Reader Ride: Namibia, Africa

Text: Robbie Jones • Photography: Robbie Jones

There comes a time in every man’s life when you realize you are never going to meet certain goals you set for yourself. Call it the proverbial “midlife crisis” or just a healthy dose of reality brought on by too many years treading water in the flotsam and jetsam of life. Mine came as I neared my 50th birthday, a middle-aged, ever-so-slightly graying, and only moderately successful businessperson who had always had dreams of being just a bit more than I am. 

So what to do about my general malaise? One of my dreams had always been to ride a motorcycle from Cape Town to Cairo. I have always had a fascination with Africa in general, and East Africa in particular. What could be better than an epic ride splitting the continent along its Rift Valley, flanked by the Drakensberg Mountains and endless plains of wildebeest and giraffe? 

Perhaps I needed to dial it down a bit. I mean, who besides some 20-something adrenaline-fueled editor of My Life Is Cooler Than Yours Monthly has time to go tearing about Africa on two wheels? I was left contemplating options that would offer an extreme experience suitable for bragging rights among my motorcycle brethren while also being exotic enough to satiate the adventurous muse that has dogged me since boyhood. Then it came to me—Namibia—silent, ghostly dry, exotic, and unconquered. Like a graying version of Walter Mitty, I set off on my own adventure to ride across the Namib Desert, or at least as much of it as a thousand bucks and five days could deliver.

Fantasy vs. Reality

My first step (read: wife’s condition of consent) was to scour the internet for a tour group. There are a few, mostly riding from Cape Town up the western side of South Africa, across the Fish River Canyon and into Namib-Naukluft National Park, or as far as the Skeleton Coast or Etosha pan. These all sounded great, and no doubt are, but the typical ride time was 11 days or more and the cost well north of my thousand-dollar budget. I decided to hire a dirt bike from a contact I found on the internet in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and plot my own course. I was lucky enough to have business in Cape Town, so my trip was launched from there with a short flight to Windhoek on South African Airlink. Flying across the dry African cape was thrilling in its vast emptiness. Namibia is one of the least densely populated countries on the planet. With slightly more than two million residents, a quarter of whom live in or near Windhoek, it ranks as the fifth-most lonely place in the world, out-desolated only by Mongolia, Greenland, and a few others. The main towns are beehives of activity where locals easily mix with the odd German tourist or South African gem prospector. But it is the great Namib, the Kalahari, the barren Skeleton Coast, and the vast lands in between that beckon the true globe trekker. 

My local contact and off-road guru (read: guy with the coolest job in the world), Marthinus, met me at my guest lodge near Windhoek with a stripped-down, lean and mean Suzuki DRZ400. Marthinus owns Dirt Bike Rentals and Services, and along with about 30 motorcycles and a crew of support contacts scattered about the country, he runs, as far as I can tell, the only operation in Namibia where you can show up and with little more than a promise and a handshake get a bike and well wishes on your adventure. “Just call me if something breaks,” he said, and it did. Within 10 miles of the city I had a back tire blowout. Being old-school, I had opted out of carrying a working cell phone and didn’t bother to rent a satellite phone at the airport, so I flagged down a guy screaming by on a crotch rocket who gladly lent me his. One call to Marthinus and boom, there he was, grin attached, with a new rim and tire in hand. I was back on my way. I asked before we parted what I should do if I am in the bush and have another blowout. His response: “Just ask someone for help. Namibians are friendly people.” That sounded easy enough, but then I remembered that statistic about Namibia being one of the most uninhabited countries on earth.

From Windhoek I traveled south on the main road to Rehoboth where I ventured off the pavement, not to see it again for three days. The majority of the country’s transportation network is made up of dirt roads—well-maintained, wide, and very dry sand superhighways. They work for those with four-wheel-drive SUVs, but the loose sand is eventually thrown into rows that grab your motorcycle’s front tire, not letting go until you’ve white-knuckled the wheel straight again. After learning how to maneuver through these at speed (generally 45 to 55 mph) I was able to make good time. I covered about 150 miles the first day and stopped for the night at a guest lodge located just south of Sossusvlei in the southwestern section of the country. I was treated with great attention since I was the only visitor. After a good dinner of oxtail rinsed down by a local lager, I sat alone with my thoughts in the African night.

The second day was an easy ride to the entrance of Sossusvlei, located inside Namib-
Naukluft National Park, where sadly I learned that motorcycles are not permitted. I had come a long way to see some of the most majestic and picturesque sand dunes ever piled up by a breeze, so I waited patiently at the entrance to hitch a ride inside with some generous and trusting tourists. I found some. A friendly couple from Mexico City, who currently reside in Johannesburg, offered me a lift in their air-conditioned truck. Their kindness was truly appreciated, as the dunes of Sossusvlei are not to be missed. Other worldly landscapes awaited us inside, including the occasional oryx and the DeadVlei, a clay pan characterized by trees that died more than 900 years ago. Some of the tallest dunes in the world, colored blood orange, stretch farther than you can see in any direction. Sossusvlei is one of the few places where they are accessible by vehicle.

The high point of day three was crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. I started from the thriving metropolis of Solitaire (population: about 100), headed to the coast, and had another back tire blowout. This one occurred just as I entered the busy port town of Walvis Bay, having traveled again through scenery straight from a Mad Max movie set. I called Marthinus from another borrowed cell phone and, true to form, within less time than it took to eat a meat pie and down a cold one, a mechanic swooped in, introduced himself as a friend of Marthinus, picked me and my tortured Suzuki up, and by the next morning I was ready to roll again after staying in yet another cozy and quiet B&B.

Leaving Swakopmund, I rode up the coast road (made from compacted sea salt), passing seaside villages with no electricity and hulking shipwrecks lounging in the breakers. At Henties Bay I headed inland across the desert toward the Spitzkoppe Massif, also known as the “Matterhorn of Namibia,” a 700-million-year-old pile of granite adorned with indigenous art that rises high above the desert floor. From there I made it back to Windhoek well after dark—breaking a cardinal rule about motoring in Africa—to end my expedition.

The Aftermath

My last day was spent taking stock of my trusty Suzuki, which had decidedly fewer parts than when I left, before flying back to Cape Town. I hadn’t ridden a dirt bike since I was a teenager. In fact, most of my rides in the last 10 years consisted of well-trod country roads that all seemed to end at a local eatery or watering hole. This was the ride of a lifetime, or maybe not, because now it is no longer the stuff of fantasy. Despite being a regular guy without a GPS, satellite phone, support van—much less a tour group to ride with—I had traversed at least a small part of the Namib Desert on a barely street-legal dirt bike. 

It was a reaffirming adventure for me, and Marthinus was right: Namibia is full of friendly people, eager to assist, never put-out by an American running more on luck than skill, and rightfully proud of their beautiful and wildly untamed landscape. There is so much more to see in Namibia than time permitted and I hope to return someday. For now, I think I’ll start planning that Cape Town to Cairo route again.