Namibia Part VII: Goodbye Desert. Hello Humans.

Giant meteorites, vast sinkhole lakes and beautiful minerals characterise the road between Etosha National Park and the Botswana border.  We weren’t to see any of these on the two full days we had left in Namibia after we left Etosha National Park but there were plenty of interesting experiences nonetheless.

Our first day out of Etosha took us on a relatively short drive to our next camp and we were soon passing through the town of Tsumeb, known for mining and fairly famous among avid scuba divers for its two huge sinkhole lakes of unknown depths.  When the Germans were being chased out of Namibia by the South Africans during World War One they threw a huge cache of weapons in one of these so they couldn’t fall into South African hands.  Some have since been recovered by divers but it is believed that many still remain.

For such a small unknown town it offers another interesting attraction nearby; the resting place of the Hoba meteorite, the world’s largest weighing in at a whopping 60 tonnes.  We didn’t have time to stop at either so continued on to the small mining town of Grootfontein where we had two hours to explore the central part of this small town whilst our cook stocked up on supplies.

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Apparently I have a big head because the sun hat I bought in a rush back in London turned out to be too small much to everyone’s mirth.  It was a straw fedora from Poundland that earned me the nickname Bruno Mars, something I was keen to shake off.  So I explored the market stalls looking for a new one and eventually found a boater hat for a few dollars that looked like straw but was in fact made of paper.  It looked equally as ridiculous but I was able to shake off the Bruno Mars mantle and at least keep the sun off.  It also explains why there aren’t many photos of me in Africa.    Of course it was made in China but then almost everything is in Africa these days which is a disappointing part of shopping at many of the markets.  However the vibrant atmosphere makes up for that so it was still an enjoyable meander up and down the main street.

I then wanted to check out what a local pub was like and eventually convinced some of the group to enter one with me.  Inside the atmosphere was dark, smoky and edgy, a stark contrast to the bright sunny day outside.  I wasn’t put off and still wanted to order a drink then see if I could find some locals to talk to but my fellow travelers started to feel uncomfortable so pretended they wanted to pay to use the toilet instead of buying a drink before leaving with me trailing behind.

Now that the pub was off the table I decided to find a hair salon.  Camping in the hot dry sandy desert had taken its toll on my hair and my skin.  Despite showering every day I never felt clean and my hair in particular was bothering me.  I decided I wanted to have a professional shampoo with a deep conditioning treatment and as luck would have it a fellow traveler wanted a haircut so we went looking for a salon.

They aren’t hard to find in Africa, even the smallest towns normally have one but you need to put aside any thoughts of hair salons in your own town.  In Africa they are normally small dark shops in either rundown cinder block or concrete shopping strips or perhaps a thatch hut of some description.  There might be a concrete sidewalk outside but normally it will be a dirt road.    They are lively places for either men or woman (depending on if it is a barber shop or a salon) to socialize during the day so you’ll often find people sitting on crates, doorsteps or plastic chairs who aren’t getting a haircut but are simply there to catch up on gossip.

We found one just like this on the main street and we felt like we were in a Western movie when we stepped inside.  Just like a saloon falls silent when a new cowboy steps through the doors, this salon went silent when us two white tourists did.  All eyes turned to us and nobody identified themselves as the owner by asking what we wanted.  We just sort of broadcast that we wanted our hair done and eventually the owner made herself known.  At first she didn’t want to help us and said she had no appointments available but as I explained that I simply wanted a shampoo and deep conditioning it became clear to her that she could make some good money out of us for very little work and I certainly don’t begrudge her for that.

Eventually she agreed to help both of us so I took a seat and an old rough towel was placed over me.  I was pushed back over a basin and the owner grabbed an old plastic paint bucket that she filled with cold water that was then poured over my head.  To be fair hot water was offered but I liked the idea of cooling off from the hot day outside.  She then grabbed an ancient bottle of Sunsilk shampoo and washed my hair three times before the water from the paint bucket began to rinse clear of sand, tut-tutting the whole time at how bad the condition of my hair was which is obviously a universal thing among hairdressers.

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A shot taken by a fellow traveller inside the salon.

After the final bucket of water was poured over my head the deep conditioning was about to commence.  This entailed her rifling through boxes out the back and returning with an even more ancient jar of Avon conditioner and I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am sure I saw that very brand back in the early 1990’s.  A big glob of this was massaged through my hair which was then roughly combed before another few paint buckets of cold water were poured over my head.  So that was me done, now for my friend who was getting an actual haircut.

She enjoyed a slightly quicker version of my shampoo with the same Sunsilk and Avon products.  She was then moved to a chair in front of a mirror where her hair was combed out.  All the while the owner was commenting on how beautiful her hair was.  She then grabbed a pair of kitchen scissors and cut about 3 inches off in a straight line along my friend’s back.  And that was the haircut.  By now we were all chit-chatting away and the owner felt comfortable enough to ask my friend if she could keep her hair to use in a weave.  Whilst this was a bit strange my friend agreed to hand over her hair along with her phone number because the owner wanted to send her photos of her hair in her hair (if you get my meaning).

We then paid an incredibly inflated price and left very happy.  We had spent far more than a local would but it was a fun experience, my hair was properly clean for the first time in a few weeks, my friend’s hair had been cut and all she had to worry about was explaining the state of it to her usual hairdresser when she got home.  As we waited down the road for our truck to leave an hour later we saw the hairdresser happily striding into a local bank.  The amount we paid was obviously far too much to casually keep in her salon so had to be banked right away.

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Image sourced from Grootfontein Municipality.

Whilst our fellow travelers gave us a hard time about being ripped off we tried to explain that we weren’t because it is all about value for money.  It didn’t matter how much more we had paid than a local did, what mattered was we paid far less than we normally would at home and had an awesome experience.  In the meantime the owner got to bank some extra cash that meant far more to her than it did to us.  We’d just blow it on food and booze over the next few days anyway, whereas she could use it to buy clothes for her family, pay school fees or also blow it on food and booze if she wanted.  The point was she got a little windfall that cost us very little so everyone was happy.

Late that afternoon we arrived at Roy’s Rest Camp, a great campsite with a lovely little bar.  The German tourists lived up to their reputation by reserving tables with their towels so at one point we had to sit on the lawn by the main entrance despite the entire bar being empty apart from German pool towels.

The next day was our last in Namibia and we had a 400 kilometre drive ahead of us.  By now the vast empty desert had been left behind and the roadside was beginning to look more like the Africa I imagined.  Our Kenyan crew had tried to explain to us that what we were seeing in South Africa and Namibia wasn’t the real Africa.  They would throw each other knowing glances and say ‘you won’t see the real Africa until we get to Zambia’.  They explained that in Africa people are everywhere and that it is almost impossible to find a place with no person in it.  It isn’t that it is crowded, it is just that people pop up everywhere.  Our driver joked that you could stop in the middle of nowhere for a roadside pee thinking you are all alone but sure enough someone will pop out of the bushes and strike up a conversation.  This turned out to be very true later in the trip.

For now it was just obvious that the empty desert landscape had gone.  Green vegetation was slowly starting to appear more often along with creeks, rivers and humans.  The long roads were a parade of small villages, sometimes just a tiny collection thatched huts and sometimes a bigger town but we rarely drove more than 5-minutes without seeing at least a herd of goats with a few boys herding them.  Roadside shops and stalls were everywhere and offered everything from booze to haircuts and a surprising number of places to buy terracotta urns.

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This was what I had really come to see.  I wanted to know what daily life in Africa looked like and I was finally getting a glimpse of it.  There were group meetings held outside in the shade of huge trees, some looked like they were for prayer and others looked like community meetings.  Our driver was continually having to brake to avoid cows, donkeys and goats.  And best of all this was the beginning of the waving kids that would become a feature of the trip to the point that if I wanted a nap on the truck I always felt I had to make sure someone else was on waving duty so we didn’t disappoint them.

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We made a short stop in the dusty town of Rundu near the Angolan border and I noted that it seemed to be poorer than a lot of the other places we went through in Namibia.  A bit of research later on revealed that a high rate of population growth has given rise to large shantytowns as people move from rural areas to try to find employment in the town.  It wasn’t a long stop but further characterized our move away from Namibia’s interior where towns like this just don’t seem to exist.  It also showed quite clearly how empty of humans the desert was because even these small towns suddenly felt very crowded.  Humanity seemed to be everywhere.

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Our campsite that night was near the village of Divundu in a beautiful leafy setting on the banks of the Okavango River.  On the other side of the river is Angola and the Botswana border is nearby.  As the truck climbed down a steep hillside to our campsite I made out hippo sunning themselves in the water and whilst hanging my laundry up to dry I saw crocodiles too.  It was a bit unnerving sleeping just a stones throw from water we knew contained enough crocodiles to warrant a warning sign, not to mention hippo that can be very dangerous out of the water.   But thousands of people camp in the African bush every month in similar locations without any issues so I still enjoyed a good sleep, mindful of the fact that this would be the first of many unfenced campsites I would experience in areas heavily populated by wild animals.

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Another common experience in Africa is to lose electricity which is exactly what happened at this site.  They managed to get the generator working at the bar so at least we could get a cold beer but for most of the night we were without lights or hot water.  It turned out to be a blessing because the bar staff lit a fire for us to sit around where we swapped stories with tour guides whilst listening to the sound of hippos and enjoying the stars.  It was a wonderful way to end our Namibia trip and a fitting beginning to many more wonderful nights to like this in the African bush.

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