Grant and Susan in the Caprivi Strip
August 29, 1997 - Namibia, the saga of the Caprivi Strip
The Namibian border post was set in a sea of sand. I parked, carefully, on a hard looking patch, and went in. Sinking into the sand all the way. There was nobody at the Immigration wicket, so, used to the procedure now, I looked for the entry book for vehicles and dutifully filled it in while waiting. An old guy, who arrived just after me, was considerably more impatient. He started hollering right away for immigration.
"Patience," I said.
The Namibian officials, one on the phone and one behind the customs desk ignored him. Muttering away, he stomped around the counter and started rooting through the stamps! He couldn't find what he wanted, but kept looking, and said to me, "I go through here twice a day, when the girls are on they just wave me through, but these boys are just lazy."
Just then, the immigration official came in, and the impatient old guy said to him, "Where do you hide the exit stamp, I need an exit stamp!"
The official dug it out and stamped his passport. Done. Wish I could get away with that.
My turn next, and it was that easy, entry form and passport stamps for us, fill in the book for vehicles, yes did that, OK you're done.
Outside again, an old white guy with what might have been a yarmulke arrived, got down out of his truck and came over. He said, "Welcome to South Africa," not seeming to be aware that we were entering Namibia, which was no longer under South African control. "you'll love it, it's very beautiful. But watch it on the road from here, it's sandy, not good for motorbikes."
Just what I needed to hear.
The road was bad for bikes, he was right, at least when you are as heavily loaded as we were. A lighter trail bike would have been fine, but the mix of fine loose gravel and a lot of sand, spread over a hard crusted base that broke through occasionally to sand washes, left us floundering. The bike . squirmed . under me, trying to follow the path of least resistance but never fully able to because of its' great mass bull-headedly pushing it straight forward in an unstoppable (I wish) rush. I was constantly adjusting the balance with body English, trying to just guide and let the bike find its' own path. Solo on a much less heavily loaded bike it could have been fun. I remembered coming out of the bush and hitting this sort of road in ISDT 2 Day Qualifiers many - too many - years ago, and sitting back and relaxing, screwing the throttle to the stop in top gear with my right hand and having a drink from a water bottle with my left, all at 140 kph. (I was a little more foolish then.) Now, I was happy to do 60 kph, and 40 was OK.
Trying to find the hardest packed car tire track was a crap shoot, the track shifting and disappearing, reappearing somewhere else, forcing me to shift over, through a 3"-4" berm of piled up sand and gravel. I could see the track disappear ahead, and I'd start looking for another track, and a route to get there without going through the berm. But then we arrived, and there was no choice but through the berm, the bike slowing as the front wheel hit it, twisting the bars sideways. I fight to hold them straight, forcing our way through, correcting the balance with body English, feeling the rear wheel hit the berm and push the back end the other way, finally coming through, a big snaky wiggle that never failed to make my heart flip-flop. Holding onto the bars tight is hopeless, my hands ache immediately, and the bike needs a little looseness to allow it to find its' own way without being forced where it doesn't want to go. A loose grip works best, just guiding in the right general direction.
Faster, around 60-70 kph, seems to be better, the bike bulling its way through with more aplomb, but the really bad spots are even worse at speed, the wiggle more violent, the fear of falling magnified, but we always make it. I'm using the whole road, both lanes, looking for the best track, and am well over to the extreme right - the oncoming lanes generally seem to be the best - and I can see ahead yet another spot where the track disappears, and the berm is getting bigger to my left, my only option. Shit, here we go, I move slightly to go through the berm, and suddenly the front wheel is through but the back end isn't and we're slewing sideways, I plant a foot on the ground hard to keep us up, I'm counterbalancing leaned well over, when suddenly Susan grabs me by my sides and straightens me up, and we're okay, we're through and still moving.
Thump thump, thump thump. Whew.
A different colored patch ahead, lighter, a deep sand patch, shit again? we hit it and the bike slows, hard, pitching us forward, the front end twisting, twisting back, another big wiggle, and we're through again. The road turns to hard pack, terrific, I think, then change my mind as we hit the corrugations, the handlebars a vibrating pounding hammer in my hands. I'm "holding" on to something I only occasionally touch as they seem to grow to 3" or more in diameter, my arms and even my stomach and chest vibrating so fast and hard it irritates and tickles at the same time, my vision blurs, and the bike floats and dances in a violent rhythm that goes in and out of synch with the corrugations. I can only guide the bike in a general direction, letting it find its own way, and trust it to keep upright. The corrugations come and go, the vibration varying at different speeds, but always bad, the suspension totally unable to cope, the rear doing a little better than the front, which is just too firm, without the responsiveness of the Works rear shock.
We finally reach the pavement near Katima Mulilo, unscathed. We pulled into a gas station for a cold drink and to top up the tank, but remembered in time that we didn't have any Namibian money yet. Three countries in three days gets confusing - you lose track of what money you have, and whatever you have, it's never the right one. They weren't interested in our US$, nor our few remaining Botswana pula.
There was a bank in town, so we headed there, thinking to get some money quick and get going. Bad news - it was payday, and everybody in the district was in the bank, and lined up outside and down the street, all wanting to cash their cheques. Luckily, the Forex wicket had a short line, and Susan got our money changed fairly quickly.
"It's only a hundred kilometers to Kongola, let's have lunch there. It's only 12:30, I'd just as soon get as far as we can." Fool, I should know better. The first rule of travel is: "Get it while it's there." In other words, eat now for you may not later. Susan was dumb enough to listen to me, and she should know better too.
It was a good straight road, but hot and boring. We flashed through Kongola and didn't even realize it. By the time we hit the Police check point, a few klicks past Kongola the map, we realized that we had missed it. It was a gas station, a shop, and an intersection. Period. So much for lunch. We went back and gassed up, got a couple of Cokes, and after discussing our options, decided to have a bite to eat at the first shady spot down the road, and keep on going. The only other option was to turn around and go back. Not an option.
We found a nice big tree to hide under, and dug out the emergency can of tuna and remains of yesterdays bread, which Susan had wisely hoarded. The top box and leather jackets on the seat provided the usual table, and we really didn't feel the need to sit down-our butts were quite ready to be given a rest.
It was stinking hot by now, "I can't take the heat in my leathers anymore. I'm dripping down my legs. What the heck, there's almost no traffic, I'll just take off my leathers and just wear my boxer shorts. They're decent enough."
Susan was horrified. But she soon succumbed to my suggestions about the lovely, refreshing cool breeze wafting through my sweat soaked shorts, and that she really should do the same. Her silk long john bottoms looked like the tight pants that women wear, sort of, from a distance. A long distance. The relative cool was worth any possible potential embarrassment.
We really do need to get something decent to wear under the leathers, but Jose at Garibaldi's idea of a good fit is racer tight, and there just wasn't room for anything in the way of a reasonable pair of shorts under them. Next time, loose, very loose, will be the order of the day for leather pants. The vents would work better and allow much better circulation as well.
Three kilometers farther down the road, the old paved road ended, to be replaced by a fabulous new road, obviously very recently completed. Another km or so down the road, a brand new rest stop, complete with toilet and picnic table, the lot. Oh well, we really would rather rough it.
Resigned to another 200 kms to Popa Falls, but buoyed by the wonderful road, we congratulated ourselves on our wonderful timing in crossing the Caprivi now and not a few years ago when it was all gravel or worse. We just never seem to learn. About 30 km down the road, we began to see signs of road construction crews, heavy equipment, and then the detour. Our lovely new road was blocked, and there was a dirt detour to the side.
"No way, they can't do this to me!" The new road stretched off in the distance as far as I could see, blocked only by a sign and a few rocks and branches on the road. We went through the obstacles, and cranked the speed back up on our now private road, passing a couple of cars and a truck laboring through the gravel detour, trailed by huge clouds of dust.
It all ended much too soon, the road very much under construction ten kilometers along, so we had to plow into the gravel too. It was worse than the Ngoma Bridge to Katima Mulilo stretch, worse in every respect. The corrugations were worse, and the sand was deeper. And the tension and fear stronger.
We stop for a rest, I am unable to hold on to the bars securely as my hands are cramping, and my forearms are pumped up and aching. The tension is exhausting, too, and we both need a break. I stop at a shady spot in the oncoming lane, it doesn't matter, the road is wide and there is plenty of room to see us and go around. We give each other a big supportive hug, have a big drink of water, and stretch our legs and arms.
Way off in the distance, I see a vehicle approaching. It's a pickup truck, I wave to him to stop, and he pulls up beside the bike.
"Hi, how are you?" I say.
"Good, where you from?"
"We're from Germany, heading for Vic Falls," He says.
"How's the road ahead, how far to the pavement?" I ask.
"Mmmm, about 25 kilometers I think, ya?" He asks his friend. "It's like this to the pavement."
"Okay, good, thanks, you've got about 30-35 kilometers to the pavement. But there is another 65 kilometer stretch of this before you get to Botswana."
Another long pull on the water bottle, and, with a known end in sight lifting our spirits, we head off again.
The travel/guide books don't tend to consider motorcycles, and whereas with broken up pavement we're in better shape than most cars, as we can avoid the potholes, when it comes to dirt with soft sand we're in much worse shape, as we tend to slide and wiggle, sort of like a bicycle. A bit scary (well, we'll admit, sometimes a lot scary) for both of us, but the sand was not too deep, and we didn't fall down. Any road's a good road as long as you finish rubber side down!
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