FEAR AND LOATHING (AND A WHOLE LOT OF LOVE) ON THE RAINBOW BUS

With Apologies to Hunter S Thompson

PART 2 – CAPE TOWN TO SWAKOPMUND

All of my images from this trip can be found here

The group which will travel across southern Africa, together, has met up in the hostel the previous night and we now decamp, immediately after breakfast , stopping along the way on the northern beaches, just out of Cape Town, where we pose on the beach for our departure photos and for a final view of Table Mountain across the bay. From here we head north across the Western Cape to Cederberg.

Cederberg is a gentle introduction to the trip. A pleasant green lawn to camp on, bar and pool. It is here that Jeff discovers his fate which is to share a tent with me for the rest of the trip. No amount of cool will save him from this fate.

We receive instruction on tent erection, which Jeff and I manage not to hear properly thus taking twice as long as anyone else to erect our tent. There are no particular disasters on this day but instead I receive a bonus of free and cheese tasting for some unknown reason related to my bookings having been changed to a different date than those I originally booked.

The main events are swimming and wine tasting events which, when taken together, can often have a mixture of hilarious and disastrous results. In our case, aside from being regaled with tales of naked swimming by previous visitors, which seems to have provided a degree of voyeuristic pleasure to the owners and seems to be aimed at persuading us, without success, to do the same, the evening passes uneventfully, if pleasantly, in a haze of sunshine, wine and food.

Day two brings us to the Orange River. named after the Dutch royal family (the House of Orange). It’s the longest river in South Africa and a key provider of electricity via its hydro station. On the other side is Namibia. The main activity here is swimming the river and illegally entering Namibia though, for anyone other than committed drug smugglers or poachers, it might be a long walk to the nearest town.

The river and associated campsite is quite a beautiful spot especially in the soft morning and evening light and we collectively add to the several million photos that must have been take of the river since the advent of digital cameras. We are treated to an ongoing display of swimming and fishing virtuosity by a resident darter bird.

In the morning a committed few take a kayaking trip on the flat water. There are seven of us who go, myself, Hannah, Mike and Kerry, Ceci and Nico and Sonya. 

This is a good opportunity for anyone to argue over ownership of the Malvinas or how long it will take the UK to become a fifth rate country, once it leaves the EU and has to survive on its own, and confront Iceland over fishing in Icelandic waters. 

Fortunately, Mike and Kerry have approximately the same levels of kayaking skills as Eddie the Eagle had ski jumping skills and were so far behind the rest of us that the second Malvinas war was avoided. Rumour has it that they were still on the river the following morning and had to be rescued by Gift in order to ensure that we left on time. Indeed such was the stress of their paddling feats that they strained their only paddling muscle and were unable to wash up for a week.

The rest of us had a pleasant paddle, though Sonja, my paddling partner, was more interested in adding to her portrait portfolio than paddling. Hannah, according to our river guide, did not paddle at all and was fortunate to be saved, according to the guide, by his innate grace. So far as we can tell, however, it was that guide who fortunate to survive the trip such was his level of sexist bravado. Beyond that the main complaint was from the local narcissists (Hannah, Ceci and Nico) who having posed for photos then complained that they weren’t shown at their best.

Day 3 and we were headed for the Fish River Canyon which is claimed to to be the world’s second largest canyon after the Grand Canyon, although like all these things it depends how you measure it. For example the The Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon, along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, is regarded by some as the deepest canyon in the world at 5,500 m (18,000 ft). It is slightly longer than the Grand Canyon in the United States.

First though, we have to cross the border into Namibia which, like all border crossings, is an exercise of mixed bureaucracy and futility in which we are all required to disembark for the bus to be searched and to pass through a border post in which a few border inspectors seem to inspect our passports with an overwhelming sense of disinterest.

The roads through the Western Cape and Eastern Namibia are long and dusty but the scenery is spectacular, a cross between the Dakota Badlands and the central Australian deserts around Tennant Creek.

En route we pass Aussenkehr the main Namibian table grape growing area – which thrives for three reasons, the water of the Orange River, the climate which allows grapes to reach the European market more than six weeks earlier than those from anywhere else, and the cheap labour.

The day is hot, dusty, windy and long and the tedium encourages various tour members (mainly Rie) to spend half the day leaning out of the window in an attempt to entertain passing elephants or anything else she thinks she might encounter. Being Rie, it is entirely unclear what is on her mind. Perhaps the company has driven her to suicidal thoughts or, possibly, she is merely trying to have random protein intake by catching a local fly?

Rie contemplates the end, of what we do not know

The 16000 migrant labourers who care for the vines earn a pittance and live under deplorable conditions. They live in a settlement of rudimentary reed and zinc structures two kilometres from the grape farms, and have endured decades without potable water and other basic services like electricity and sanitation facilities. Yet another example of Western nations benefiting from the virtual slavery of others.

As we approach the Fish River Canyon we encounter the aftermath of the rains that preceded us and have turned the Victoria Falls, as we later discovered, from a trickle into a seething torrent. As a result the camp at which we were supposed to be staying was closed and the staff appear to have moved almost the entire contents of the accommodation out into the sun to dry.

All is not lost however, as the owners have assembled a classic collection of vintage cars which allows those of us that are 65 going on 16 to spend a few minutes reliving our driving experiences as 14 year olds. Nico is especially at home as he gears up for his starring role in Blues Brothers II.

The alternative accomodation turns out to be a more upmarket resort where, to our great pleasure, we are allocated very comfortable resort style rooms instead of the campground and have pretty much sole use of a good swimming pool. We don’t even have to carry our own luggage which is delivered to our rooms, all of 100 metres away, by donkey cart. Everyone is happy.

Room Service in Namibia

Before dinner we take a drive to see the Fish River Canyon which is, indeed, very impressive and much more so illuminated by the setting sun. The shadows of the evening sun provides 3D relief to the Canyon which at the height of the day is “flattened” when the sun is overhead.

We are warned by an adjacent sign not to hike down into the Canyon, something that precisely no one seems inclined to want to do, even if the time permitted.

No day strolls into the Canyon (photo Jeff Davis)

Apart from the statutory requirement to take 20 photos of the canyon each, a further 20 selfies, and group photos, we are mainly entertained by the resident and extremely photogenic local lizard.

Here, we are treated to the first exhibition of drone flying by Rie, which involves repeatedly obeying Rie’s instructions to look at and wave at her drone, as we collectively pose for drone photos, and fervently hoping that the drone doesn’t crash into and kill any of us since it is, apparently, not functioning as it should.

We are travelling in the famed Rainbow bus, which is actually a truck with a bus body on a flatbed. It rattles its way across the landscape and we rattle with it. Whoever built and maintained it clearly has a sense of humour, since they fixed some seats far enough apart that you could be a giraffe and still have plenty of legroom whereas a couple of the seats are clearly designed for midgets or for Hannah/Rie who are the closest thing to midgets that we have. 

To compound it someone thought it would be funny to have one seat which was screwed to the floor at an angle of about 75° so that one person has twice the legroom than the person next to them.

Please, please don’t leave me. I know I was mean but….

We’re fortunate in that a bus designed for 22 (11 bench seats), has only 12 people on board, including Gift, meaning eight of us have a seat each, the two couples each share one and there is a seat spare for extra luggage. 

The extra space makes it much more tolerable, with the main issue being that, for reasons known only to the safari company, they have decided to have a bus equipped with curtain hangers but no curtains. So if you are on the sunny side of the bus you can use the wires to hang your favourite sarong and give you shade but, if you leave the windows open, you risk having it sucked out never to be seen again. 

While we may have “A” class guides we are definitely in the “B” class transport, as we note whenever we are passed by the air conditioned G Spot buses. On the other hand the cost on G-Spot – an 18 day trip is AUD3739 compared to our 21 day trip for AUD2000 however –  is twice the cost. Beggars can, indeed, not be choosers.

We arrive in Sesriem in the early afternoon. Here we are surrounded by endless skies, endless mountains and mountainous dune systems. The light is translucent, much like Australian and South African light. There is something about the light of the southern hemisphere at around 35° south that has a different quality to almost anywhere else on earth, in my experience. 

Aside from the views the principal points of interest are the swimming pool and its attendant wildebeest mother and calf. Given what we will see later in the trip, the presence of a mere two wild wildebeest generates an amazing degree of excitement, somewhat akin to someone from the desert seeing the ocean for the first time.

Consequently we have a “who can pose best with the wildebeest” competition, like a sort of wildebeest beauty competition, one won by Hannah and Rie who, if it were possible to be orgasmic over a couple of wildebeest, certainly approached that state of excitement. The ageing cynics and grinches on the other hand were largely unmoved.

Now it is almost impossible for most normal people to injure themselves severely on an entirely flat piece of sandy ground, absent any rocks or obstructions but I am pleased to report that yours truly, aka “The Idiot Traveller” succeeded in doing exactly that.

Proceeding in a leisurely fashion towards the washing line, in the near dark, I succeeded in tripping over the wires, cunningly placed by the campground management, and designed to trap the clumsy and unobservant, namely your humble servant.

It later turned out that numerous people, including Munya, had succeeded, historically, in tripping over those wires (revenge on the white man??) but none had succeeded in ripping off half their shin, and then nearly amputating their following foot. Yes, another first for the Idiot Traveller.

The image you all wanted to see: “Still Scarred After All These Years” (apologies to Paul Simon – Still Crazy after all these years (esp. for Rie)

This relatively minor accident had consequences, for most people on the trip, extending over most of the next week or more. Initially it was the litre or so of blood that I lost through tearing off about 15 cms of skin on my left leg that concerned me but by the morning my right foot was so swollen that it was painful to walk. Worse to come.

Dawn sees us assembled and ready to roll in the dark. We take the Rainbow Bus through the mountainous dunes. For Australians they are reminiscent of the Simpson Desert, though with less vegetation and more irregular in shape and size. As the sun rises the dunes turn from deep red to orange, in parts, and to pinks and whites and a sort of shimmery silver in others and, in shape, like giant sails of sand.

We and then transfer onto smaller four wheel drive transport for another 20 minutes deeper into the sand country to get to the Sossusvlei, which is a salt and clay pan surrounded by high red dunes, located in the southern part of the Namib Desert, within the Namib-Naukluft National Park of Namibia. 

 

 

Changing light, changing colours

The name “Sossusvlei” is often used in an extended meaning to refer to the surrounding area, which is one of the major visitor attractions of Namibia. Specifically though,  “Sossusvlei” roughly means “dead-end marsh”. Vlei is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”. Sossusvlei owes this name to the fact that it is an endorheic drainage basin (i.e., a drainage basin without outflows) for the ephemeral Tsauchab River

The Sossusvlei area belongs to a wider region of southern Namib extending over about 32.000 km²) between the rivers Koichab and Kuiseb. It’s characterized by high sand dunes of vivid pink-to-orange color, an indication of a high concentration of iron in the sand and consequent oxidation processes. The oldest dunes are those of a more intense reddish color. The dunes, in the Sossusvlei area, are among the highest in the world; many of them are above 200 metres, the highest being the one nicknamed Big Daddy, about 325 metres high. The highest dune, elsewhere in the Namib Desert, Dune 7, is about 388 metres high (source: Wikipedia).

The walk into the Sossusvlei is the first tests of my injured leg (foot in particular) and it’s not pleasant so, rather than walking around the salt pan I sit and watch which, in some ways is better since you get a birds eye view of the scale of the area in contrast with all the little figures walking around below.

The bigger challenge, however, is on the return where we stop to climb Dune 45 where even the idea of the view from the top is not sufficient to overcome the idea of a dragging painful foot up 145 metres of sand dune. I am joined in my idleness by Hannah.

Rie, initially, decides to stay also but suddenly changes her mind and then proceeds to run up a dune, that most can scarcely walk up, in order to catch up with the rest of our party. This simply reinforces her image as some sort of Viking. Fortunately, it seems there is no one she wishes to drag away by the hair, as was the mythological technique allegedly used by Viking raiding parties.

We return to camp where, we find, our camp ground has been invaded by a group of G-Spotters. Talk turns to what degrees of sabotage we should inflict on their tents, bus in response to them spurning Yvonne, etc but we refrain from taking revenge.

The following day is the “longest” day. A hot bone jarring drive across the deserts to Swakopmund via Walvis Bay. The passengers are pummelled into a stupor by heat, a burning wind, the sound of the engine and the jolting of the bus. The discomfort is not assisted by the fact that I can no longer sit for long periods with my foot at ground level without intense pain and so everyone has to put up with my right foot poking over the top of their seat or resting on the arm of their chair. 

We stop several times en route to take in the Mad Max type scenery and, in true tourist style, to take a picture of the sign announcing that we are crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. Hence I am able to capture the archetypal cliched shot of a group of 20 and 30 year olds, of the Instagram generation, staring longingly at a rusty battered sign in the middle of nowhere (with apologies to Ceci who is not really of the Instagram generation and who, I know, was just supervising the children).

The Insta generation proving they were in Namibia 

En route to Swakopmund we also pass through Walvis Bay which had been planned as a 30 minute stop to take in the pink flamingos in the Walvis Bay lagoon and to pick up lunch. But I have been to Walvis Bay before en route to Cape Town by ship and I know that the Slowtown Coffee Roasters is the only decent cup of coffee within 1000 kilometres, leaving aside the fact that it sells a mean cheesecake.

As anyone knows one should never stand between the Idiot Traveller and a good coffee/cheesecake, so I suggest a diversion to stop for good coffee and cake. Gift is reluctant. Apparently on previous trips he has made changes to the itinerary, to meet the requests of punters, only for some other whining bastard to complain about those changes. Hence he requires an unanimous agreement to divert. 

There is no hesitation from the crew and especially not from Rie who sees her opportunity to consume sufficient calories to maintain her normal muscle mass.

Walvis Bay is a slightly bipolar town that doesn’t really know if it wants to be an industrial/port centre or a tourist town. It’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the South Atlantic on one side and by deserts on all other sides with the nearest town of any size being the Namibian capital Windhoek, 400 kilometres away across the Namib desert.

It’s the major port for a large part of southern Africa including Botswana, Congo and Zambia but is also a tourist destination with the port having a cruise ship terminal. So it’s a mixture of very ugly practical buildings but with an entire marina, and surrounds, with seafood restaurants dedicated to the tourist trade, most of which is focused on visiting the surrounding deserts.

After our brief tourist stop to see pink flamingos, coffee and cake, we press on to Swakopmund, Namibia’s principal resort town. Like most of Namibia it has a strong German influence, so Marlou and Sonja feel right at home. Except of course we are not really sure if Marlou is German since her home town never existed.

We have our second non-camping stop and are housed in the cabins of the “Adventure Village ” and adjacent adventure travel centre through which we will book our activities of which there are many options including balloon rides, skydiving, quad biking, marine cruises, skydiving and sandboarding or, if you are Hannah, you can commune with parrots.

 

Five of us, Rie, Ceci, Nico, Jeff and I choose to go sandboarding. This is a great choice for me since I haven’t done anything remotely similar, apart from a bit of surfing, since 1980 when I ripped my ACL in two skiing, and, as well, I have a swollen foot to squeeze into a boarding boot.

In addition one has to climb some of the world’s highest dunes in the heat of the day and no one over the age of 40-odd seems to think it’s a good idea – it’s just me and mostly 20 year olds. But I am never one to be deterred by common sense. 

By the time we have climbed the dunes about 4 times I am pretty much rooted and labouring with an increasingly sore foot. I hand over my board to the Danish Amazon to carry for me.

Rie is undeterred by carrying two boards and, it seems, doesn’t realise that it involves physical effort to climb up the dunes. I whine and moan about being too old and unfit but Rie, nicely, points out that half of the big group of Swedes, who are all about 40 years younger than me, gave up long before me. Which makes me feel better even if it doesn’t improve my sand boarding skills.

The Sandboarding video

We return to base. By the time we are due to go out for dinner I am hobbling like a 90 year old. Swakopmund marks, pretty much, the end of the desert section of our trip. Tomorrow we will have one more stop in the desert, at Brandburg, where we will visit the cave paintings and then it’s on to the game parks.

Part 1 of this trip blog can be found here:  Fear and Loathing (and a whole lot of love) on the Rainbow Bus – the Crew

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