Road Songs

An African Adventure

1995 South-Africa to Namibia

In December 1995 I flew to South Africa with my daughter Soluna and her mother Annelis.  I had long been fascinated by this continent, the people, the different cultures and most of all, the nature with its amazing landscapes and animals. 

My mother’s cousin Max had immigrated to there in the early 70s and built up a furniture factory in Pretoria.

So we packed some camping equipment, my musical instruments and a few other things and landed in Johannesburg with the idea of buying some kind of Campingbus to travel around Southern Africa for several months at a minimum.

Max, his wife Elisabeth and their 4 daughters welcomed us warmly and let us stay and prepare for our upcoming trip in their ample house, until we were ready to hit the road. 

Max drove a Mercedes and felt passionate about it. “Forget the camping bus idea”! he told me.  It’s not well protected against burglary. Once they smash a window they can get to all of your stuff.  Get something reliable and comfortable. With a solid trunk to keep your valuables out of sight and secure.” In other words: A MERCEDES!

It took some convincing. I had lived and traveled in all kinds of buses and vans for years already and always loved this style of traveling. But the longer I looked around and thought about it, it started to make sense what Max had told me. Plus: We still would have to turn an empty van into some kind of camper which would cost more money and time.

Ok, why not, I thought. Let’s look for a Mercedes! 

A busker friend from Norway had a mechanic friend in Jo’burg who ran a car repair shop and told us to look him up if we needed any help to find a car. So we borrowed Max’s wife’s car (also a Mercedes) and set out to look for this guy. It was a bit of a hassle in this huge city but eventually we managed to find him and he was not only happy to hear from his old busker friend, who by now owned a thriving record store in Oslo, but also happy to help us in any way he could. He even would have had a cheap car for us if we wanted it and told us: “If you buy it you can always sell it back to me after your journey. No problem.” And from his friend in Oslo we had the reassurance that he was honest and trustworthy. It was a tempting offer, but the car was a somewhat ugly hunch back Toyota and an automatic on top of it…. 

I still hesitated. I would have considered a different Toyota which I knew as a reliable car from driving one back in Guatemala 10 years earlier, but now I really wanted the trunk which this one didn’t have. And the fact that it was an automatic put me off as well. What if the battery dies and you can’t even start it while pushing it? No go!

So we kept looking around town. The used car sellers were mostly in some rather dodgy part of town. And Jo’burg, one year after the Apartheid state had collapsed, didn’t exactly have the safest reputation either. But that didn’t deter us and so we kept on looking and after a few more used car lots, we suddenly found a very nice looking white Mercedes 200, petrol, very low mileage, a big trunk and: Air condition! I never drove a car with such an luxurious extra before, and together with the cozy and comfortable seats it was rather alluring. After all we were getting ready to explore some hot dusty country with bad roads. 

Although the not overly friendly owner of the used car place seemed a bit like the typical crook you would expect in this kind of business , and the fact that the mileage of the car was suspiciously low and the price not exactly cheap, I didn’t feel like wasting more time in searching any longer. Plus Gary, our mechanic friend of a friend, had told us that he would check out any car we were considering buying, which felt like a great assurance. He came by and had a quick look at it and told us: “I can’t really guarantee anything but although I think it’s a fine car, I think it’s a bit too pricey. I would keep looking if I were you and not rush it.” Sound advice, but…..

I really liked that car. And so did Annelis and Soluna. It looked like new, it drove well, it felt really comfortable…. And we really didn’t feel like waiting around and search any longer. We just really wanted to hit the road and explore Africa. What the hell, I thought. We will to just have to take a chance.

So we spend a considerable part of our funds and bought the Mercedes. Driving it back to Max’s place in Pretoria felt incredible. We were actually going to drive around Southern Africa in this luxury machine! Registration with Max’s address was easy and insurance even easier. Just a phone call and we were done.

A few days later we set out for Cape Town. I clearly remember the first time we stopped to fill up the petrol tank. The friendly man who served us asked “Can I check your oil, sir? I declined with the confident feeling that the guys who sold us the car had assured us that it had all the necessary fluid check-ups done plus the oil meter in the cock-pit showed the needle right there at the “full” mark. 

It was a beautiful drive in wonderful warm weather and after having arrived, it didn’t take long to fall in love with this lovely, easy going city. And only a few days after our arrival Nelson Mandela, the new president was driving right by us in a motorcade, as the Capital City switched from Pretoria to Cape Town every six months. We had found a cheap but nice hotel where we could even park the car inside. They even had a pool and lot’s of travellers were coming and going. But the best part was the lovely staff. Especially Trudy the receptionist. She immediately fell in love with our daughter and soon Soluna, ever as sociable as possible, would spend more time with Trudy in the reception than with us when we were home. 

Cape Town with Table Mountain

But Cape Town offered an immense wealth of natural surroundings and a nice looking centre with a very crowded walking street, especially at noon. I performed every day and did rather well. Even better was the privately owned touristy water front where I managed to get a sought after permit and did even better. 

This pro shot was published in the local Cape Town news paper
Cape Town centre at lunch hour with a little help from Soluna
The best spot for a little siesta in-between sets….
Cape Town Waterfront
Busking the Cape Town Waterfront

Another picture that was part of an newspaper article in the local Cape Town press

After about 2 weeks of busking and sight seeing we decided it was time to hit the road and off we went on some of the different South Africa tourist drives. The wine route, the garden route and other absolutely beautiful sceneries in the mountains and along the coast and last but not least the great Kruger National Park.

outside of Cape Town
Soluna getting ready to take a quick spin on a Race Ostrich in Oudshorn , South-Africa 😉

The idea was to see some of the beautiful but also already rather touristy spots in South-Africa, before we would head up to Namibia for some more exotic and wilder scenery. 

As we were driving back from Oudshorn the Ostrich capital of S.A. (and at times finding ourselves surrounded by lot’s of them, as you can see on top of the page) I kept hearing a steady noise that sounded like a hole in the exhaust pipe or so I thought. By the time we got back to Cape Town it became a bit too much to ignore. 

The receptionist Trudy’s boyfriend worked at a big Mercedes garage and checked it out for us. “ Sorry to tell you but your engine is dying, you drove without oil! I was stunned. It’s true we drove about a 1000 km without checking the oil, but the damn needle on the meter always showed FULL and it still did.

It turned out that the oil meter was not working and that we were tricked into buying a car with probably a lot more mileage that what the km meter said. Gary, the Jo’burg mechanic hadn’t noticed it and I trusted the oil meter. If only I had at least said yes to the guy at the first petrol station  when he asked to check the oil.

Tough luck, but I decided to not let this set-back to bring me down and by very lucky circumstances I ended up with more money instead of less money a few weeks later.

This is how it happened:

Our hotel gave us a good long term deal after we told them we would have to extend our stay for the time of the repair job. The friendly mechanic boy-friend of the receptionist told us it would take at least 3 weeks before the engine would be rebuilt.

So I went to work. Everyday I would do 2 sets in the pedestrian mall at lunch hour and after a break in the hotel I would march down 30 minutes to the water front to do another 2 or 3 sets there. I often had huge crowds especially on the week ends. But unless it was raining, which didn’t happen very often, I also played when it was quiet. Just let my busking routine take over and do my duty. Luckily I had brought about a 150 CDs and cassettes and they got less day by day.

Cape Town was really the one city, in probably the whole continent, that had perfect busking conditions with the possibility to earn some serious money if one pushed it. At least in those days, when buskers were still a novelty  and things were free and easy without many restrictions and regulations like in Europe or in the US.

Often Annelis and Soluna would accompany me to the pitch but they also would explore the surrounding by themselves while I was at work. One of the many highlights of Cape Town were the  wonderful beaches. And when Soluna discovered that she could be in the water with penguins it was hard to keep her out. And like a penguin, she didn’t care that the water temperature was ice cold. Water was her favourite element! Unfortunately she didn’t have a coat of fat and fur on her like her siblings from the polar regions and even though Annelis kept trying to restrict her,  she always just had go in “one last time” and always stayed a little longer than she should have.

Soluna with penguin friends…
….with local girl friend
….with Trudy the receptionist
Soluna our little human penguin approaching the ice cold water around Cape Town

The result of course, was a major bronchitis with fever that not only tied her to the bed of our hotel room for the next two long weeks but also was hard on Annelis who now had to be a full time nurse on top of it. Luckily our hotel had it’s own kitchen were guest were allowed to cook and every time I came back from another hard day of high energy busking and long walks on foot with my equipment, a rich and tasty dinner was waiting for me. 

One time, as I was packing up in the water front to walk back to the hotel, a guy stopped me  and told me: “You are doing a great job down here. I love your performance and choice of songs. Here is a present for you” And with this he gave me a huge bag with something rather heavy in there. It must have weight about 20 kilos and it was cold and well wrapped up. “What is it”? I exclaimed. “A piece of Blue Marlin” he responded. And when i looked somewhat puzzled he continued: “I am a sailor on one of those huge fishing trawlers. After the catch the fishes get frozen right away and being a worker on the ship we can take as much as we can carry. “ “Must be a huge fish then, if this is just a piece of it”, I replied. “Oh yes, he nodded and said: ”Blue Marlins grow up to 5 m in length and a big one can weigh up to 800 kg. This was a big one..” Thankfully I had my trolley with me that usually carried my drum when I didn’t feel like to drag it to the hotel on my back after having performed with it all day.

So I loaded it up and hurled everything along the long walk home where I was met by an enthusiastic crowd in the kitchen. There were guys from all over Africa in the hotel beside some international back packers as well. But no matter whether it was a Nigerian here on business, some guys  from the neighbouring countries of Zimbabwe or Mozambique looking for work,  or the odd back packer who found this place like us: We all had Blue Marlin for dinner for a whole week to come. And combined with Annelis’ cooking skills it was some of the most tasty fish I have ever eaten. 

After three weeks I had made a good part of what we most likely would have to dish out for the new motor. But surprise, the repair was still on going. Trudy’s boyfriend was doing it on the side, in order to safe us some money, plus he still was still waiting for a part. Oh well, even though I was getting a bit worn out by my daily chores,  I also realised that  this kind of opportunity probably wouldn’t come again and that I might as well make the best of it. 

So, back to the routine…. Another three weeks went by but then the car was finally ready: The engine had been rebuilt and was like new and I had made about 50% more than what the repair had cost me and thus, basically financed the whole trip that lay ahead of us. The cash we had brought along for the trip was suddenly extra spending money. Bingo!

My CDs and Cassettes were almost sold out by then, which saved us space in the truck while we were buying some more camping equipment, like a foldable bench and table, a petrol stove with pots and pans, etc. to have our meals outside whenever possible while camping out. A good tent with self inflatable mattresses plus good sleeping bags we had brought with us form Europe. I so remember this incredible feeling of excitement as we finally left Cape Town, free to go anywhere we please, without a tight plan or time pressure. The way I always have preferred to travel. One thing was clear, if things were going well, and we liked it down here,  we would definitely extend our original plan of a 5 month journey and make up for the time we lost (or better: won! ) in Cape Town.

Namibia with its amazing sights of animals and landscapes was the big destination waiting for us . The road was straight and long, the skies were grand. Since it was the mid nineties we had no phone, no GPS, and of course no internet. But we had maps, books and a big Mexican hammock. Africa here we come!

There were still a few great sights on the way. Klaus, a nice German guy, who had seen me busking in town, had invited us to his fancy resort where he grew his grapes and let us stay for a couple of days.  Later on the way up north, we stopped at the amazing Orange Canyon and the mighty Augrabie falls, but Namibia kept calling us loudly….

As if driving into a movie set: The long dusty roads of Namibia never failed to fascinate me…

I will never forget the moment we entered the country after a very friendly and uncomplicated border crossing.  We were out in the desert like country side that presented itself to us in it’s magical evening colours. Driving a lonely dusty road without another soul in sight I decided to turn on the radio and the very first song we get to hear in Namibia is a very old fashioned sounding  German song by the great German singer Max Raabe, who became popular for reviving the Comedian Harmonists sounds of the 1920s. And as we drove right into the middle of nowhere, with no other soul in sight, he sang this hilarious song:

https://youtu.be/u3v2A5urhmM

In English it doesn’t rhyme nor is it possible to bring out the witty lyrics properly but this is a lose translation of what it means: 

Nobody is bloody calling me , Nobody is the slightest bit interested in me, I wonder, is anyone out there sometimes thinking of me? Maybe someone is imagining me in the land of the Danes (We had no idea we actually would end up there only 5 years later)  Or far aways where hyenas are yawning….  (right on, you nailed it, Herr Raabe)

A few month before we went to Africa, I had been traveling around Israel for the first time and discovered it as yet another great place to busk. I had done very well all over the country and one day, as I did an evening pitch at the Tayelet promenade in Tel Aviv, a nice guy started talking to me. He invited me for a beer and told me he loved my music  and that was the owner of a big vegetable farm in Namibia and was here for a conference about water irrigation which the Israelis had perfected to grow lots of crops in the desert.

Before he said goodbye he gave  me his card and told me that if was ever in his neighbourhood to please come by and visit him. So of course, now that we actually maybe were in his neighbourhood, we naturally went to look for him and after some research and a few wrong turns and a long drive, we  did find him indeed.  His Israeli inspired irrigation system was all set up by then and he proudly showed us around his vast land. We were invited to stay as long as we liked, in a cozy guest room and in the coming days he showed us  some of the nicer corners in the nature around his place.

His wife was from an English speaking South-African family, a very stylish and cosmopolitan powerhouse of a lady, who ran a fashion company in the capital Windhoek. They were the complete opposite of each other. He was a bit chubby and very laid back, talking quietly and slo . She, on the contrary, was a sharply dressed whirlwind of a woman with a loud, exuberant voice and kind of hyper active. They were the perfect example of the saying: opposites attract each other.  But together, they definitely were the most generous hosts one could imagine or hope for. We were served a big breakfast and a rich dinner every day and stayed in a luxurious room without having to pay a cent. But before we left, he did want a show of my One Man Band which I was happy to give to them. So on Saturday afternoon he gathered all his relatives and workers, about 50 people plus a bunch of kids and announced me in his native Afrikaans: “Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present to you Gee Gee Kettel, a world travelling One Man Band from Germany I have met in Israel.

Needless to say, as I was the first One Man Band most of them had ever seen, the response was overwhelming and enthusiastic. It certainly was a nice trade off. 

My show for the farmer family and their workers in Namibia

During the next weeks we covered a lot of ground. Among it, the huge sand dunes of Sossusvlei, the amazing Quiver Tree forrest and the huge boulders of the Giants Playground next to it.

Walking to the The Sossusvlei Dunes
The Sossusvlei Dunes
The Sossusvlei Sand Dunes

We visited forsaken mining towns, long lost to the encroaching desert, with strange German names, like Grassplatz (seemed like a joke to call it “Place of Grass” in a desert with very little green around ) or Lüderitz an old diamond mining town. On the road to there we stopped to take a few shots that would become a CD cover with the title “Road Songs”.

The Road Songs Cover
As U. Utah Phillips would say: A place not exactly in the middle of nowhere, but you could see it from there
Local family traveling slow and simple
Rest stop in the desert

There was the surprisingly cool coast line with the polar current coming up from Antartica giving it a very different climate compared to the dry interior on 50 miles inland.  The eerie Skeleton Coast is probably one of the most forsaken coast lines in the whole world, but we saw amazing amounts of seals and sea birds and whales in the distance. Further inland, there  were amazing rock formations in fascinating moon like landscapes. Even if we had already found a place to camp, often just at a rest area or simply a place that looked nice and protected  in the free, open nature, we would often go for a drive to admire the colours of the different landscapes shining in wonderful shades of red brown and black framed by the amazing sunset colours of clouds and sky. It often feel like driving into some specially arranged wide cinema screen…..

Above: Some of our wild and free camping spots in Namibia

Then there was Swakopmund, a very German looking town with German bakeries and, it being close to Easter, lots of Chocolate Easter Bunnies and the colourful sweets, just as we knew them from Europe. I had done a few street shows in Swakopmund and just like in the capital Windhoek it was quite good, but now I was just busking a day or two in each town that looked inviting for the experience. Now it was mother Nature that led the way. And so just before Easter Sunday we drove out into the desert. We wanted to see a rare desert plant called Welwitschia, that just lived off the moist air drifting over from the ocean many miles away. It is said that some of the big ones are up to a thousand years old.  Plus, secretly we had loaded up some Easter sweets to surprise our daughter the very next morning.

Street Show in Swakopmund, Namibia
Our Easter camp, just before the Easter Bunny deposited his merchandise.

After a few hours of driving we found a nice place to park and put up our tend in a nice spot next to some rocks, bushes and trees.  I got up really early while Soluna was still asleep in the tent started to hide the easter sweets under those very rocks, bushes and trees. At breakfast I suddenly exclaimed ”Ohh! I think I just saw an Easter Bunny speeding away. Could it be that it came out all this way into the desert to leave something for you?” Soluna was electrified! There was no holding her back. She needed to do some serious Easter sweets hunting. “OK, let’s have a look”, I encouraged her. We also had bought some Smarties, which I had laid out as hints to the good stuff. And our little human sniffer dog found the sweet treasures one by one, each time letting out a loud shout: “ANOTHER ONE!”  She was ecstatic that the  Easter bunny in fact made it out all the way to the Namibian desert. Bingo!

The highlight of all the Namibian highlights were of course the vast animal reserves and parks. Our favourite, the Etosha National Park, was unique place even for African standards. The park’s main characteristic is a salt pan, large enough that it can be seen from outer space. Yet there is abundant wildlife that congregates around the waterholes, at least in the dry season. You can drive for hours on the different roads that connect different camp sites within the park. The wildlife was truly impressive. We saw them all, the various Antelopes, masses of Zebras and Water Bufallos, Giraffes, Rhinos, Hippos, Crocodiles and all the big cats except the Cheetah. For me, the by far most impressive sights: Elephants. Big herds of them. Around the different big waterholes is where most of the action happens. One time we were parked and admiring the coming and going, as a big herd of elephants was joined by another band arriving at the same water hole. But something was strange, there was a certain tension and after a while the two head bulls started a huge fight. They were hitting and pushing each other while loudly trumpeting in clouds of dust that arose around them. The rest of both herds moved around them nervously and kept trying to keep their distance, which sometimes became a very  short distance to where we were standing with our car.  I made sure our engine was running and in gear just in case…..

Elephant encounters at Etosha
We didn’t have a camera with a zoom. So this is actually as close as it looks like. About one meter from the car. It’s cool as long as you pay good attention to the elephant’s expressions. This female at the Kruger Park was very tranquillo and friendly. But just before that, we actually had to make a quick get-away as a young bull suddenly was charging towards us with flapping ears and loud trumpet sounds.

The camping areas in Etosha were fantastic. At a very affordable price, we could put up our tent  next to the car, which was parked right by the big and sturdy fence. Being a busy place with noisy humans  coming and going in their vehicles during the daytime , one didn’t see too many animals next to the park.

But at night it was a different story: I remember waking up one night when our thin tent wall was actually vibrating from the frequency of the mighty roar of a lion that must have been just on the other side of the fence. 

Above: Wildlife at Etosha National Park, Northern Namibia

The different parks all had one feature and Etosha and to me it was the most fascinating one. The fence didn’t go all the way around the huge camping area. It ended on each side of a big water hole, open to the rest of the park and thus accessible to any animal that felt like having a sip. There were orange flood lights pointing at the animal side the the water hole, while on the other side in the dark with a half moon circle of wooden seats arranged around the other half of the pond. And like a cinema it was filled every night with spectators very quietly watching the scene that was about to unfold in front of them. No cinema, let alone TV could possibly compare with the real thing. Zebras and Antilopes were coming, always a bit nervous, always ready to escape if only the slightest sound was heard.  A giraffe would move in in slow motion and awkwardly bend her long neck down to drink, Groups Pavians and wart hogs came by, Rhinos and Ostrichs would show up, and, when  some animals suddenly disappeared hastily, even though none of the human onlookers had made the slightest noise, you could be sure what was next:  A majestic lion stepped out of the dark and into the light, confidentally claiming his spot. 

I never got bored of this spectacle and never will forget the magic to be so close to big wild African animals just separated from us by a mere waterhole.

Soluna & Annelis examining some very bitter melons somewhere in Namibia

We had heard about some amazing rock paintings done by bush men thousands of years ago at a place where one could also easily find arrowheads and other traces of long gone times. It sounded just like a place I wanted to explore and on the way there we stayed at a commercial camping ground near the city of Grootfontein.  As always, as soon as we had put up our tent, our ever sociable daughter Soluna would be off on some adventure to make friends on her own, young and old.

The next day, as we were driving to this very remote corner of the country to see these ancient sights, we suddenly had the first flat tyre since we started our trip.  I stopped right away on the side of this very lonely feeling dusty road, so typical for this country. I knew the reserve wheel was buried under all our luggage in the trunk and while we unpacked I remembered that someone in the camp site had said that a few days ago a local guy was killed by a wild elephant somewhere on this road.  This made us slightly anxious and without wasting time I jacked up the car, and unscrewed the bolts of wheel and took it off. But as I tried to fit the new tyre I realised in horror that it did not fit. No matter how hard I tried. Somehow the screws and bolts were spaced differently. I was absolutely stunned and could not believe that they sold me this car with a spare tyre that wouldn’t fit. I also couldn’t believe that I never thought about checking such a vital item. But there we were: Stuck in the middle of nowhere!  And nervous about the wild elephants who might not like us on their turf. We had already driven 250 km since we left the campground. And in the whole trip we had maybe seen only 2 or 3 cars coming towards us. Without any possibility of calling help we could do nothing but sit there and wait until someone hopefully drives by and stops and hopefully would help us out of this misery.

Flat tyre in the middle of nowhere!

It took a few hours but eventually  we saw a dust cloud approaching and a South African car drove up and stopped immediately. “Hello”, he says, can we help you?” “Oh yes, you can”, said I. 

And then he looked at our daughter and said something very surprising: “Hello Soluna, nice to see you again!” 

As we looked at him somewhat bewildered, he explained: “I met your daughter at the camping ground yesterday where we had pitched our tent not too far from yours. Your daughter suddenly just walked in and started chatting to my wive and me. We offered her some food as we were having lunch. She immediately joined us and was entertaining us in three different languages.  We did wonder who and where her parents were, after she told us she had to go home now.”  

Yes, our amazing little social animal had done it again. Made friends with somebody we didn’t even know and who, on top of it, came to our rescue. Well done Soluna!

So then, instead these folks driving on to also see the Bushmen rock paintings, they loaded up our tyre and drove back 250 km back to Grootfontein to have it repaired and then returned to us just before dark with the fixed tyre, while we waited patiently all day right where we were stranded. At least the wild elephants left us in peace. After I had fit the fixed tyre back on we decided to not take a chance but drive back, hopefully without getting another flat and look for a proper spare wheel before we continue our trip. And to our even bigger surprise they said: “We will drive behind you to make sure you arrive well and not get stuck again”.  

This kind of helpfulness really blew my mind. I tried to insist to at least pay his expenses after they had driven altogether about 750 km on this dusty dirt track without having even seen the rock paintings they had come for, but they wouldn’t have it. Luckily I still had a CD with my music which they gladly accepted. We told them how grateful we were that they had done this for us, but he just said: “This is what people do in the bush when they see others have a problem. I would have expected the same from you, had I been in this situation. ”And”, he added with a smile: “After all we had already met your sweet little daughter” 

A few days later we drove through the narrow Caprivi strip along the Angolan border towards the border into our next adventure. The real rural Africa was waiting for us: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.

on the long road to Zimbabwe
never bored on the road…
Huge meteorite that fell on this spot many years ago
Driving the narrow Caprivi Strip on the way west
Highwaymen monkeys on the road
somewhere in Namibia
Driving the Caprivi strip to Zimbabwe
Resting under the big Baobab in the Caprivi Strip
we took a left….

to be continued…

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