Not long after we got back from our honeymoon, Austin and I were sharing our first Christmas together. With typical small-town enthusiasm, Swakopmund was suitably decked out for the occasion with beautiful light displays and some very amusing decorations. Many of the houses in Swakop had their own life-size Santa mannequin attempting to leave presents, and each Santa had ended up in a rather compromising position. One dangled by his feet from the edge of the roof with his sack of presents hanging by his side, while another across town had his right leg stuck over the rail of a fourth-floor apartment balcony. A third Santa had slipped on the roof near the chimney of one house and was frozen in the act of sliding down the roof tiles, and yet another hung by his ankles from the telegraph wires. In the end, as we drove through town on Christmas eve, all these Santas in various states of disarray made us feel that we were witnessing Santa hurrying to every house and screwing up along the way! Austin and I spent Christmas day in Moon Valley in the Namib Desert to get away from all the tourist madness in town. Swakopmund was inundated with tourists for the Christmas period, and our normally quiet little town was suddenly experiencing major traffic jams! The majority of the tourists were from South Africa but we also encountered holiday makers from England, America, Germany and Italy. They came to indulge in quad biking, sky diving, sand skiing and many of the other extreme sports Namibia offers, as well as to party in the town itself in the evenings.
The other sport to attract the attention of the tourists was Vasbyt, a competition of driving skill using specially enhanced giant four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Afrikaans word ‘vasbyt’ does not have a direct English translation, but Austin explained the closest approximations were ‘bite the bullet’ or ‘hold tight.’ The name of the competition is fitting considering the extremely dangerous situations in which the vehicles are involved. The drivers and their co-drivers are required to display their skills to the judges by attempting to negotiate the biggest, highest and most dangerous rocks in a small, restricted desert area alongside the town. The competitors also try to cross the deepest gaps between the rocks. All events can potentially result in overturning the vehicles. The team to make it to the end of the course in the fastest time and with the greatest control over the vehicle accumulated the most points. Nico, who owned our local convenience store and service station, was one of the Vasbyt champions and the grand final competition happened in Swakopmund on 29th December every year, the culmination of twelve months of smaller competitions in other locations around Namibia.
Vasbyt was terrifying, but so thrilling I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The drivers began the first round by competing to cross a very high sand dune with a sheer vertical drop on one side, and many lost points when they reversed to get out of trouble, or when they went sliding sideways down the dune to the bottom. The events on the desert rocks surrounding the dry Swakop riverbed were the most frightening. The rocks were like small cliffs and the drivers had to prove their car control skills by driving head first down the uneven rock face, resulting in many vehicles getting stuck on their sides and having to be towed out by the waiting tractor. After this event, the crowd of hundreds all moved to another location for the rock climb, where the competitors were required to drive from the flat floor of the desert straight up the rocks. One contestant went crashing through the tape barrier and into the crowd, causing the spectators to scatter and tumble over each other in order to avoid the out-of-control vehicle. Later on, an event was held in which the drivers had to negotiate a huge pit filled with loose tyres, and also a man-made mud hole. The entire crowd did its best to avoid tyres flying out of the pit at head-height, but the closer spectators didn’t seem to mind being sprayed with mud at all. It was one of the most unusual and exciting past times I had ever encountered. Hundreds of people from Namibia and South Africa attended and remained into the evening to await the decision of the judges. Austin and I enjoyed hot chips while posing for photos with Austin’s fans.
Although the wide variety of hobby pursuits human beings created for themselves never ceased to amaze me, I was never happier than when Austin and I headed out into the desert alone and became absorbed in all its wondrous natural diversions, which were more spectacular than anything people could ever dream up.
To be continued in Chapter 26, when Austin takes me to the snake park where he set his Guinness World Record for the 107-day snake sit-in…