Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lullaby of Hippo Grunts

 The next morning, Colin changed the oil in both bikes (he was going to do it the day before, but time got away from us, and before we knew it, it was dark). Unfortunately, the beautiful sunshine was accompanied by a dust storm. And between trying to keep the dust out of the fresh oil, the constant licks from the nosy bull-terrier puppy who wanted to “help”, his newly blood-blistered and throbbing thumb, it was a pleasant experience all around. We left town after breakfast and continued northward. I don't understand the wind patterns in Africa, but we again rode into a strong headwind. No matter what direction we go, there's always a headwind!
Traditional homes
The landscape was flat and dusty, with a whole lot of nothing, but shortly after we cruised through a police checkpoint (without issue), we started to see small villages. The buildings were round or square huts with thatched roofs, surrounded by wooden walls. We saw many people tending or herding their animals (goats and longhorn cattle that would largely put any in Texas to shame - they were so beautiful!), carrying water (there are communal boreholes that supply fresh water), and just going about their daily lives along the side of the road. Many people looked at us and waved as we passed, but most of the children, especially the smallest ones, ran toward the road yelling and waving (I loved the double-handed waves best). Our left arms were both exhausted from waving for a solid hour and a half until we got to Rundu! 
Sunset on the Zambezi
In Rundu, we splurged for a room instead of camping, since we planned to make it all the way to Katima Mulilo the next day (about 350 miles). A room would allow us to get up and go early without having to strike camp and repack in the morning. As we parked behind our thatched-roof bungalow overlooking the Zambezi River, Colin noticed that my rear tire was flat. Once we put our bags in the bungalow, we removed my rear wheel to hopefully patch the tube, and I rode into town on Colin's bike to look for dinner. It was nearing dusk as I rode down the main street, watching in my periphery the sun drop in the sky behind a soccer match being played on a dusty field near the river. It was a lovely, hazy picture. I returned from the store with yet another dinner of pies (it's a good thing we both like crust), fruit, and sodas, which we ate on our porch overlooking the Zambezi while the sun finally set for the night. 
We got up early the next morning to get started on our long day of riding, and Colin checked the results of his first twilight tire patch, which held nicely. So we reinstalled the wheel, cleaned ourselves up, loaded the bikes, and we were on our way. As we rode east of Rundu, the villages changed from round, wooden huts to square, wood and mud huts with thatched roofs, still with wood fences surrounding the compounds. These continued for miles and miles on the outskirts of Rundu. About a third of the way to Katima Mulilo, we entered Bwabwata National Park with its “Warning, Elephants!” signs to add another element of interest to the ride. We saw plenty of elephant poo, and every time we did, I looked more intently for its creator. We both became more and more skeptical of the presence of elephants, thinking that maybe people from the ministry of tourism pepper the roadside with elephant dung in an attempt to lure more tourists to the area. Sadly, we rode all the way through the park and through the checkpoint at its exit without seeing a single pachyderm. 
But wait! As we started riding across some marshy wetlands just east of the park, hulking gray mounds appeared, and I slammed on my brakes (fortunately Colin was ahead of me and no one was behind) in my excitement! Elephants! A BUNCH of them! Oh boy oh boy oh BOY was I thrilled! Colin turned around and I pointed and waved at them. I got out the binoculars, and we watched them do what they do for a good twenty minutes before Colin had to drag me away, promising that I will have other opportunities to see elephants and reminding me that we do NOT ride after dark, and if we are going to make it to Katima Mulilo tonight, we must get a move on. Well, it was nearly dark by the time we got to Katima Mulilo. We camped on the grounds of the very swanky Protea Hotel for the night. While Colin again set up the campsite, I rode out to find something for dinner. I needed to hurry since it was about 6:30pm, and most grocery stores in Africa close at 7:00pm. On my way through the gate of the hotel, I asked a guard for directions to the grocery store. He smiled and said, “I will take you there.” I thanked him and said I just needed directions, but he insisted he would take me to the store. He hopped on his bicycle, and I followed him up the sand driveway to the main road and across, to another sand road, then another, then round another sandy turn. It was fully dark by now, and we pulled into the lot in front of a small market, where I searched for anything to put together for a meal. They had pasta but nothing to make sauce from, giant bags of rice and flour, frozen chicken necks, no eggs, but they did have potatoes and...pies! When I exited the store, my guide was waiting for me and apologized if I wasn't able to find what I wanted. I was just happy to find some food of any sort and even happier that he waited to take me back. As he rode, very slowly, he apologized for his lack of speed, but his bicycle rode like it was constantly in hill climb mode. For each rotation of the pedals, the wheels hardly moved. He finally jumped off and ran alongside the bike, yelling to me where to turn while I waited for him to catch up. I rode as slowly as I could so he could keep up, until my headlamp started to dim because the engine wasn't turning fast enough to keep the light bright. We made it back to the hotel, and I thanked him profusely (and tipped him) for his assistance. Colin and I ate our dinner of meat pies and mashed potatoes on the banks of the Zambezi River, listening to the grunting of the hippos somewhere below. It really doesn't get any better that this!  

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