Archive | July, 2011

Life on the slow road

28 Jul

Mandy here as a guest writer, hello blog followers!

As most of you probably already know, we have made it to our work destination Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi region of Namibia.

We have been so fortunate to receive all the assistance that we did leading up to and including our arrival here in Katima, and we thank all of you for your support.

Since Hap has already taken you through the first part of our cycling journey from Rundu to Katima, he wanted me to fill in the gaps and tell a story or two about the remainder of our cycling trip.

This was the part that I was a bit apprehensive about: cycling through the 190km of Bwabwata National Park. This area has been made into a game reserve, so the native tribes and others are obviously no longer allowed to hunt the animals within this area, therefore creating a higher concentration of wildlife. Great if you’re on a safari, but not the best if you are planning to go through it on two wheels!

The B8 highway that we took during our entire journey literally bisects the park in two, so we were surrounded on both sides by game reserve. Additionally, the game reserve starts and ends either side of two different rivers, the Okovango and the Kwando, which means 50km or so on either end there should be an even higher density of wildlife as animals tend to not stray too far from a water source.

Judging by what everyone had told us, we were expecting to see elephants, not only on the side of the road, but in the middle of the road. We had read about, searched on google and cross referenced with everyone we met how to avoid being charged by an elephant. There are signs every 10-20km with exclamation! Elephants! 80km! Warning motorists to slow down and be aware.

In the end it was all a bit anti climatic! We spotted a few majestic giants from afar, but they were deep enough in the bush that we don’t even have a photo to prove it!

Our first day of part II of the trip was a big day for us, 80km to the first town we could stay at: we didn’t want to get caught having to camp on the side of the road! Once again the friendly Peace Corp train came through for us and we had smiling hosts awaiting us at Omega upon our arrival.

As soon as we wheeled our bikes up the main road of Omega and met our hosts, we knew we’d have to stay a couple nights.

Not only were we greeted with friendly faces eager to show us the most generous hospitality, but we were somewhat put under a spell by Omega’s unique existence and we had to have a day to explore.

Street lights with no running electricity in Omega.

We had been to quite a few villages and seen pretty much the same thing: thatched huts, mud huts, some concrete buildings. Usually there was one water pump for the smaller communities to share, and fences made of natural materials.

Omega is utterly and completely a different place.

Omega feels like a more western style town with all the power lines, water towers, brick buildings and leafy trees for shade. I guess ghost town might be a more accurate description. In the 70s this place was actually an army base, and you can imagine how it once was, it it’s prime.

I will not go into history of the war, but I can give you the general gist of what I know: Once this place was abandoned by the army, this village was given to some of the local tribes. Most of these tribes were hunter/gatherer people who depended on the abundance of wildlife in the area for survival and traditional ceremonies.

Once the Namibian government proclaimed the area a National Park, these people were prohibited from hunting or living there, and therefore were given this area to live. Since they could no longer go about their traditional ways, the government also had to start providing provisions for them on a regular basis. One of the volunteers we were staying with likened the situation somewhat to the Native Americans of North America and the ‘reservations’ of land that were given to them by the government there. The similarity of a traditional people being relocated and as a result becoming entirely dependent on the government is undeniable.

As a result these are the types of things you see in Omega: house after house of roofless, abandoned buildings; homes with zinc roofing as fences; giant warehouses that used to be the ‘supermarket’ of the army base, now housing a mini market of basics in what used to be the cleaning closet, leaving the rest of the gigantic building empty; swimming pools ¼ full with a toxic mix of stagnant water and rubbish; water towers that are either rusted out, leaking or just not working; electricity lines running all through the town, but not one person with power that does not come from a generator (and most don’t even have that, but have to rely on poaching power from the few generators that are in town).

It was a one of a kind experience to stay in this town and hear the stories about how dysfunctional things had become. There is literally an amazing, beautiful, wood burning oven next to the abandoned mess hall that could be used, but no one can be bothered. Maybe I’ll go back and start up a pizza restaurant!

The best part of staying in Omega was the warm dose of hospitality we received from Gretchen and Paul, both US Peace Corp volunteers, and the Romanian volunteer, Lucas. We joined their simple existence for a couple of days and relished in the experience. On our first night we were offered hot water off the fire for washing up, which was amazing! Even though they have no running water or electricity, there was no complaining. Everything just got done a little slower. Every morning and every evening a fire must be made to heat water and cook food. This is how most people live that we have come into contact with. It’s just part of the daily routine.

After two nights at Omega, Hap and I were ready to take on the rest of the game reserve. We slept our next night near the police station in neighbouring Omega III (just your average village with a school, water pump and some huts), and then made the long haul the next day for the Kongola area, signalling the end of the national park. We were happy to see water again, and even happier to get to the shop at the petrol station where they had fresh bread that was still warm! I think we both ate ourselves into a coma that day!

After visiting another bike workshop in neighboring village, Singalamwe, we were on a mission to get to Katima before the weekend. We wanted to have a bit of time to rest and get in touch with our contacts in Katima before starting the project on the Monday. After three days in a row of at least 70km, we were ready to arrive at our destination!

As recommended by people we met, as well as the Lonely Planet, we set up shop at the Protea Hotel campground, right on the Zambezi river. That was a welcomed sight after all our hard work getting there. Couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful spot……and they even had HOT showers! Amazing!

I never thought I would even ride my bike more than, oh, say 30km in one day. I guess I never really thought about it before, and when Hap suggested that we travel Africa on bikes, it took more than a little encouragement for me to get used to the idea.

The more I researched cycle touring, the more I realized how common and how easy it is to do, even for a true beginner. I have always enjoyed riding a bike, but am far from a serious cyclist. Hap’s the same! The 10-20km we would ride daily in Melbourne was the most either of us had ever ridden a bike.

Now that I have cycled 600km across northern Namibia, I feel like I could definitely do more. There are so many advantages to travelling by bike: less money spent on transport, the freedom to stop when you want, the luxury of setting up camp (pretty much) wherever you’d like to sleep, and an instant conversation starter, should you want to engage with the people you encounter. One aspect that can be a good thing or a bad thing is that you have no choice but to interact with your environment. However, if you choose the right gear, time of year, and time of day to ride, you can usually make it a pleasant experience.

Photos from week two of the bike workshop.

26 Jul

Week two has seen the five trainees working on the bikes after their theory in week one. They can now give a competent full service to a bike. I’m rather impressed in how fast they have clicked onto everything, it really is rather incredible.

Week three and four of the training will be spent fixing up the 356 bikes in the container, well not all of them but as many as we can get done before opening the bike work shop at the start of week 6. The interest from the community has been insane with people constantly asking when they can buy bikes. The community the container is located in is called butterfly (the neighbouring community is called ‘cowboy’) which is about 4km out of Katima. As Katima is on the border with Zambia, apparently a lot of people will be coming over to get bikes as well. I would say that the 356 bikes won’t last too long before they need restocking.

Here are some photos from week two:

The container is located in the grounds of the local butterfly church. The container is hooked up with the Catholic Aids Action (CAA). The five bike mechanic trainees are CAA volunteers who are helping in the fight against AIDS which is pretty hectic here in the Caprivi region, 40% of people have HIV.

The streets of Butterfly. Yep you can see why we were only wanting mountain bikes for the container.

Paulina the trainer with 3 of the trainees (one of the trainees has HIV and hasn’t been too well of late)

Mandy cooking the local food (pap) for lunch. The emphasis is on filing.

The kitchen. It’s a like cooking at the beach.

Mr Happy (this is what they call me) passing on a little knowledge from the mistakes I have made.

This photo taken on Friday. A really enjoyable day. We all completed a full service on a bike. Was cool tinkering away, everyone having a laugh and taking the piss like any other work shop in the world.

Movem servicing the bottom bracket. Before the training Movem didn’t know anything about bikes, now he can fully service a bike. Pretty cool.

Moses, the enthusiastic young man who will be the bike shop manager. All successful work shops require a man with the motivation, energy and passion to make it a success. I’m happy to say that Moses fits the bill.

First week of our bike work shop.

22 Jul

Hey folks,

Firstly internet is scarce here in Katima and not to mention very slow, but I will try to keep you all updated.

All is going well with the project, the first week is complete. The 5 local guys that are being trained as mechanics are a good laugh, and it has been good working with Paulina the BEN, Namibia trainer, we are both learning things.

It’s pretty cool seeing the container that we packed back in Melbourne, and it is quite funny seeing all the bikes with the local Melbourne bike shop stickers on them. There will be 3 more weeks of training/fixing the bikes up. Then Michael the founder of BEN, Namibia will be up in Katima to put the guys through the 2 week small business training. The work shop will be up and running in the second week of the small business training.

Already there has been a lot of interest from the local community as to when they can start buying bikes. There is certainly a need for bikes here. Things now seem normal here and we have slipped into the African way of life where there isn’t a strong push to get things done quickly. You just embrace it. It makes you realise how easy we have it. For example we wanted to drill the truing stand into the work bench. But after two days they couldn’t track down a drill so a chisel (actually it was a ring spanner that had been grinded down) and hammer were used to make the holes. I’ve seen many examples of African ingenuity here.

OK, best be off as have to go and buy a mattress as we have finally got out of our tent and are renting a room woop woop. Ciao. Here are some more photos from the first week.

Doing a stock take of the bikes.

Melbourne what up!

There’s a kindergarten in the compound where our sea container is. Always heaps of smiling kids running around.

Class time.

The best class room in the world.

Makveto bike workshop.

18 Jul

When we pulled into the town of Divundo (by a town I mean a cross roads with a couple of shops and petrol station) we knew we were in the vicinity of a BEN, Nambia bike work shop. Why? Because bikes were everywhere. So many people were carrying there maize and bread on bikes, doing their shopping, going to visit families or whatever else you do on a bike in sub Saharan Africa.

It’s pretty cool knowing that every bike you see is here because of BEN, Nambia. Plus all the bikes I saw around seemed to be in pretty good condition. I was looking forward to going and visiting the Makveto bike work shop that was the birth place of all their reincarnated bikes.

Mandy and I hitched a ride out to the bike work shop that was 5km out of town. The scene that presented itself was what I would have expected from a well run African bike work shop. There were people sitting around, there were guys tinkering on bikes up on bike stands, guys tinkering on bikes upside down in the sand, friends hanging out under the shade smiling and laughing, a big tree casting shade, music playing and even a mud hut office.

After talking about it for so long it was pretty cool to see the great impact the bike work shop has on a community. I will touch on a few of the positive impacts the Makveto bike work shop has had on the Divundo area. They are giving locals access to bikes, offering employment, access to new business opportunities and of course providing a sustainable transport solution.

Giving locals access to bikes: Before the Makveto bike work shop locals could buy new bikes for $2000 ND (Namibian Dollars, AUD300) from a shopping centre (this is what they call it, I would call it a supermarket, an African supermarket) about 10km away. But from what I saw these bikes were heavy, poor quality buckets of shit from China or India that came in one size. Even if they bought the brand new bike the closest bike work shop to get it fixed was 200km away (This was another BEN, Namibia bike work shop). The bike work shop offers bikes between $300-$800 ND, and even though they are second hand, they are of better quality.

Providing Employment: At Makeveto 3 guys and 1 lady are employed. I asked them all what they did before working at the bike work shop to which they all answered “nothing”. Which as I touched on in a previous post is pretty common as Namibia has 50% unemployment which I would say is even higher in rural Namibia. None of the workers had never even changed a tyre before working at the bike work shop. It was really cool to see their confidence and hearing Ludwig, the manager’s pride when he talks about the work shop and all the bikes they are providing. He told me the story of how he had been taught to ride a bike by BEN, Namibia and now he has taught his wife how to ride a bike.

Providing other business opportunities: With some of the profits from the bike work shop Ludwig was able to start a little side business. He bought a solar panel that he uses to provide electricity to the workshop. Therefore he can offer to charge people’s cell phones for a small fee. He has also bought a small printer/photocopier and offers copy service. This is pretty smart as everyone here has cell phones, you will see a lady walking along the side of the road with a bundle of wood stacked on her head, text messaging, but most of the villages don’t have power.

Offering a sustainable transport solution: Whilst we were there filming a guy pulled in to get a punctured repaired on his bike that he had purchased from the bike shop. I got one of the guys to ask him what he uses his bike for. The mechanic translated back to me that he uses it to visit his family each week. Before his bike he use to have to get a taxi (a minivan that gets crammed with as many people as possible) that would cost him 50 Namibian dollars return trip. Now he cycles the 35km out to visit them, and his bike only cost $400, so after 8 visits he has paid it off.

A beer tastes good.

13 Jul

Some photos from day three and four.

Back on the long straight B8 highway that we will follow all the way along the Caprivi Strip to Katima. This road makes navigating and decision making quite easy as it’s the only road.

Turning off to Shamangorwa village where we were going to stay with Sam, a US peace corp volunteer worker.

Waking on the morning of day four, another glorious sunrise and a frost on the tent. The night before we asked Sam where the toilet was? He handed us a roll of toilet paper and said, “walk that way 500 metres past the fence and find a spot”. Trust me, you know when you find the spot as there is a whole village mine field of turd and toilet paper.

Mandy looking as beautiful as ever on the morning of Day four without a shower.

Filming some boys that once again appeared from the bush where we had pulled off the side of the road for some lunch.

Day four we put in 80km’s as we had heard of a great camping spot on the Okavango River. This photo taken on the morning of Day 5. We spent Day 5 laying on the ground as the 80 kms the day before killed us. Well it wasn’t the 80kms that killed us, it was the last 4 kms on the sand road. I had my bike loaded up, 24 pack of beer and all, so pushing the bike for 2 hours through sand nearly killed me………… the cold beer was so close but so far away. After our first four days of cycle touring, a shower and a beer never tasted so good. 250km down 350km to go.

Village life

12 Jul

Here are some photos from day two.

We were running low on water so went into this little village, well actually they call them homesteads which comprise of a bunch of grass/mud huts that an extended family calls home. We ended up doing an interview with Fostino as he spoke really good English.

Fostino and his family after the interview. I asked Fostino what he does during the day, and he answered, “nothing”. And from what I’ve seen so far of village life, I think he sums it up. Once he finished grade 12 there was nothing really for him to do, Namibia has 50% unemployment, and he lives in a remote poor village. He fills his day in cutting fire wood and playing soccer and sitting. So having a couple of foreigners come in wanting some water was probably a high light.

We knew we were getting close to our destination of Nyangana as the amount of bikes we started seeing increased.

Turning off to Nyangana to visit our first bike work shop.

Stopping off at a store on the way to Nyangana.

We forgot it was Saturday, so the bike work shop was closed. But asking some locals managed to find Veronica who runs it, and she opened it up for us to have a look and got the other employees to come out so we could interview them.

Thumbs up to Veronica and her workers.

We pitched our tent in Vernonica’s family homestead. Our tent pictured in the back ground. It was quite funny, the only places with electricity in the village was the shebeen (bar), and it just so happened to be right next door. Being a Saturday night, the music went to the early hours, then started again at 7am. This was what I envisioned Africa to be like, no electricity, chickens, dirt roads, rubbish, cooking on a fire, cute snotty nosed kids, friendly people. It was a cool experience, sitting around the fire with all the family from the grandparents to the little kids sitting at your feet in the sand.

In the morning Veronica took us to the river and one of the fishermen took me for a cruise in his boat that was literally a floating hollowed out log. I would hate to come across a crocodile whilst sitting in one of these.

Saying good bye to our hosts the next morning.

Smiles, toots and waves

8 Jul

So you’re probably wondering, how are we doing? Have we been eaten by lions? Do I have chaffage? (or probably not) Why the hell haven’t I been blogging?

Well the answer to these questions in order are, good, no, no, no internet.

Right now I’m writing this blog post at the location below, Ngepi camp, and I will upload it when I come across the internet, which by the way it’s looking may not be until Katima as we haven’t come across any internet.

There seems so much to write about. What I will do is do a couple of posts of the first four days of cycling and let the photos do the talking.

If I had to sum up the first day of cycling it would be smiles, toots and waves. Every person we biked past would wave and smile, passing cars would toot, little ratty village kids would run out of the bush waving, shouting and of course waving. It was awesome. Anyways, the photos from the first day.

The bikes made it safely. We arrived at the isolated small Rundo bus station on the Agolan/Namibia border at 3am. There was only one sedan taxi there. I’m sure you can imagine our two bike boxes and two big bags of panniers jammed in there with the driver having to use his belt to hold the door in as I was unable to shut it, Mandy and squeezed into the passenger seat together. Gold.

The morning of day 1 waking up at 5.30am at our couch surfing hosts house. How the hell do we fit all this on the bikes?

3 hours of head scratching later the bikes are ready to go. Rather excited!

Katima our destination, 518km away

Quite often I would see animals in the distance and be wondering, “are they elephants?”, but no, thankfully just cows.

Mandy in her adventure out fit. Also the first day Mandy has ridden her bike all loaded up, and what better place to do her first loaded bike ride than in Africa. We actually couldn’t have asked for better riding conditions, perfect roads, flat, sealed and straight, not much traffic.

Bloody hungry, give me food.

The midday heat is pretty intense, high 20’s, pretty tuckered out. A little siesta under a tree, just what the doc ordered.

After 65km, we pulled off the side of the road out of view and set up camp for our first night of wild camping in Africa.

When the sun goes down it gets bloody cold, overnight it got down to -2 (Sich good move on persuading me to buy those last minute -5 sleeping bags). Hot drinks after a successful first day.

My next blog post will be on Day 2 and village life.