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.