Grootfontein to Ngepi Camp

My journey through Africa to date has had a certain rhythm to it. Largely dictated by the holidays and the usual encumbrances that come along with landing on a new continent, I’ve found that I’ve had more days in Windhoek than originally planned and added to the week I spent in Swakopmund and the more than a week in Cape Town, my travels have been had briefly punctuated in these locations. Not planned and not necessarily a good or bad thing, I now sit at the crossroads of my African journey. And it’s here I suspect the journey will become more challenging and more African. Lovely Africa.

I retraced much of the road I drove on my Etosha trip while I made time toward Grootfontein including passing through Otjiwarongo again and by the legendary Indila Liquor Den where Grant braved the dark black hole and bought a couple half-pints of Old Buck Gin. Stopping for fuel and a chicken pie at the Engen petrol station I received a text message from Ronnie indicating rain was looming in Grootfontein, still several hours away. So I motored on.

I noticed my small point-and-shoot digital camera was missing when I pulled over to shoot a few photographs of massive termite mounds and weaver nests high in the power lines. My mind raced. I always keep the camera on the bike in a small case that is secured by Velcro to the straps holding my Aerostich tank panniers to my bike. Where was it. I was feverish. Could it be that someone at the Engen gas station ripped me off while I was waiting for my chicken pie? Impossible. I’ve left the camera there in places much scarier or dangerous. Besides, it’s hard to see if anything is there. When parked the handlebars obscure the small case and make it difficult to get to the camera.

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Plenty of warthogs road side. Made me think of swiss dj on a KTM I met in Chile who had his trip interrupted hen a warthog ran in front of him in South Africa.

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Massive termite ant hills take over the trunks of trees.

But the fact remained. The camera was gone.

When I got to the turn off at Otavi I spotted a massive billboard touting that winners choose Old Buck gin. Thinking of Grant and and the bitter and disgusted face he flashed the first time he tasted Old Buck and how happy when he found a proper bottle of Gin. Pulling over to grab a photo of the billboard, and still confused about what happened to my camera, I searched my top case thinking maybe I dropped in their quickly. Not likely, but I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that someone ripped me off. it was then my attituded lightened and I forgot about the camera. Because sitting below my Carnet de Passage was a bottle of Old Buck Gin. Those rascals. Jules and Grant. They had snuck into and hid one of the infamous half-pints of Old Buck in my top box without me noticing. I couldn’t have spotted it at a more perfect time. In front of an Old Buck billboard.

When I finally arrived to meet Ronnie at the Courtyard Guesthouse in Grootfontein, I had played every scenario in my head. I was sure I left the camera on the bed at Hotel Thule in Windhoek. I took a picture of Grant & Jules after they rode off that morning. I remember connecting to the wireless, iSighting with Angie and then blasting off when the skies looked clear. And in my mind I saw the little Canon SD870IS sitting on the bed. But when I called Carla at Hotel Thule she said nothing had been turned in. “Don’t worry Allan,” she tried to reassure me, “if housekeeping found it they will log it in the lost and found book and put it in the safe.” But there was nothing in the log book. And nothing in the safe. True, it was Sunday and the housekeeping supervisor was off, it would be quite possible that the camera would turn up tomorrow. Ronnie and I crossed our fingers.

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Termites are rather amazing architects and builders.

That night we talked about our plans, riding styles and expectations. Sporting a salt and pepper beard with short and receding hair, he spoke with that clear and succinct South AFrican accent I’ve come to recognize. Powering through several cigarettes as we looked at the maps, I quickly learned Ronnie was on a much faster timeline than I was. His original plans didn’t include Botswana. But rains and the massive flooding and rains north meant traveling south through Botswana made more sense. Plus, I was eager to canoe and see wildlife along the Okavango Delta. What’s more, I had a number of people recommend trying to make it to the Okavango Panhandle and stay at the purportedly legendary Ngepi Camp, a backpacker oasis that featured camping and tree houses sitting along the river where hippos and crocodile swam. Though Ronnie was concerned that getting to any of the camps along the Caprivi strip meant riding through deep sand. With minimal infrastructure and only a spattering of lodges, it’s a remote part of Namibia and a short football pass to the Angola border.

When he called Duncan at Ngepi we learned that there is a 4km stretch that passes through deep sand and because of rains now had ponding and mud build up. “How long does it take you to drive those four kilometers,” I could only hear one side of his conversation. “Twenty five minutes in a four-by-four?” There was a big pause. “Bloody hell, it will probably take us an hour.” We booked two nights at Ngepi and if the road turned out to be hell, we had a back up set for Poppa Falls, a neighboring camp closer to the main road.

Before setting out on the more than 400km journey to Ngepi Camp I confirmed with Carla at Thule that my camera was safe in the hotel safe. Relieved I called my friends at DHL and arranged to have them pick up the camera and send it to me my attention at Audi Camp in Moan, Botswana. DHL customer service rep John in Windhoek told me it would be there Wednesday or Thursday the latest.

The ride through Ngepi took us to Rundu then along the western Caprivi to Divundu. We battled heavy rains on and off. This concerned us as if the road to Ngepi had more rain it could prove to be impassable. At least that’s what Duncan warned. Along the way we passed tiny settlements of round huts sans running water and electricity. Along the road women and children balanced bottles of water on their heads. It reminded me of Himba country. The daily chore for these people is to walk to the nearest water source, fill their containers and walk back to their primitive huts. I talked to one woman carrying about 10 liters on her head with a young child on her back. As she explained her daily plight she notched her head back and forth as if it were on a ratchet all along holding steady and keeping the massive container of water balanced. There was clearly more water here. I was wet. And at least here the vegetation was green and the river closer to the villages. Try schlepping your daily ration of water a few kilometers every day. Still primitive. But still tough.

A typical roadside scene where young children and women transport water to their remote villages and thatched huts.

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Everyone carries a bottle of water and the size they carry seems to be directly correlated to their body size.

In Divundu I filled up with petrol but Ronnie, citing much less off-road experience, refrained — worried that riding through the thick sand with a full tank would be more challenging. A scant 12km south we came to the Ngepi turnoff. The first 50 meters dealt us loose but manageable sand. But the rains had washed much of the sand away and any that was left was firmer and provided more grip to my Bridgestone Trailwings, the only tire I could find in Cape Town. The muddy track that winded toward the riverside Ngepi diverted through the bush in several places where thick mucky mud and big pools of muddy water looked menacing. Our tires and bikes squirreled and snaked through the obstacle course with a tad of difficulty but easily manageable.

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Ronnie navigates the sand and mud pools toward Ngepi Camp.

Our reward when landing at the infamous Ngepi Camp? A cold Windhoek lager. Bliss in the Caprivi.

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