Wandering in slums is the next level of extreme sports.
Almost every developing city has one; a place beyond the grasp of the law. Sometimes it is a crowded district with its own rules, other times it is a fringe area too wild to tame. Visitors are invariably told not enter these areas, but I can’t resist. Whether it’s roaming the labyrinth of concrete buildings in the favellas above Rio de Janeiro, or chasing the sound of gunfire into the lakeside slums of Phnom Phen, I always go. Hofmeyer Hill is the lawless place perched above Namibia’s capital city of Windhoek. I knew it was only a matter of time before I found myself there, terrified, excited, and, alone.
The Lonely Planet guidebook describes the walk along Hofmeyer Hill, known as Hofmeyer Walk, as a good way to get a panoramic view of the city and the mountains beyond. It also says that hikers have recently been robbed along this route, so don’t go alone and avoid carrying valuables. When I read this warning on the plane to Namibia, I knew it would not be long before I was up on the hill, enjoying the thrill of the potential chase from whomever may be lurking there.
During my first days in Windhoek, I have felt nothing but safe: too safe for my liking. I was welcomed deferentially in every seedy gambling house, and no found no sense of daring walking downtown after dark. The city center is nothing if not orderly, clean and safe. Yesterday, however, I read about a man who was stabbed for nothing more than his cell phone on Hofmeyer Hill. The article, written in the aptly named Namibian, said that there have been many such incidences in the past months. I would climb the hill to experience the fear that reminds me that I am alive.
On a chilly Tuesday morning I unpacked and put on my running clothes, tied my apartment key to the drawstring of my shorts, and headed out of my apartment. I rechecked my pockets to make sure I had nothing of value before stepping out of the apartment. At the gate to my new apartment complex I nodded to the armed guard, and wondered if I should bring him along, before jogging down Independence Avenue towards the hill.
Hofmeyer Hill is not a towering mountain. It is just a sandy, brown mass that blocks the cities progress to the east with a steep rise of two hundred meters. After a few minutes I turned east and started to climb out of the valley. The cloudless sky grew wide and pale as I rose gradually to the foot of the slope. At a mile above sea level, I couldn’t be sure if it was the altitude or my nerves that made my heart pound thunderously inside my chest and echo through my head. At a pass the paved road ended abruptly at a fork in the road, and I gladly stopped running.
A metallic blue sign stood in the fork between a wide dirt road on its left, and a small trail leading into the bush on its right. The map showed that the dirt road lead to a telecom tower at the summit, and then back down the western face of the hill. The trail, marked by a thin, red line on the map was the infamous Hofmeyer Walk, which followed below the ridgeline to the north and ended abruptly at a dead end. It seemed odd that the famous trail ended with no way off the hill and I assumed it was incorrect. I did not believe it was a dead end.
There was no one around me, and I had not seen a car or heard a noise other than my breathing since I started climbing. I wanted to be alone because I would not trust anyone else on the trail, but I did not want to be alone because I wished I had someone to watch my back in case I got jumped from behind. As I stepped onto the brown, sandy trail of Hofmeyer Walk, my first trail in Africa, the solitude bred an overwhelming fear.
I never thought I would live in Africa. It was one place I never even expected to visit. I am not a big man, so Asia is nice because I am not physically threatened. It is also nice because people are mostly non-violent because they fear the burden of Karma and the afterlife. In Latin America I can speak the language and hopefully disarm potential assailants with charm, or a bribe. But Africa, Africa always seemed too foreign and unpredictable, too wild.
In Africa there is witchcraft, tribal warfare, famine and plague. In Africa, anything can and will happen when least expected. Despite all this I still chose to move to Africa, even jumped at the chance. And despite my fears, I somehow chose to put myself alone on this hill, while my mind wondered if pieces of my white flesh, in the hands of a witchdoctor, would soon cure some tribal elder of gonorrhea.
Used condoms in the sand at my feet told me that someone had been there before me. After a few minutes of jogging the trail narrowed and became more overgrown. Tall, golden grasses shaped like Don King’s hair obscured the path at my feet while thorn-tree branches attacked my head. I startled little birds and small lizards at every turn. Then I realized I never thought of the non-human threats on this trail, such as scorpions, snakes, and lions. From then on every movement in the grass startled me, and I unrealistically imagined not only guerrillas, but worse, gorillas, waiting to ambush me.
Ducking under one thorn tree and turning along the path to my right, I saw what I had feared most. It was a group of men standing on both sides of the trail ahead of me. They were tall, over six-foot, and stood menacingly close to the trail. I slowed my pace and thought about turning around. They had not moved, and I thought I could still retrace my steps, undetected. I hid behind a boulder, and squinted to make out their silhouetted forms more clearly.
Unbeknownst to me, the other name for the Hofmeyer Walk is the Aloe Trail; because of the Aloe Littoralis plants, which grow on the hillside. Also unbeknownst to me, this particular species of aloe plant is huge, and looks remarkably like a large, broad-shouldered man topped with an unruly pile of dread locks; especially when seen at a distance by a frightened, middle-aged white man jogging on an unruly hillside in southern Africa.
I laughed out loud as I approached the gang of aloe plants and slapped their trunks to allay my fears. I started to jog again along the ascending ridgeline, but was quickly slapped with fear again. Again I was rounding a corner, and again I saw a group of murderers waiting to attack me. And again, it was a stand of harmless aloe plants. Even though my mind knew what they were, my body tensed and slowed each time I saw them. And it happened at almost every corner.
After a kilometer the trail broke over the ridge near the summit and afforded a view of the city of Windhoek. Below me were the red tiled administrative headquarters, the Lutheran steeples of German imperialism, and the spidery constructions cranes pulling up the new internationally-funded, office buildings. Ahead of me along the ridge, a row of enormous, brown reservoir tanks stood guard like sentries over the Windhoek valley. Beyond the tanks the ridge descended into the valley, and hopefully, a safe way off the hill.
The trail ran into a tall chain link fence that surrounded the bulbous water tanks. I followed a path along the fence line north until I saw something moving. It was was a shiny object swaying down the trial a few meters ahead of me. This was no aloe plant; it was a bald black guy heading moving away from me beside the fence. I instinctively stopped and crouched down while my heart raced. Who was he? What was he doing up here? Was he armed? I listened to my heart pound for a full minute before looking up again. He was gone.
I did not want to jog anymore and risk catch up to him, so I walked, keeping my head bowed. I skirted the fence and the trail began to descend. After ten minutes I noticed small trails etched into the hard, brown earth leading away from the fence towards the valley below. I decided to stay along the fence because it was the widest and most used trail. I was still scared to meet the person in front of me, or anyone else. No one, besides me, could be up here for anything but mischief, and I did not want to know where the little trails lead.
Then I began to hear street noise from the hidden valley below. Excited by the desire to be off the hill, and in the safety of civilization, I quickened my pace. I skipped over piles of loose sandstone at the base of the hill, before the trail flattened out. The ever-present piles of human shit and garbage let me know that I had reached the trailhead. Just beyond a green patch of dark green, prickly pear cactus my feet landed on a paved, city road. I did not know where I was, and I did not know how to get home, but after a car sped by me, I knew I was no longer alone. The euphoric fear began to subside, and my heart rate slowed as I stood on the side of the road, and looked for street signs. The trail, afterall, was not a dead end and I was not dead.
I was ashamed to admit that I was scared stiff by the flora on Hofmeyer Hill and even more ashamed to admit it happened repeatedly. For some reason I could not control my fear reaction to the shape of the Aloe Littoralis plants in that setting, but I survived my foolish exercise. Only days after I came down, however, another man was not so fortunate. His stalkers were not flora, and they killed him and left his body on Hofmeyer Hill.