping mall.

Having to adjust to riding back on the left hand side of the road I headed off, marvelling at the immaculate tarmac and road markings, the road signs in English, the cluster of South African chain stores catering for the cross border traffic. And everything was so spaciously and tidily laid out! Motoring on - thats how it felt like on the smooth roads - I smiled at the prevalence of bars along the roadside. Small one roomed structures for the most part - ‘Lucky Boy Shebeen’, ‘The New Step’, ‘Top Five Bar’... Further south the flat landscape became more bare and dry, reverting to scrubby bush. Pulling into a filling station, as they are called here, I had my first taste of boerewors, the ‘farmers sausage’ popular in this part of the world. Made from beef, it usually needs bread to soften the distinctive sharp spiced taste. I liked it.

My destination was the mining town of Tsumeb. As I halted at the Stop sign before turning into the town, by amazing coincidence another overland biker on a Honda Transalp arrived at the opposite side of the junction precisely the same time! The only bikers I’d met the whole trip were Tomas and Stellan the two Swedes on KTM’s in Gabon. We exchanged greetings and I followed him the few minutes to Mousebird hostel, a converted suburban house in a leafy side street. Ennio Cavalucci, from Italy, had come down the east coast of Africa and across Botswana to arrive here. Ennio had been travelling by bike around the world for fourteen years he proudly told me. Formerly a professional racing driver, he now had his own agricultural machinery business which allowed him work the five months of summer leaving him free to pursue his travel interests the rest of the year.

Settling into the comfortable hostel was a treat. Though I elected to pitch my tent in the garden, all the home comforts were available - hot shower (the first in months), fully equipped kitchen, satellite TV and the friendly English speaking German host Monica. That evening I was excitedly looking forward to treating myself to a good meal. I strolled through the quiet neighborhood of neat, well tended gardens surrounded by electric security fences and across the manicured public park to the Miners Hotel. My diet the previous few months had been very limited - I had a T-bone steak in mind! Seated outside in the balmy evening, it was amusing to observe this throwback to an apparently earlier time. White middle aged couples occupied a few tables. Later a small group of Afrikaans speaking twenty somethings sat down, the males tanned, fit and affluent looking, the girls blond and pretty. Three older men, possibly farmers, sat inside at the bar. The music was from an era of my parents parties in my childhood - easy listening sixties covers, Henry Mancini and James Last. The formally dressed bar and waiting staff were deferential and black. My eyes were bigger than my stomach and after making my way through beer, a huge steak with rich chicken liver sauce and the trappings, apple crumble, wine and coffee, I stumbled home regretting my over indulgence - a kid in a sweet shop.

The following day myself and Ennio hired a small car and drove the hour to Etosha Game Reserve. I had heard the name but wasn’t prepared for the scale of the place and the abundance of wildlife we saw. This I was to discover is one of the best game reserves in southern Africa, and relatively cheap compared to most others.

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We came across all manner of antelope - blesbok, springbok, eland, kudu - elephants, zebra everywhere, and in the shade of a small tree resting from the afternoon heat, a lion and lioness. They were three metres from us, posed majestically, the male with an impressively full mane. We sat in the car in their presence for maybe twenty minutes, in awe at their magnificence. I now understood the rule against allowing motorbikes into the park!


Werner and Claudia had arrived at the hostel after having spent time holidaying in Namibia. They too had come down the West coast of Africa on bikes and we spent the evening comparing notes and swapping stories over my first wine purchase here, a delicious bottle of Laborie I had bought at the supermarket for the equivalent of €5! They had ridden from Cabinda to Boma across the border in the D.R.C. and hired a pirogue to take them and the bikes from Banana to Soyo in Angola for $300 each - quite steep. Where I had taken the road south from Luanda through Benguela to Lubango, they had taken the main road inland through Huambo, in the company of other Germans in a Land Cruiser, so we couldn’t compare notes on the infamous Benguela to Lubango road! The road then to the border had taken them 14 hours as the 4 wheel drive had to take things a lot slower. I had done it in more like eight or nine hours. A bike can proceed a lot quicker over the potholed roads.

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A rest day in Tsumeb to catch up with some things was in order. Strolling through the centre of town in the hot sun, I spotted the local SWAPO party headquarters, the revolutionary image a little out of place it seemed in this Afrikaner stronghold.
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In an internet office, I was honoured to meet Lucy, who shyly told me when I complimented her hairstyle, she was the first girl in this conservative town to shave her head.


It was then onwards towards the capital Windhoek. The five to six hour ride gave a taste of the Africa I remembered from childhood - hundreds of miles of dry and barren ‘veldt’ as far as the eye could see, the expanse broken by bare rock rising from scrubby plains in the heat.

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Windhoek has a distinct German influence, the language spoken to me in some shops I entered (I was mistaken as German) and there are even enough speakers to support a German language newspaper. My first task here was to collect a parcel from DHL - tyres, chain and sprockets and a few other bits and pieces organised by Iggy at Blakestown Motorcycle Tyres, my equipment coordinator in Dublin and generously paid for by Uncaged in Arklow. My previous collection of tyres in the Cameroon capital of Yaounde had been an ordeal taking a few days and a sum of money to release. Here I was out of the office in five minutes after signing the docket, delivery in hand and no fees! The other priority in Windhoek was a much needed visit to the BMW dealer. One of the bike’s fork seals had begun leaking in Gabon, and though I’d managed to stem the flow somewhat, it had worsened through punishment on the Angolan potholed roads. I knew there was a BMW dealer in Windhoek and was confident I could nurse the bike that far. Luckily they had a new fork seal in stock. Coincidentally a few weeks previously another F650 Dakar that came through Africa had been in getting their leaking fork seals replaced as well.

My first night in Windhoek I stayed in the Cardboard Box hostel, a popular spot for the partying backpacker set, then moved to the quieter ‘Puccinis’ where I pitched my tent. It was a haven - friendly hosts, tastefully designed and decorated, green(!) grass and swimming pool. Memories of my time in the city include a gourmet lunch at ‘Nice’ (a name I didn’t think much of until I discovered it was an acronym for Namibian Institute of Culinary Education’ which seemed quite clever); enjoying a few glasses of chilled South African Riesling in ‘The Wine Bar’ looking down over the city to the dry and barrren Namibian plains in the orange glow of sunset; and delicious salads and apple crumble at the Craft Centre cafe which I visited a number of times! This was an opportunity to indulge myself in the sensual pleasures - well, gastronomic anyway. One of my restaurant visits - good quality food was so reasonably priced here - was to an institution by the name of Joe’s Beerhouse where I tried a kudu steak which had been recommended as one of the nicest game meats. I was disappointed - juicy and tender though to me a bit flavourless. While sitting at the bar, I overheard an Irish accent. Des from Galway had been working over here two years and loved the country. He was trying to get citizenship, a difficult procedure, and wasn’t confident he would succeed. Bizarrely a little later, another Irishman, an older gentleman, was ordering at the bar. We chatted a while, he was on a holiday tour here, and it turned out Michael O’Dea knew my dad! When he heard I was in Namibia as part of a charity motorcycle ride, that I had played rugby for Bective Rangers and Leinster Rugby were supporting my trip, he offered to get me on a national drive time radio program ‘The Right Hook’. (He was true to his word. A few weeks later I was interviewed by his pal George Hook on his program and managed to get in a decent plug for the charity ‘Self Help’.)

After a week lapping up western food, good wine, catching a film - ‘Blood Diamonds’ with an impressive performance by Leonardo Dicaprio in a far fetched tale - I had tired of this less than exciting city of shopping malls. I had my haircut, was well fed and rested, the website was updated and the bike was back in good shape. It was time to move on.

Directly west from Windhoek, the minor C28 dirt road meanders across the bare scrubby hills, and over the scenic Bosua pass. Below that stretches the parched waterless Namib plains all the way to the coast. Over the following few weeks I was to ride through scenery that was... magnificent, awe-inspiring, staggering at times and in the extraordinary crystal clear light found in this part of the world - often other worldly. I revelled in it, often getting off the bike to feel more a part of the expanse of wilderness and desert I was riding through. With the engine switched off, and my helmet off, there was barely any sound - just emptiness and huge space under the baking hot sun. It was humbling. Snapping away on my camera I knew I couldn't hope to replicate the majesty of what I was experiencing.

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Gigantic Namib Desert sand dunes - one is claimed to be the highest in the world - stretch hundreds of miles to the coast. At stunning Sossusvlei in the still, desert heat remote from any water source, is the remarkable Deadvlei where the Tsauchab river, flowing just once or twice a year after rains in the nearby mountains, ends in a moonscape of dessicated and bleached trees on a bed of white mineral salts, in a dune valley. The vista is otherwordly.

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I was avidly reading an engrossing book I had come across in Windhoek, “The Sheltering Desert” written by a German geologist, Henno Martin. Familiar with and having a fondness for this part of the world, along with a friend at the beginning of the Second World War, they made their escape into the desert to avoid internment by the Allies. The remarkable story details how they and their dog survived two and a half years living off the land in the extreme conditions of the Namib. As well as recounting the daily difficulties in their constant struggle for water and food in this harshest of environments, at the same time he beautifully describes a fascinating terrain. Near the Kuiseb Pass I took a diversion to investigate one spot they were based, climbing up to a cave they had made home.

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Unsurprisingly in this at times overwhelming desert environment, any town is of secondary interest. On the coast surrounded by sand and dunes, under a seemingly semi-permanent cool ocean mist, the much vaunted party and activity centre Swakopmund didn’t do a whole lot for me. Booking into one of the many backpacker hostels, I was allocated a dorm by the smartly suited girl on duty. “Thez only wun maw in the room,” she said in a strong Afrikaans accent. “Its ok”, she added conspiratorialy, “zwaht”. It took me a few seconds to understand she was reassuring me about my dorm mate’s race.

The distances are immense, hour after hour without changing gear and the gravel roads are excellent, though a few times sandy which kept me focussed! The idea was to keep in the tracks made by cars, as that was the firmer surface. Riding along at a steady 80 kph could be a little dangerous when you come upon a looser, sandier surface, or have to change tracks! There were a few adrenalin moments and I realised these were the risky riding conditions in which I could have an accident - less vigilant as I was nearing the end of the trip, in a developed country with good roads.

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Lodges account for most of the accommodation options throughout this part of Namibia, and many of them cater for camping as well, allowing me home comforts for the equivalent of €5. One of these lodges, in a beautiful setting near the outpost of Solitaire, the only filling station for hundreds of miles is owned by Walter, a gregarious and friendly host, and his wife. An Afrikaans Namibian in his mid thirties, he had an interesting story to tell when I asked about water availability in this desert climate. “When I bought this farm eight years ago, there was only the one borehole (well). I needed more water but they all told me it wasn’t possible. I have since then five more boreholes! I have a gift of finding water you see.” He explained how, when he was above a water source, he could feel it. Pointing at the swimming pool he added that sometimes the effect of the water became too much for him, when cleaning the pool he would become faint. Such was his success at finding water, neighbors began asking for his advice and he had a number of stories of how he would walk a piece of land, get ‘the feeling’ and point at the spot where the well should be sunk. He reckoned he had about 90% success. Now he was called by anyone in the district who was looking for water. “I don’t charge for it,” he said. “Its a gift. I can’t.” Such was Walter’s confidence in his ability, he was investigating an apparent offer from an American researcher of $1m to anyone who could prove a paranormal phenomenon. He has only been developing the ‘gift’ in the previous few years and felt it was getting stronger. “What about using the gift for prospecting for, say oil,” I suggested. “Yes’, he replied, “A friend of mine working for a mining company wants to use me, but can’t convince his boss to try it. I don’t feel any need to make money out of it - of course having money is nice - but I don’t need loads of it.” The potential for helping poorer communities in need of water was something I brought up, an idea he was sympathetic towards. “I don’t know. It's just something I do here, I know I have the gift, but I haven’t thought too much about what to do with it.” An interesting, genial and very likeable individual. He was convincing. I know I would call on him if I had the need for water!

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Solitaire is a fuel station and store at a junction, hundreds of miles from the next. I had been told by a visitor to Walter’s that the apple crumble at the store, made by a character by the name of ‘Moose’, had such a reputation that people travelled from ‘all over the world’ to taste it. Apple crumble being my favourite dessert, whatever about that hyperbole, I had to investigate the claims! Well despite being served cold, and with no cream, it was damn good. Nearly as good as my mother’s, and that is some praise!

My last night in Namibia I spent relaxing in the old world charm of the remote Seeheim Hotel.

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Not visible and easy to miss nestled in a depression a kilometre off the main road - and even this late in autumn extremely hot - in its heyday it was a busy trading post on the old road west to the coast. It is now depopulated as the ‘new’ road has bypassed Seeheim - the railway line running by doesn’t even have a stop here anymore. After a good steak and a delicious bottle of wine - the new owner had inherited the wine cellar and I’m sure I got a bargain - the following day I continued on to the Fish River Canyon near the border with South Africa, after the Grand Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world, and Africa’s largest. The dirt road proceeded through this vast dry and rocky landscape until I stopped short at the edge of the massive canyon, yawning out below me. It was impressive, almost on too grand a scale to appreciate from the top.

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Though it is possible to descend and walk the length of the canyon in five days, it is considered too hot until May - temperatures still 50 degrees plus down there.

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Onwards towards the South African border, across the huge empty expanse on the D316 I came across a herdsman and his dog miles from any habitation. I stopped to offer him water which he gratefully emptied into his container, and he explained he was out hunting a jackal that had been killing his employer’s sheep. He gestured in the direction he was walking to indicate the farm. I could see nothing in the distance. I wondered where was his gun, but he smiled shaking his head and pointed to his dog, a bull terrier. “Are you a Bushman?” I asked naively. “No, I am Nama”, he replied proudly. I rode off leaving him and his dog make their way across the huge, empty veldt.

Approaching the border at Noordoewer, it was with a thrill I took in the impact that evening of the sunlit mountains looming the other side of the Orange River. That was the Republic of South Africa.

The next few days brought me through the nondescript town of Springbok, across the bare Northern and Western Cape, along the Olifants river and the swathe of irrigated green hundreds of metres each side, including Citrusdal the centre of the South African orange industry, to Franschoek in the Winelands an hour short of Cape Town. Learning it had the reputation of being the gourmet capital of South Africa I spent an indulgent evening dining at reputedly one of the finest restaurants in the country at ridicously affordable prices, the last evening of the trip.

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The following day I rode down the N1 into Cape Town, snapping a picture of the distant Table Mountain, before making my way through the city traffic to the civic centre, where I had been told there would be a little reception. Arriving at the large structure, I rode the bike around the side wondering where to go, and saw a group of twenty or so at a far corner of the building waving in my direction. Approaching them I saw they were indeed waiving at me. My parents, some of their old friends from previous days in South Africa and the deputy Mayor Charlotte Williams were there to welcome me. After posing for inumerable pictures from the official photographer, then handing over an official letter from Mayor Brett of Kilkenny, I was able to properly hug my mother and father. It was great to see them. I had made it from Kilkenny to Cape Town.

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