Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021

© Margo Pfeiff

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See you next dune

A cycling safari in Namibia weaves through desert landscapes, colonial towns and spectacular wildlife

“A journey of giraffes!” someone shouted pointing to a dozen of the creatures cantering the shoreline of a shimmering white salt plain. Then came cries of “troupe of baboons!” and “sounder of warthogs!” Spend your days cycling the plains in the parched outback of Namibia and you learn a whole new lexicon, from the Latin name for the bizarre two-leafed indigenous Welwitschia mirabilis plant to textbook terms for packs of critters like a dazzle of zebras or a crash of rhinos.

Our slim, trim “manic mechanic” Tjipe (“Chippy”) who kept our full-suspension mountain bikes in working order pulled off the bumpy dirt road ahead and flagged us off-piste into the shade of a dry riverbed where a lavish lunch had been laid out, complete with icy beers and chilly wines to wash down 50 dusty kilometres.

We had just sat down for a drink when our guide, Chris Goodwin, held up a hand to shush us. “There’s an elephant coming!” Chris was always joking around so we just laughed, trying to remember if elephants came in hides, herds or hefelumps. “Get in the truck!” he whisper-hissed. Sure enough, a big old bull ambled towards the dining table. Would he start with the potato salad or demo the entire buffet at once? But he just raised his trunk for a good long sniff then sauntered off to munch acacia boughs, leaving the gourmet offerings to a famished batch of bikers.

Wildlife and wilder outfits

If you have a thing about deserts as I do, you eventually dream of Namibia, the big daddy of dune country. It’s been on my list since I was six, when I flipped open a National Geographic fold-out photo of a ship rusting on a long beach of towering red sand dunes on the country’s Skeleton Coast.

Namibia is safe and clean by African standards. But getting around can be costly or time-consuming in a giant sandbox twice the size of California with only two million inhabitants. Since the more dangerous wildlife (i.e., lions and hyenas) is largely confined to game reserves and national parks, Namibia has become well known for its self-drive safaris where you rent a 4WD and head off on your own. You can also join a biking outfitter with a swag wagon or an operator offering biking trips with short hops by bush plane that land you at remote airstrips where your bikes await. And that’s what I signed up for, a 10-day, fly-and-bike, rock-star tour of Namibia.

We started in the small, quirky capital of Windhoek with its architectural reminders of German colonialism, and where it was possible to dine on antelope schnitzels in Bavarian-style restaurants near Beethovenstrasse. In the immaculate city park — at the intersection of Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe Streets — clusters of tribal Himba women had gathered, their bodies glazed deep red with ochre and goat butter, hair dread-locked with clay. It was something to see these women, breasts bared, draped with multilayered goatskin miniskirts ogling German cream cakes on display in a modern konditerei shop front.

After a warm-up ride through a small game park on the outskirts of the city, we flew north to Namibia’s showpiece national park called Etosha, a salt pan so massive it can be seen from space. Biking inside the park is verboten so we toured in an open safari vehicle, visiting waterholes cluttered with an encyclopedic collection of wildlife sipping in unison: dik-diks jostling for space with elan, giraffes, kudu, rhinos and the occasional lion. No sight, though, of the world’s largest population of cheetahs or those elusive little meerkats. At night we retired to the Onguma Plains Camp (tel: 011-264-61-232-009;, a Moorish-styled resort resembling the forts that once existed in the area. A waterhole was close enough to allow warthogs taking a mud bath to become dinnertime entertainment. That night the pounding hooves of zebra prancing around my mini adobe fort awoke me.

National dung-spitting champs

We hopped another bumpy flight to the western end of the park to cycle through Damaraland’s Doro! Nawas Conservancy. Exclamation marks indicate that a click consonant is used when the word is pronounced by locals. We were now deep in four-click country where four different tongue-clicks form part of the alphabet.

Later in the day when we visited Namibia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Twyfelfontein, where thousands of ancient rock engravings showed critters as far flung as penguins, we were in San bushman country — folks who produce seven different clicking sounds with their tongue. While we were getting our culture, Chris and our second guide, Ann Milligan, introduced us to the southern African sport of Bokdrol Spoeg — the competitive spitting of dried springbok turds. “They use oryx or kudu, too,” Chris explained of the national championships, “but they’re bigger and don’t fly as far.” The record is 15.56 metres.

After sundowners and dinner, staff at the Doro! Nawas Lodge ( launched a party, something the unabashedly friendly Namibians never have to be coaxed into. Although it’s a traditional welcoming affair, it always seems the locals are having the most fun, especially when they get down dancing and drumming during the Amarula Song (“ama-rula-rula-rula”) holding high a bottle of the African incarnation of Bailey’s.

Doro! Nawas Lodge is operated by an African conservation organization called Wilderness Safaris in conjunction with the local community. It was the first lodge to enter into a joint partnership as part of Namibia’s enlightened conservancy program legislated by Parliament in 1996. The idea is to attain sustainable development in communal areas where the country’s tribal people live and help them manage their own resources. They get tourism training, jobs and revenue from bed nights and there are now more than 50 conservancies across Namibia. Since the locals now benefit directly from tourism, the conservancies have also significantly increased wildlife numbers.

In claymation

To avoid cycling during mid-day when the road shimmered with heat we opted to be “up at sparrow’s fart,” as Ann would say, when the desert air was still shiver-chilly, then put in between 32 and 72 kilometres by lunch. We cycled on long stretches of paved or dusty roads spotting jackals and yellow hornbills (“flying bananas”). There were towering termite mounds shaped like pagodas and white-trunked star chestnut trees clinging to red rock. The country is almost dead flat and there was great excitement when a curve had to be negotiated. Often the only other traffic was the occasional mule cart, locally known as a “Kalahari Ferrari.” Sleep with lions

We flew further northwest towards the Angolan border to remote Kaokoland. These are the stomping grounds of rare desert elephants and lions who have adapted to a hyper-dry environment, and to the desert-dwelling Himba people we had seen in Windhoek, one of the last truly nomadic tribes in Africa.

We visited one of their outposts near the community of Purros, a cluster of little beehive huts made of twigs covered with mud. With the men out hunting, the women were relaxed and chatty, explaining in detail through an interpreter how they powdered ochre and created the creamy masque that made their skin so luscious. One of the matrons insisted on showing off a traditional wedding dance. Problem was, neither she nor the half-dozen others she lined up could remember the entire jig. They kept trying, goading one another on, then doubling over with laughter.

After dinner at a truly middle-of-nowhere lodge called Okahirongo Elephant Lodge (tel: 011-264-65-685-018; a disheveled fellow arrived in a dusty Land Cruiser with a car battery under one arm and a laptop under the other. Philip “Flip” Stander is a former Etosha ranger who has spent 28 years studying 120 desert lions who live in the nearby hills and sometimes pop out to the coast to scavenge beached seals and whales.

As he carried on a photo presentation, Stander revealed how he literally lives in his high-tech Land Cruiser, sleeping during the day, tracking lions in the dark with night vision gear. “Lions fitted with GPS satellite collars send me an email every night telling me where they are,” he quipped. Stander is helping the Himba co-exist with the lions that were hunted to near extinction after they began killing livestock. It seems to be working as the lions are making a comeback. (For more on the project, visit

Bavarian Africa

Early the next morning we flew south, down the Skeleton Coast over rusting shipwrecks battered by waves in the shallows. Leon, our pilot, spoke of buzzing zebra from dirt airstrips. “Sometimes warthogs like to run alongside the plane and elephants will refuse to budge,” he said, “and once a cheetah was sleeping on the wing.”

We cycled across salt plains and along washboard tracks until we reached the colonial seaside holiday town of Swakopmund, a surreal Brighton-by-the-Sea meets Bavaria meets Africa, where kitschy souvenir shops sell springbok-skin photo albums and elephant-hide belts to German tourists. Herrero tribeswomen clad in missionary-inspired, crinolined Victorian dresses with horn-like headdresses strolled the streets.

Although Namibia was part of Germany only from 1884 to 1915 when it was handed over as a protectorate to South Africa, many Germans stayed on, having found kinship among apartheid-loving Afrikaners. Namibia achieved independence in 1990 after a bitter 24 year struggle — no one wanted to let go of the diamond mines — but “Swakop” still feels and sounds Teutonic. Folks in town confided that local ex-Nazis still celebrate Hitler’s birthday with swastikas on their hot-cross buns.

Jeanne Meintjes picked us up early and drove us past pink salt ponds dotted with flamingos towards nearby Walvis Bay. She told us how Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had chosen this area as the birthplace of their daughter, Shiloh, a random choice that catapulted this offbeat corner of Africa into a hot tourist destination, a godsend for a poor country.

Jeanne guides sea kayaking tours with baby Cape fur seals at a colony off Pelican Point and it was a peak wildlife adventure to paddle through a seal soup thick with frolicking pinnipeds popping up all around.

From the blessedly humid air of the sea, it was straight into the lunar landscape of the Namib Desert. It was still dark the next morning when we scrambled across giant dunes to watch the sun rise in weird Sossusvlei (pronounced SOSS-oo-vlay) where a dry lakebed with black and twisted tree skeletons forms the floor of a dune-encircled amphitheatre.

We raced barefoot across the sensuously warm sand of great curvy red dunes, the highest in the world up to 300 metres tall, before jumping on our bikes for our last ride, through Dune Alley. The dunes have become the centre of adventure activities like sand skiing and sand boarding — where intrepid riders reach speeds of up to 90 kilometres an hour.

On my last desert night, I opted to sleep out on the rooftop deck above my room. After so many days spent trying to dodge the heat and sun, I fell asleep beneath the Milky Way, tucked under a comforter with a hot water bottle at my feet.

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