Etosha to Opuwo via Namibia’s Legendary C41

With about fifteen goats in the back of his two-wheel drive 15 year old Nissan pickup Simon was eager to get his cargo to Okahao, about forty miles away. Grant’s face grew several shades darker red when I asked Simon to wait just a few minutes. We’d traveled more than halfway to Opuwo from Tsandi. Grant was furious and wanted to turn back. Jules stood quietly as I quizzed Simon. According to our maps we should have been traveling on Namibia’s C41 – a supposedly major road that bisects what otherwise would have been a long circle loop north to Ruacana near the Angola border and then south to Opuwo. Grant was adamant. “This is not the C41,” he insisted. We’d asked three separate people along the way, including the only car we’d seen in the nearly an hour since we’d turned off the main road. All confirmed that this was the road to Opuwo. But Grant protested. “This can’t be the C41!”

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Oryx, Zebra and an amazing collection of birds.

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Marabou Stork.

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A big cat. Your lioness!

As noted before, Namibia’s road system includes A, B, C, D and a splattering of “F” farm roads. B-roads are generally the main roads and are paved and maintained. C-roads are primary roads and generally gravel, well maintained and in a few cases paved. D-roads are sometimes 4×4 only or simply not very well maintained.

The journey until now since leaving Numatoni Camp this morning had been uneventful. Driving along the eastern fringe of the Etosha pan could have been the penultimate African experience. Oryx sprinting across the savannah while wildebeest grazed on the morning lit yellow grass. Zebra wandered across the road and hundreds of springbok scurried across the savannah. After leaving the park we passed through Oshakati, an otherwise nondescript town save the vast number of bars with interesting names. They’re quite creative here. “Queen Returns”, “Hot Box”, “Good Life”, “Sorry to See” “California Style”. They must do a lot of drinking up here.

Within a couple hours we were passing through Okahao. Grant was peacefully snoozing shotgun and Jules helped me look for the C41. We should’ve seen a connection just outside of Okahao but soon we found ourselves limping over the speed bumps in Tsandi. After circling back and then back again we inquired at a gas station and soon were being escorted to the road to Opuwo. The dark skinned driver with a scar across his cheek extended his arm outside the window and pointed up over his roof in the direction of this unsigned dirt road. The road seemed to be a typical Namibian gravel road until about 20km the gravel quickly turned to deep and loose sand. And then in got deeper. We cruised through a tiny village stopping to confirm our assumptions. Then we traveled on. The sand got deeper until one point we got stuck. Our lack of four-wheel drive in the Toyota Condor was yielding its ugly face on this equally ugly road. Grant was getting nervous and getting more pessimistic my the kilometer. “This is just like the outback in Australia,” he compared the desolation and scrappy shrub of this desert wasteland. “If we get stuck out here we might not see anyone for days,” he insisted. We had traveled more than 40 kilometers and according to the map we had barely 50 more until the intersection of the main road to Ruacana, Opuwo and points south. “There’s no way this is the C41. We don’t know where we’re going,” Grant continued to broadcast his doomsday scenario.

The road was on and off again sand and gravel. Driving through one sandy section the vegetation appeared greener and we spotted a windmill that provided water for some sort of crops. Here we were flagged down by a guy dressed in a loin cloth, with an animal skin satchel and a machete nearly a meter long. Chewing on an open safety pin the words from his mouth fell on deaf ears. “Opuwo?” I asked pointing in the direction were were headed. He nodded. But the words kept flowing. Then he pointed the the empty seat next to Jules. And then pointed in the direction we were headed. He wanted a ride. Jules with her eyes darting between the safety clip and the machete wasn’t eager to share her seat with this stranger. This was the first clue that we were getting closer to Himba country.etosha 3573.jpg

For more than 200 years the Himba people have lived in Northwestern Namibia and southern Angola. Semi-nomadic Herero people live in some permanent and temporary homes throughout the region continually seeking grazing pastureland and water for their goats and cattle. They have resisted the influence of missionaries and wear body adornments made from iron and shell beads. Women spread red ochre and fat over their bodies to protect it from the harsh desert sun. Their round and cone-shaped homes are made of saplings bound together with palm leaves and plastered with mud and dung. Women never bathe and wear leather mini-skirts and sport elaborate headdresses. Their clothes and bedding are smoked from fires built in their huts. Men tend to the livestock, hunt and gather while women rear the children.

There was no doubt in my mind that our “hitchhiker” was Himba and definitely harmless. I thought that giving this lad a ride would give us an extra pair of hands to help push in the event we got stuck again. But tension and doubt hung in the cockpit of our Toyota Condor. Now at the wheel and unable to communicate Grant rolled up his window and drove on. The weight of the disappointment revealed in his face hung heavy over me for the next hour until we came upon a single track of sand more than a foot deep on a twenty degree incline. That’s when we saw Simon. Bopping on the sand and sliding back and forth with the goats trying to maintain footing in the bed, I flagged him down to once again confirm that we were on the road to Opuwo and to get up to the moment info on road conditions. “Only this part, only for 2-3 kilometers it is deep and tough. Then no problem.”etosha 3574.jpg

Grant pulled me aside so that Simon couldn’t hear. “I don’t care what he says,” slightly shaking and visibly losing control. “I want to turn back,” he again insisted. We had driving 59 kilometers. Going back would take more than an hour and put us nowhere closer to our destination or anywhere that would be a reasonable place to stay for the night. Simon insisted that in less than 10km we would hit the tar road and have an open path right into Opuwo. Grant wasn’t convinced. Eager to get his goats to the market in Okahao, Simon gave me his cell phone number and suggested I simply call him should we get stuck. I pulled out my phone and noticed there was no signal. “You get a signal out here?” I asked.

“No not here. But if you find a tree you can sometimes climb to the top and get a signal. Then you can call me.” Great. So here in the heat of the desert I’m going to climb a tree if we get stuck? Not likely. Experienced and obviously traveling this road often I suggested to Simon that he drive our Condor through this deep stuff with his brother following behind to ensure we had support in the event we got stuck. I figured this would be the best strategy to calm Grant’s nerves and address his biggest concern — that we’d be stuck with no help. Simon agreed. Grant wanted to turn around. And the goats started making noise. I had asked Simon to drive us the 10km to the tar with his brother behind. Balking at this idea he insisted it was an easy ride to the tar and we’d have no problem. So he got behind the wheel and started up the sandy incline.

Then he got stuck.

The silence and look from Grant and Jules hit me like a two-by-four on the head. I could read the “I told you so” on their minds and the fear penetrated the humid air like hailstones. Simon’s brother joined Grant, Jules and I as we heaved and pushed the Condor out of trouble. About a kilometer down the road the sand lessened and Simon bid us farewell while reminding me that I could climb a tree to call him if we should have further problems. “No problem. Only 8km more until the tar.” He, his brother and his goats disappeared into the horizon.IMG_6641_2.jpg

Jules says nothing.

Thirty-nine mostly sandy kilometers later (Simon, you lied) we arrived at the intersection and tar road. And Grant still insisted this wasn’t the C41 and that we should have turned around when we had the chance.

Less than thirty minutes later we were on the driveway to the Opuwo Country Hotel and minutes from a cold beer and relief from the day’s adventure.

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Simon (l) and his brother. Just check out that sand. Too bad I didn’t get a photo of the goats in back of his truck.

Arriving in the slow season, I took advantage of the low occupancy rate and negotiated a killer deal for a room while Grant and Jules opted for camping. That night we dined in the hotel’s restaurant as the sunset over the horizon pool looking over the gorgeous valley of Kaokaland and the pasturelands of the Himba people.

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