Zebras work out some issues in Etosha National Park in Namibia. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
A group struggles up a dune in Namibia called, “Big Daddy,” one of the tallest dunes in the world at 1,273 feet. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
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A wounded rhino shot just behind the left ear heads toward a waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
The Deadvlei area of Namibia is a favorite of photographers for its stark and colorful imagery. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
Mountain bikers in the Namibian desert start to cool off as the sun sets. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
Elephants in the wild lands of Namibia play with more than 40 family members nearby. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
A Himba woman pauses and allows a photo. (Courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
Columnist David Whiting, left, and his wife, Lindsay, pause to take in the mountains and valleys of Namibia. (Photo by Simon Hawkes)
Several Himba tribe boys stand near a hut in Namibia. (Photo by David Whiting)
A gathering of zebras drink at a rare waterhole in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. (Photo courtesy of Simon Hawkes)
A lion cub estimated at about four months old heads for water in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. (Photo courtesy of Simon Hawkes)
One of a series of clashes between metal and the rugged roads in Namibia. Right, is lead guide Siegmund Mengerssen. (Photo courtesy of Nadine Bekavak)
A women from the Himba tribe in Namibia shows the footwear she constantly wears. (Photo by David Whiting)
A family of oryx pauses in Namibia’s Etosha National Park. (Photo courtesy of Simon Hawkes)
As summer winds down, it’s time to swap vacation stories. Here’s mine.
Dawn breaks over the Namibian desert and sea foam glows molten gold. A million shells left by a million mussels line the sand in near perfect rows.
An azure wave crests and turns tubular as never-ending swells from an Antarctic storm roll toward the beach.
If this were California, a thousand surfers would test themselves up and down this coast. But this is definitely not California.
Except for our party of 10, our two vehicles and an empty strip of asphalt, there is nothing in sight that gives hint to anything human. And that’s pretty darn cool.
My wife and I didn’t fly for nearly two days to mountain bike in civilization. We wanted to explore the ends of the earth.
Portuguese sailors once called this area, “The Gates of Hell.” Bushmen in the infinite desert behind us are said to sometimes call their home, “The land God made in anger.”
On a bad day, the descriptions sound fitting. But our little band has something that bushmen and sailors in wind-powered ships didn’t — the internal combustion engine.
For nearly two weeks, we bounce along rugged dirt roads in air conditioned comfort and hop out to race mountain bikes in a world that looks suspiciously like Mars.
At night, we dine and sleep in a series of unimaginably bizarre lodgings.
One includes bats.
Yes, live bats.
Still, the night of elephants is more than special. It is transcendent.
Inside the natural world
If visiting a country with the second least dense population on the planet — Mongolia is No. 1 when it comes to having the fewest people per square mile — sounds like an odd choice, well, it is.
But my wife and I have an affinity for Africa. As the risk of generalizing, I’ll explain. Much of the land remains relatively untouched. The flora and topography take your breath away. Observing an abundance of animals in the wild feeds the soul. The people are wonderful, thoughtful and offer different perspectives. The mix of cultures is unique.
Born and raised in England and now a Fullerton College professor, my wife lived and taught in Morocco for years. Including this summer, I’ve visited Africa three times. My first trip was to Tanzania. My second, was with my wife last year to South Africa and Botswana.
Namibia drew us because of some amazing photographs and — most of all — it offered mountain biking.
Understand, looking at the world through a windshield, even an open window, means a barrier between you and everything on the other side.
Riding a bicycle is different.
When you travel through space and time on a bicycle there is nothing between you and the natural world. You are inside nature.
Circumnavigator and author Anne Mustoe describes her conversion this way: “I looked out the bus window and saw a cyclist, a solitary European man, pedalling across the immensity of the Great Thar Desert.
“I was seized with sudden envy. I wanted to be out there myself on the road on a bicycle, alone and free, feeling the reality of India, not gazing at it through a pane of glass.”
One more thing about mountain biking. Ripping across a desert of red rocks surrounded by formations that look like the mountains of Mars is a screaming rush.
Little known genocide
If you want to really know a country, you must live there. But the next best thing when time is short is spending time in urban areas as well as the countryside.
Before and after our venture across Namibia, we stay in the capital city, Windhoek, for several days. This helps decompress. But moreover, it gives time to walk large chunks of the city.
Like any city, Windhoek has poor, middle class and rich areas. Sipping cappuccino at an outdoor cafe, we watch tourists wandering, business people in expensive suits working, hipsters with amazing hairstyles wondering.
Namibia’s best museum, Independence Memorial Museum, is off Robert Mugabe Avenue — yes, that Robert Mugabe. The building is a striking, ultra-modern triangular structure of glass and gold-colored metal.
Inside, it recounts events that most of us have never heard of, stories of colonialism, war, death and freedom. It says a lot when you learn that one proposed name for the structure was, “Genocide Remembrance Centre.”
From 1904 to 1908 through starvation, dehydration and abuse, German colonial rule was responsible for the deaths of at least 65,000 and up to 110,000 Herero and Nama peoples.
Only three years ago, Germany officially acknowledged the events as “genocide” and “part of a race war.”
A man I come to know during our journey, Charles Kahuure, quietly shares he is Herero. He shakes his head at what his ancestors went through and those who died.
To break the mood, Kahuure holds up a picture of his 8-year-old son and smiles.
At a local bike shop, we meet the rest of our group. Along with Kahuure, there are two more guides, my wife and I, a couple from England and three very funny women from Australia. Lindsay and I have brought our bikes. The others rent.
The next 12 days unfold like a series of strange, wonderful and occasionally unsettling dreams.
Fluttering in the night
We roam the Kalahari Desert and much of the rest of Namibia in two strong and sturdy four-wheelers while hauling a custom steel trailer stuffed with mountain bikes. Still, tires shred. Axles break.
If you decide to travel Africa on your own, don’t. Backups on backups are critical. The roads are merciless; cell phones often don’t work; if you are on your own, you could be stranded for days.
Our lead guide, Siegmund “Zieggy” Mengerssen, is perfect for the trip. He’s a font of fun, a mountain bike racer and triathlete, barbecues — meaning he grills a lot of different meat simultaneously called a Namibian braai — and, most importantly, he is a talented mechanic.
With a trove of replacement parts, several jacks and plenty of small boulders, he can make a new axle ready to rock in less than 30 minutes.
Accommodations range from thatched huts to canvas tents atop wood boards to hobbit-like round structures that overlook a waterhole where hundreds of zebras visit at dusk.
Animals at a watering hole is a little like the dating scene at a sports bar. They carefully scope out the surroundings. They wearily approach. They drink deeply — relaxed but with purpose. Then, before things get rough, they depart en masse.
The weirdest place we stay and definitely the coolest — if you are Batman — is a left over movie set from the French film, “La Piste.”
Stairs wind through rocks. Bedrooms are perched on massive boulders. The only lighting comes from candles, paraffin lamps and bamboo torches.
The room my wife and I share is high above the desert floor, has a massive boulder in the middle and, without windows, is open to the heavens.
We’re told there are bats, but laugh it off as a joke. In the morning, I wake to fluttering.
Above our bed, 30 bats hang upside down.
Briefly, we are dubbed Batman and Bat Woman.
Magic nights and days
There is much more to share, including a magnificent safari drive through Etosha National Park where we see herds of bounding kudo, playful zebras, battling giraffes, lazing lions, rumbling rhinos.
Still, two experiences stand out. One is climbing a sand dune called “Big Daddy,” said to be one of the tallest dunes on Earth at 1,273 feet.
But it isn’t the mighty slip-and-slide, brutal struggle to ascend fine sand millions of years old that makes the day amazing. It is, as the proverbial nursery rhyme bear says, to see the other side of the mountain.
In a wind storm and with sand in our teeth, we finally reach the summit and plunge down the other side. Immediately, we find ourselves on a white clay pan punctuated with skeletons of dead, black trees.
This legendary place is appropriately called, “Deadvlei.”
The trees died some 700 years ago, but the gnarled trunks and twisting branches remain because the area is so dry. The backdrop is orange-red dunes, and the contrasting images testify to the unique, powerful and stunning art of nature.
The second never-will-forget experience is the night of elephants.
It is approaching dusk and our vehicle rolls over a dry riverbed lined with large trees. We see an elephant, then another. One big boy saunters up and gives us a “no big deal” snort.
Soon, more elephants approach. Slowly, we realize we are in the midst of a herd of more than 40 elephants.
The matriarch exudes the grace of a grande dame. The grizzled head honcho with massive tusks shows scars from past rumbles. Moms keep baby elephants close. Teenagers wrestle in the dust.
The extended family gets along in peace and harmony under the most difficult circumstances. For hours, we watch in awe, admiration and appreciation.
As darkness settles, we head back to camp. Suddenly, I notice a large gray shape against a night sky filled with sparkling diamonds.
The shape moves and has two tusks. Soon, there is more movement. We stop. Our headlights shine, yet the entire herd pays no mind as elephant after elephant passes by in silence.
A few words comes to mind. Dignity, freedom, grandeur.
This content was originally published here.