Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Walk On the Wildside of Windhoek

Almost every developing city has one, and it’s always beyond the grasp of law and order. It is defiant and proud of its incorrigible status, and taunts the city below from its lofty stature. Lovers climb its lower slopes to be steal time together, while further up addicts and thieves stagger up its twisting trails to be alone with their scores. Criminals of all sorts rule these hills, the world over. I know I should not climb these perilous peaks, but I always do. In fact, I always search them out, and look forward to facing them. The mixture of fear and excitement reminds me that I am alive, and not in control. This is how I feel as I prepare to ascent an infamous hill above Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

Windhoek will be my home for the next six months, but so far it has not lived up to my expectations for living in a capital on the ‘dark continent’. During my first here, I have felt nothing but safe: too safe. I was welcomed, somewhat, in most shady gambling houses, and there was no sense of daring walking in the city center after dark. The city is nothing if not orderly, clean, and safe. I suspect the townships outside town are more unpredictable, but I will explore them later. For now, I will climb Hofmeyer Hill, and test my mettle against the unknown upon its slopes.

Hofmeyer Hill is not the towering mountain labyrinth of crumbling buildings I roamed in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro’s. It is a small, sandy hill, without settlements, that rises subtly from behind the Parliament building at the eastern edge of the city. It is, however, dangerous, and my guidebook warns that, “Hikers have recently been robbed along this route, so don’t go alone and avoid carrying valuables.” The local newspaper claims that a man was stabbed there two days ago merely for his cell phone. The U.S. Government’s Regional Security Officer, also, formally forbids all Foreign Service members working in or visiting Namibia from going up the hill. Good thing I don’t work for the U.S. government.

My duffel bag is still bulging and lying on the floor beside my hotel bed. I am in temporary housing, and have not unpacked my things yet. I run my hand through the canvas bag and extract my running clothes. In the cool morning air of a patio over looking a busy street and an ‘Engine’ petrol station, I pull on my shoes and tie my apartment key to the drawstring inside my shorts. I glance at the map of town and find a route to the start of the treacherous trail along the ridge of Hofmeyer Hill.

From the apartment security gate I turn left on Independence Avenue, and then a quick right on Doctor A.B. Mayo Road. At the top of Mayo I make a left on Robert Mugabe Avenue, and then a right on Sam Nujoma Avenue. The principal streets in the city honor the heroes of the recent independence movement, but as I climb Nujoma away from town I turn left at a street that still bears its original German name, Orban Street.

The sky grows wide and pale as Orban Street rises gradually out of the shadow of the hill. The tropical morning heat begins to gather, beneath a cloudless, blue sky as I jog. At over a mile in altitude I can’t be sure if it’s the altitude or my nerves that make me sweat profusely as I approach the ridgeline. Fear mixed with excitement consumes me, and my heart pounds in through my chest. The paved road, and civil law, end abruptly at an intersection.

A metallic blue map stands above me between a wide, dirt road on its left, and a narrow trail leading into the scrubland on its right. The trail is the beginning of the infamous Hofmeyer Walk, the dirt road lead to a telecom tower at the summit of the hill. The map shows two red lines representing trails to the right; an eastern trail leading down the backside of the hill towards the Klein Windhoek Valley, and another trail that follows the ridgeline north and ends abruptly at a somewhere on the rigid.

Klein Windhoek was once an area where blacks who worked in Windhoek were forced to live during South African rule, and apartheid. Now, however, whites have reclaimed most of the valley, and it has become the most expensive and desirable suburban neighborhood in Windhoek. I do not want to end up in Klein Windhoek because it is a short trail, and would not be as dangerous. So, I follow the path along the ridge, hoping that the route is neither a dead end for the trial, nor me.

There is no one around me as I step onto the brown, sandy trail. I have not seen a car or heard a noise other than my breathing since I turned onto Orban Street. I am completely alone with my overwhelming fear for what lies ahead. I wanted to come alone because it is more exciting to temp fate alone, but alone I know that I am an easy target. Now that I am here, I want to stay alone because I will assume that anyone up here will try to rob me, or worse.

I never thought I would move to in Africa. It is one place I never even expected to visit. I am not a big guy, so Asia is comfortable because I do not feel physically threatened. It is also comforting because people are generally non-violent, fearing the everlasting weight of Karma upon them. In Latin and Central America I believe I can diffuse most situations with my bastardized Spanish skills and sense of humor. But Africa, I always thought Africa would be too dangerous.

In Africa there is witchcraft, ritualistic killings, famine, and plague. In Africa, anything can and does happen, usually by groups of machete-wielding men. There are no rules, and there is no order. Despite all this I still chose to move to Africa, and have now chosen to put myself on this dangerous hill, all alone. While my mind wonders if pieces of my white flesh will soon end up in the hands of a witchdoctor eager to cure some tribal elder of gonorrhea, I set my first foot upon the sandy trail.

Used condoms in the sand at my feet tell me that people have been here before. After a few minutes of jogging the trail narrows and becomes overgrown. Tall, golden grasses tickle my knees, and thin, tree branches with long, woody thorns stab at my head. I startle, and am frightened by little birds, small rodents, and fleet-footed lizards at every turn. I realize that I never thought of the non-human threats of the African bush. I imagined guerrillas, or worse, gorillas, waiting to ambush me.

Ducking under one tree and turning along the path to my right, I see what I had feared most. It was a group of silhouetted men standing on both sides of the trail ahead of me. They are tall and broad-shouldered with dread locks piled on top of their heads. I slow my pace and hide behind an insufficient boulder. They have not moved, and I think I can still go back the way I came undetected. I squint to make out their forms more clearly through the bright sunshine.

The Hofmeyer Walk is also known as the Aloe Trail. It is called the Aloe Trail because of the Aloe Littoralis plants, which grow all over the hillside. This particular species of aloe plant, when fully grown, vaguely resembles a large man standing tall and broad-shouldered, and topped with a mass of dread locks. The resemblance is dramatically increased when seen at a distance by a frightened foreigner jogging with an overactive imagination on a dangerous hillside in a strange land.

When my brain recognizes that my eyes are indeed looking at tall plants, and not bandits, I laugh aloud at my own timidity and stupidity. As I get back up to speed, and pass the gang of aloe plants, I remember how the plant has cured my numerous sunburns over the years. I reach out and touch the trunk of one six-foot aloe, and label myself a certified pussy.

Beyond the gang of aloes, the trail breaks over the ridge near the summit and affords a view of the city of Windhoek. The city landmarks come into view below: the red, tile, roof of the administrative headquarters, the sandstone German-Lutheran Church steeples, and the spidery constructions cranes pulling up the new office buildings. To the north, the trail continues on towards a row of brown, concrete reservoir tanks and beyond them, hopefully, a trail off the hill.

I follow the trail northwards to a tall chain link fence that surrounds the first tank. I give the fence a wide berth since it’s protected at its base by coils of vicious razor wire. Suddenly I notice a dark, shining object swaying down the trial ahead of me. It is no aloe plant; it is a tall, black man walking ahead of me down my trail. I immediately stop and crouch down while my heart begins to race. ‘Who is he?’ ‘What is he doing up here?’ ‘What would he do if he knew I was here?’ I listen to my heart pound for a full minute before looking up again. He’s gone.

I do not want to jog anymore and risk catching up to him, so I descend the rocky trail slowly. As I skirt the fence I notice small trails cut through the tall grass and scrub brush leading down to the valley floor below. I decide to stay along the fence because it is the widest and most used trail. I am still scared to meet the person in front of me, or anyone else, but I do not know where the smaller trails lead, and imagine they lead to a cave that serves as a gang’s headquarters.

Beyond the reservoir tanks the trail becomes less worn and harder to follow. It moves under low-hanging trees, and begins to get overgrown. I start to think that it is a dead end when I suddenly hear a familiar and comforting sound from the hidden valley floor below. It is the sound of a car, and it sounds like it is braking around a bend, before accelerating again. I quicken my step, hoping to get off the mountain before I am scared by anymore plants or men, and encounter any more strangers.

Below a rocky bank, piles of human shit, shit-stained pieces of notebook paper, let me know that I am at the trailhead. Just beyond a green patch of prickly pear cactus my feet land on a paved road. I do not know where I am, and I do not know how to get home, but I am back in the safety of the city streets. The trail along Hofmeyer Hill was not a dead end, and I am not dead. I have survived and I will live to test myself against another forbidden hill in another city, another time.


  1. You are correct - Grandma should never see this!!

    Just wanted to be sure that you knew Gus6 was your mother.

  2. I'm bringing home the first two for her to read but think I'll skip the Hofmeyer Walk. She doesn't need to know that Todd is a certifiable idiot (his own words) !