Doors locked, windows up, gaps in traffic maintained, and eyes darting between mirrors and suspicious of any pedestrian coming too close. This was how we drove into Windhoek.
Most travelers to Namibia begin or end their trip in the capital city of Windhoek (windy corner). Having been warned that it is the location of the most crime in the country (as big cities tend to be), and assured that we wouldn’t be missing anything by skipping it, we had planned on avoiding it altogether, and managed to give it quite a wide berth up to that point.
Now we were rolling in despite ourselves to run some errands, and were rather weary of it. Actually, after the break-in that shocked our campsite earlier that morning, we were downright dreading it.
Coming off the highway, the city is big. It’s no Jo’burg, but it’s enough to remind us of the big city warnings.
But as we drive we begin to ease up a bit mentally. There are none of the throngs of loiterers that crowd the cities in South Africa, the other towns in Namibia. The people are dressed up, clean cut, relaxed. Most are on their way to or from something. They are busy, look occupied, have purpose.
As we get closer to the center, rich palms and luscious purple-flowered jacaranda trees neither of us have seen before burst out onto every street, splashing it with colour and making for an unexpectedly pleasant atmosphere. The city is actually kind of beautiful, kind of quaint.
A mechanic tells us that those that live here know Windhoek’s full of crime and they’re prepared for it: houses are compounds, guarded by tall fences and electrified wire reminiscent of Jo’burg. We keep our doors locked.
We sleep paranoid in a guarded campsite resort. In the morning we run errands.
Christ Church stands in the middle of a traffic circle. It is the only tourist attraction we actually see.
Zambia is beautiful. It is greener, lush-er, colourful-er than anything we’ve seen in the past nine weeks in Africa, the humid opposite of Namibia, and the Africa that we had come to see.
From the unorthodox air of formality at the border post –
an unclear order of a multitude of counters where we paid unexplained and unnamed fees, incorrectly entered information dismissed with the wave of a hand, breastfeeding with half the community present at the insurance window, and a suggestion box in the corner to let them know how best to run their border control
– to the fullness on the streets:
tall trees and bushes, semis swerving along potholed roads, children in tattered clothes running barefoot on the dirt, women in colourful patterns carrying something – everything – on their heads, and everyone on bicycles…
This is what we were waiting for.
Immediately Livingstone, the base town for Victoria Falls, felt familiar. It reminded me of Southeast Asia, a backpacker haunt, where the air is humid, the nights are hot, the music is on, and the chair is always in the lounge position if not actually a mattress. And I loved it.
But we entered after sunset, a bad idea for any town, and any camp: it is dark, it’s hard to get your bearings straight, you can’t see what anything really looks like, and inevitably the lights won’t work, the wifi will be broken, the water will be cold, and a dog around the corner won’t stop yapping. And being far away from the center, on an unlit road in a compound can only build on fear of what’s out there.
But the muezzin call woke me up at 4:45am and I loved it. And we moved camps to a backpacker haunt that’s off the main strip right where women in colourful patterns carry groceries home, children in white and brown uniforms walk to school, and silver taxis with a purple stripe carry business men to work, and it is exactly what we wanted.
A gaudy hollywood sign with the word “Lüderitz” welcomes us from a nearby hill. The rest of the scenery we pass is less inviting – a land of flat mud, sand, monotone gray.
The town is almost charming, if kitschy. It spans eight blocks of roads wider than necessary for the lack of traffic, eight blocks of banks and houses and shops decked in yellow and pink providing the German architecture the guidebooks obsess over.
Healthy palms line the sidewalks, and somewhere in the distance there is the cry of seagulls, a hint of water.
It is almost enough to trick us into thinking we are in some deserted charming neighborhood in Miami, but the cold harbor wind quickly snaps us back to reality.
We head straight for the Shark Island campsite passing signs for various backpacker hostels on the way. The small peninsula looks like what I imagine Newfoundland to be: rocky, gray, with colourful fishing villages perched atop the scrags…but with palm trees.
We dig out the socks and tights and fleeces and wind breakers that we so adamantly packed away just the day before and huddle with our campsite neighbors by the braai until it is too cold to sit outside.
The morning’s sun pierces our eyes. Our sunglasses only slightly shield us from the sand, which also inevitably makes it into our ears, our noses, our mouths, our hair. The road signs warn “WIND” and “SAND” as the tar is layered with yet another thin carpet of yellow and the irony eats away at the metal.
Everywhere we turn, wind and sand, together, as one inseparable entity.
It is a bit colder than I expected, but it is only nine in the morning. We wait at Carousel 3 for our luggage and discuss the options of leaving Africa a bit earlier than we intended – with our Canadian entry permit only valid for 90 days, we’re not exactly sure what will happen when we attempt to re-enter from Mozambique after November 23rd has passed.
Missing in Action
Unlike Berlin, the luggage trolleys here are free and we happily throw our four carry on bags on. Moreno finds his backpack, then my backpack, and then we wait for our giant duffel of camping equipment. It doesn’t show. It is not in the Fragile Baggage Pickup, or doing the rounds on any other carrousel; we cannot see it mistakenly taken on someone else’s cart. It is missing.
These things happen of course, and our Lufthansa representative is calm and kind and is quickly able to tell us that the bag simply didn’t make the flight from Frankfurt, which makes some sense seeing how our connecting flights were pretty tight. It will be delivered to our South African address the next day.
Tour of Jo’burg
We are picked up by the seller of the Land Rover we are purchasing and he takes us on a scenic route back to his house so we can get a tour of Johannesburg. The city is 7,000 feet above sea level, which explains the cold. It is extremely dry here. Very arid. There hasn’t been rain since April and humidity is only at 18%.
Jo’burg is huge. From the airport, the city spans from 25 to 50 kilometers out in every direction in a thick consistency of houses and shacks. The highways have four lanes, and the majority of cars are white or light colored, in an effort by the citizens to evade the heat however they can.
We pass under a white structure – toll readers, newly constructed, but the people of South Africa have banded together in annoyance and everyone refuses to purchase the vignettes – why should they have to pay for the highways when as tax payers, so many of them already do?
And there’s almost no way to enforce it, either: not paying the toll would be a civil, but not a criminal, offense, and there are loads of the best South African and international lawyers standing by ready to fight for the first person that gets tried in the courts. It is the first time that South Africa has come together in 20 years: together, they refuse to pay the toll.
A Violent Reality Check
The people get more condensed the closer into town we get. James takes us right through Hillbrow, the worst part of the city, so that we never want to go through there again. It is barely two kilometers long, but it is packed. The population is overwhelmingly black. Everything is some muted colour of beige; the dry landscape, the dusty roads, the faded buildings. Crime is mostly individual but there is some gangsterism in this area.
Violence is rampant and James gives us advice on things like how much to keep the windows open: in the rural areas outside of the city, they’re fine all the way down, but in town, you might want them up just less than an arm’s width; as James’s experience tells us, more than an arm width and you could find yourself mid-hijacking with a gun to your temple.
An Uncomfortable First Impression
We were told Johannesburg is one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and to avoid it if at all possible. We couldn’t. Now being here as a tourist, experiencing it from the safety of an electrically fenced-in house, I’m both more frightened than I should be, and yet too naive to really know what’s good for me. That said, I can tell there is tension, and it makes me uncomfortable. And I don’t want to be around when it explodes.