Who is Team Topnaar-Gobabeb?
One of the key parts that make the Gobabeb machine work is the staff of the Technical Services Support section, drawn from the local community of Topnaar people living along the Kuiseb River.
The Topnaars (more appropriately called ≠Aonin) are people of Nama origin who moved into this area approximately 400 years ago. They are best known for their harvesting of the !Nara, an indigenous melon that grows profusely along the lower Kuiseb River. They live along the lower Kuiseb in scattered villages, tending livestock which browses on the riparian woodlands. Although the majority of the ≠Aonin now live in Walvis Bay, each family still retains a farm along the river where their livestock is tended by the older family members.
Being adept cyclists, four of Gobabeb’s Topnaar staff enthusiastically took part in the first Goba-Dash bicycle race in 2012. The four all finished the 60km race in good time on borrowed bicycles, and Sameül //Gowaseb even came third in a time of 3:35.
For 2013 the Gobabeb Topnaars have set their sights even higher: not only do they again want to ride in this year’s Goba-Dash, to be held on the Sunday of the annual Open day weekend (22 September), but they would like to take part in the 2013 Desert Dash as a four-man team (for more about the team, click here). The four prospective racers all regularly cycle to and from work or to family on weekends, often clocking distances of 70km to get to where they want to be. The cyclists are motivated and keen, and intend giving it their all to finish in a decent time.
The Team: Namib cyclists through and through
If you’re driving the gravel road that follows the Kuiseb River through the Namib Desert and spot what seems to be an oryx, look a little closer. You might discover that horns are actually bicycle handlebars, and hoofs are pedals. Although best known for traveling via donkey cart, some Topnaar, who live along the Kuiseb, use bicycles to navigate the rough desert landscape.
Jeffrey /Khurisab is one of Gobabeb’s Centre Service Staff who arrive each morning to help Gobabeb function smoothly, yet his route to work is a little different than the rest. His daily commute has been the same for the ten years he’s worked at Gobabeb: he gets on his bicycle at Natab, his home, and rides eight kilometres each way to work and back. Jeffrey is 34 years old, and his winding bike paths through the gravel plains around Natab make it clear that he knows this area like the back of his hand, often navigating home at night without any lights. Why does he want to ride the Desert Dash? “I saw all the people in last year’s Goba-Dash, and I wanted to take part in something big to prove that the Topnaars can do it”
The rest of the Centre Service Staff don’t have quite as long a commute, but bicycles are just as precious to them. When Sameül //Gowaseb was growing up in Uis, he rode his Challenger dikwielfiets with his foot through the frame until he his legs were long enough to mount the bike properly. His marriage brought him to the Kuiseb area, and his bike came with him, as he had to haul 75kg loads of !nara pips (a traditional food of the Topnaar) to be sold in Walvis Bay, a distance of over 50km from his home . Now, at 31, Sameül is ready and keen to take on Namibia’s best cyclists in the big race, the Desert Dash. “My legs are strong,” he says, “I can do this!”
Sameül doesn’t usually ride alone, though. He’s often accompanied by Jeffrey and by Jeffrey’s cousin, Richardt Swartbooi. Watching Richardt deftly herding his goats with his family at his home in Natab, it becomes obvious he is at home here. He’s spent most of his 29 years living in Natab, a village which, during the week, has no more than ten residents. Seeking an education, therefore, required, among other things, a bicycle. Natab is over 45km from Utuseb, where the closest school is located. As a learner, he would make the trip every week to be able to both attend class in Utuseb and see his family in Natab. Richardt is confident that the team will be successful: “We are ready to take part in the big race; we want to prove ourselves”
Not to be outdone by the men, Topnaar women are also comfortable on two wheels.
Linda Bees lives at Soutrivier, about 5km west of Gobabeb, but much of her family is scattered along the Kuiseb. As a bicycle has been her only reliable means of transportation, bicycle trips along the jarring gravel road are the only way to be able to see them. The birth of her own son didn’t slow her down; she improvised a seat on the back of her Challenger to hold the baby safely on her 60km rides. The Challenger still lives, by the way, with the addition of a towel on the seat for extra cushion. When asked if she knew the size of the challenge ahead, Linda is optimistic: “I know it will be more difficult than riding to Ururas, especially the riding at night will be difficult and the people told us about the dust, but we have been living in the Namib for long; we know it well and we can do this race.”
Cycling is a necessary but also a proud part of the team’s lives. As they set off for home at the end of a long day’s work, one really understands the connection that they have with
cycling. On a late Friday afternoon, with the sun setting on the Namib sand dunes, their retreating figures can often be seen disappearing towards distant villages on their dikwielfietse, keeping a steady rhythm, because they know that as long as they carry on pedalling, they will get there.
In some ways, the Goba-Dash and the Desert Dash will be just a repeat of what they normally do, with more gears and some suspension to cushion the corrugations. But they are also fired by a strong competitive spirit and are excited about the prospect of doing the Dash as a team, pitting their strengths against the best that Namibia can offered, and carrying the banner.