While in Africa I wrote several stories with the intention of creating a book of short stories about my trip.
Rather than leave it as an unfinished book, here is part six in a blogging mini series…. “Shane’s shorts.“.
Waking with a headache and feeling sick from a hangover didn’t seem like the best way to start the next leg of my trip into the Namib desert from the Sessriem campsite. Through an innocent conversation the previous afternoon with some locals near the campsite pool I’d ended out sitting in a hot tub until 3am drinking too much beer and talking too much crap. Once again one of those twists of fate that pretty much only happens when travelling alone. It had been fun but a thumping head and with the temperature already at 35 degrees by 9am it promised to be a long day.
Sessriem is a quaint place consisting of a petrol station with a campsite plus a few hotels and another campsite. The place only exists to service tourists stopping over on their way to the infamous red dunes of the Sossus valley just 60km away.
I’d taken almost a week off in Sessriem enjoying a luxury camping spots with shade , en-suite bathroom and kitchen for €10 per night. After spending about a month cycling in the Kalahari since Kimberly in South Africa, a far from easy first week getting to the Namib and a dangerous shortcut across the fish river, the break and limited facilities where actually quite a luxury.
I spent most of my time in Sessriem enjoying having access to cold drinks, ice creams, shade and the cool water of a pool. The biggest luxury being running tap water.
More importantly I’d spent much of the last month alone and was ready for social interaction. Hanging around the pool often gave me a chance to talk to locals and tourists. The conversations were predictably repetitive and rarely really interesting but at least people talked back to me unlike Mr Hyde.
By the time I’d packed up, moved over to the petrol station and had breakfast it was 11am and almost 45 degrees in the shade. Obviously too hot to start out, especially when still dehydrated from the previous evenings stupidity. In the last month I’d learned that I could cycle up to about 35 degrees, above that it was impossible to hydrate enough. With a unique stroke of common sense to counteract the previous evening I decided it best to just eat and hydrate until about 4pm when the temperature would once again have dropped down to 35 degrees.
That evening I cycled about 40km towards Solitaire and camped near the road. I was feeling rough and tired but at least I’d made some progress and was very happy that I’d seen lots of wildlife near the road including a dozen Gemsboks running across the road in front of me at full gallop.
The next morning I woke feeling fresh and more alive after a sober night under the stars. A big advantage of travelling alone is that it’s easy to find a wild camping spot out of sight. The next morning I was on the road by 7am, a little late for cycling in the desert but I knew I only had to do 30km to Solitaire. I planned to rest during the day in Solitaire then set off again a few hours before sunset.
Solitaire is of the same caliber as Sessriem though even smaller. With just a small petrol station, shop, campsite, restaurant and the infamous bakery run by local legend ‘Moose.’ I spent the day eating very nice cakes, complimented with a steak and chips at the small restaurant. I also killed some time using the wifi to update my blog and chat with friends via facebook and caught up on emails. Though many people hate their addiction to social media for me it was often a life line to allow me to interact with the outside world. Staying up to date with friends, old and new and sharing my own experiences with my readers and followers. Social media also gave me access to contacts along the way that I otherwise would not of had.
Solitaire to the coastal town of Walvis bay would be about 250km. The road the previous days had been good quality gravel and there’d been no wind. The water situation over this stretch was a mystery but in the past month I’d never gone more than a day without seeing a farm or windmill where I could get water from, my map also showed two large rivers I’d have to cross where I could maybe filter water. I figured I could cycle about 30km the first evening and cover the remaining 220km easily in 3-4 days. I left Solitaire with food for 5-6 days and 20 litres of water, enough for two and a half days. The next morning I past a hotel but still had 17 litres so chose not to fill up. By 10 am it was once again around 40 degrees as I past the sign for the Tropics of Capricorn and dropped into the Gaub Gorge, the first of the big rivers I would cross and anticipated filling my water.
The river was dry, not such a big surprise in the middle of summer but a little stupid of me to count on it not being dry. Luckily there was a nice picnic table in the shade of a huge rock where I set up home for the day to wait until things cooled off. Around lunch time a bus full of journalists from Dubai stopped for a chat and to donate a litre of water, I’d met them two days previously on the way from Sessriem. As they left I chastised myself for not being cheeky and asking for more water, I had no idea where my next water would come from and was down to about 14 litres. The coming days became a constant struggle between not wanting my bike to get too heavy with water and being too proud to stop motorists to ask for water. I would only occasionally accept water if people offered it themselves.
By mid afternoon I was bored of hanging around so headed out of the gorge only to be confronted with a headwind and a road that gradually deteriorated. The road would spend the next few days being gently undulating with deep gravel at the bottom of each undulation.
Just before sunset a friendly 4×4 safari group stopped for a chat and the compulsory photo of me and in exchange donated a cold Fanta and a cold beer which I relished with my pasta an hour later as I camped in a small gorge just off the road. Several other “Desert Safari” groups stopped during my time on this route. Most didn’t even bother to talk to me, they just stopped, took a few photos from the window of their bus then drove on.
It seemed that many were actually disappointed to see me. They were on the ultimate desert safari with their rugged bearded guide living the ultimate desert experience to tell friends about. Only to find a equally rugged bearded guy on a bicycle in the middle of the desert all alone, bursting their bragging rights bubble.
Just after dinner I hiked up to the top of a small hill nearby where I had just enough phone signal to download my emails and send of few messages then headed back to my tent to read my messages before going to sleep.
The next few days are just a blur in my mind and the cycling was infinitely tougher than I expected. The road constantly went up and down 20m and every few hundred metres I had to push my bike through 100m of deep gravel and fight the nasty headwind that got worse as I approached the coast. The water situation was worse than I expected too. No farms or windmills and only one very muddy river that had water. Each day I struggled to find suitable shade during the hottest of the day when it was often 45 degrees. One day I was forced to share the shade of a large overhanging rock with a couple of huge desert rats and the shit they had left behind in the recent months, not to mention the flies. An afternoon siesta was out of the question as I had to constantly watch out for the rats and was under constant attack from flies. Luckily I was once again able to distract myself with my phone and chat with friends and laugh about my ridiculous situation on what would have otherwise been a miserable and lonely day.
The extra exertion of the bad road and wind had not only taken its toll on my poor battered body but also on my food supply. I’d been eating a lot more than usual. While cooking dinner on the fourth evening a quick check of my rather empty front pannier confirmed my worst fears. I’d only covered 45km per day the last 3 days so had 90km to go to Walvis bay, in theory two more days of hard cycling. My food for that time consisted of 200g of rice, 100g of instant potato and a couple of pieces of dried fruit. My water situation despite generous donations from passing tourists was just as desperate. Dinner that evening had very much the feeling of a last supper.
I went to bed a very worried man with only 2 litres of water remaining, hardly enough to get me as far as second breakfast the next day let alone 90km at 40+ degrees. After my sleepless night where my thoughts bounced between “Tomorrow I’m going to die in the desert.” to “90km of guts and glory on a boring breakfast and two litres of water must be possible to Walvis bay.” or “Don’t be stupid you can just get a lift.”
The next morning I was feeling strong and the wind was only a light headwind. I was still at about 400m altitude so assumed it would be a slight down hill to the coast. I finished my rice and dried fruit and set off with 1.5L of water, going for a guts and glory sprint to the coast. Thankfully two hours later I came across road workers and was able to fill my water bottles, and eat my garlic flavoured instant potato with cold water.
Though broken, hungry and tired I made it to Walvis bay by lunch time thanks to the road drastically improving and the 400m altitude drop.
Once in Walvis I tucked into a KFC family meal then checked into the backpackers. I must of been quite a sight as I sat on the porch of the backpackers talking to the owners, tired, dusty and probably quite smelly from not washing for days to save water. When I asked the old lady what my accommodation options were she simply said “I think we need to give you a room rather than a dorm.” I answered that I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay for a room. She said “Don’t worry about that you need your rest.” I left three days later after the luxury of an en-suite room with fridge and breakfast, the owners refusing to accept more than the price of a dorm bed.
It seems that ultimately the only reason to die while cycling in most deserts is to let your pride get in the way, generally it is possible to get water or a lift from passing traffic when it all goes wrong.
This is especially true on this well worn tourist route from Sessriem to the coast.