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The Misadventures Of Hein Eksteen: Namibia – a good road on a bad day - Click on your required items

The Misadventures Of Hein Eksteen: Namibia – a good road on a bad day

Hein Eksteen continues his odyssey through the harsh Kalahari Desert, this time crossing borders into Namibia, and discovering that the best offroad roads in the world don’t always mean having a good day.

“Are you f***ed in you head riding a bike in this f***ing heat?!” are the words with which a colossus of a man receives me as I park Magenta Stofdonkie, my laden KLR 650, under a palm tree next to a professionally rigged-for-hunting Land Cruiser in front of the Koës Hotel (pronounced Coys – many a Bike SA Namib Desert Runner will know it, and it remains a popular “refreshment” location while Runners are on their way to Aroab) in south-eastern Namibia.

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Bonzai and Elmarie in greener pastures

Of course I stare at him with more than a bemused expression on my sun-burnt face. I’ve just done a 180 km good ride on a good dirt road from the South Africa/Namibia border-crossing at Rietfontein to here. Sure, I didn’t expect the buglers to have mounted the battlements, with King Arthur giving me a hero’s welcome, saying: “My castle is yours, noble knight, and so are all my nubile daughters!” But being greeted in quintessential Kalahari-language where expletives fly at one like the munitions delivered by a Stalin-Organ was a tad unexpected.

Elmarie, who will later be introduced as the behemoth’s wife, silently puts down an empty dinner plate on the table in front of me – the very table they are all sitting at.

“Fetch the uncle a tafel [Afrikaans for table],” is what I understand the giant as saying when he turns to a pubescent boy. As the table I am melting before at an alarming rate is about the size of a small runway, I suggest that I share the table with them. “Not a fn tafel, man! A Tafel!” he snaps. When the boy arrives with a chilled Tafel, a local Namibian beer, I realise my mistake.

The hulk good-heartedly laughs from deep within his commendable torso at my stupidity and introduces himself as Bonzai. I look him up and down – his height, the broad shoulders and forearms the size of legs of mutton – and ask, “Bonzai? Really?”

His thunderous laugh rolls across the dusty street and seems to ricochet off the red dunes in the distance. Bonzai explains that his Christian name is actually Johann, but so is his father’s. “My father didn’t want to be called Johann Snr, and I definitely didn’t want to be Jnr.” Therefore his parents named him Bonzai.

With the issue of incongruous monikers out of the way, I am invited to partake in the barbeque (locally known as a braai) they had just prepared. Namibian sheeprib, lamb chops, venison sausage, a potato bake and, believe it or not, salad. My first in weeks! Alas, only the women and I dig into the crisp leaves. The male sentiment in this part of the desert is: The buck eats the greens and I eat the buck.

With my macho adventure biker image severely dented, Bonzai delivers the mortal blow which sends my self-esteem and persona to the scrap yard. “How long did it take you to ride from Aroab to here?” he asks. Three-and-half hours, I tell him. He regards me with visible disappointment and replies, “Then you must be a sh*t rider.  Simon Fourie (publisher of this magazine) did it in forty-five minutes.”

I try to formulate this intelligence in terms of kilometres per hour, but my stunted mind won’t go there. I tell him that I make frequent stops to enjoy the scenery, have a smoke… He looks up from his empty plate and his mien softens remarkably. As he lights up and inhales the smoke with the satisfaction of a true aficionado who has made peace with his fate, I realise he has found some redeeming quality in this wuss with whom he is being confronted. I decide to leave out the bit where I scribble notes and take photographs, as the art of fashioning stories may well deliver me to a point where my apparent absence of masculinity may well be construed as complete sexual ambivalence, if not outright that of a cross-dressing-bike-suited-and-booted aunty.

In an effort to restore a modicum of my intrepid-adventurer image, I lean back in my chair, attempt to broaden my shoulders to Bonzai-width (futile), flex some less than ample muscles, light up, look up and open up with, “So, you guys like to joke around a little.”

Bonzai looks down at his cigarette and shakes with laughter. “’a little f***ing a lot, yes!” he enlightens me with his gruff voice.

He annually night-harvests around 900 head of antelope, mostly gemsbok and springbok, exclusively for the export market. I am astounded at the tally. “And it’s not only me that shoots, there are plenty of other hunters,” he says. Bonzai continues by saying that the biggest challenge farmers face is keeping the game culled as the veld can only carry so much, and this seemingly Herculean task is exacerbated by the fact that both the mentioned species breed like … well, worse than rabbits.

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Bonzai and his protegÃ

But that is only during the hunting season which runs from beginning of May to the end of August. He says, “The rest of the year I keep busy shooting problem animals.” Black-backed jackal. Caracal. And brown hyena.

“Hyenas?” I ask incredulously. According to Bonzai the hyena-problem can be traced right back the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park management’s inability (he calls it bloody laziness) to maintain its western perimetre fence, hundreds of kilometres long. The hyenas break through and cause havoc with the lamb population. “If a hyena tastes lamb once, he will want nothing else!” he summarises the threat posed by members of the Hyaenidae.

That’s not all. Bonzai refers to a farmer – his farm borders the park near the Mata-Mata border-crossing – whose problem is far greater and which takes one back to the pioneering days of yore.

“That farmer shot 13 lions in the space of 12 months!” he exclaims. Like hyenas, the lions cross the fence and the king of the jungle happily lays into the farmer’s cattle – giving chase to an agile springbok is much more labourious than bringing down a lumbering bovine. To make matters even worse, the farmer is not permitted to contract a professional hunter, like Bonzai, to eliminate the problem animals. He has to hunt them himself, and this ain’t no easy feat for an amateur. Furthermore, the lion-problem compounds itself exponentially. Firstly, farm workers are understandably too terrified to venture away from the safety of the homesteads and neglect of the farms becomes a problem. These are vast tracts of land with an abundance of thorn trees and covered with long bushman grass – veritable lion world! Secondly, they are dealing with a diplomatic situation. Protected South African lions cross the border and are shot in Namibia. The RSA authorities are miffed, but Namibian farmers agree on one thing: Either the lions are kept on the other side of the border, or they are plugged, because they not only threaten the farmers’ livelihood, but also severely challenge farmers’ and their workers’ longevity.

During the contemplative silence that follows, Elmarie swats the umpteenth fly and exclaims, “These damn flies!” Bonzai turns to her, his brow all furrowed, and with the gravitas of an old-fashioned Dutch Reformed dominie, expounds upon the Gospel according to Bonzai, “Wife, don’t swat all the flies, because a farm without flies is a farm without sh*t, and a farm without sh*t is a farm without animals, and a farm without animals isn’t a farm!”

Bonzai pushes himself up from the table and announces that he’s off for a nap as he has a jackal to hunt that night, and that could take until dawn. However, his son reminds Bonzai of a school project due the next day. The topic is endangered or extinct animals.

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Bonzai’s seedlings – Salandrie and Armand

“What else other than dinosaurs is extinct?” the boy asks.

Bonzai proceeds to illuminate his son with regard to endangered and extinct species present in their very hometown. “For the unmarried man in Koës the most endangered species is the Klitorous, but when that man gets married, it dies off completely!”

Expecting an eruption of Vesuviusian proportions from Elmarie, I cast a cursory glance in her direction. She laughs merrily. So does their adolescent daughter. Only the boy doesn’t seem sure what the joke is about.

Later that evening, while offering the sacrament to Bacchus, I reflect on the day. Crossing the border at Rietfontein went as smoothly as any I have encountered in all of Southern Africa. The officials on both sides were laid-back, yet efficient. The only irritation being unpacking Magenta’s top box, yet again, to declare my laptop and cameras.

Magenta, the voluptuous harlot, drew much attention and many of the guys came over for a chat. Where are you from? Where are you heading? Do you always ride alone? All the way from Cape Town on a bike? I answered the questions as best I could and would have explained that riding a bike from Cape Town to Rietfontein is by no means a big deal – as far as adventure biking goes. However, the ego being what it is, I shut up and allowed the moment of admiration to wash over me. As mentioned earlier, it wouldn’t be long before Bonzai would bust my image.

The official on the Namibian side told me that the road leading to Koës was a ‘dream’, and for once this intelligence proved to be almost spot-on.

What really struck me once having crossed the border was that the landscape seemed to have subjected itself to a human drawn border. Immediately on the Namibian side there were no longer dunes and acacia trees. The grassy landscape flattened out and one could see almost forever – well, as far as the distant mountains.

The road was of the best maintained I’ve ridden in weeks – except for loose gravel the size of somewhere between golf and tennis balls – and the rider is able to enjoy the landscape for a change, rather than having his eyes glued to where he might soon be forced to contact his medical aid broker. Absolutely elated about being in Namibia again, I made a pit stop and was rewarded by a large herd of gemsbok not 100 metres away. As I was still in the same Kalahari as I had been on the RSA side, I found this hugely strange, as I had encountered very little wildlife on the heimat side.

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The long and whining road

I entered the small, poverty-stricken and unattractive town of Aroab where a road tax of R140 ( about $10) was to be paid. I alighted from my steed and a well-dressed and very confident young boy – his eyes seemed to drill right through my helmet and enter my frontal lobe – ambled over and formally announced that he was there to guard Magenta. I couldn’t argue with that and entered the building to conclude my business. When I returned he was standing at attention right next to Magenta, keenly surveying the environs for the presence of some miscreant. I rewarded him with a R10 note and asked what he planned to do with the bucks.

“I’ll add it to my school money for next year, sir,” he told me.

Yea right, I mused. It’s most probably tik-money. So I asked him what he would’ve done had some mean mutha tried to pillage my bike.

He turned to an equally well-dressed lady sitting in the nearby shade, sporting an impressive kierie (traditionally fighting stick with a heavy knob on the end). “I’ll call my mother and together we will beat the snot out of them!” he explained.

I gave the dude another R50 and left, firmly believing I’ve made a reasonable contribution to both Namibia’s crime-fighting and academic initiatives.

Back to the present and I get another dop-‘n-dam from the bar, while my mind wanders back to what Bonzai had said about Simon Fourie. Although I’ve never met the legendary biker, writer, editor and publisher in person, I’ve come across his legacy all the time. In Nieuwoudtville the extraordinary bike collector, Tinus Coetzer, told me titillating Simon-stories – something about fixing Simon’s bike in return for BikeSA subscription. In the Boesmanland his name is inscribed on the bar’s wall of the Kenhardt Hotel. The Kalahari knows him well, as BikeSA’s annual Desert Run team stays over at the Molopo Kalahari Lodge. Even now in Namibia he remains a constant presence. I remember Roof Of Africa veteran, John Proudfoot, telling recently that Simon holds the (unofficial) Durban to Johannesburg superbike speed record – 2 hours, 59 min and 10 sec to cover the 600-odd kilometres.

During my 30 years of professional writing I’ve received loads of good (and bad) advice from a host of literary geniuses (and hacks), but none simpler and more profound than what Simon once offered. I had enquired about the needed word-length for an article I was to write for this magazine. Simon responded by saying, “Forget about word-length. Write until you’re bored, because by then readers will certainly feel the same!” Right on the money!

The last thing I do before leaving Koës, is have a chat to fellow Wild Dog, Rickus Vermeulen. An entrepeneur, farmer and extreme adventure biker, Rickus is the perfect person to help me with a south-eastern Namibian itinerary. Together we study a relevant map and he directs me towards Keetmanshoop and on through the best of what the Klein and Groot Karas Mountains have to offer.

I ask him about road conditions. “The road is good,” he says. “But here and there you’ll find rocks like pyramids. Watch out for them. They are like snake bites.” Perhaps he reads the dismay on my face. And, like most Namibians I’ve encountered, he goes all philosophical, “The roads may be good but remember, your sh*t always runs with you.”

 

The road from Koës en route to Keetmanshoop could arguably be compared to the best gravel roads in the world. How is that possible? I ask myself. Namibia features exceptionally well on the World’s Poorest Countries list, but its travel infrastructure beats South Africa’s by more than a few lengths. Could it be because the country’s government is less bent on redistributing the content of the national coffers to their own pocket and spending the tom on where it is needed – tourism?

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The dream road

While depressing myself with thoughts of rampant corruption, theft, incompetence, rapacious greed, Nkandla, ESKOM (and, and, and…), I come to an even more morbid conclusion: The road is indeed great – but, is exceedingly boring as far as adventure biking goes. However much I try to convince myself that, in Rickus’ words, the roads may be good but remember, your sh*t always runs with you, I sorely miss sandgate, confused with poeiergate, being lost and riding aimlessly over one Kalahari dune after the other with my bike feeding off the reserve tank. Basically I need adventure!

What in the name of everything that is reasonable is wrong with you, I berate myself. You’ve suffered so many misadventures – flat tyres, getting stuck in thick sand, furnace-like heat, to name but a few – that you may do well to just sit back and enjoy the knowledge that you now have a remote chance of making it from Point A to Point B in one piece.

I settle into the ride and take in the environs, but the proverbial octopus sitting on my face, sucking my brain dry, won’t let go. Before the remnants of my grey matter rush down the Octopoda’s gullet, I realise what is wrong. And my Virgil is none other than the late great American writer, Kurt Vonnegut. He said, “’The cat sat on the mat,’ is not a story. But ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ certainly is!” Why? Because with the cat sitting on the dog’s mat anticipation and tension brews and, above all, there is huge potential for conflict. A story without conflict is like the greatest bike without wheels – it just ain’t going nowhere.

And herein lies my problem. What am I going to write about if I were to merely cruise along with no mishaps, falls, flat wheels, getting lost befalling me? My tale of adventure will plod along something like this, ‘And then I rode here and saw that, and I rode there and saw this.’ In ad nauseam.

My kingdom for a bit of adventure! I bellow within the confines of my over-heating helmet. Alas, the adage, Beware of what you wish for, would soon become applicable, and bowl me centre pin with a deceptive ball worthy of a Shane Warne.

By 11:00 the heat is such that I have all the vents in my bike suit open, but to no avail. It is my habit to stop as often as I can, under the auspices of making notes and taking photographs. The real reason is actually quite pathetic: submitting to the tyranny of the local Big Tobacco legacy… Stopping means no more air flowing through the suit and the rider’s heat gauge aiming in an east-north-easterly direction. In a moment of complete desperation, I even consider giving up the habit for which there ain’t no cure. I plod along.

I reach a sign board, 43 kilometres from Keetmanshoop, which announces the presence of the Mesosaurus Camp. Mesosaurus? I curb my dubious imagination before it has opportunity to race off and unveil further Namibian innuendo relating to endangered and extinct species south of the equator, as it were.

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Namibia’s youngest and oldest fossils – a fossil of a Mesosaurus, a dinosaur that lived in Namibia 250 million years ago, and its discoverer, Giel Steenkamp.

Giel Steenkamp discovered the mesosaurus fossils on his farm while grading a new road to a bush camp he was creating. “The mesosaurus became extinct about 250 million years ago after having been around for 20 million when this part of the world was an inland sea,” Giel informs with authority. This 35 cm – one metre long pre-historic gecko’s formal handle is Mesosaurus Tenuïdes, which derives from its rather impressive tenuïdes.

“What are tenuïdes?” I ask Giel, feeling rather dumb for not knowing the meaning of such a common word. “It means long, thin, needle-like,” he enlightens me. “Look at this fossil,” he says and holds up a replica of the real thing. “Here you can see the teeth: long, thin, needle-like.” Giel is generous with information and clearly passionate about his field of informal study. And he has a sense of humour that immediately endears one to him. He concludes with a boisterous laugh, “The mesosaurus is the oldest fossil in Namibia, and I am the youngest!”

I reach Keetmanshoop without further ado and find a workshop where I’m allowed to change Magenta’s oil and clean the chain. With the old gal shipshape again, I do some rider-maintenance consisting of a burger-and-beer combo, and set off to spend the night at the Quiver Tree Forest Camp.

“What’s wrong with you. 39º C is hardly warm!” are the receptionist’s opening lines after I had the audacity to go all female canine about the sweltering heat. Where the hell do some of these Namibians do Hospitality 101? I silently muse. What is more astounding is despite the perceived Teutonic abrasiveness, one still kind of feels at home. It is time to check my masochism-metre, the needle might be deep in the red.

I help myself to a not-so-chilled beer from the honesty fridge and head outside for a bit of shade reasonably far away from other guests to resume my fatalistic relationship with Mister Pall Mall. Two hits on the gratifier, and the receptionist is upon me again. “You cannot smoke here!” she snaps with the ferocity of an Auschwitz concentration camp über-commander.

By the time I get to the campsite, about 500 metres from the bar, my beer is equal to the ambient not-so-hot 39 degrees Celsius and I turf it. Uncle Olaf and lukewarm water sans ice will have to suffice. I try to pitch my tent, but there is no way of getting the pegs into the solid rock this part of the planet is constituted of. I pack rocks on most of the storm lines and tie the rest to the bike. And there I sit, feeling more and more miserable by the second. Perhaps I’ve been on the road for too long. I miss my beloved Giselle, having familiar company, cooking not on a fire nor a temperamental multi-fuel little stove, have some creature comforts and not having to pay exorbitantly in return for being treated like excrement. I finish my drink, brush my teeth and crawl into the tent feeling like I’ve emotionally hit the sewer. It is at this moment when the malevolent seed, granting my wish for adventure, germinates.

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Magenta hanging out with the girls at the Quiver Tree Forest Camp

The next day finds me back on the outskirts of Keetmanshoop and I ride straight into what can only be described as the celebration of National Dunce Day. It all starts when I ask a woeful looking gentleman for directions. The conversation goes like this. “You go up here, and turn down, and then turn around, and then turn up again….”

I stop him there and suggest we proceed slowly using navigational terms such as left and right rather than ‘up’ and ‘down’. So I ask, “From here, I ride until the stop street and then what?” He looks at me quizzically and answers, “Then you stop.”

I flee.

At the filling station outside town I pull in to fill Magenta with fuel and myself with a toasted egg and bacon zonk complemented by a coffee.

I know I am in deep trouble when the waitress asks in English (and she insists on mouthing what must be her fourth of fifth lingo), “How many spoons of coffee does Uncle want in Uncle’s coffee?”

With perplexity exploding on my gob like teenage zitz, I ask, “What sort of coffee is it?”

She says, “I don’t know.” And she leaves to do the coffee.

I wait.

Moments later she is back sans the coffee, but with more interpersonal communication. She asks, “Does Uncle want Uncles’s eggs soft-erig?”

Medium would be good, I answer, trying very hard to keep my non-existent cool. “Does that means Uncle wants Uncle’s eggs hard-ish?”

With my nerves on edge and feeling emotionally much more depleted than the night before, I go outside to inhale something other than air polluted by moronic utterances. I find a strip of shade under a roof overhang, again as far away from other Homo sapiens as possible and light up.

A hand is placed firmly upon my shoulder. “You mustn’t smoke here,” says an assistant.

I try to explain that I am very far away from the fuel pumps.

“You cannot stand under a roof.” I ask where smoking is remotely permissible. The assistant aims his index finger at a point no more than 20 centimetres away – exactly where the shade stops. With Deliverance’s theme music blasting through my brain, I straddle Magenta and race of into the safety of the great unknown.

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Over-heated landscape

The road now takes me south along another magnificent gravel road. I stop on a rise to photograph the vista – the road is an endless snake cutting through the rugged and granulated Klein Karas Mountain. The heat is killing me and when a young farmer pulls up with his battered Isuzu bakkie, his first words to me are, “Man, but Uncle looks bad!”

Uncle wants to say that Uncle feels decidedly ‘bad’, but the young man continues by informing me, “The heat in the shade is 41 degrees.” Seeing that adventure riders do not spend much time in the shade, I ask him about the temperature in the sun. “between 50 and 60 degrees,” he speculates. At this point Shane Warne takes another wicket as it is around 11:00 and this hapless fool still has many hours to endure.

The farmer leaves. I stand there eventually holding onto Magenta for support. The black dogs of morbid depression bark outside my door and I realise that I can’t take much more of this. Rikus’ proposed route will take three days to complete. And the way I feel now three days seems like a rather optimistic estimate of my longevity. I need to get home – which is days away on a KLR – or I need to get to a place that’s like home. Where? I haul out my dubious map book and figure out I can be in Hobas near the Fish River Canyon in a matter of hours.

While racing south, I feel even worse. I am not up to this sort of thing – a weakling without an iota of resolve and endurance. Other people ride around the world, up and down Africa in scorching heat, the Road of Bones in Siberia, and I am too much of a dud to ride on a near perfect road in a bit of heat. It is at this moment that my liver, the organ of courage, turns into a poisoned mushroom. After having been referred to repeatedly as ‘Uncle’, am I too old for this kind of stuff? I try to convince myself of the cliché that age is but a number, and that Dave Barr, a double amputee, is not only older, but also rode his Harley around the globe. Simon Fourie is also much further away from his date of birth than what I am… Is there anything more miserable than allowing oneself to wallow in self-pity and –loathing?

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Hard ground after a hard day

I eventually put in a pit stop at the Canyon Roadhouse and not even an ice cold beer cheers me up. My kidneys ache. My head is dizzy. And I feel that exchanging this world for the next would be preferable to this horror.

I finally get to the Hobas campsite. The lady in charge gives me a serious motherly look and asks, “When last have you drunk water?”

I answer that I had been drinking the stuff all day long.

“Thought so,” she says and mixes six level teaspoons of sugar and one of salt into a litre of water. “Eventually water isn’t enough. Go and sit in the shade and drink this,” she instructs.

I lie down under a tree and sip the mixture. Hours later I bounce back and am ready to take on any road under any circumstances. Severe dehydration over many days had finally spread its evil manifestations to my emotional world and made me feel completely debilitated and helpless. And that apparently is the condition’s greatest danger: The sufferer does not realise what is wrong. You become so disorientated and morbid that you cannot manage the simplest of tasks. I mean, who in Cape Town would think of drinking sugar and salt water when you’re ready for a truckload of Prozac and Dr. Phil?

The next morning the multi-fuel stove is as un-temperamental as Mother Theresa (if she wasn’t, who ever was?) and I feast my eyes on the Fish River Canyon bathed in the first rays of sun.

I had wished for adventure, and got it. Thanks Shane Warne for the balls which had almost knocked me out of the game. I sincerely hope that new young buxomly model you now have lined up before the wickets doesn’t hit yours for a six! Howzit!

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The Fish River Canyon

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