Sunday, February 24, 2008

The bar with no name

Sorry for the delay. If everyone's bored now, please tell me and I'll skip the rest of the travelogue. Not sure when I'll manage to finish it anyway - it's Festival and Fringe time and my evenings will be a little occupied for the next three weeks.

Leaving the lodge in the desert, we drove out along the same dusty road, bypassing Solitaire because the Yanks and their guide were in front of us and we saw them stop there. We didn’t want Carl II to force us into some sort of weird convoy all the way to Walvis Bay. There were enough signs along the highway that said, “Achtung!” without having Carl II sticking his head out the window and yelling it back at us as well.

Unfortunately, this meant 250km of desert with no Diet Coke and a windscreen that was plastered with the innards of bugs. The colour range of bug guts always astounds me. Yellow, white, purple, red, green, orange, mustard, brown – it’s a veritable rainbow of tiny little offal.

The road between Solitaire and Walvis Bay was like the road from Windhoek to Solitaire: long, dry, dusty and empty, yet dwarfed by the blue bowl of the sky. A five strand fence stretched for a year and a day: thousands and thousands of posts and wire enough to reach the moon.

We crossed the Tropic of Capricon and the land around us turned rocky and bleak. Grey hills rolled down into zigzag valleys with a few scrubby trees. It changed gradually until we were driving through sand hills that looked like the dunes at the end of our street. Strangely, we never lost mobile phone reception on the trip. I think the Namibian telcos have bred mutant oryx whose horns act as mobile phone receivers.

We pulled into Walvis Bay in need of a pit stop for Livingstone and for ourselves. While one of the service station attendants filled Livingstone’s tank, another washed the dried bug goo off his windscreen and yet another presented me with the key to the ladies’ room. It was attached to half a broom handle by a most dubious-looking piece of cord. I really needed to wash my hands after I returned it, not before.

After hamburgers of distinctly non-cow origin in a greasy spoon, we went looking for flamingos. Ooh, this was going to be good. I’d been hanging out to see flamingos and if we were going to see them at all, this would be the place. According to the travel schtick, 30,000 flamingos live in the Walvis Bay lagoon. Naturally, they’d all gone to the pub or Mardi Gras or something when we visited and it turned out to be closer to 100.

Flamingos are a bit like the royal family, really, managing to be stately and ridiculous at the same time. They neck and stalk around each other in the shallows, stirring up the silt and its resident shrimp by performing a shuffling dance. Their legs are nobbly chopsticks and their necks and heads look like under-rim toilet cleaner bottles, but in the air, they are beautiful: miniature gliders with flashes of pink and black on their wings.

From Walvis Bay, we drove to Langstrand, or Long Beach. Weirdly, we were staying at the same place as Brad and Angelina stayed during the great birth countdown. Of course, that’s not why we stayed there. The location was right and I was attracted by the name. Yes, I realise that represents a whole different sort of shallow. Bite me. Words are important. Even the biggest curmudgeon has to admit that The Burning Shore is a pretty cool name for a hotel. And it was right on the beach. I just hope the villa that Brad and Angelina stayed in had air con, because our room certainly didn’t. Christ, it didn’t have a door or even a complete wall between the sleeping area and the bathroom, which provided for just a little too much intimacy as far as Bloke and I were concerned. Toilet doors keep the divorce rate down, as far as I’m concerned.

The really weird thing is that the place wasn’t overly expensive – in Aussie dollars, anyway. It could have been the “look at moi, look at moi!” toilet facilities. But I would have thought that B&A would have picked somewhere super top shelf, unusual or remote, and this place didn’t qualify in any sense. It was actually quite vanilla. The whole area is making the most of the association, though. For example, quad biking in the nearby dunes is popular, so naturally there’s a quad bike company that weaselwords itself as “Brangelina’s preferred quad bike supplier”. Oh, Virgil! VIR-gil! Look at thi-as! We-elll, like I always says, if it’s good enough for Brad Pitt, it’s good enough fer the likes of us!

There was a chair in our room covered in what I thought was zebra-print fabric. I sat down in it and realised it was real zebra. It was prickly, so I got straight out. Under the chair, a piece of reddish hide with black dapples had been laid out like a mat. I have no clue what it might have been when it had feet and I don’t think even its mother would have recognised it in its current state.

About 15 minutes down the road was Swakopmund, a seaside town with a very German feel. The road from Langstrand was long and straight, with dunes on one side and the sea on the other. It reminded me of the Adelaide to Victor Harbor road for the sheer number of roadside memorials. In one spot, there were four small white crosses. In another, a child’s memorial: a rain-clotted, sun-greyed teddy bear hung from a larger cross in a pathetic parody of Christ.

A ship had been wrecked on a sandbar just off the beach. It rusted and listed in the waves, perhaps not worth the trouble of salvaging or maybe just left there for picturesque effect. North of Swakopmund, the coast was known as the Skeleton Coast for the number of its shipwrecks, so maybe they thought to extend the attraction south.

In Swakopmund, we went to a beach bar called the Tiger Reef for a sundowner. Bloke parked Livingstone on the street and a car guard rushed up to put his card under the windscreen wiper. It’s a peculiarly African thing: you park in a shopping centre or on the street and a guy watches your car. When you come back, you tip him. They’re usually very friendly sorts who will help you load your shopping and take your trolley away afterwards.

The Tiger Reef was a tourist trap where I didn’t trust the hygiene enough to ask for ice. It had no floor, just sand, and was tricked out Survivor-style with palm fronds and driftwood and lengths of rope. It also seemed to be dog central. At least six dogs ranging in size from Jack Russell to husky were wandering about, peeing on all the doggy landmarks in an effort to cancel each other out. The bar opened directly onto the beach and from the gloomy interior, the surf and sand glittered.

A small but persistent spider kept crawling out from under the table and up my arm and couple of Brazilian backpacker girls propping up the bar didn’t seem to understand that silicon bra straps are not invisible when worn with boob tubes. Back in Langstrand, we shared seafood and white wine at a beachfront restaurant as the sun set over the sea.

The next morning, we tottered aboard a boat loaded with German tourists to see the local marine wildlife. Dolphins played in the bow wave and pelicans skimmed in, clacking their beaks for sardines. We motored past the poetically named “guano platform”. Mm-mmm, guano. It was simply a wooden platform built out to sea for the local cormorants (yes, they’re also called shags – stop snickering). Thousands of the birds roost there, joined by pelicans and gulls, and some poor bastards have to go out to scrape up the cormorant crap to use as fertiliser. Next time some government minister’s flack is giving me grief, I must remember to think, “At least I’m not a guano collector!”

Past Poop Central was the inaccurately named Pelican Point. I don’t know whether there were actually any pelicans on Pelican Point because it was completely covered in seals. They weren’t nearly as nervy as the seals in False Bay near Cape Town, so I guess there weren’t any 6m white pointers mooching around waiting for seal sushi to swim by. We pulled up near another boat in the tour operator’s fleet and a seal slid off the back of the boat and into the water, making a beeline for us. A minute later, it jumped onto the back of our boat and was shuffling along the deck. His name was Piccolo and he had been trained to come in for a snack. Rudi, the young captain, fed him sardines and the rapidly-reddening German girls squealed and posed for photos.

At beer o’clock that afternoon, we decided we’d have a look at a little place at the end of the only pier in Langstrand. There were no signs and it looked abandoned, but we suspected it was a bar because from time to time the night before, we’d noticed people staggering out.

It was indeed a bar and a very cool, non-touristy one at that. It didn’t even seem to have a name. As we got to the end of the pier, a woman tottered out the door, listing as badly as the boat stranded further up the beach. Inside, there were about eight patrons and the barman. We settled in and the crooked drunk staggered back inside, climbed back onto her bar stool and promptly fell off without a sound. One of her friends filmed the action. Eventually someone else wheeled her away before she could knock out any teeth.

The cricket was on the bar telly. Ah, cricket: the great conversation starter. We ended up talking to the barman and a few South Africans on the other side of the bar. It wasn’t a beer bar, this one. It was the sort of bar where people did shots, then doubles with mixers in tall glasses. I think every bottle of Jaegermeister that had ever been emptied there was still on a high shelf. There were dozens. We started shouting rounds as the sun went down.

One of the Saffies took a real shine to Bloke and invited him to visit his game farm outside Waterburg. “Come to my bush camp!” he said. “My fiancée doesn’t like going there. She wants a bed and a shower. I don’t get there often enough. You can shoot anything you like and only pay for the taxidermy,” he wheedled. A very generous offer, considering the usual cost of shooting things that can’t shoot back in Africa. What a friendly chap he must have been. That, or a serial killer.

Another man sat smoking a pipe in the corner. He had been pretty much everywhere, including Australia, he was proud to tell us. His main claim to fame seemed to be that Brad Pitt had once told him he was crazy. He didn’t like to eat breakfast at home and every morning he would fire up his Harley, wearing nothing but his jammie pants and a pair of kangaroo skin slippers (and presumably his pipe) and ride to a friend’s house for a fry-up. One morning, he passed Neanderthal boy, who flagged him down and said, “You’re crazy, man!” He seemed pleased with this.

As the sky got darker, we realised that if we didn’t leave that bar, we’d still be sitting there at dawn and there’d be nothing but crème de menthe left to drink, so we called it a night. In any case, we had a long drive ahead of us the next day, five hours’ north to a lodge on the border of Etosha National Park.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Ridin' across the desert

At Windhoek’s tiny airport, we picked up a four-wheel drive ute for our trip across the desert. We christened it Livingstone and hit the road for Okapuka, a game ranch just outside town. Bush seemed like a better option than a generic city hotel.

We arrived in time for sundowners and dragged our bags into the thatched chalet. The lodge grounds were sprawling and beautiful, with blue mountains as a backdrop. The tips of the tree branches were crowded with the miniature haystacks built by sparrow weavers.

Walking down to the thatched-roof bar, one of the ranch’s trained suicide wasps zoomed in to give me a whack on the ear. Ever been stung by a wasp? Hurts. Someone brought a spray bottle of yellow stuff and told me to spray on more every time it dried. It smelled strangely like Pine-o-Cleen. I can’t tell you how sexy and cosmopolitan it isn’t to find oneself in a slightly kitsch African-themed bar (complete with a stuffed vulture on a dead tree branch and stuffed hyena in the corner), spraying one’s ear with Pine-o-Cleen.

The ranch did have some more pleasant animals than wasps. Warthogs appeared after sundown to tear up the lawn and the next morning one of the guides took us out to see the rest of the property. A herd of white rhino snuffled the grass just a few metres from us, completely unconcerned by the car, and the guide whistled up a pair of Nile crocodiles from a dam by throwing stones into the water and calling, “Come-come-come!” Giraffe wandered about, browsing the thorny trees and there were springbok everywhere.

We set off again mid-morning for the Namib. The roadside got dryer and dustier as we drove and kopjes and rocky mountains reared up from the flat. We were navigating with the help of a borrowed GPS, which for some reason had the voice of Dr Evil from Austin Powers. Dr Evil managed to hold himself in check until we came to the Spreghtshoote Pass, a narrow part of the road that wound through the mountains. Then he just couldn’t help himself: he tried to kill us. He suddenly shouted, “Turn left!” when a left turn would have taken us over a cliff. When we didn’t take his advice, he got all stroppy and whined, “Turn around when possible. Come on, throw me a fricken bone here!” Nice try, Dr Evil.

As we drove, huge sand dunes appeared in the distance and a wash of sand in a hallucinatory pink. Heat haze shimmered and dust devils blew up among the scraggly trees. We were headed for Solitaire, the gateway to the Namib and Sossusvlei. You couldn’t really call it a town because it appeared to be just a lodge, a service station with a shop and a tiny tourist information office. Wrecked and rusting vintage cars were arranged in the dust around cactus and rocks. The sun glared off the pale sand and the heat was fierce after the chilled car. Everything we owned was covered in a fine film of desert that had filtered into Livingstone’s covered tray. Apparently, if we were German, we would have packed our bags in black plastic.

Our lodge was about 20km away, on an old sheep property. It was a bit like Fawlty Towers – surly staff, a grumpy owner who was somewhere between Basil Fawlty and Bernard Black and a strange obsession with pineapple on the dinner menu – but it was in the middle of the desert and it had incredible views. Buff dust and gravelly stones stretched away as far as you could see, broken up by kopjes of red boulders and pale blue mountains on the horizon. Our room opened directly onto the desert and a family of ground squirrels tore between a network of holes, fluffy tails streaming behind them.

We were the only guests apart from an American couple with their Namibian guide, a German-speaking guy who gave us nasty flashbacks to Carl, our control freak Cape Town guide from last year. The grumpy owner took us out on a sunset drive, telling us to keep an eye out for the cheetah that lived in one of the kopjes and sometimes appeared at dusk.

The next morning, we set out for Sossusvlei, which has some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. We were on the road well before dawn, with only the stars and our high beams for light. The desert is densely black at night, but occasionally an oryx or a ghostly tree would appear by the road. Twice, African wildcats crossed the road in front of us.

We were the first car to reach the gates, which were due to open at sunrise. As we waited, the sky behind us turned peach and dusky purple. The dunes turned out to be spectacular. They stretched for nearly 70km, towering either side of the road, deep red and heavily shadowed in the morning light. Resculpted by the wind every day, they had sharp, shifting ridges that curved like snakes’ spines. The usual pale sand stretched up to the foot of the dunes, scattered with rocks and startled-looking tufts of yellowed grass.

We decided to climb a dune that didn’t look too taxing. Another group was halfway up, so we assumed it was all right. Bloke got all the way to the top, but I decided once again that discretion was the better part of not getting dead and stopped halfway up. It was high enough for a spectacular view of the dune fields.

That's Livingstone at the bottom

For such a dry and harsh environment, there were quite a lot of animals around. Solitary oryx, small herds of springbok and ostriches prowled about, picking at the grass.

At sunset, an electrical storm blew up for the second night in a row. The wind howled off the desert, laden with grit, and orange lightning forked from the thunderheads. I certainly didn’t envy the Americans’ guide that night – there had been a mistake with the booking and he had been given a tent instead of a room. Naturally, the surly staff refused to let him have one of the empty rooms. He appeared at breakfast the next morning looking slightly ruffled, but announced he had survived desert storm.

After breakfast, we hit the road again with Livingstone and Dr Evil, bound for the coast to wash off the desert dust.