As of February 15, 2018, I have served 1/3 of my 24 month commitment to the Peace Corps here in Namibia.
There’s a saying that seems appropriate about time flying, having fun, and so on. For the most part, I have to say that I’m having a blast! I’m really feeling integrated into my community (Peace Corps speak for people recognizing you and saying hi), I feel like I’m contributing to the greater good of Namibia (more Peace Corps speak for teaching classes and providing counseling to those seeking business advice), and I feel I’m doing well in cross cultural exchange (still more Peace Corps speak where I talk about life in the States and get schooled about life in Namibia). As with any venture, there are ups and downs, but this one has, thus far, been mostly up.
My job with The Rössing Foundation requires that I travel through many of the northern and western regions of Namibia ( a definite ‘up’). As a member of the Peace Corps Namibia Media Committee, I get to range even further into the country. While I’ve only been in country 10-ish months, I’ve been able to travel to places many PCVs don’t get to go as part of their normal duties. And as another saying goes, getting there is half the fun. Which brings me to what I want to talk about in this post: travel in Namibia.
There are several ways to get around in Namibia, which you choose depends on where you want to go, what you need to carry with you when you go, what you can afford or, if you are lucky enough, who you know. There’s the normal compliment of motor vehicles available to the adventurous traveller, which we’ll get into in a bit, but there are also (slow) trains, planes, and bus services. These tend to be limited to major towns and cities in each region and not all services are available to even these. I have not taken any of these, those I may catch the Intercape Luxury Bus Service if I need to go south. Others have used the Intercape and liked it.
Most people who own vehicles own pickups, except here they are called bakkies. They are usually white, usually 4WD, usually capable of seating 5 in the cab, and the bed is likely covered. I’m lucky, I have a friend who owns a bakkie and doesn’t seem to mind giving me rides if he’s headed where I’m headed. As you may imagine, bakkies are the workhorse vehicles of choice here. Regardless of whether it is open or closed, bakkie beds are loaded up to overflowing with anything and everything. It is not uncommon to see 10 or more people in a bakkie bed, often riding along with their luggage.
The only vehicles more popular than the bakkie are the small 5-seat sedans favored by cab drivers. Realistically these sedans comfortably seat 4 adults, but cabbies will cram 5 in regardless of the size of the adults in question. (More on this later.) Small children may ride free if they can sit on your lap. I’ve seen at least 3 small kids ride this way, which brings the passenger tally up to 8. Watching people climb out of these wee vehicles always reminds me of circus clown cars.
Next we have the kombies, which are small buses capable of seating 7 to 15 depending on the size. Again, the advertised seat count is theoretical. These are typically used for intercity transports and typically haul trailers for luggage, packages, even furniture and small caged animals. Like cabs, kombies can be in various states of repair (or disrepair). If you really want to experience travel in Namibia, go by kombi. Opt for the larger ones that at least look like they’ve maintained. You’ll find that Namibians are generally friendly, generous, and have a great sense of humor. You can practice your Afrikaans, Oshikwanyama, and other local languages.
I’ve come to believe that kombies drivers are frustrated Indy 500 driver. They are only supposed to go 100kph, but they tend to move somewhat faster, passing double-length trailer trucks like they were standing still, all while pulling a loaded trailer and carrying more people than they should.
The well heeled urban Namibian is likely to drive a Euro-luxury sedan from Mercedes, BMW or Audi. These tend to be black or dark gray with heavily tinted windows. Like in the States, these are status symbols.
Well heeled Namibians who live out in the sticks drive expensive 4WD RangeRovers, LandRovers, LandCruisers and the like. Here, 4WD is actually needed, the rural terrain is unforgiving and road service practically nonexistent. Even some parking lots require 4WD because of deep sand or sharp, shifting rocks. And everyone carries full size spares that have been pressure checked. I’ve taken 3 trips to the north and have gotten flat tires twice. And I don’t mean a nail-in-the-trend type flats, these were rip-a-hole through-2-inches-of-rubber type flats. And both happened many kilometers from the nearest town. Unpaved roads harbor sharp rocks that can challenge even 4×4 tires. Spare tires are essential.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I’m not allowed to drive (this even though my duties can carry me far and wide), so I am forced to get around like the average Namibian; I hike.
Hiking is done in one of three ways: you can call a transport company and arrange to be picked up, you travel in air conditioned comfort, and they drop you off at your destination. (This is hiking only in the vaguest sense.) You can go to a hike point and climb on one of the kombies or get a private car heading in your direction, or you can head out to the highway, put out your thumb and hope someone picks you up. That last one is not as unpredictable as it sounds. Many are quite successful getting around using their thumbs. Still, as it can be anywhere, hiking can be dangerous. Namibia, is a relatively safe country to be in, but bad people can pop up, or in this case, drive up anywhere, and there are long stretches of road where there’s not even a mobile phone signal. Extreme caution is advised.
Hike point travel is far more reliable and these places are typically brimming with cabs, kombies and private vehicles vying for your dollar. In fact, the drivers can get so worked up that they jostle and shove each other, yelling at you to pick him over the ten others yelling at you. For women, especially young women, it can be a nightmare. The drivers will often grab her belongings and shove them in the trunk of his car, forcing her to either go with him of demand her stuff back. I’ve seen women crying while trying to get a ride.
Hike points are not for the meek.
Normally I take the far more comfortable and predictable transport company, but today I wanted to ‘rough it’, and walked to the road leading to Windhoek and tried my luck.
Hiking from the side of the road is a bit less intimidating than hike points. You can stick your thumb out to passing RangeRovers, trucks and VW GTIs, but they seldom stop ( I suppose there are many factors that play into the decision to stop for a hiker. I would likely only stop if the hiker was alone and neatly dressed.) The vehicles that do stop are old sedans and small 7-passenger quasi-station wagons (think micro-vans like the Mazda MPV and you’ll get the idea). These are enterprising Namibians who fill in the transportation gap by picking up hikers and charging a bit less than what you might pay at hike points.
The 7-passenger thingy is what I caught into Windhoek this morning and I can tell you that the only 7 passengers that can sit comfortably in that vehicle are a troop of emaciated, vertically challenged Oompa Loompas.
As luck would have it, my fellow passengers were of normal dimensions, except for the woman next to me, who grossly exceeded her already small seating allotment to the point were an imprint of the door trim I was squeezed against will likely stay with me for the remainder of my service here.
I suppose we were luckier than most, our vehicle had air conditioning running. Normally very loud music is substituted for AC. I guess the thinking is that if you make the music loud enough passengers will be more concerned about bleeding eardrums than sweating brows.
It seems to work.
Hike point hiking is really how it’s done here, though the Peace Corps frowns on it. I get their concern, too much can go wrong. Vehicles tend to be poorly maintained, drivers can be overly aggressive, and the environment can be dangerous to the less worldly. On the other hand, you can meet really interesting people and feel closer to the environment. There are inconveniences (like the rather large one this morning who pressed so close to me that when I felt my stomach rumble it turned out to be hers), but I honestly believe its worth it. The woman next to me was very kind and caring, offering snacks to those around her (Namibians share, it seems to be part of their DNA).
I also enjoy the scenery. Regardless of which part of the country I’m traveling through, I’ve found the views mesmerizing and often breathtaking. For a guy whose driven through much of the U.S. and rarely seen anything more interesting than a herd of white tail deer grazing along the roadside, sitting in the passenger in on a Namibian road is a treat. I’ve seen baboons, warthogs, and ostriches. Cows, goats, sheep and donkeys will wander onto the road as well. And if you’re very lucky, you’ll be forced to stop while a herd of zebras cross in front of you. While stopped you might see a small herd of giraffes grazing at a safer distance from the road.
It can be a lot of fun.
I will continue to take the more comfortable passage if available, but I now have no qualms of taking to thumbing it. It’s all part of the adventure.