We had a somewhat restless sleep despite our fatigue as I was far from comforted by the campsite custodian’s response to my question of whether we were safe from lions at the campsite. We had already found ourselves inadvertently camping in a place where there were lions in the past, like our unplanned camp in the Ugab River, and I didn’t want to do the same again. He thought for a moment and responded that while the lions were usually around here they had moved on to the next river valley so we would most likely be fine. It didn’t exactly inspire confidence in a deserted campsite.
Kaokoland in all its glory
The DR ate the corrugations up for dinner
Happily we survived the night, and celebrated that milestone in our now traditional way; by sharing a hot tin of baked beans and a black coffee. Our next destination was the relative ‘big smoke’ of Opuwo. After the hot and tiring riding from Sesfontein to Purros we were expecting much of the same riding and mentally prepared ourselves for another tough day. We were pleasantly surprised by the conspicuous absence of sand along the route and we spent the first part of the morning taking in the desolate beauty of the place along nice gravel road. There was a heat haze in the distance, the air smelt hot and the aridity of the place was such that it tickled the skin as the moisture was slowly drawn from our faces into the thirsty desert air. While the corrugations were a bit hectic at times our DRs, with their motocross forks, sliced though them like a hot knife through butter.
The ever-present heat haze in the distance that followed us everywhere we went
The Giraffe Mountains in the distance
We had the music blaring in our helmet and grins like a Cheshire cat the whole way. It was like there was no-one else on the planet but us, which has been a common feeling for us in this part of Namibia. It is the greatest of treats a biker could ask for. I imagine it is the equivalent experience for an art fan to get a private showing in the vaults of the Louvre. We were in an adventure motorbiking paradise and it seemed to be there for no-one but us. I couldn’t help but think I was excelling at life at that point. I was doing what makes me happiest, in one of the most amazing place in the world with a fellow that I am rather fond of. If there are ever doubts of the wisdom of shelving a conventional life and all the perks and comforts that come with it, it is days like these that dispel those thoughts altogether.
Corrugations! Everybody’s favourites. Luckily these ones all but disappeared at 100km/h
The scenery was fantastic in Kaokoland’s near monotone, copious yet beautiful near-nothingness kind of way. Unlike our last week of riding, the kilometres came easily and we relished the chance to take it all in with minimal exertion. As we progressed the familiar yellow sand dunes of the Skeleton Coast Park appeared on the horizon. We had been informed that the desert elephants that usually line our route were now chasing the water and foliage within the Skeleton Coast park. We would have obviously loved to have seen the robust desert elephants of Damaraland and Kaokoland but we were more than a little relieved that they had moved on from our planned route for greener pastures, so to speak. They are a huge hazard for motorbike riders in this part of the world as they can be extremely aggressive and the winding and sandy nature of the trails makes the deck ever more stacked in the favour of a four tonne elephant in any biker-elephant altercations.
The little gang of Himba kiddies we met in Orupembe. Note the little fella on the right in longsleeve jersey and no pants.
The CBD of Orupembe
Enjoying an icy cold coke and sharing our biscuits with the kids
We came upon a village marked on the map as Orupembe. Once again it was a place that seemed barely worth printing on a map but it was the closest thing to a landmark we’d seen all morning so we stopped there for lunch and a cold drink. However, our little stop for coke looked over before it began when we arrived at the closed shop. While considering our limited snack options (salami and biscuits) we came across a bunch of little Himba kids who were shy but very keen to gawk at us.
The kids inspecting our kit
Chilling in the shade
We grabbed a couple blissfully cold cokes and enjoyed the limited shade on offer. Slowly the kids became more comfortable with us and were soon happy to share our biscuits. They took great interest in all our gear and after they had inspected everything in fine detail they were keen to have their photos taken. Many times. They loved it and it made for a nice rest from the road.
This is a young Himba girl as evidenced the two plaits of braided hair called ozondato, the form of which is determined by the paternal clan she belongs to
The little boys tend to have shaved heads
Another girl with a killer smile
These types of necklaces are very common (and heavy) and are made from iron electric fence wire
The braids on the girls’ heads are actually a sewn in weave made of goats hair.
Look how striking the girl at the back is
After we parted ways with our new mates the riding improved even more as we rode though the Giraffe Mountains. It was unreal riding through the undulating, winding rocky trails. The riding was fun and at times a little technical and we were loving every minute of it. Before coming into Kaokaland we had heard many a story of people tearing the sidewalls of tyres on the sharp rocks. We can believe it but managed to avoid the same fate ourselves. We were running high pressures and riding with caution to minimise wheel spin.
The Giraffe Mountains offered up some of the nicest rocky trails of the day…but no giraffes sadly
Holy shit! Trees! Real live living things!
Excited for a non-dead straight road
As the day wore on the long distance and heat was starting to get to us. The technical riding we had been enjoying earlier in the day was now starting to annoy us if I’m honest which shows just how spoilt for great riding we had been lately. By now we were getting exhausted and overly keen for a cold drink and the wholesome food that the town of Opuwo could provide us with. Just as we were getting so close and ominous dark clouds were appearing in the distance, our pace slowed down even more as we rode up washed out roads exposing bedrock, which made for slow and bouncy riding. Fortunately, by the time we were really getting really tired, a nice graded road opened up before us and for the last 40km to Opuwo we managed 100km an hour.
Having a breather
We had an awesome time screaming up these trails
And down roads like these
Edging closer to Opuwo it was sand and tiny river crossings
We stayed at the Opuwo Country Lodge, which was perched on the top of the hill overlooking the town. It is an impressive looking lodge with an infinity pool and amazing views. We blatantly ignored the lodge’s rule of smart casual after 6pm and had dinner in all our dusty and stinking riding gear. Dinner was an awesome rump steak with the best vegies I have had is so long. We arranged to stay the next two nights in their campground as our bodies and minds were crying out for a rest day. We spent most of our time by the pool chilling and trying to replenish energy stores as well as stuffing as much protein and minerals into us as physically possible.
The Opowu Country Lodge thankfully had a campground
LUXURY is …dining on non-canned food in a place like this
GOOD SERVICE is….politely waking up sleeping customers when the meals have arrived
During our last evening at the lodge we were sitting down to dinner when some guy came up and said ‘Mick, is that you?’ We couldn’t believe it. It was Mick’s geo friend Chris who lives in Arusha, Tanzania. Turns out he is in the area for a few weeks of mapping while his company explores for copper nearby. He had no idea we were in the area nor did we expect to run in to him there. This world of ours is a tiny one. It was great meeting him so unexpectedly and we are looking forward to catching up again with him in Tanzania.
I don’t think anyone really knows what smart casual is….but it is probably not this
Before we knew it we were on the road again and heading towards our most significant challenge to date; a fully loaded descent of Van Zyl’s Pass. Once again fuel range was to be an issue so we filled up both the safari tanks and the secondary fuel tanks in anticipation of long routes in near total isolation – our favourite!
The morning started off rather poorly for me. While stocking up on supplies at the supermarket I realised it was a perfect chance to get some milk to drink. I had been craving non-powdered milk for weeks. I grabbed a half litre bottle of icy cold milk from the fridge, orange juice and a cake to share and joined Michael in the carpark for breakfast. I got a rude shock when a guzzled a mouth full of curdled milk. It was icy cold but very very off. An altogether unpleasant experience but on the bright side I no longer craved milk and I was well awake now. I tell you what, a triple espresso wouldn’t wake you up half as fast as a mouthful of off milk.
Opowu is the largest town in Kaokoland and it possesses a similar lack of charm as all sizable towns seem to – traffic, loitering people, litter and a disproportionate amount of bar and bottle shops. However what made the place interesting was the shear number of Himba men, women and children in town to do their shopping and other chores. It was like a fusion of the two worlds – you’d see extremely elaborately dressed Himba ladies with children strapped to their backs waiting in line at the checkouts or in line for vegetables. It looked like any old supermarket in any developing country except for the large number of topless women smeared in ochre and butter.
On the road again and more rocky trails
‘You have a bike too? We are now friends.’
We only had 150-ish km to cover today but in this part of Namibia and in this heat was always going to take a fair few hours. Compared to the riding we had done prior to Opuwo it was pretty tame but nice and challenging nonetheless. After several hours, we came across a remote Himba community. We saw a hire car and a foreigner with a bunch of locals gathered around him. We were in need of a snack and a rest and thought it would be worth seeing what this fellow was up to. He turned out to be a cool German guy called Thomas who was from Berlin and owned a KTM640. He had visited this place a couple of years previous and had taken photos of some of the Himba people. He had retuned with the photos keen to give them to the Himba who had posed for him. We thought this was pretty cool indeed. We grabbed a cold soft drink and sat in the shade talking and he was kind enough to give us bread and cold tomatoes to eat which was glorious. A shared love of bikes and a tomato exchange and viola! We are instant friends. So now we have another person to go riding when we got to Germany.
A young Himba girl – we never figured out the significance of her headdress
After a year of marriage or following the birth of their first child, Himba women add an elaborate animal skin headdress to their hairstyle like the one this young woman has on
The girls excitedly posed with anything they could get their hands on
The Himba are a rather fascinating group of semi-nomadic people concentrated in Kaokoland, the remote north-west corner of Namibia. They number around 30,000 and are sometimes referred to as the ‘red-people’ due to the cultures beauty norm that has the women lathering themselves in red ochre mixed with butter and animal fat. The Himba women in particular hold very tightly to their traditions and invest a great deal of time and effort in maintaining their appearance. The hairstyles have a varying degree of complexity which denotes their status and stage in life. The women sleep on raised wooden pillows in order to not damage their dreadlocks which are a mixture of ochre, butter, straw, goat hair and increasingly Indian hair extensions purchased in town.
How different could two women look? This girl was the most gregarious of the group and very keen to get a photo with me
The Himba women are fiercely proud of their traditional hairstyles and clothes and are more eager than the men to hang on to the old customs. This picture illustrates this well. We didn’t come across any male Himba in full traditional attire. These days the guys have regular haircuts and commonly wear contemporary clothing
An interesting thing about Himba culture is that its considered highly egalitarian with decisions split between men and women with women mainly managing finances. Although marriage is extremely important in Himba culture, extramarital affairs are encouraged for both men and women. The tragic affect of this is that despite the utter remoteness in which the majority of Himba live they have not been spared the scourge of HIV/AIDS. And it is some of their cultural practices that increase their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS infection. Polygamy is commonly practiced, people become sexually active very young and with child bearing so important in their society the notion of using condoms to address the spread of HIV/AIDS is one that is not likely to catch on at the speed it needs to.
Showing the Himba ladies my tattoos
A young Himba woman with her braids tied back indicating she is ready to marry
More elaborate jewelry and hairstyles
While we were sitting there one of the village guys came over with some of the local apple cider brew to give us to try. It was very outgoing of him to do so and his efforts were met with extreme laughter from the rest of the village. They thought it was hilarious that he was going over to these strange whities and they seemed to get a real kick out of our reactions to their local firewater. It was like a cloudy apple cider, which packed a fair bit of punch but fell short of sending us blind. Actually it wasn’t too bad at all. With the ice broken the group of young Himba girls gained the courage to approach us and interact.
The red colour that is used on the skin is considered a sign of beauty and they smear the mixture all over their skin, hair clothes and jewelry.
At the beginning there was the one girl shyly requesting a photo and before we knew it they were fighting for a turn in front of the lens. Every time we showed them the photos they would squeal with delight and try to come up with another pose or prop to pose with. They were loving it and were especially keen for photos with me. They demonstrated their jewelry to me and as I didn’t have any jewelry myself I thought they might be interested in my tattoos. To say they were excited was an understatement and the older ladies in particular were interested to see them and kicked the younger girls out of the way so they could inspect.
Hanging around the bikes
Himba girl looking badass in my sunglasses
An ever more enthusiastic round of posing for photos took place and excitement reached fever pitch when I taught the girls how to use the camera themselves. We went out to the bike and where we did a bit of a show and tell with all our riding gear. What amused me the most was the older ladies were just as curious as the young girls and refused to miss out on any of the action, insisting I take photos of them wearing my sunglasses. One of the girls was brave enough to get on the motorbike but seemed to balk at the prospect of going for a ride. It made for a fun break from riding and a lovely experience with the Himba people who we couldn’t help but be impressed by.
Everyone wanted a turn with the sunnies
Including the old ducks
They would not be left out of the fun
Our experience with the Himba people had been extremely positive and very much at odds with some of the travellers tales we had heard before coming to the region. We found them to be laid back, kind and extremely curious. Far from having them aggressively insist on payment for photos we never paid to take photograph and typically were asked to take their photos when they saw we had a camera. The difference for us really came down to the motorbikes making them more curious about us than the other way around. Additionally, we would always strive to strike up a rapport before even thinking of getting our cameras out. This was generally easy to do as the first thing on our minds when we stopped the bikes is taking off our gear, grabbing an cold drink and sitting under a tree for a good long while. By the time we are in the mindset of taking in the surroundings they are thoroughly curious. With me being a female I think they find this less intimidating and all the more curious.
The Himba aesthetic is extremely interesting and exotic and I certainly understand the desire to seek out these people and photograph them. However I think the mistake people make is by getting out of their cars where they are making a 5 minute stop and get straight in their faces with the camera. It is not normal and not how human interactions work. Think about it. It someone off the street appeared out of nowhere took your photo and walked off you would find that weird if not upsetting. Were that person to make eye contact with your stand around for a bit maybe tell you their name and after a bit of interaction motion to take a photo… obviously that wouldn’t be quite so strange.
This girl was the only one brave enough to get on the bike
And she seemed to enjoy herself
We also take the time and get a sense for how they feel and it is feels right we might ask for a photo and it not we don’t. An example of this was a couple days previous on the way to Opuwo when I came upon a Himba woman along a really long remote stretch of road. I recalled I still had a packet of matches in my tank bag which are incredibly handy to the people living out here. I pulled up to the woman sitting under the tree and as I approached I saw that she was young and lovely and the most splendidly adored Himba lady I had come across. Her jewelry was incredibly elaborate. I came in and held out the matches and motioned as to say ‘do you have any use for these’. She looked absolutely thrilled. Utterly delighted even and held my hand in a way that expressed her gratitude but there was something else there too. If I had given her money I don’t think I would have got the same reaction at all. To me the little gift of matches was less a sign of charity than an acknowledgment of the remoteness and challenge of the region. The rapport was certainly there but I couldn’t dilute the moment by whipping out the camera.
The girls were keen to hear some fat beats on my headphones
After saying our goodbyes to our Himba mates and Thomas we continued on some more technical trails which were very rocky, then sandy, then both. Just getting to Van Zyl’s pass was proving a mission in itself. It took hours and hours of riding through thick sand and rocky trails to reach. The last several km to the campsite was wonderfully technical. There were short yet steep climbs over large sharp and rolling rocks that served as a fantastic place for practicing balance and low speed throttle control. With the bikes so heavily laden with fuel and our gear it felt like trails riding and it was bloody brilliant. We were negotiating undulating, rocky, rocky trails at walking pace and I loved every second of it. I couldn’t believe how the humble DRs were handling and how much my riding had improved in recent months. Before now I would not have thought the bikes capable of such highly technical slow speed manoeuvring and I found myself going half the pace necessary and as slow as physically possible just for the challenge of it. Quite simply we had the weight distribution of the bikes tuned to perfection.
The distribution of weight on a motorbike is SO crucial. 5 kg of luggage poorly positioned on a bike can be more disrupting to handling that 15kg of well positioned weight. We have the system so sorted that it is only on steep downhill that we can feel the weight of the luggage on the bikes. We keep our weight low down and forward and it makes the world of difference. With this concept in mind there are few places we can’t go.
This kid was too cool
On arrival at the Van Zyl’s community campground we were not surprised to be the only people there yet again. After some time a couple of Himba girls came along to show us to our campsite. The eldest girl we guessed was in her late teens or early 20s and her tied back dreadlocks indicated she was ready to wed. The other girl we guessed to be around 10 years old. The only word of English they spoke was the word ‘seventy’ to indicate the cost per person for the campsite. After paying the girls settled in to watch us sent up camp and just generally hang out.
She loved the SIDIs as much as we do
They were pretty mad about all the motorbike gear, especially our hot and sweaty SIDI crossfires which they happily wore for a couple of hours. The young girl in particular was a total extrovert and was nothing short of fascinated by every bit of kit that we pulled out. They helped us set up camp and we all shared some food and chilled out until the sun went down. The little Himba girl was keen to share some food with us as well so bullied some fruits out of the smaller kids. The bush fruits were bitter as a lemon but we managed to fain appreciation and the girl seemed thrilled to have shared them with us. They even went to the trouble of peeling them for us when we were struggling with the skin. There is no more human an experience I think, than sharing your food with another person and we enjoyed the language free connection.
I introduced a Himba girl to the selfie – am officially the worst person around
Learning and failing to use a camera
She got a huge kick out of wearing for my sunglasses for a couple of hours and made no request to keep them. She just had her fun with them
While at the camp we watched the local kids going about their business. We saw a tiny little kid of maybe 6 years old walking along on his own carrying a machete that was almost half his height. It was yet another lovely interaction we were fortunate to have with the Himba who we found to be proud, kind, inquisitive and keen for a laugh. We couldn’t help but admire how they have been able to eek out a living in such harsh conditions while maintaining such a strong sense of their tradition and culture. Eeking out a living may not be the right way to describe them as while they certainly work hard and lack a lot of comforts they are often quite wealthy in terms of cattle. Some Himba familys have us to 200 head of cattle but are not likely to ever say how many they have due to fear of stock theft.
Amongst travellers to the area there is a lot of talk about how commercialized/money hungry the Himba are and how they will not pose for a photo without payment. I challenge anyone to travel to a remote Himba outpost and give someone five dollars then give them a packet of matches and see which gesture gets the bigger reaction. I guarantee you they will be far more pleased with the packet of matches than any amount of money you could give them. Oftentimes I think the request for payment is used just to get strangers out of their faces.
If you look closely you can see where the young girls weave is sewn in
This girl was fascinated with how things worked
And was undeniably intelligent
But it is undeniable, especially the closer you get to Opuwo, that the Himba communities are now choosing to earn small sums of money by opening their communities for tourism. The obvious consequence of this is the slight and continual change in the dynamics of the culture on display for the interested tourist who will get their holiday snaps then move on. Leaving what behind I don’t know. It is fair to say however that the foreigners have a great affect on the Himba than the Himba have on them. Who knows, the Himba have tenaciously held on to their traditions through colonialism, wars, droughts now all they have to overcome is globalisation, a HIV/AIDS epidemic and their govenments plans for a dam along the Cunene river that will inundate a huge part of the lands they call home. Fingers crossed for these guys. They might need all the luck they can get.
They went crazy for the photos of my friends wedding on my Ipad. What they must have thought of our clothing and adornments I wonder
Our new friend getting some bush berries for us to eat from some boys who’d been picking
A couple of young Himba boys paid a visit to the camp as well
That evening Mick worked on further reinforcing the repair job on my broken front fender in preparation for the beating the bike is likely to take the next day. We carb loaded on pasta and ate by the fire before heading to bed in eager/nervous anticipation of the next day’s Van Zyl’s Pass attempt. Could it really be as hard as they say?