By Neale Bayly. Photos by Neale Bayly and Jon Beck
As the late afternoon sun painted the low-slung eastern mountains with brilliant, golden-light, while sliding toward the muscular escarpment rising out of the Namibian desert to the right, my internal metronome finally came to rest in this moment. Muscles, ligaments, and bones were now arranged in the right order, making standing on the footpegs of my F800GS over the rough terrain feel perfectly natural. I found myself alone. Stopping to take some photographs of the intense beauty that surrounded me, the feeling of peace was overwhelming as I felt Africa penetrate my soul, felt the vastness of the Namib Desert, ever changing from endless layers of sand dunes to low scrubland and ancient, worn-down mountain ranges. The stunning array of sights and smells unique to my Western senses, added to the calm, dignified beauty of the people that induced a childlike sense of wonder which continued at night as the screams, screeches and calls of the night creatures filled the air as the low, deep, guttural rumble of a lion’s call floated from miles away across the veldt, like the bass section of nature’s orchestra to complete the symphony.
Starting this adventure just outside the city of Windhoek, Namibia, my adrenaline was pumping before I even saddled up, as we spent a day meeting up with the team of riders we would share the adventure with: Hendrik von Kuenheim, General Director BMW Motorrad, his staff, ace-photographer Jon Beck, and an assortment of colorful journalists, television people, support truck drivers and guides from all over the world. Listening to animated conversations in German, Brazilian, Italian, French, and Afrikaans, I might not have understood the words, but there was no missing the meaning.
For the five-day adventure, BMW had shipped in a fleet of F800GS motorcycles for the journalists, and our first 60-70 miles was on smooth, two-lane blacktop. The temperatures were in the low to mid 70s as we purred through fertile farmland stretching away toward the horizon, punctuated by a line of low, worn mountains. Arriving in Namibia, and visiting the German city of Windhoek the previous day, I had wondered what in the world attracted such a large group of Europeans to settle here nearly 200 years ago. Learning there is a short supply route straight to a major seaport on the famous Skeleton Coast, and obviously huge amounts of highly arable land, I had my answer.
Passing Teufelsbach and Okahandja, the B1 took us north as the pack settled into its groove. Turning west onto the B2, we pulled over for a quick coffee break and for people to make adjustments, affording the first opportunity to meet some local people. Jon Beck and I instantly disappeared into a tented flea market and were soon causing trouble as we photographed adults, kids, and artifacts. We soon had everyone laughing and joking, but the sound of engines firing snapped us back to attention and back to our bikes.
With the words of our fearless leader, Jurgen, on the subject of warthog encounters – “hit one, you lose” echoing in my head, we turned onto a soft, sandy trail and blasted off into the veldt. It’s been unnaturally wet in Namibia for the past few weeks, and I learn from my new best mate, Gavin, that it’s not normally this green. As a South African who first came to this area as a soldier, he has ridden here many times, and seeing the countryside like this is a very special treat. As we slither and slide along, Gavin spots a baboon, I see an ostrich, and we head deeper into the countryside.
The riding is fantastic. Tricky at times with some river crossings and a lot of sandy gulches where the road dips, we have a few fallers, but thankfully yours truly keeps it on two wheels. In preparation for the journey, I spent a couple of days at the BMW Performance Center brushing up my GS skills, and calmly negotiating the various challenges gets me kudos from our BMW support rider. It removes a huge level of stress as I get settled into this wild and wonderful new environment. We have a fairly short day planned so we can take a safari in the late afternoon, it’s the perfect day to get acclimatized, start unplugging from the habits of daily life at home, and get acquainted with riding in Africa.
Of course, there are so many moments within moments it’s as if we have gone through C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe into some sort of Narnia, where we cheat time. Slowing to allow a herd of giraffe to cross the road, watching large birds circling on warm thermals a mile overhead, or pausing to gaze out across the low, brushy savannah stretching miles away into a shimmering horizon slams my senses into overload. There’s no time to get complacent though, as another water hazard presents itself, and some long sections of deep sand keep us on our toes.
Billeted at the fabulous Erindi Lodge, located 25 kilometers off the main road in the middle of the Erindi Game Reserve, it’s time for a cold drink on the patio as hippos and crocodiles splash around in front of us in the large lake. Watching these prehistoric looking creatures going about their business as the vast African plain stretches away forever behind this incredible scene, it would have been easy to sink back into the chair and sit ‘til dark. We are off for a game drive though, so no time to sit around, and an hour later we are bouncing along a small dirt trail with our guide, GP, teaching us about the wildlife that populates this incredible reserve. As we travel, it’s hard to know if I’m more impressed with the young man who has devoted his life to tracking, photographing and protecting the wildlife in this area, or the herds of wildebeest, packs of nervous zebra, or the inquisitive doe-eyed giraffe who seem to be performing just for our benefit. GP tells us he sometimes plays hide and seek with the giraffe, animatedly explaining how funny it is to be lying on his back looking up at one of these huge animals stooping to examine him at close quarters. It’s brilliant stuff, and as our shutters click non-stop to try to capture the moment, GP leaps off the truck to show us big-game spore and feels confident he’ll find us a lion.
The game reserve covers more than 280 square miles, and is home to more than 12,000 different kinds of wild animals, but for me the lion is the one I want to see most. Driving for many miles, bumping along the dusty track, we see colorful birds, flighty springbok and large termite mounds. And then, as GP regales us with one amazing story after another, we come across a male lion lying on the tracks. He’s not bothered in the least by our presence, and we circle around for a better photo advantage. Less than thirty feet from this incredible beast we can see all of his markings and scars with perfect clarity.
Later as the sun is dropping low across the Africa plains, GP finds four cheetahs and we get close enough to watch them hunt: three sisters and a stray, who spent their first seven years in captivity. It’s one of the highlights of 35 years of world travel for me to watch them stalk their prey. Splitting up, two break wide to the left and right, while the other two work the center. We spot a herd of springbok away in the distance and the chase is on. With the cheetahs capable of hitting 60mph I’m glad they’re not after us. By nightfall, GP has his spotlight out and it’s clear they didn’t succeed this evening. As we strain our eyes in the last light of day, we hear them calling to each other with short clicks and other high-pitched sounds as they regroup to start another hunt.
With the sun just up into a pastel blue sky, I sat on the porch sipping coffee and watching baby warthogs, kudu, springbok, and crocodiles going about their morning business. With no sign of any cloud cover, the heat was already rising as we saddled up and rode back to the highway, before picking up the D2328 west toward Omaruru. It’s medium-packed sand and gravel, and it is possible to roll along at 60-70mph with little stress. The F800GS dances around at times, and it’s necessary to pay strict attention as the deeper sand requires some body English to keep the front wheel floating over the top as you keep on, steadily opening throttle. Standing on the pegs and gazing off across the rugged landscape to the distant mountains, there’s nothing like the first few miles of an adventure ride to ignite the soul and fire the senses into high gear. Good job too, as a long and tricky river crossing puts me to the test, and stopping for gas we are quickly into the next adventure. BMW has thoughtfully brought along a doctor, who without a shadow of a doubt is as close to crazy as the rest of us. Removing my helmet and gulping down a cold drink, there is a raucous crowd under a cover to my left. Taking a look, I see the good doctor swallowing a large bug to the cheers of the other riders. They are a delicacy in these parts, and as I’ve not eaten a fat, juicy, swollen bug in a while, I have decided to try one. As you might have guessed, it tasted horrible, not to mention crunchy, but as the old saying goes, “When in Rome…”
Full of gas and fluids and with one African insect floating around in the mix, we ride out onto a flatter, graded gravel road and into a huge landscape. As we are heading toward the ocean, the surrounding countryside starts to lose the green with ever-larger patches of open, scrubby desert. Low mountains accompany us away off on our horizons, and deep washouts full of sand keep us on our toes. The temperatures are scorching, but it’s deceptive with the dry air, so I make sure to stay hydrated, as the riding demands a lot of physical and mental effort. Occasionally enticing patches of shady trees sprout out of the bush, but we roll on, and by now we have settled into two distinct groups. Up front, the rest of the journalists are on the gas, while the BMW staff has settled in for a more relaxed ride. Stopping regularly to take pictures, this works better for me, and it’s a lot of fun getting to spend time with people I normally see only in passing at press introductions.
Lunchtime finds us at the Montis-Usti restaurant eating some sort of mild curry and sweet potatoes. The building looks like time came to a halt in the 1950s, outside there are two dusty streets with a few low-slung buildings hunkered down against the heat. With Namibia beaten only by Mongolia as the least densely populated country on Earth, it’s almost strange to see people on the dirt streets going about their business after so many miles of desert.
The M76 that runs out of Montis is very straight, extremely dusty and will take us to the Atlantic Ocean. The Skeleton Coast conjures up images from Clive Cussler’s famous novel as the vegetation subsides, leaving open, sandy desert for as far as the eye could see. Dropping in elevation, the cooler, moist air and salty smell signaled the ocean miles before its arrival, and swinging south where the road hits the sea, we re-grouped for a coffee break in the small town of Henties Bay. Stretching out and ingesting some much-needed caffeine, I spent some time chatting with a local lady. She referred to our super-tall leader as, “the long one,” while making this weird clicking sound through her missing front teeth. It was as if the sounds were part of the sentence, and even though I couldn’t follow it, she obviously thought I could.
Dropping south, a thick, greasy mist rolled in off the ocean obscuring the view, and as night began to fall we arrived at our boutique motel in Swakopmund. With a total of 250 miles on the clock it doesn’t sound like an epic day, but in these conditions it’s enough. Once checked in, it was a quick shower and a stroll through the German town to a thriving European restaurant for dinner, before a highly charged evening swapping road stories with my fellow travelers.
Thankfully, the morning starts are not too hectic as we enjoy a leisurely continental breakfast and ride briefing. We are going to spend some time in the sand dunes at Walvis Bay before riding into the interior again to the magnificent Sossusvlie Lodge. This provides a couple of hours’ fun as we blast around the dunes, marveling at the abilities of the big GS motorcycles. I’m not the most comfortable in the deep sand, but our group is, and watching them blast up the dunes that looked impossibly steep was out of this world.
With the fun and games over, we split back into our groups and pick up the graded, gravel C14, settling back in to watch Africa roll across the handlebars. By mid-morning we have entered the Kuiseb Pass, and as we climb the temperatures drop a little and we enter a world of twisting, turning roads. Sliding the GS around feels natural now, so it’s time to play as we make our way through the mountains. Jurgen has picked a shady spot next to a river for a picnic lunch, and we devour sandwiches and fruit, it’s a feast fit for kings.
Leaving the lunch spot, the river crossings and mountain views grow more stunning as we climb a while longer. Long, low mountains recede away into the distance and remind me of areas in southern Peru where the mineral deposits make for an ever-changing canvas. Flattening out, it’s time to twist the throttle, and as I blast across the Namibian desert at 90 mph I’m singing and shouting in my helmet. I’ve lost the group at this point, and see a side turn, so I feel I’d better check it out. It’s a watering hole called, “Solitaire,” reminiscent of the old road houses in the Australian Outback. A small bakery is in operation, with a gentleman by the name of Moose McGregor serving up coffee and the finest apple pie in the world. At six feet tall and over 300 pounds no one is going to argue the fact with Moose, and after a second helping no one wants to.
Adding caffeine and a plate full of refined sugar to a system running close to the redline on adrenaline and endorphins could be a lethal combination, but somehow we all managed to stay controlled as the sun started to sink and we rode for the lodge. This was the place I finally became totally present, and as the sun slipped behind the escarpment, I packed up my cameras and moved on to one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. As I rounded a corner, the sun’s rays were pouring out from behind the silhouetted mountain, as if the gods were tipping barrels of luminous gold paint onto the valley floor. The color was vibrating, shimmering and glowing, and the ground looked like liquid gold. It took my breath away and I decided not to try to photograph it, as I couldn’t begin to capture the magnificence of the scene. Later, I ran into the Brazilian film crew shooting a few last shots, and I shouted, waved, spun the rear wheel, and blasted off to the lodge. Tonight we would sit out under the stars eating Kudu, ostrich, wildebeest and other strange delicacies, but in that moment I was more alive than I could remember.
As much fun as it is to ride all day, it’s not such a bad thing to park the bike and enjoy some more pedestrian tourist activities, so donning shorts, flip-flops, sun-screen, and camera bag, it’s off to the sand dunes we go. Spending the day hiking barefoot in the dunes, picnicking in shade trees, and exploring old, dry lakebeds with skeletal remains of trees was fabulous. The rain has caused blankets of small yellow flowers to cover much of the sand, bringing contrasting color to the rich, deep reds of the dunes and the azure- blue sky. We are treated to a picnic lunch before being transported back the lodge for a short flight over the dunes to the ocean. This is just the icing on the cake and it really puts the size of the desert into perspective as we make for the ocean. It’s cloudy when we get there, but by keeping low we get to watch the massive breakers pounding the deserted coast before heading back. As if this wasn’t enough, the lodge had put on a dinner for us out in the bush under a rocky outcrop, and sitting under the African sky in the warm evening we talk about our crazy day which made it all just more surreal.
There is a point on overseas adventures that it all begins to feel completely natural. It’s usually a few days in, when your body seems to fit the machine perfectly, all the important stuff is in the right pockets, and the radio chaos that’s usually rattling around in between the ears has been muted. Reaching this point the evening we arrived at Sousseveli, saddling up for our last day yielded a perfect morning ride back up to Solitaire for a coffee and chat with Moose McGregor. The air temperature was perfect, and the graded road seemed like a super highway now at 60mph. The grins coming from the helmets of my BMW friends were nothing more than mirrors of mine. The bike seemed to float over the bumps, as all the tension in my arms that had caused the suspension to fight in the beginning was gone. The F800GS is incredibly capable, if you’ll let it, and the liquid-smooth engine just purred in the cool air.
Moose was in fine form and the coffee hot and strong was almost the color of the eastern skies as huge black thunderclouds rolled in. Thankfully, I grew up in England so even in the African desert I had my rain liners with me and suited up as the air temperature steadily dropped. We made more miles than I thought as the air grew heavy with moisture, the road stopped kicking up dust and lightning forked in the leaden skies. Heading north on C14 for a time, we jogged northeast on D1275 before climbing into the mountains as the occasional large water drops exploded on our visors. The road was intermittently muddy signaling recent rain, but as we climbed and looked back at the views across the vast plains behind, even if the heavens had opened it couldn’t have dampened my mood.
Shorty after that, they did open, and then some: hammering us so hard at one point we had to pull over and seek shelter behind a stone wall. This sudden rain caused a new riding situation. Where for the first few days dips in the road were a signal to slow for the accumulated sand in the bottom part, now they were announcing the crossings small rivers. And as the rain came harder, so the rivers grew quickly bigger and deeper, and I wondered at what point they would fill up enough that we couldn’t cross. Thankfully, as we had our picnic lunch and a hot coffee at a farmhouse we happened to stop by, the rain started to ease and the small rivers began to abate. We still made some difficult crossings, and had some real fun looking for traction on the slippery roads, but somehow it was never stressful. The thunder, lightening, and rain were some of the wildest I’ve ever seen, but they just seemed such a part of Africa that they were more fascinating than threatening.
The ride took us back across the Tropic of Capricorn, but in the murk I never saw the sign, and long after the rain had ceased we rode with caution through the puddles and impromptu rivers that sprang up everywhere. My partner for most of the day’s ride was Mr. Van Kunhiem, and I will go to my grave with images of spinning and sliding out of muddy rivers completely out of control and looking over to see him riding at my side. Spitting plumes of wet mud from his rear tire, grinning and shrieking at the top of his lungs as he pumped his left fist in the air, he was hardly able to contain himself he was having so much fun. And I have to admit I was feeling exactly the same, I think I enjoyed the last day as much as if not more than the others. The riding was the most challenging and the roads the craziest, but we were in Africa on an adventure ride, so for me it was perfect.
By mid-afternoon we had found civilization and hot coffee to warm us up. Looking over at a car park full of soaking-wet, muddy motorcyclists, it was a bitter-sweet moment as I thought about all the crazy characters I’d met and how many stories I’d been told and also how many new ones we had created. There was a short stretch of tarmac to get back to Windhoek to begin the journey home, but reaching for another cup of coffee and staring round at the Namibian people enjoying the invasion, I was hanging on to the last few moments of being present in Africa as long as I could.