For the first time in its 55 million years of existence, a group of adventurers got to hike through the Namib desert, purely for the fun and challenge of it. Our predecessors have walked many a mile through this challenging vastness of almost nothing, but which offers a lot if you know where to look. They walked for survival in search of food and water. They walked to discover the end of this vastness. You now have the opportunity to walk in their footsteps. Unlike them, fortunately with quite a bit more than a mere skin cloak and bow and arrows. Gerry Rautenbach has left his footprints there.
“The Namib 100 – Hike into the Forbidden Land” the invite read, addressed to a select group of adventurers. This was to be the recce of a new adventure tourism attraction offered by Live the Journey, a well-established tour operator with offices in South Africa and Namibia. To me, this sounded like bucket list stuff.
The Forbidden Land part of the name is inspired by the fact that diamonds were discovered in 1908 in the area which then led to strict control and regulations while before that the land was free for all. The diamonds were not forever, but the area is still regulated and under strict nature conservation control. In fact, the Namib 100 Hike takes place in the proclaimed Namib-Naukluft National Park and numbers and conservation regulations are strictly controlled. You can only enter under the watchful eye of a concession holder. Live the Journey is one of the select concession holders in association with the Topnaars, the local tribe of the area.
Being 55 million years old the Namib is the oldest desert on earth. For millennia homo sapiens never came close to it and everything was good. With its myriad of dunes and the east wind rearranging them ceaselessly, it has been home to many life forms since prehistoric times ending in modern times with seals next to the Atlantic coast, black-backed jackals, brown hyenas, gulls, flamingos, geckos, chameleons, desert adders and a whole army of crawlers.
Eventually man also set foot in the Namib, but could never really disturb it. They came for the diamonds, setting up villages and mining works. It didn’t last and the desert is clearly ridding itself of these scars. After 55 million years, a few 100 years of mankind is not going to kill it. What a privilege to walk through this sacred place.
I suffer from people claustrophobia and so the closer to the desert, the better for me. The group congregated in the coastal town of Walvis Bay and after an extensive briefing during the welcome dinner the night before, we left early the next morning with 4×4’s into the desert. The starting point was at a place called Modderbankies (mud banks) about 40 km away from Walvis Bay. From South Africa’s 58 million people to Namibia’s 2,5 to a mere 17 hikers and five Live the Journey crew members. Breathing space. Space that can give you wings, but also, so much space it can strangle you.
Modderbankies is where the Kuiseb River used to flow into the Atlantic Ocean before the wind created sand movements causing the river to go underground. The Kuiseb has always been, and still is, one of the few sources of water in this arid land. Not far from the start of the Namib 100 Hike, you’ll find a village hosting a unique tribe. The Topnaars. They’ve been living there for over a 1 000 years. They are seriously special for many reasons. Firstly, the part of the Namib where this hike happens, is their land. We need their permission and pay a concession fee for the privilege. And it is good. Incidentally, one of the key operators for quite some years at Live the Journey is Len Kootjie. He is the son of Seth Kootjie, the beloved 39th chief of the Topnaars who tragically died in January 2019. Len will fill his shoes as the 40th chief. And he is part of the crew looking after you when you hike. What a privilege.
Ground Zero …
I think one of the most memorable moments of this hike was the start. Because all of a sudden the vehicles stopped and dropped you off at Modderbankies which, unless you know the history, is just a desolate spot next to the almighty, never-ending Namib Desert on your left and the almighty, never-ending Atlantic Ocean on your right. We all disembarked and stood around a little unsure. Then the vehicles departed and for a moment all we heard was the surf. We mulled around a bit and took a first group pic. Then it was time. We came to do what we were recruited to do. We started hiking. Hiking sticks, gaiters, sun screen and buffs to the ready for the fierce east wind. Which, fortunately stayed away for all five days. Incidentally, the weather was our best friend throughout. The desert takes no prisoners when it comes to heat, wind and cold at night.
Step by step everything started getting better and better. The hike is not regimented. Everyone walked at their own pace. Some clustered together and some – like me – walked alone. Yet although I was on my own in one of the biggest and the oldest deserts in the world, I never felt lost, knowing the qualified and knowledgeable guides from Live the Journey were omnipresent, even if you see very little of them. A scouting vehicle always eyed the route up front while a sweeper hanged back in case of a straggler or two.
The Namib 100 is slackpacking at its best. The route is challenging, the logistical support is exceptional and the food and service make you forget the long kilometres and the harshness of your surroundings. All you need to take along is your daypack for some snacks, water and your camera. Live the Journey take all the heavy stuff and set up camp at the chosen overnight spot, long before you get there. For our 17 hikers, they took a 1000 litres of fresh water, enough food for five three-course dinners for all (like kebabs for starters, grilled chicken or fillet steak with roasted veggies and salads for mains, freshly baked bread every night and, believe it or not, ice cream for dessert; even after five days. Live the Journey take everything – including wood for the campfires and barbeques – in, but nothing stays behind. Nothing. All the empties and empty food packaging and other rubbish gets taken out, leaving only footprints to soon disappear in the east wind, leaving the desert as its been for 55 million years.
Into the Forbidden Land …
Day One saw us hiking around Sandwich Harbour, a wetland boasting rich birdlife, including plenty pretty pink flamingos. The lagoon is about four kilometres long and one of Namibia’s most crucial wetlands because it is home to eight endangered bird species. This is on your right as you walk from north to south, with the endless streets of dunes forming a dramatic vista to your left.
This day was a 20 kilometre stretch. Everybody made it. Everybody felt good, better, best about themselves. There is nothing like sitting down after 20 k’s with an ice-cold beer in your hand, toasting your fellow hikers while somebody else is preparing a scrumptious dinner for you. La vita e bella. With a proper flushing loo and a hot water shower. La vita e bellisima! After your first beer, or G&T, or chenin blanc, all you need to do is pitch your own tent, then your job is done. Time for the second round. Then that dinner. Oh that dinner. And you thought you were going to loose weight walking 100 kilometres in five days?
Day Two, you get yourself hike ready with plasters and ointments before you break down your tent. Job done and time for a serious breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day, especially if you’re going to tackle 20 kilometres plus on foot. On this section you hike past one of the most amazing natural phenomena in this world. The Langewand, a German word roughly translating as the “long wall”. It’s a stretch of 13 kilometres long where the dunes of the desert and the sea at high tide meet each other. You need to hike it at low tide to get through with dry socks. Should high tide catch you, it’s not dangerous, just sogging uncomfortable. The Langewand is unique, but difficult to describe. The dune faces keep on changing shape, forming sand “waterfalls”, creating structures and grooves looking like gothic cathedrals. Looking at it you want to hear Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony.
From sole to soul
Although Day Two was the longest at 26,5 kilometres, Day Three at (only) 23 km was probably the biggest challenge. Walking on the beach past colony after colony of seals, we saw the chief guide, Jacques Delport’s Land Cruiser up ahead after about 16 km. A friendly and known sight by that stage. He normally had some great snacks and water refills for us. This time, he also had a bit of a surprise. We had to follow his vehicles tracks to our campsite. And they pointed straight east, into the deep Namib’s high dunes. It was not easy going, but so beautiful, you forgot to get tired. However, you knew all about slip sliding away by the time you sat down with a cold frosty, surrounded by high dunes in a place where you are the only people for many miles around. So special. When you do this hike, the last thing on your mind at that stage would probably be walking over another dune. Because on the other side of that dune you are totally, utterly on your own. The silence is deafening.
“Nowhere else the experience of the vast open spaces are more intimate than in the Namib,” said hiker Franci Swart. “This was so much bigger than my preconceived ideas. The space is more spacey, the dunes are higher, the nights colder and the adventure greater!”
Day Four we walked south-westerly out of the dunes over what resembled an enormous petrified beach towards a destination called Conception Water. The name says it all. It was one of the very rare places in this sand vastness with fresh water. More than 100 years ago this was kind of the headquarters of the feverish diamond industry in this Forbidden Land. Next to old characterful rusty carcasses of a long-dead Lister engine and other machinery we set up camp. It was amazing, the diamond hype ended a century ago, but you could still feel the spirit of those pioneers around you. To be honest, we all felt a little bit like pioneers as well. And elated with what we’ve achieved so far. Out came the chilled bubby bottles and we started to sabrage them. The party was big, but the emotion was palpable. It was the last night on this epic hike.
“This hike removes you from your hurried life. Within a day, you’re a different person and your biggest challenge is to get to your G&T! The Namib is formidable and makes you realise how transient you are. This is bucket list stuff,” Michelle Staal reminisced.
“It was tough at times, but it was always awesome. This desert becomes part of your soul. Forever,” said Ronel Steyn.
Day Five we broke down our tents for the last time. On this trip, that is. After yet another bumper breakfast we walked out towards the Eduard Bohlen, one of the most famous shipwrecks on this treacherous stretch of Atlantic coast. It ran aground 110 years ago. Over the years the sea has retreated more than a kilometre from the spot while the sea air and sand was eating away at the carcass of the ship.
“The desert has a way of stripping you of everything. Everything you thought you are or should be … Your requirements become simple. Drink water, eat and find a good place for your tent at night. But it is because of this simplicity that I’m here.” Anette Grobler.
Not far from Conception Water our remaining distance entered single figures. The countdown from 10 created mixed emotions. A sense of achievement and a sense of loss. Walking out, the route looked like a chicken run with a row of small dunes interspersed every 200 metres or so. Every time you get to the top of the next dune, the wreck is bigger and the end of your most unforgettable adventure is closer. This vast desert suddenly got very small. Just about three dunes before the wreck, I heard someone say, “The end of this hike is basically upon us. And that is sad …”
We ended up at a wreck, but definitely not as wrecks.
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