Brighton to Cape Town Overland by Motorcycle
6th February 2008
On arriving on Namibian soil, we found we had to purchase namibian road tax (a one-off fee of 100 Namibian dollars, which is about £8) but this had to be purchased in local currency. This added a further two tasks of money changing and tax payment to the usual passport and carnet stamping activity. It didn't matter that this all took time however, as after a gruelling, albeit generally enjoyable few days crossing Angola, we had planned a short day and were only intending to ride a further 40 miles or so down to Ondangwa.
We also had to change over from the right-hand-side of the road to the correct-hand-side of the road. The British influence in South Africa and hence Namibia is evident by the fact that everyone drives on the left, just like home. When we got to Ondangwa, we saw that we really had arrived back in civilisation. We pulled over at a large Shell petrol station and made our way to the supermarket to buy some lunch. Inside we found most of the trappings of a european supermarket - certainly enough to keep us going for a while, anyway. As we wolfed down some hastily constructed sandwiches on the petrol station forecourt, a bloke in a pick-up drove over and asked if we were looking for somewhere to camp. We said we were and he offered to lead us to a place he knew. We followed him across town to the Ondangwa Rest camp, and had barely had a chance to thank him for his help than he had driven off.
We got ourselves settled into our most luxurious campsite for months - our pitch had a built in barbecue next to the tent-mat, a block paved seating area, a view of the little lake and a short walk to the restaurant, bar and shower block with hot showers. We quickly felt comfortable and once the tents were pitched we made our way to the bar for a drink or two, and got chatting to the locals who were enjoying an early-evening beer.
We were asked where we were headed, and explained that the imminent mechanical failure of Chris' bike was forcing us to take a detour down to Windhoek to get parts, before heading back up north to take in the sights. Our kindly gentleman told us there was no need for this lengthy and time consuming detour - the president of the local motorcycle club lived opposite and would be able to organise parts to be sent up from the capital for us. Our man pointed to a picture of his suggested helper - and we saw that it was the man who'd led us to the campsite. The following morning, Chris was sent to see Johan Vogel, and returned smiling. Johan had phoned round a few places in Windhoek and located a suitable chain and a sprocket that could be machined to suit the exotic CCM. The oil filter that had been replaced with chocolate in his Yaounde aid parcel could be supplied without issue and the whole lot should arrive the following day. Chris had also asked about whether anything could be done with Dan's hexagonal front wheel, and had good news on that front too - Johan was confident he knew of a place who could sort it on a next day service.
A bit more phoning round on the part of the ever-helpful Johan found a guy in Windhoek who could weld the rim back together, and another guy with a spoke wrench and a wheel jig who could make it round and straight again. Transport to Windhoek and back for the wheel was not going to be a problem as W Dresselhaus Engineering had regular courier pick-ups and could get the wheel there and back with no problem. The plan was set in action, leaving Dan with nothing to do bar wait for it to come back and pay for the work.
On 17th January, we had a bit of a wake-up call. We got up as usual, went to the campsite restaurant to have breakfast (bad habits form fast) and when we returned, found that we'd had a visitor. Ed's tent was open, his bags had been rifled through and his UK mobile phone, African mobile phone and stills camera were all missing. Dan and Chris were luckier - the thief had made a quick get-away with just Ed's belongings. It could have been worse, the thief had left the camcorder and the GPS, but the frustration of losing phone numbers and photos as well as the valuables themselves really stung. This was a reminder that we were back in the "normal" world - everything not screwed down, locked away or charged to a few thousand volts was back at risk of being stolen. A hasty re-arrangement of valuables into lockable panniers ensued, and the group vowed to cease being so comfortable.
Another day passed before Dan's wheel was returned, and there had been a few false starts on Chris' chain and sprockets. The chain had not been a problem, but the sprocket supplier had sent the wrong one twice, it was the 19th of January before Chris had everything he needed to continue. It hadn't been a major problem not being able to continue however as the weather had really turned - the luck with dry weather we'd had all through Angola had finally run out and every day in Ondangwa was torrential rain in the morning followed by a drier afternoon and pleasant evening. Our luck with casual thefts continued to worsen too - in the busy confusion of a free braai laid on by the campsite owners for us and a few invited locals, Chris' waterproof jacket got left on the back of a chair. It was still there when the last locals left (they alerted the staff to it) but by morning, it had disappeared. The couple who ran the place were concerned that we'd had such a run of bad luck and offered Chris a replacement in the form of the owners' old winter coat. It was too bulky for Chris to carry however, and we all felt that perhaps if they'd put a bit more effort into their security arrangements - perhaps complementing the barbed wire fences by at least closing (if not locking) the gate which is well out of sight of the bar area, then perhaps we'd still be two mobile phones, one jacket and a camera richer.
With all bike repairs completed by 20th January, two Africa Twins and a CCM went for a celebratory ride out with Johan on his (immaculate) BMW R1100RS, and stopped at Oshakati for a Wimpy breakfast. The rain held off until we got back to Ondangwa, at which point the group holed up at Johan's place until noon when the rain finally stopped. We thanked Johan for all his help and hospitality and made our way down towards Etosha National Park - prime game viewing territory.
We weren't far from Ondangwa when the Simpsons sky we'd been riding under became altogether more grey, and finally we started to get wet. Very wet.
Johan had recommended that we head to Mokuti Lodge just outside the park and ask to camp, so that's what we did. We arrived at the lovely Mokuti lodge, blagged our way past the security guard on the gate having not made a booking and made our way into reception. We stood, dripping grubby rainwater onto their polished wooden floor and eyeballed the published pricelist. Their cheapest room was around a hundred pounds per night. We asked if we could camp and the very helpful receptionist said that they didn't do camping, but that Onguma just up the road, closer to the Etosha gate did. She phoned ahead for us and checked the price. Camping at Onguma would cost us just six pounds a night, so we got back on our sodden motorcycles and headed over to Onguma.
From Grootfontein, the plan was to head north and east up to and through the Caprivi strip - the part of Namibia that runs along the northern border of Botswana - then down through the Okavango delta towards the Kalahari before hanging a right and heading back towards Windhoek in Namibia. The best laid plans however were not to be. Having spent a night at the very pleasant Roy's Rest Camp north of Groot, we found that Ed's bike's electrical system was not playing ball. It seemed foolish to head towards the Kalahari desert without a functioning charging system, so we needed to do something. We bade farewell to Chris, our travelling companion of three months, and headed back to Grootfontein where we had mobile reception and a chance of sorting some parts. Chris had a Zambian visa to collect so he could take a trip into Zambia to see Victoria Falls, and we all hoped he'd be able to catch us up later.
Back in Grootfontein, we called Johan up in Ondangwa and asked him for the phone number for Honda in Windhoek. Too helpful to just give us the phone number, he phoned them for us, and on discovering that there were no parts in Namibia, or even South Africa, he phoned some of his other contacts. When Johan called us back, he directed us to the little motorcycle dealer in Groot (which had a few secondhand Suzukis and some chinese mini-bikes hidden amongst the quads) telling us they'd be able to help. When we'd dropped in the previous day, they'd only been able to tell us they didn't have a suitable charger for sale and they couldn't get parts for Hondas. We weren't sure what to expect, but Johan's call had clearly made some difference. The owner explained that he wouldn't be able to get a new part, but would see what he could find. He disappeared into a back room and returned brandishing a reg/rec. Not one from an Africa Twin, but at least from another Honda, albeit a 25 year old CX500 "plastic maggot". Dan and Ed set to, studying the wiring diagrams in the back of the Haynes manual and figured that with a bit of cutting, a bit of shutting and a bit of lucky guessing, they'd be able to get it on and maybe working.
Within 20 minutes, the electrical beast had been created, and sure enough, it seemed to work. The bike shop owner was pleased to have been able to help, and donated the part to the cause free of charge. He was sure that it would work fine because it was old, and therefore better. Dan was less convinced, being concerned that it was not built to be up to the job it had just successfully applied for, but it was our best option by far and we had to give it a try. We were insufficiently convinced of it's likely longevity to take it to the Kalahari however, and decided to hole up in the caravan park in Grootfontein for the night, and then continue south and stay in Namibia where we'd be more likely to be able to find an alternative solution if the 25 year old regulator died.
By this time, Mikey and other-Chris were ready to leave Etosha, so we arranged to meet up with them en-route and form a plan. When we hooked up with them at a petrol station in Otavi on 24th January, we found out that Mikey was in a hurry to get to Windhoek as Angola had eaten his rear suspension - a large part was bent out of shape and had been held together with cable ties, hose clips and a tyre lever for the last thousand miles or so. Chris on the other hand was a little more free and easy, and as keen to see a bit of Namibia as we were. So, Mikey headed off to Windhoek to talk to Mr BMW, and Chris came with us, hoping to see Twyfelfontein, Burnt Mountain and some ancient rock engravings and paintings before getting to Windhoek.
Even this plan was not to be however. After a valiant effort for a hundred miles or so, the regulator we'd added to Ed's bike gave up the fight and stopped charging the battery. Brief investigations at the side of the main road suggested that the previous one was not going to be made to work either, so we had no option but to head towards Windhoek and hope that we made it on the charge left in Ed's battery.
As it started to rain, our moods sank. Not so much because of the rain, but because Ed's bike had stuttered to a halt at the side of the road. The battery was dead, and no amount of enthusiastic pushing from Dan and Chris was going to get the bike started again. We were lucky however to be in a town, and right outside a petrol station, the staff of which knew of a garage round the corner who might be able to help us out with an old car battery which we could strap on to keep Ed mobile. Chris was sent off on a reccy to ask about the battery and within a few minutes, the three bikers were drying off in a friendly workshop.
The plan was to get up and about reasonably early on the 25th to allow us to go and buy a battery charger and get the unknown battery on charge for a few hours before leaving for Windhoek. This didn't quite happen, but the battery got an hours' worth before we left, and Dan was able to pick up a voltmeter for his bike from the same shop so that he could keep a watchful eye on his bike's charging system lest it follow the example of Ed's.
We had a waypoint for the Chameleon backpackers hostel where Mikey had pre-booked us a room for the night, so we headed straight to it and got settled as best we could. The difficulty was that it was such an alien environment. There were people sat round the pool, people watching TV, and tourists who'd arrived by bus or aeroplane and who were basically clean. There were also other overlanding motorcyclists there however: Grant and Jules, an aussie couple who'd been touring South America on their V-Strom for two and a half years and who had a few more years of travel ahead of them now they'd arrived in Africa. As Mikey had let them know we were coming, Jules had very kindly cooked up a meal for us, so we had nothing to do bar get changed into normal clothes, put Ed's bike on charge and relax with a beer or two as we swapped stories of time on the road until dinner time. After dinner, Ed and Mikey joined with some other guys from the hostel to head into town for some more beer, whilst Chris and Dan favoured a more chilled evening back at base.
The 26th of January was a lazy day in Windhoek. Dan spent some time in the morning cable-tying his new paranoia gauge to his bike's dashboard and wiring it up, and then four British bikers with two enormous Namibian hangovers wandered into town to grab a bite to eat for lunch. The level of activity for the day can be summed up however by the fact that four pizzas were delivered to the Chameleon backpackers' hostel that evening as we were too lazy to shop or cook for dinner.
We rose on the 27th resolved to do something more productive and actually go somewhere. Mikey was staying in Windhoek to wait for his new suspension part to arrive at the BMW dealer, but Ed, Dan and Chris decided to head for the interestingly named "Quiver Tree Forest" for no better reason than we had no idea what a quiver tree was, or what made it quiver. We stopped for lunch at Hardap Dam, where we negotiated the National Park entry fee down to zero on grounds we only wanted to go and have some lunch. We were treated to panoramic views of the pretty reservoir from the smart restaurant in the resort as we ate our toasted sandwiches and slurped our milkshakes.
As we headed up the dirt track to the campsite, we got soaked from above and below by a combination of rain and standing water in wheel ruts on the road. We arrived soaked to the skin, and were hurried out of the reception area with a quick explanation of the charges having been lost to helmets and earplugs but the directions to the camping area nearly understood. We located the camping and sheltered under the porch of one of the shower blocks while we waited for the rain to ease.
We were treated to a show of great rainbows and an awesome sunset, and learnt from looking at the trees and a brass plaque, what a quiver tree is. Basically, a quiver tree looks like broccoli, only bigger. The indigenous San people used to hollow the trees out and use the tough bark to make quivers for their arrows, which is where the name comes from. There's not a lot more to be said about them, but they made an otherwise dull wet campsite a lot more interesting.
When we returned to reception to pick up our bill as we were leaving on the 28th, we realised it wasn't just the trees that were interesting. We were being charged the best part of ten pounds each to camp, which in fairness included entry to a cheetah enclosure that we couldn't go into on the bikes, and also to the Giant's Playground which we didn't have time for on our way to Fish River Canyon. Not best pleased, we headed back to the main road to continue south towards the canyon. From the main tarmac road, there was a good easy gravel road to the Hobas viewpoint. There we paid our park entry fee, and discovered that there was a campsite with tantalisingly attractive backpackers but sadly also astonishingly high prices - we weren't going to spend the night there after all.
We made our way to the canyon viewpoint itself and were wowed by the view. Fish River Canyon is second only in size to the Grand Canyon in the USA, and is a very impressive sight. It was a must see in Namibia and we were glad we'd seen it, and it was a shame to miss the sight of the sunset over the canyon in favour of finding a more cost-effective camping option.
We rose on the morning of the 29th January looking forward to the entertaining sixty miles of dirt road ahead of us to get to the tarmac, and also the final country on our itinerary, the Republic of South Africa.