Namibia: Hitchhiking to Luderitz
13th July - 29th July 2002
After finding a lack of local transport heading north to Namibia from Springbok I decided to hitchhike along the N7 to the border crossing point of Vioolsdrif. My last lift dropped me at the border gate and I thanked him before walking to the South African border post to have my passport stamped. From the South African border post I walked through no-mans land, crossing the Orange River, which brought a splash of green along its banks in this arid region as the river carved its way tortuously through the desert. This border crossing was very quiet, except for the men repairing the bridge, I found myself the only person walking through no-mans land. A handful of South African registered 4WDs crossed back south from Namibia; the white occupants staring at me as they drove past. I continued walking through the dust beside the highway until I reached the Namibian border post, about a kilometre along the road. The heat of the midday sun baked the ground. As well as crossing a border I also crossed a time zone and gained an hour. Despite this, the eleven o' clock sun was just as fierce as the midday sun.
After completing the immigration formalities I walked a short distance to the road leading onwards into Namibia and the desert. The border post is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rocky hills and desert; there was no shade and I sat on a barrier beside the road and waited patiently for some passing traffic. Occasionally a vehicle would pass through the border post but they didn't stop and pick me up, they were mostly already crammed full of people or luggage or both. I continued waiting in the relentless sun until a large semi-trailer pulled up and the driver offered me a ride. He was a white man and had driven from Cape Town on his way to Windhoek with a truckload of fruit and vegetables. He was happy to give me a lift to Keetmanshoop, to which I was very grateful. I climbed into the spacious cab and enjoyed a grandstand view of the desert. We stopped at a small town a few kilometres from the border where the driver bought me a much-needed drink and a few supplies for the journey north.
I settled into the cab, feeling refreshed and happy to be once again on my way through this semi-arid desert following Namibia's main highway, the B1. The road was in very good condition and there were no noticeable differences from the southern side of the border, a reminder of when the country was administered by South Africa. The drive soon became monotonous, the drone of the engine and the shifting through the gearbox drowning out the radio and our conversation. The scenery seemed endless stretching for kilometres, the road running straight to the horizon. I soon found myself dozing off in the heat. I quickly became conscious again when the driver offered me something to eat. He reached into his icebox and apart from a bottle of cherry cola there seemed to be nothing else in there. Rattling around at the bottom of the icebox though were a few sticks of biltong. Biltong, for those of you who have not been to South Africa, is dried meat, very much like beef jerky in the US. Nearly every animal, including game is converted into biltong and is used in such imaginative ways such as pizza topping. I have to confess I am not a biltong fan and had spent my whole time in South Africa avoiding this 'tasty' little snack.
Now here I was sitting in a cab of a truck, the driver offering me a stick; I accepted it, refusal would have offended. I spent the next half an hour chewing excruciatingly on this rock hard, dried up piece of meat. I soon found there was a knack to eating biltong. You could not bite it, without fear of breaking your teeth. The technique was to rip shreds of the meaty fibres off and swallow as quickly as possible. The driver was a pro at this and soon demolished a stick twice the size of mine and offered me more. I declined the offer holding up the stick I was still chewing on. I never did finish it and managed to hide the rest of it in my pocket, the meaty, bloody taste remaining in my mouth for hours afterward.
The only settlement of any size we passed through in this endless landscape was Grunau; if you blinked you would miss the place. After over four hours of driving we reached Keetmanshoop, the largest town along the B1 from the border with South Africa, with a population of 15,000. The driver dropped me in the centre of the town from where I walked to the Burgersentrum Backpackers, near the railway station. Keetmanshoop is at the main crossroads of southern Namibia. This is where the road to Luderitz on the coast branches off from and would be the road I would be travelling tomorrow. It was about 15.00 when I arrived in Keetmanshoop and it was too late to try and hitch the 340km across the desert to Luderitz at that time.
I spent the afternoon looking around this small town. The town was very quiet, there was hardly any traffic on the roads and most shops appeared to be shut; it was Saturday afternoon. I made my way across town and had a rather odd run in with the local police at the Central Park. As I walked through the park a young man approached me and we began chatting. I wanted to find out what public transport options there were on a Sunday to reach Luderitz. The answer was none, maybe a minibus if there were enough people wanting to travel. I thanked him and walked on down the road until he shouted after me to come back as the police wanted to talk to me. I ignored him until a policeman appeared at the top of the road. I walked back to where a group of policemen waited. They wanted to know why I was talking with the young man; I explained and then received a lecture about why I should not trust these kinds of people or hang around the taxi park. Apparently they were all thugs and crooks. This all came as news to me and I thanked them for their advice. The whole conversation with the police was very odd and I left with the impression that the police thought they had a major crime problem on their hands. The reality for me was very different in this small desert town.
I walked down to the town museum, which is housed in the Rhenish Mission Church built in 1895; it was closed. This small town still boasted an impressive heritage of buildings from the German colonial period, the finest example being the Imperial Post Office, built in 1910. Because of the inhospitable coastline where deserts stretched for hundreds of kilometres the country was largely ignored during the colonisation period and only annexed by Germany towards the end of the 19th century. The German colony didn't last long and at the start of World War One in 1914 the German forces surrendered to South Africa, who were fighting on the side of the allies. At the end of the war South Africa was given a mandate by the League of Nations to rule the country, then known as South West Africa. This mandate was later renewed by the United Nations at the end of the Second World War and South Africa continued to rule the country until 1990 when, after many previous failed attempts, independence was granted and today's Namibia came into existence.
I woke early the next morning so that I could walk out on to the B4, which runs parallel to the railway line the 340km to Luderitz. From talking with people over the last few days everyone had told me that it takes a long time to hitch a ride. The earlier I started, the better. I walked past the taxi park, which in reality was only the forecourt of a petrol station, where a handful of people were waiting. There were no vehicles in sight, on this Sunday morning the town was dead. I continued walking as the first warm rays of sun began to shine on the surrounding rocky hills. I aimed to walk as far as the junction of the B1 and B4 to the south of town. As I walked out of town I tried to hitch when the occasional vehicle drove past. By 07.00 my luck changed. The third car to pass suddenly stopped and backed up; I hadn't reached the main highway but had found a lift all the way to Luderitz.
The car was a blue Volkswagen Golf, the driver a young, local white man who lived in Luderitz. He was in a hurry, as he had to be back at work at midday as a barman in Luderitz. He had just had a new CD player fitted into his car a couple of weeks ago and we cruised out of town and onto the B4 with the music thumping loudly. He only drove at one speed and that was fast, ranging between 160-180kmh, just over the limit of what most people would consider safe. There were large 1.5 litre bottles of coca-cola lying around the floor of the car. One he held between his legs, which he drunk from between chain-smoking cigarettes. After a while we began talking, the usual questions directed at me when hitching; what are you doing, where are you from, do you like this country? After a while the conversation drifted onto his weekend in Keetmanshoop.
He had driven up from Luderitz on Friday night after he had finished work at the bar and had been at a party at an old girlfriends house. It appeared to be the kind of party that kept on going day and night. I soon found out that this young guy had a serious drug problem and had been taking a cocktail of every conceivable drug for the whole weekend and hadn't slept since Thursday night. I began to worry as we hurtled through the desert at speeds easily exceeding 160kmh, especially when he told me how tired he felt and that he felt a downer coming on. To combat the after effects of the drugs he continued drinking the cola and smoking the cigarettes. It didn't help that his CD player kept jumping tracks and that he seemed to spend more time fiddling with the controls of the stereo than looking at the road, which was passing by in a blur.
I did my best to enjoy the journey, the desert landscape was absolutely stunning. The wide, empty expanse of the desert was quite breathtaking. Meanwhile my driver began to slow down and apologised for stopping but he had to roll a joint. We were stopped beside the highway in the absolute middle of nowhere while he levered the centre of his steering wheel off. Behind the plastic trim covering the nut that secured the steering wheel was a small bag of grass. Once he had rolled the joint and he began smoking we continued down the highway. The joint had an immediate effect and his speed gradually decreased to an almost pedestrian 100km. The effect lasted a good forty-five minutes but as the drug began to wear off his speed began to increase again. Soon we were back up to over 160kmh. As we drove he told me stories about the times he had smuggled drugs into South Africa. He had taken pills down across the border by road; apparently it was quiet profitable. He had also flown into Johannesburg airport with a couple of kilos of cocaine in his bag; it was easy, no one stopped him.
We continued chatting, I thought it was a good way of ensuring he didn't fall asleep at the wheel. It turned out he was well educated and had been to university. When our conversations hit a lull we continued driving through the desert with the stereo system playing. I always became suspicious when he didn't move for a while, when he stopped pressing buttons on the CD player, or stopped smoking cigarettes or drinking cola. Suddenly he braked sharply and swerved off onto the verge of the road. We sat there for a moment until he explained that he had almost fallen asleep. He reached into the back of the car and grabbed his bag. Inside he had a pack of pills, 100mg caffeine tablets; he swallowed two and washed them down with some more cola. We took to the road again and shortly stopped at the tiny settlement of Aus to buy some breakfast. I had some fruit, my driver a couple of microwave pies.
The final 100km of our journey took us through an almost lunar, desert landscape of white rocks and drifting sand dunes. The wind blows relentlessly across this desert and the dunes have a habit of creeping across the road and at times blocking the road. Today the road was clear and by 10.00 we had arrived in Luderitz.
Continue reading this journey: Luderitz & Kolmanskop