Wednesday, 29 July 2009

29. One year on in Namibia

Day three hundred and sixty-five started a little earlier than most, the southern hemisphere's chilly winter morning rousing me to a state of frigid consciousness at 4 am. An hour later I decided that a warm shower and hot bowl of porridge was preferable to slowly succumbing to frostbite in my lightweight (i.e. useless) sleeping bag. For the past couple of weeks I have been warding off the early morning chill with the remarkably effective solution of sleeping inside an empty 50 kilogram maize sack. As the nights continue to cool down, however, with a corresponding increase in my latitude reading I may have to get more sacks.

On my way south to Namibia's capital, Windhoek, I spent a couple of nights at the Kai-Oms (Our House) hostel in Outjo, a small town that lies south of Etosha national park. Peter wanted to make a detour, a 500 km detour to be exact, to visit Swakopmund on the coast. Having visited the town on a previous trip to Namibia in 2001, I decided to forego the pleasure of an extra few days in the saddle and reunite with Peter in Windhoek for the final stage together in the Tour d'Afrique, along the trans-Kalahari highway in Botswana to South Africa. Our last few days in Angola had been somewhat challenging with a bout of malaria for Peter and then, following some bad advice, we found ourselves pushing our bikes along a sandy track that led south from Cahama to the border town of Calueque. The moral of the latter being: never listen to someone driving a Landcruiser about which roads are passable on a bicycle.

Eh, look behind you Peter

We crossed into Namibia on 17th July and with tar on the roads (well the main ones at any rate) and food in the shops, a love affair with Namibia was all but guaranteed. Following two days off in the northern hamlet of Ruacana, most of the time being spent marveling at and eating the food for sale in the BP service station, we rode south to Kamanjab. As we skirted the western boundary of Etosha park, we were warned by a concerned policeman that lions "operated" in the area and that they might well take a fancy to two passing cyclists. In the end we only spotted varieties of antelope, zebra and giraffe - fantastic to cycle past nonetheless. On arrival in Kamanjab we learned that our proposed route south to Swakopmund would be hampered by sand and I lost no time in deciding that the tarred route to Otjiwarongo and on to Windhoek was the road for me. Namibia is undoubtedly endowed with many magnificent and awe-inspiring landscapes and natural features but unfortunately many are not accessible to bicycles, at least loaded ones, and especially so if you have developed a deep-seated aversion to fine particles of sand.

Mind the elephant

And so it was that I found myself alone in Outjo, taking a first time trial separation from Peter since our several months traveling together. By mid-afternoon Day 365 I was being first cajoled and then harangued into declaring where my loyalty lay in the pending Tri-Nations rugby match between New Zealand's All Blacks and South Africa's Springboks. In between shots of Jagermeister and bottles of cold Tafel lager I surveyed the small sports club bar that I had come to with Deon, the very hospitable and friendly owner of the hostel where I was camped up. The handful of customers in the bar were all Afrikaaners from either Namibia or South Africa. Many from the latter appearing to have emigrated north in recent years to escape the rat race and crime epidemic of South Africa's cities. The roof of the bar was adorned with large flags of the famous rugby clubs in the region. Amidst the collage hung two old South African flags from pre-1994 and along with the rescued street sign of 'Voortrekker Str' that hung above the whisky and brandy bottles, it wasn't hard to imagine which direction many of the patron's political sympathies lay.

Another day ends, near Otjikondo

Fortunately, a lot of the little I do know about rugby was gleaned from John Carlin's (2008) recent book, Playing The Enemy, which focuses on the political build-up to the rugby world cup that was held in South Africa in 1995. In the final match, against the odds, the host nation beat the All Blacks as they were cheered on by the recently elected president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who was famously repleat in the No.6 Springbok jersey. Carlin's aim in the book was to demonstrate Mandela's inspirational ability to see the bigger picture and to break down the barriers of fear of the new regime that many of the white South African's felt. As the favourite past time of white (male?) South Africa, Mandela recognised the role that rugby could play in uniting his fractured nation. By embracing the world cup and genuinely supporting the Springbok team, Mandela was supporting what most of the black population in South Africa undeniably viewed as symbols of the oppressive and brutal apartheid regime.

Prior to 1994, rugby had been very cleverly used by the anti-apartheid movement to bring international attention to their cause by ensuring that boycotts were placed on the Springbok's ability to compete internationally. As a result of the boycotts, the Springboks were unable to play in the first two rugby world cups in 1987 and 1991. And yet here was their beloved president embracing the game and even wearing the captain's jersey. What Mandela magnanimously realised was that it was only through such gestures of acceptance and solidarity that he could begin to unite the nation's divided racial factions and assure white South African's that they need not fear retribution from the ANC government. When the Springboks won the world cup in 1995, celebrations were memorably and unprecedentedly held across all of the various communities in South Africa and the episode is fondly remembered as both a great sporting result and a political masterpiece in conflict resolution by Mandela.

Windhoek, Namibia
Trip distance: 19,346 km

Friday, 10 July 2009

28: High and dry in Angola

An MPLA flag in northern Angola

As another fiery sunset engulfed the western horizon last night we found ourselves squeaking into Lubango in southern Angola. Angolan roads have finally forced all the bearings out of Rocinante's left pedal and she now sounds like every other village bicycle in Africa. After crossing into the oil-rich Cabinda province from Congo Brazzaville three weeks ago, we made an "exciting" ten and a half hour boat journey along the palm-lined coastline of the Democratic Republic of Congo and across the 20-kilometre wide mouth of the Congo river, experiencing multiple engine failures enroute, before arriving back on terra firma and mainland Angola. From Soyo we bumped south through N'zeto and into Luanda, where after a brief layover, we continued south along the coastline to Lobito before climbing up onto the cold plateau where Lubango lies. From here it's just a four day ride to the Namibian border.

Toys of the wealthy getting washed in Luanda's sailing club

Angola has been a fascinating country for me. A country that has made a remarkably swift transition from the chaos and brutality of a 30-year civil war that ended just a few years ago, into a country that is now busily preparing for its hosting of next year's football competition, the African Cup of Nations. With a newly exploited oil wealth fuelling the economy, there is little sign of the global economic crisis in Luanda. Construction trucks from Chinese, Brazilian and Portuguese firms clog the city's arteries as they build more skyscrapers, motorways, and football stadiums. And yet, so many of Angola's fifteen million population remains outside of these changes, facing the task of daily survival without access to clean water and other basic services. Vast amounts of money are being spent on rebuilding a road network, while almost every village we passed through lacked a water pump.


Talk of corruption and the 'resource curse' abounds and witnessing the incredible displays of wealth, particularly in Luanda, now one of the most expensive cities in the world, the wealth gap certainly feels oppressively vast. As one expatriate worker in Luanda put it to me, there is so much potential here to get things right and yet, there is so much potential to get it all wrong. Yet, it's also easy to make these comments as an ignorant passerby and much harder, of course, to rebuild a country that has suffered the history of Angola. Like other countries in the region, the major party, the MPLA enjoys vast popular support, winning over almost 90% of the electorate in the last elections in 2008. Such statistics certainly don't make for healthy democracy but hopefully with time things will change, wounds will heal, and people will be ready to trust and place their confidence in a wider political field.

Another great road...

When we arrived into Lubango last night we found our way to the Catholic mission and after asking if it was possible to pitch a tent for the night, we found ourselves invited to first a dinner, and then a priest's ordination party, and we were then given a room and bed for a couple of nights. Such hospitality, from both Angolans and foreign workers, has been the norm during our time here. At dinner last night we chatted with Father Jacinto about his time campaigning for rural land rights, and how after he had brought the spotlight of international human rights organisations to the cause, he had to flee to Europe when death threats were made against him. He still can't return to the parish where he was based. Later on at the party though he turned out to be the finest dancing priest that I've ever met.

Lubango, Angola
Trip distance: 18,086 km