The first thing you realize is: no one is going to pull you over.
It’s about you and the car. The issue is simply what it’s capable of, what you believe it’s capable of, and the difference between the two.
It’s just past sundown. I’m racing across a section of Namibian desert called the Skeleton Coast; so named because of its tendency to swallow ships in its currents. If you wrecked on the Skeleton Coast and happened to survive the experience, it didn’t make much difference. No way around it. This place wants you dead.
It’s a 100km inland stretch to Uis from the shore. It’s raining, so the occasional flash of lightning turns night into day and illuminates the nothing that surrounds. It’s raining, so there are small, spontaneous rivers carving deep gutters across the road. It’s raining and this is desert, which means you can’t count on anything.
I’m alone out here with a pin-prick of light cutting through the blackness in front of me. The flickers of illumination set my mind wandering to places it shouldn’t go. I think of things coming into view on the road.
Things like, ya know…clowns.
But I’m more likely to see an ostrich or giraffe. I’m crossing into Damaraland; wild territory. Not a protected game park, but far from uninhabited.
My nerves already rattled by imaginary Ronald McDonalds, a river comes out of nowhere. My Toyota Tazz drops into it at highway speed. The front end hits gravel. My laptop slams into the glove compartment. Rocks twirl in the air and manage not to land on the hood. The rental holds together and lurches onward.
I’ve got 90 more kilometers to the next town and I’m praying to my heathen Gods that I don’t lose another tire. I used up the spare two days ago. If another one goes…
This is a kind of alone that’s difficult to find these days.
80 kilometers to go.
I think of Lost Highway; that haunting Bowie song and that endless stretch of road.
Felicity Huffman and Phillip Seymour Hoffman have suspiciously similar names and career trajectories.
If you think about it, whale meat probably tastes more like beef than fish.
And the front left tire gives up…
Four days earlier, flying in from Johannesburg, I look out the window and am suddenly dumbstruck by the miracle of flight. Fifty-nine flights into the trip, I’m reminded of what I take for granted.
I land in Windhoek (pronounced with a ‘V’) and find the airport…inhospitable.
Hertz, Avis, Budget, Dollar; all booked solid by business travelers. Not a single car rental available. There are no trains or buses into town, and town is 42 kilometers away. The only way to get there is by taxi and there’s only one driver. He wants N$250 for the trip, or about $45 US. I laugh at him and walk away, then learn he’s asking a fair price.
There’s got to be another way.
With the last flight of the day cleared, everyone is locking up and going home. The guy at the Budget counter, David, takes pity on me and offers a ride. I ask how much.
“Whatever you feel like giving me.”
“How about N$50.”
I wait for him to finish up. The taxi driver figures out what’s going on and flips out, first at David, then at me. David comes over and explains, “The taxi man is very angry. If he asks, you must tell him that I’m renting a car to you in the morning.” He pats me on the back and laughs. “It’s okay. No problem.”
We walk past the taxi man to David’s car. As we approach the gate, a guard seals it off and waves us back. Some words are exchanged and David is suddenly very angry. He puts the car in reverse and races back to the taxi man, who put a call in and had our exit blocked.
David gets out of the car and starts yelling. A small crowd gathers. A man opens my door and asks me what I’m doing.
“I’m going into town so he can rent a car to me in the morning.”
The guy looks me over. Sure, what I’m saying makes no sense, but at least our stories match up. The yelling dies down, David gets back in the car, and we go.
As we’re leaving, David explains, “This car is no good. My friend is following in his truck.”
A few minutes later, the battery gives out and we roll to a stop.
“It’s no problem. My friend has a rope. We fix the car.”
A rope. Ah, he must mean jumper cables. Great.
…No. He means a rope.
I stand outside the car staring at the stars and searching my brain for any way I can make myself useful.
Aha! I go into bag and pull out my head-mounted flashlight. I strap it to David’s head as he’s looking under the fender for something to tie the rope to.
Eventually we get back underway, albeit much more slowly.
We realize I’m 220 pounds of dead weight, so I’m transferred to the truck in front for the rest of the drive. I talk to Steven for a while. He came to Namibia in 1975 as a refugee from Angola. With a relatively stable government and low population, Namibia is a magnet for those fleeing the more troubled parts of Southern Africa.
I get into town and check in at the main backpacker hostel. When I’m unsure of how I’m going to get around, it’s always good to find the big backpacker hub. They tend to provide the most varied and practical options.
The next morning, I get set up with a car at a low-profile rental chain. The car is barely qualified to traverse a quiet New England suburb, but the price is right and I’m feeling lucky.
[This post is incomplete. Will finish it up soon.]