The wild is, as a general rule, not the kind of place in which you plan on spending any amount of time. It is not your thing. It never has been. It, hopefully, will never be. You have friends who work in conservation, and others who are obsessed with the outdoors, who tell you that you do not like it because you have never been shown how to fully appreciate it. You have been tossed into the deep end, they say. And that probably put you off the whole camping thing. If you go with proper camping equipment, have a good guide, and go to an interesting place, you are told, then you will be sure to have a good time.
You have been on the kinds of trips they talk about. With tents kitted out with all manner of amenities, tents that are —proof to the nth degree. Camping chairs, gas stoves, portable showers, and toilets, the whole off-the-grid shebang. You have had the guides, friendly, knowledgeable. You have even been to some interesting places: in South Africa, in Namibia.
Alas, the wild is not for you.
It holds a special place in the space where your heart is supposed to be. (Problem, though, is that your heart’s been AWOL since J.K. Rowling killed Sirius Black, Remus Lupin, and Nymphadora Tonks. You still have the scars from Boromír’s death too. Tolkien did you wrong, man.)
To you, and anyone else in the know, the wild outside Windhoek—everything outside Windhoek is the wild, and some of the places in it are too—is hot. Really hot, and really dusty. Like, Namibia is the dust-to-dust part of that special verse. Light brown dust, dark brown dust, yellow dust, red dust—just dust. In the evenings, the wilds are cold. We are talking ball-shrinking cold; where the man becomes the myth—that kind of cold.
Oh, and dusty. Cold and dusty.
There is nature aplenty in this wild that you do not like. Too much nature. The kind of nature you cannot switch off or channel hop away from when you get bored with it. David Attenborough kind of nature, sans the BBC title sequence and his comforting, educated voice. There are arachnids that do not yield the right of way, slithering things that belong in the Chamber of Secrets, and other things that can outrun you and catch you if they feel like it.
This is nature 2.0. Savage stuff.
Where-the-eff-are-we kind of nature. (Everyone who knows you knows you did not just fucking say eff too.)
That is the first question you ask yourself when you are 60km outside Windhoek, on the Gamsberg Pass, headed to Walvis Bay. You are on a borrowed mountain bike, a Mumsen. It is comfortable, solid, the gears change on demand, quickly, and without any clanking. Despite its sturdy build and off-road competence, the seat has turned your perineum to mush. You do not feel the bumps in the road anymore after the first 30km. By the 45th kilometre your rear has gone silent.
The endorphins are supposed to kick in and make you feel happy, right? That is how it is supposed to go, no?
When you are forcibly conscripted into adventure, with forty-three ninth graders to chaperone, the endorphins give up. You need something stronger. You need drugs. But you do not take drugs. So you are just pissed off instead.
The views are spectacular. The Namibian wild has always known how to serve up a visual treat—and, just as quickly, relegate the beauty to monotony. There are only so many flat vistas with the occasional hill or mountain top cutting into the skyline that you can appreciate before your brain is overloaded with all the splendour.
Beauty becomes boredom. Boredom becomes, well, boredom.
But 60km become 70km. Then it is time to camp in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere. (The place is actually Weissenfell Farm, but still, that is bum-fuck nowhere as far as you are concerned and you shall not have your foul mood brightened by anything.) Supper is quick, you stretch sore legs, set up camp—in the dust, and the cold—with the ninth graders who insist on being ninth graders for the rest of the evening.
Night passes on the first day. The morning comes. Inevitably.
The forecast for the second day is 75km. You try to clench your butt cheeks in resolve but there is no feeling in them.
Back on the bike the road starts doing that thing where it dips—Yay!—and then it rises—Fuck!
Kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile, the road is punishing on the thighs. The sun saps energy, the dust clings to you like a second skin. The gentle kiss of a cramp in the right leg is too familiar.
Wait. You have been here before.
This is the Argus all over again.
This is some bullshit.
You have always hated the wild. But now you hate the Namibian wild with the kind of hate reserved for people who talk during films at the cinema. (What an inferior species they are—we are not putting out our best human beings when we make those kinds of people, really.)
The road winds, the road bends, the road goes up and then it goes down, and then it just goes up. Up and up, and up again to the Gamsberg Pass with its serpentine twists go downhill. At the top of the pass you start wondering why you are involved in such madness.
How on Earth did you get roped into this ride from the capital city to the sea?
Some kid breaks in front of you without warning and you slap on your front brakes. Over the bike you go, into the dust. Your three-tone tan is now an even brown.
Who thought this ride would be a good idea in the first place anyway? Who?
Not you for sure. You despise the wild. You hate camping. Only prisoners and the desperately destitute sleep on the ground.
But here you are, putting out a thin, camping mattress at the end of the second day. Here you are laying out your sleeping bag. Here you are wriggling into it, wondering how the heck you got to this place, how you let yourself get plucked away from the comfort of your bed, from your full fridge, from all the other small, daily routines you do not give up unless you are under pain of death or taxes (translation: the employment noose).
Thankfully, the ninth graders are tired from the day’s exertions and after supper, everyone lies down to sleep. A couple of conversations are heard on the left and the right, quiet, running into dead-ends. Then comes the laughter. Everything is funny in the wild when you are a ninth grader. There is no sleeping pill like fatigue, though, and they have overdosed on it the entire day. They pass out quickly. Mercifully.
You do not.
Sleep is often elusive when you need it most. Tonight you will chase it long and hard, and it shall dodge you with such nonchalance you will have no option but to roll on your back and do the thing you did not want to do tonight: you will think.
Here you are, with the night above you, stars scattered carelessly across the sky, the chill nipping at your toes. When everything has slowed and stilled, then comes the silence, unbroken and unmapped. Deep, broad, boundless silence. Of mind, of body, of nature, of the Milky Way tilting its way across the sky as the hours pass by. Peaceful silence. Contemplative. Almost spiritual enough to make you stop wondering why the heck you are even in this wild place thinking about silence.
You pull yourself back just in time. Tomorrow is another day of miles and miles. You manage about three hours of sleep before the new day arrives.
Hot, dusty miles. Bleh. Meh.
The road flattens out in the Namib Naukluft Park on the third day. That is an optimistic statement, really. The road is flat only because there are no hills on it. But the bumps in the road are beyond horrible. You are certain you will have irreparable spinal cord injury by the time the day’s ride is done. This is the closest to white you can be because you are caked in your own sweat’s salt and a fine sheen of dust kicked up by the tour trucks and buses that hurtle past you, carrying eager and curious tourists from bum-fuck nowhere to bum-fuck somewhere.
Someone has to like this wild, you reason.
The sun starts setting when you arrive at Vogelfedersberg. While the ninth graders set up camp, you take a stroll to stretch the legs. Even the short hill climb makes your legs swear at you.
Whew! Made it to the top. And then—
There it is.
That wild you hate so much. Spread out, bleak, sparse, beautiful. Ground-to-heaven windows without any frames. And that magnificent silence again, with the wind making your ears sound like flapping sails. Nothing as far as the eye can see but the slow sunset creeping up on the land. The distant hills look like the sound waves on some invisible mixing desk, rising and falling to some mysterious natural beat you cannot hear.
The Namibian wild will do this thing: it will be bullshit in its ordeal and then it will try to cuddle you after a long day of arguments.
What can you do but hug it back?
The fourth day is unlike any of the preceding ones. A smooth, flat road which allows you to bring out the big gears. This the home stretch. The end is in sight. The word “end” is capable of rallying men dripping their wits and will to make one last surge towards glory—your thighs are not the exception. They pedal with newfound enthusiasm.
10, 20, 30, 40, and then 50 kilometres—the mist comes in from the sea, bringing with it a brisk breeze that freezes your hands to the handlebar. But, oh, it is so lovely. Your goosebumps cluster together for warmth, but this breeze, stained with the smells of the sea, is so delicious.
Up ahead in the distance, Walvis Bay, anchored in its smallness by the coast appears as black blur on the horizon. It is a common Namibian joke that there are only two things to do in Walvis Bay: fuck and fish—and no measure of the former will ever make you contemplate spending more than an hour in the sleepy harbour town. Never But today, god, it might as well be paradise, the sought-after haven in a deserted apocalyptic wasteland.
Walvis Bay, you beauty!
Damn. How the mighty have fallen.
It is not all over yet. You pull into Dune 7. A sandy incline at the end of a journey full of climbs. You shrug off the cycling jersey, crusted with dust and sweat and the miles, and your reluctant enthusiasm that has bubbled to the fore.
One more climb before it is all over.
You tell yourself there is a gear for every hill.
And you have all the gears.
At the top—that thing again with the absence of sound.
You have always hated the wild. You still do.
But there was that lovely silence.
And the miles.
So many miles.