“Two for you, and two for me,” Mike said, handing over four cold cans of Windhoek larger.
“Sweet,” I grinned, taking the cans and placing them in the ice cooler between the driver and the passenger-side in the cab of his 22-wheeled semi-trailer.
It was only four hours before that I was on the outskirts of Rundu where I had driven up on the Saturday with Jens, my couch surfing host from Tsumeb, and Anne, a German volunteer teaching in Otabi.
Rundu, a border town on the Kavango River which separates Namibia from Angola, was some 600 K’s north-east of Tsumeb. We had made a quick stop at the landing site of a meteorite mostly made up of nickel and copper still intact and preserved that had landed on the outskirts of Grootfontein some 80,000 years ago.
A few hours later we arrived in Rundu where we joined a Peace Corps volunteers party and jammed most of the night with a braai, some poi and a game of dominoes by the pool. The next morning, after Hope (one of the volunteers) immaculately sewed up my ripped guitar bag, I hit the road at 12:00 on the dot.
I was hoping to reach Katima Mulilo (which, in SiLozi, means: Quenches the Fire due to the nearby rapids on the Zambezi River), some 530 K’s east at the far end of the Caprivi Strip.
After half an hour of collecting dust and listening to Tupac being blasted at a volume that should have caused the Earth’s tectonic plates to create some havoc, I spied a huge truck rumbling to a stop at the Engen service station.
For reasons unbeknownst, I just knew that that truck was going to be my ride. I also knew (for reasons unbeknownst) that if it didn’t stop for me, I’d be stuck in Rundu for the next four hours, succumbing to Tupac’s explanation for a girl that was wondering why everyone was calling her bitch.
At 13:10, after politely declining numerous offers from taxi drivers and people wanting money for a ride, I saw the truck pull out of the service station, heading towards me on the B8 highway. I stretched out my thumb, smiling ear-to-ear.
The driver made eye-contact and pulled over. I grabbed my packs and guitar and lumbered over at the local pace of African Time (I had previously run with my packs and guitar after a truck took 300 meters to stop in Omaruru).
The driver hopped out and was kicking one of his 22 wheels on the passenger side as I approached him with a, “How you doin’?” greeting.
“How are you?” he said, giving the tire a kick worthy of a Kung Fu Hustle.
“Where are you headed?” I eyed the wheel, almost feeling sorry for the punishment it was receiving.
“Katima,” he returned to the kicking.
“Awesome,” I said. “Would it be alright to ride with you?” And before he could ask the universal question, I added, “I don’t have any money. I travel without money.”
He eyed me with confusion (and perhaps suspicion) as I explained that, “I play guitar in exchange for food and bed.” And, remembering my jam sessions in previous hitches, threw in, “And rides.”
He kicked the rubber a few more times while I waited in suspense, an inner mantra of ‘Take me with you’ repeating itself in my head. He straightened up, satisfied that the tire had taken enough of a beating. As he headed towards the cab he turned to me and said, “Let’s go,” and opened the door to the passenger-side.
Mike had introduced himself after I stuck my hand out to shake his. “I’m a Zulu,” he said proudly and I impressed him with the few sayings that I had learned in South Africa.
“What are you carrying?” I asked.
“28 tonnes of frozen fish from Walvis Bay”. He offered me a can of coke from his ice cooler. “Taking it to Congo.”
Four hours later (in which I dozed for three) we entered the Zambezi Region (until 2013 it was known as the Caprivi Strip). In the almost two months of hitching around Namibia, the landscape had dramatically changed from the dry, sandy deserts of the south, to the barren rocks and bushlands of the mid-region to what had now become a green, lush wetland (although it was the dry season) in the north-east.
The Caprivi is about 450 K’s in length. Katima Mulilo is the capital in the far east, about a rock’s throw from Zambia which lies on the northern banks of the Zambezi River. This is where Namibia meets Zambia to the north, Botswana to the south and Zimbabwe to the south-east. The strip is a huge nature reserve, forming the Bwabwata National Park. The local bushmen (and women) still live traditionally in straw huts un-phased by the warnings of wild animals that were posted all along the B8 highway.
We picked up a third passenger at the Animal Disease border control who only needed to go 100 K’s to Chetto. And it was here that Mike had purchased the beers.
Mike pointed out the two, “Elephants,” about 150 meters to my left as we drove deeper into the strip. I stared at the huge beasts, jaw-dropping in awe.
The new guy hopped off at Chetto and Mike and I continued on. The sun was setting, a huge ball of orange slowly sinking somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean’s horizon behind us in the west.
After two pint-sized cans of lager, nature was calling me from the wild. We were approaching another Animal Disease control post in the darkness and I figured this would be a good a time as any for a toilet break.
“This area is very dangerous,” Mike said.
Huh? said my bladder as I interpreted it to “Why?”
“Lions are very frequent here,” he explained.” They want to get to the cattle across the Kwando River but they cannot because of the crocodiles. So they approach the gates here and the officers have to shoot at them.”
Looks like I’ll be building some pelvic floor muscles for the next 20 K’s until we reach safer grounds. We stopped by a roadside take-away eatery where I flooded the surroundings as Mike bought us macaroni pasta with sausages and potatoes for dinner.
He forgot to mention the added spice.
“Ooh, that’s hot,” I said as flames from my mouth lit up the dark cab of the truck.
Mike laughed, producing four more beers. “Two for you and two for me.”
We continued down the dark road sharing travel stories and Mike’s dislike of Congo – “Lots of crime” – for the next four hours. It was just after 21:00 when we reached the outskirts of Katima, pulling into the truck stop. And due to the time difference, I had to add on another hour making it nine hours of morphing myself into a truck seat.
“Mike,” I turned to my driver\host, “this has been an epic ride. Do you have a cap?”
“No,” he said.
“Well, now you do.” I handed over my Hansa cap which I had won at Joe’s Beerhouse during my stay in Windhoek.
He grinned appreciatively.
“Mike,” I began again, “I can’t thank you enough but I must ask of you one more huge favour.”
“Sure,” he said, investigating the details of the cap.
“Would it be possible to sleep in the truck as it’s really dark and I have no accommodation organised for tonight?”
“I was going to tell you that we can share the bed,” he grinned.
I looked over at the single bunk bed.
“It’s OK, bro,” I chuckled nervously. “I can sleep in the chair.” I took out my travel pillow and blew it up with two puffs of air as Mike made himself comfortable in the bunk, his head behind my seat.
I’ve shared rooms with people who make tractor noises at jet engine volumes but Mike took things to a whole new level: he preferred to block up his sinuses, as though he were about to hawk a loge the size of Botswana – except he never followed through. That repeated itself every half-hour along with one-sided conversations in Zulu. To add to the ear-bleeding pleasure, my legs were falling asleep (at least one part of me was) as I attempted to pull off a yoga position to get comfortable.
And, of course, it wasn’t the warmest of nights.
At 06:45 the sun crept up, a beautiful African rising of an orange ball of fire that quickly shooed away the night’s freezing temperatures. Mike awoke and I straightened up my seat.
“Morning, mate,” I yawned. “How’d ya sleep?”
“Great,” he rubbed his eyes. “You?”
He drove to the weigh station and dropped me off in town. Thanking him with a sturdy handshake, I walked a kilometre and spied the Baobab Bistro.
“Hi there,” I greeted the woman behind the counter. “How far to the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge?”
“It’s about 6 K’s out of town,” she said.
I ordered a tomato and cheese toastie to have some fuel for the hike when a local sipping on his morning coffee turned to me.
“I’m heading that way if you need a lift.”
“Lekker, bru,” I thanked him.
Finishing up my food, he drove me out to the lodge and was kind enough to wait to see if I’d get a barter. “If it doesn’t work out then I’ll take you back into town.”
Curt, the owner and operator of the lodge came out and I introduced myself. He and his wife, Silka were more than happy to accommodate me for three weeks on the banks of the Zambezi River.
“One of our guys just resigned and is leaving this morning,” Curt said. “You can have his room.”
The view from the balcony bar was over the Zambezi. “Can you swim in the river?” I asked, looking longingly at the vast body of water (its been two months since I last swam in water).
“With crocs and hippos it’s not really recommended,” Curt recommended.
I spent the morning helping him fix a bulge pump and by sunset a wild hippo was rising and diving like a submarine in the middle of the river, between Namibia and Zambia.
I could get used to this place, I grinned, sipping on some wine.
I could really get used to this place.