Thumbing it to Namibia

For the most part desolate, four times larger than the UK but with a population of scarcely 2 million people, Namibia was still not a major tourist destination when I visited there in 1997. Indeed, on my return to Europe, several people I spoke to had no idea where even to place it on the Africa map. But what did I care about its non-notoriety? I wasn’t looking for tourists, simply an adventure. In the month I spent there, I scrambled across Sossuvlei sand dunes, trekked through Fish River Canyon, and explored an abandoned diamond town. I camped in Etosha safari park, met a Bushman tribe (living off the land, as self-reliant as they come) and travelled the length of the Skeleton Coast (hostile terrain, and inaccessible without the aid of a four wheel drive). With no driver’s licence, and a victim of the limited public transport system, for the most part I got around by “by thumb” – hitching rides, mainly from the locals and occasionally with fellow travellers. I experienced nothing but friendliness and hospitality – beds for the night, book swaps and jugs of lemonade. Neither the landscape nor its people disappointed.

I left Cape Town one sunny February morning, dropped at the side of the highway by a friend who had looked at me, part bewildered and part horrified when I had told her I planned to hitch north, 2000 kms, to Windhoek, the country’s capital. Public transport in Namibia was scarce so, I figured, why not? After all, how threatening is a single woman with a backpack, a water bottle and a book to pass the time? I promised Marina I’d keep an eye out for psychopaths, thanked her for everything and promised to send her a postcard, then waved wildly until her car was a nothing but a speck in the distance.

A few minutes later I had found my first ride – Leona, a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, single and in her 30s. She rarely picked up hitchhikers, she told me…after all, South Africa was a dangerous place. But I was a lone woman and, besides, in her 20’s she’d hitchhiked through Turkey, and the sight of me at the road had evoked a host of good memories for her. We passed three hours chatting about the farm in the Karoo on which she’d grown up, and where she saw her country going now apartheid had collapsed (she wasn’t sure, but – liked me – was clinging onto optimism). After dropping me at a crossroads, she hugged me and threw at me a large bottle of water from her cooler.

“It’s hotter than you think, out here” she warned, “and there’s no shade. Watch out.”

Within ten minutes, I knew she had been right. With the sun blazing down on me, and having eaten less than a hearty breakfast some hours ago, I suddenly felt faint with the overpowering heat. Two trucks pulled over, but it transpired their drivers were going west. Too bad. Then a carload of tourists passed me, packed to the rafters, not an inch of space to spare, their passengers mouthing “sorry” as they sped away. With the sun beating down on me relentlessly, I was suddenly overwhelmed with my situation. I had no shade, and now diminishing water supplies. How long could I actually last out here?

Perhaps the Gods had decided to pity me, though , for just as I was about to cry, the sky clouded over and not long after the heavens opened. The rain pelted down, hard and fast, but I was ecstatic. I was sure it would not last long, but I knew it would buy me time – and I was right. Fifteen minutes later, the sky was blue again and soon after I had my next ride.

Paul was the son of a lawyer from Cape Town, but a free spirit at heart, he told me. Heading just north of the border, in a truck he’d borrowed to visit a friend and transport a motorbike back to the capital, he casually threw my pack in the back and, with a grin, told me to hop in. Alone and glad of the company, we talked for hours as we drove along the deserted highway, Dire Straits blaring from his stereo. Every couple of minutes a solitary car would pass us, travelling in the other direction. No chance of a traffic jam on this road.

The dry scrub and barren landscapes were like nothing I had ever seen and a far cry from the perpetual rain of my childhood. Paul asked me how I had stood not seeing the sun for weeks at a time, in those long English winters, and I could not respond. When night fell, we pulled over at a local bar and spent the next few hours playing pool and drinking beer, before collapsing drunkenly in our sleeping bags in the back of the open truck. I slept soundly, woken only by the sun on my face the next morning. The sky was a piercing blue, with not a cloud in it, an indicator of the day to come.

Paul dropped me off just south of Keetmanshoop, after handing me a scrap of paper with his phone number and address, telling me that I had a bed waiting for me back in Cape Town. It was tempting to spend a couple of days with him at his friend’s place, and explore the desert, but I was hoping to reach Windhoek by nightfall, so that I could meet up with a Scandinavian guy I’d travelled with weeks earlier, due to leave town at the end of the week. Pulling my book out of my daypack, I settled down at the side of the highway, but before I’d had time to make myself comfortable a post van pulled up.

“Need a ride?” yelled the driver. “It’s just me and a sack of mail for the next 400 k’s. Technically, it’s against company policy but I couldn’t bring myself to drive by!” Clambering in, I found myself next to Martin, the trusty postman who drove enormous distances each day, just to ensure that the locals got their mail.

“Some people would say it’s a lonely job, but I like it. I’ve got no boss and I never tire of the landscapes,” he told me. Married, with two young kids, he was on his way home to Rehoboth, a town of about 20,000, just under 100 kms from Windhoek. It had been a long day for him, since he’d woken at 4 am that morning to make his deliveries. Moreover, his son had a football match that afternoon and he’d promised to be there so, he said, if it was all right with me, he was going to put his foot down. If we made good time, he told me, we’d stop off first at his place. I could meet his family and have a cold drink, then he’d drop me at the best spot for my last hitch of the day, to the capital.

Listening to him talking about his childhood (he had actually never been out of Namibia) and answering his endless questions about London, my journey round South Africa and why I had no husband and kids, I realised this was why I hitched – to meet people that otherwise I’d never encounter in daily life. Martin and I were polar opposites, but it wasn’t hard to warm to him. At his house, I kicked a ball about with his son before the obligatory pitcher of lemonade appeared. Just as we were leaving the house, he leaned over to the bookcase and pulled out a crime thriller.

“For the road,” he grinned.

Back at the side of the road, the sun was sinking fast and, looking at my watch, I saw it was almost 5 pm. Windhoek loomed large in my mind’s eye…I felt hopeful of making it though, since luck had been with me the entire journey. I figured I was on the home stretch and needed only one more ride to be there by 7 pm. A BMW pulled up – a German businessman, it transpired, heading right my way – not ten minutes walk from my destination. Hans had left Munich in his 20's and after spells in the US and South American had moved here ten years ago. Did he like it? I asked? Any kind of culture shock? No, he said, he felt completely at home,

“My wife has dinner parties, and there’s always apfel strudel and schnapps in plenty…” he told me. “I’m making money, I like the weather and half my neighbours speak German. Why do I need to go back to Europe?” By the time we had reached our destination, he’d already invited me for dinner with his family. Starving, I had accepted graciously and, in their living room, used his phone to make a call. It was a long shot, but perhaps Pietar was still in town. The phone rang just twice before a familiar voice answered.

“Hey there” I began. “Remember me? Well, I made it here. Are you ready for that beer you promised me back in Cape Town?”

“Sarah!” I heard him reply, enthusiastically. “Great. But the bus from Cape Town only arrives once a day, early morning. Why are you so late?”

“I took the scenic route,” I laughed.