The Fish River Canyon

Namibia’s Fish River has a few unique attributes. Firstly, there is water running down it, which, based on our experience of this country, is a rarity.  Secondly, it lays claim to be Namibia’s longest river, although given the aforementioned observation, doesn’t exactly face stiff competition in this department. The most notable feature of the Fish River however, is the canyon that bears its name.

We had debated up until the final moments of tackling the gravel tracks and unfavourable winds, whether or not it was all going to be worth the effort. Though thankfully upon arrival, the Fish River Canyon did not disappoint. Although playing second fiddle to the Grand Canyon of Arizona in terms of scale (a fact boasted on numerous information boards), it certainly still carries a fair bit of grandeur itself. The canyon made for some spectacular viewing and would serve as a thoroughly worthwhile geology field trip, if that’s your thing.

Fairly Grand…

The tourist lookout.

This has not been our friend in Namibia. In fact, it has taken part of our soul!

A fitting end to what has been a rewarding country to ride through. Certainly, Namibia can be considered – and has often been referred to – as ‘Africa for beginners’ or ‘Africa Light’, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It probably represented one of the most hassle-free months of our trip and is likely why we were so reluctant to leave. Grand(ish) canyons aside, given the excellent hospitality (that seemed to thoroughly appreciate the calorie needs of a cyclist), the peaceful solitude of nearly the entire country, and the excellent camp spots, a lot of good came from Namibia for us.

South from here.


The Namibian Kicker

As we entered the penultimate country of this ride, we lulled ourselves into a false sense of being close to our finish line. A quick calculation though, revealed that we still had one-sixth of our total mileage to cover and Namibia it turns out, is not particularly conducive to swift travel by bicycle. This is a country with only two million inhabitants and for context; Ethiopia is of a similar size but has squeezed around 100 million people within its borders. Depending on your information source, this place is second only to Mongolia as the most sparsely populated country on earth. Simply put, there is an awful lot of nothingness in Namibia.

Our entry and introduction to this country was the Caprivi Strip, an odd extension of land to the northeast which seems like it should probably belong to someone else. In fact it did formerly belong to someone else, before Herr von Caprivi negotiated with the Brits for the land to be annexed for German Colonisation efforts, in order to allow access to the Zambezi. It seems odd that it still exists as such today and from what we could tell, serves only to provide a 400km introduction before arriving at the actual country.

Animal sightings on the Caprivi: much promised, nothing delivered.

Some of the locals.

Our route towards the west coast was spectacular and ultimately provided some cooler weather, our first sighting of an ocean since Egypt, and a much-needed bike repair shop. Once re-stocked, we departed for what would prove to be some of the thirstiest miles of our entire trip. Attempting to carry enough water for the inland leg toward the isolated stopover of Solitaire was entirely futile, as we came to rely heavily on passing motorists to top up supplies who thankfully – out of sympathy or otherwise – were pleased to oblige. Even with such generosity, this was not an easy few days and as we fell asleep each night under the remarkably still and silent desert sky, the recurring thoughts occupying our minds were all water related.

Early mornings to avoid the heat.

Breaking through the tropics.

Embarking on the inland journey from the coast.

Despite the relationship-testing conditions though, there is much to be taken from Namibia. Firstly, this country stands as a fine example of how beautiful a place can remain when we humans don’t mess it up. What’s more, the historic German influence – although fairly indefensible in its origins – has left behind a legacy of some hearty German cuisine and fine beer. Not ideal for desert crossings on a bicycle, but when we return in an air-conditioned motor home, we’ll certainly indulge.

Africa’s crossroads

International border crossings have become standard practice for us now and generally pass without incident or effort. It was with this complacency that we floated across the Zambezi River – on a platform of questionable buoyancy – toward an area of the world that can probably be considered as expert-level border crossing. Standing in Botswana, with Zimbabwe to our left, Namibia to our right and Zambia directly behind us, the passport stamps were flowing thick and fast and the currency touts seemed to pounce whenever we paused to get our bearings. This situation ultimately saw us entering three countries within sixty minutes; the final of which involved a short boat ride to what turned out to be the surprise package of Impalila Island, located at the very eastern tip of Namibia. In a much anticipated visit, Fran’s parents had kindly made the trip from South Africa to introduce us to this area, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Crossing into Botswana.

Finding our way.

Our days of rest on this trip are generally spent fixing things, washing things or tending to admin and usually leave very little time for much else. Thankfully while at Impalila this was not at all the case. In addition to the invaluable catch-up with family news, trying (in vain) to summarise the last nine months of our lives, and enjoying the abundant wildlife, we also indulged in the activity for which the area is famed: Tiger fishing (although our party of four certainly experienced varying degrees of success in this regard). Riding through Southern Africa it is easy to see that one is spoilt for choice in this region when it comes to national parks and areas of natural beauty in which to allocate your time, but overlooking the serene setting of Impalila Island would have been an error.

Elephant spotting:easy

A tranquil morning, but limited success for the women.

An Impalila Island highlight: a pretty substantial 2,000 year-old Baobab tree.

The planned route after leaving the Island was through Chobe National Park (in Botswana) towards the Namibian border. However, upon reaching the park gate it became apparent that this was not a road commonly taken by cyclists. Despite our protests and pleads to ride through, when the opposing argument included that ‘many lions and other animals, make it not safe for you’, our stance became somewhat weakened as we slowly retreated to Plan B. This unfortunately involved our first major backtrack of the trip – to Zambia – which in turn, meant floating once more across the Zambezi.

Sunset over Chobe National Park.

Back to Zambia.

Finally, in some bicycle news, one of our rides has unfortunately been operating as little more than a single-speed for the last 500km. And not a single-speed in the cool hipster sense of the word, rather more in the exhausting, heart-attack-inducing sense. As such, the bike shop which apparently waits only a few hundred kilometres away cannot arrive soon enough.

The untold stories

It has been brought to our attention that this blog is perhaps presenting a fairly rose-tinted view of our last eight months. Therefore, in the interest of unbiased reporting and to show what lies behind the smiles and the sunsets, we have compiled a series of photos which should illustrate the somewhat less glamorous side of cycling from China to Africa.

Back to basics: bread, water and bikes have been our staples.

Not usually a fussy drinker, but the homemade Tajikistan brew was not to our liking.

The floor is often preferable to the bed.

With a limited wardrobe, all fashion sense was discarded early on.

The reason communism failed: an ex-soviet en suite bathroom.

Uzbekistan was hot! Taking a post-lunch nap under a bus shelter.

There is simply no greater (nor more widely available) refreshment.

Bike rebuild in Istanbul.

Language barriers occasionally require a more hands-on approach.

You know that storage room behind a hotel reception…. our first night in Egypt.

Finding a pesky thorn.

Another unsatisfactory breakfast.

Fire up the bedroom stove, again.

Beans for lunch and beans for dinner. Hope you like beans if you’re heading to Sudan.

Who would have ever thought that camping in a thorn field would result in multiple punctures?

Low key birthday celebrations this year.

‘Hotel’ rooms: there have been some heart-sinking moments.

Pursuit of cash in Africa has been a challenge: queuing for another empty ATM.

A familiar sight on rest/laundry day.

The washing Wife.

Don’t drop the soap… loo and shower combo.

The simple life: our luggage for the year.