June 14, 2015 by Rob Gardiner
Andrew’s love for melodrama is respectfully confined to his writing. So when he pulled up alongside me, sitting in the backseat of a 4×4, I knew that all was not well. For several days prior to our arrival in Uis, he had been nursing a swollen kneecap, struggling with the discomfort it caused. In spite of a day of rest, it had become even worse as we bounced our way down a corrugated desert road towards the Atlantic Ocean. Finally succumbing to the inevitable, he had flagged down a passing car and hitched the remaining distance; a welcome escape after 115 kilometres battling pain, wind, sand, corrugations and desperately uninspiring scenery.
With several days of rest the only prescribed cure for Andrew’s crumbling joint, we were beginning to resign ourselves to enduring the limited attractions of the concrete-clad, sandswept community of Henties Bay. Without the Russian music videos that had been our entertainment staple when trapped in the Uzbek town of Nukus, we were at a loss for how to spend our time.
Fortunately, our limited imaginations and the town’s helpful tourist information centre conspired to provide a solution. And so within 24 hours we were loading our kit into the back of a freshly hired Toyota Hilux, ready to explore the the Skeleton Coast and Damaraland in a (relatively) knee friendly fashion.
Dropping our bikes off in Uis, we soon began to explore the web of gravel roads and 4×4 tracks that litter the harsh terrain at the foot of Mount Brandberg. Making our way past the rather glamorously named Messum Crater, we wound our way back towards the coast. En route, one of the easier tracks turned out be the perfect stretch for my first driving lesson. Three-point turns and the correct use of mirrors were somewhat neglected, but I managed to master slowing down before chassis-shattering dips and maintaining speed over bone-jarring corrugations.
Following a brief stop at the fur seal colony of Cape Cross – identifiable by its stomach-churning aroma, we sped north into the Skeleton Coast Park. This protected area is as far north as tourists can travel unaccompanied and the desperately barren landscape quickly justified the rather melodramatic name.
After a night camped overlooking the red hills of Damaraland, we began to explore the area north of the Ugab River, hoping to spot both elephants and lions. Although we were rewarded with several giraffe and ostrich sightings, we struggled to hunt down either of these more elusive animals. But fortunately our route provided its own form of entertainment.
Uttering the directions, “Go around the cows and towards the chicken”, I felt that these were inauspicious beginnings for a road that was supposedly maintained and clearly assigned a number on our Namibian map. What followed was little more than a glorified footpath, barely wide enough for a vehicle and littered with obstacles. Dropping precipitously into dry riverbeds then clawing its way out over bare rock, our trusty four-wheeled steed suddenly earned new-found respect in our eyes. The next 18 kilometres took over an hour – with some hairy moments thrown in – but we emerged on the other side intact and relieved.
The next day, our wildlife-spotting luck changed and, as we cut across a short stretch of 4×4 track, a majestic desert elephant ambled into our sight. Shadowing it from a distance, we followed as the elephant slowly made its way up the track in front of us. Eventually, the juicy leaves of a nearby tree proved too tempting and we were allowed to pass; the elephant veered right and began to graze, using its nimble trunk to reach the highest branches.
Soon we were yet again bouncing along rock-strewn tracks, as we headed back towards Uis. Cutting through the jagged landscape of the Ugab River Valley, we kept our eyes peeled for lions or rhinos, but to no avail. Eventually, the oasis atmosphere of Uis drew close and we parted company with our trusty four-wheeled friend. Cycling begins afresh tomorrow; turning our backs on the frigid Atlantic we are now heading northeast, towards the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean.