Opuwo to Outjo… and Back

For this post I could bore you with the story of how I managed through saintlike patience and Ramboesque persistence to open a bank account and actually (amazingly) cash some travellers cheques saving me from hawking my kidneys on the back streets.

I could regale you with tales of stumbling back (slightly merry) to the hospital at midnight on Friday to be surrounded by the baffling sight and sound of sixty plus school children coming down the road singing hymns – in the middle of the night.

I could even at a stretch talk about watching an amazing lightning display travel over the horizon or how a fellow vol in Outjo found himself judging a beauty contest including a swimwear round IN A SCHOOL.

But I shan’t. No, instead I will bore you with the tale of… the bus journey from hell (well ok maybe not from hell, certainly compared with some of my other VSO friends experiences elsewhere).

I decided this weekend that it would be good to get out of Opuwo and do a little travelling. Having previously been thwarted in my plans to go to Khorixas and the petrified forest (“you’ll never make it – the horror the horror” and “yes I can lend you a car – a month’s wages please”) I scaled my plans back to visiting the aforementioned friend in Outjo (the only place people said I should be actually able to get to).

Armed with various contact numbers of combi (minibus type of affair) drivers I rang up a driver on Friday and enquired about the possibility of getting to Outjo (and as importantly back again).

At this point it is worth noting that my pronunciation is never correct and over the phone people can understand me even less than face-to-face. In a Norfolk fashion as well the locals will always use one of the different pronunciations to the one I am. Outjo is, randomly, pronounced “out-joe”, “ouch-oh”, “ow-show” and “oot-jowe” and Opuwo “opuwa”, “opu-w-oh” and “oh-poo-woe”.

So on Friday I found out they were indeed going from Opuwo to Outjo, it would cost me N$140 (about £10), they would be coming back the next day and I could go “any time”. I agreed to ring him on the Saturday, he said “any time”, I offered “9am” and was told “no, 7 or 8” (so much for “any time”).

7am Saturday, feeling a bit tired after a previous late (but not excessive) night at the Miami VIP Bar (best bar in Opuwo – it has tables don’t you know!) and I rang the driver, waking him. “Hmm… call back at nine”.

Rang at nine and he was now at the Agra store (next to the famous 24-hour Opuwo garage) waiting in his combi. By 9.15 I was there, unnecessarily big rucksack (including sensible survival gear in case of abandonment) and found my driver.

“We’re just waiting for four more people”


10am – waiting.

11am – waiting.

Noon – waiting. Saw a couple of colleagues going to the supermarket who seemed amused to say the least at my Outjo for a single night plans.

1pm – waiting.

2pm – waiting.

2.30pm – told “we go now” and so (foolishly) jumped on board.

3pm – engine starts and heavily loaded we set off. The wrong way. Stop in one of the “locations” and a couple of the Himba girls get out and run off.

At this point I should list my travelling companions. On the back bench seat were six Himba women and girls with a very small baby. On my (middle) bench seat was myself, a nice older Herero chap, one Himba and one Thimba woman. In the front was a woman who arrived in a wheelchair and was lifted ungraciously in (no disabled friendly transport here) and the driver.

Apparently this was quite low for such a transport and we were only two or three over the maximum normal capacity. Only the lady in the front and the driver spoke any English.

By 4pm we were (having stopped at the driver’s house and various other seemingly random places) actually on our way.
The journey was actually fun now it was happening. Language barriers aside we had a good laugh in the back. I’m tempted to go on about how friendly and sharing everyone is here even though they have very little… but I won’t.

At 7pm I’m dropped outside a shell garage, exchange numbers with the driver (who seems to have changed phones already for some reason) and am told he will be back there between 12 and 1 on Sunday. As the bus pulls away in a cloud of black smoke with a gaggle of Himbas hanging out the windows shouting “goodbye Dave” I phoned my friend to tell him I’d arrived and was at the shell garage so he could come and meet me.

A couple of minutes later he called back “Which town are you in? There is no shell garage in Outjo”. Cue much arse clenching action as I begin to think I’m in some random town at 7 o’clock at night with nowhere to go. Luckily I see the sign for “Outjo Pharmacy” and arrange to meet him there.

It turns out I am in Outjo and his information was wrong. Much rejoycing.

I spent Saturday night and most of Sunday wide-eyed with awe. Outjo has two-story buildings. Sandwiches in the shops (yes you heard me right). Fruit and vegetables. Cheese and ham on the same day. Ice lollies. I’d go on but nobody will believe me.

Conditioned as I have been by the last three weeks in Opuwo I didn’t know how to react so cried a little.

My friend also has a television. Now I had forgotten such things existed and so stayed up late watching some truly terrible film and then, joy of absolute ring-clenching joy, BBC News 24. Flabbergastingly amazing.

On Sunday we watched the omnibus of a soap that would make Crossroads look well acted (there are only two channels and the other side was drag racing). It was ace.

The driver actually called me at 11 to say he was at Okahandja and would be three hours. I rang him at 2 and he was now at Otjiwarongo and would be at Outjo in 30 minutes.

The bus finally turned up at about 3.50 but knowing he was expecting me I’d only been sitting in the garage forecourt for an hour or so, nothing compared to the previous day.

I got to sit in the front on the way back! The bus was liberally packed with Herero men, women and children various but even the guy who had previously been in the front seemed genuinely happy enough to squeeze into the back. Language barriers overcome by the tactical use of mini-eggs (yes Outjo stores had mini-eggs, wow).

Back via many tiny pot-holed gravel roads to drop people at their villages and dropped off by the hospital at about 10pm. The security guard on the gate seemed quite amazed that I had actually, as promised, managed to make it to Outjo and back in just two days.

The whole thing has made me seriously reconsider the Hike-to-Katima plan for Easter weekend as, though I do have four days, by my reckoning it’s a three-days-each-way kind of a deal with much sleeping in ditches. I may chicken out totally and either go to Windhoek with my friendly combi drivers or even just stay in Opuwo.

So there you have it – seven hours of sitting around, nine hours of actual travel for a journey of maybe 500 miles (there and back).

A proper full-on African experience though lacking only in chickens and actually being stranded anywhere.

On other news – I have finally had a meeting with someone who is sort of my boss though she says she isn’t and have got some agreement on what I can start doing. I even have a letter from the director telling me I can train staff and apparently my application to drive government vehicles is doing the rounds but will be a month or more before getting the final yes or no.

The time here has gone back an hour. I think the UK is now on BST so we’re both GMT+1 e.g. at the same time now.


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