Cycling across the desert – an adventure in Damaraland

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May the road rise to greet you and may the wind be always at your back.

by Allie Warf

As we pedalled across the sandy plains emerging from the Ugab River valley I thought of this famous quote that one of our supporters had sent with their fundraising donation and hoped it would be true. I don’t think I had the slightest inkling of how ironic this would prove to be.

We’d planned this memorial (see footnote) cycle ride across the vastness of Damaraland to raise funds for Save the Rhino Trust (SRT), a Namibian organisation dedicated to conserving the desert-adapted black rhino. Namibia is home to around one third of Africa’s black rhino and the SRT has been the driving force in the recovery of what is Africa’s last truly wild population of these extraordinary animals.

Twenty-five of us had come together to cycle the 250 kilometres from the Save the Rhino base camp nestled on the banks of the Ugab River. The route crossed the rocky red desert of Damaraland to the Palmwag concession area just inland from the Skeleton Coast.

We were an assorted bunch of Brits, Namibians and South Africans, and we’d planned to complete the ride in six days. At the time we’d thought this shouldn’t be too arduous. Our levels of fitness varied from the super fit to those who probably hadn’t seen the inside of a gym for many years, if ever. What we hadn’t counted on was the wind.

Sand-blasted on

Cyclist

Cyclist

To make the most of the day before it gets too hot, an early start is vital, even in a Namibian winter. So we were up and moaning over our coffee at 4:30 in the morning, gearing to head off at first light. It was always going to be a tough starting day, as we’d planned to cover about 65 kilometres, but if we’d known how tough it was going to be, I think a lot of us would have stayed in our bedrolls.

Leaving the relative comfort of base camp in high spirits, we climbed out of the Ugab River valley. It was rocky but not too steep. Tokkie, who was in charge of our cycling back-up team from Cycletec in Windhoek, had warned us that this would be the hard part. To the contrary, it turned out to be the blissfully easy part. Then, as we emerged from the seclusion of the valley, we saw a sandstorm raging down on the plains, sweeping sideways across our path. The crew following us later gave a graphic description of our descent into the storm as a single gust blasting three or four cyclists right over. Those with clipped-on shoes couldn’t get their feet free, and many ended up with bloody knees. The sand-blasting was sheer agony. The soft, sandy gravel made the bikes slide sideways, usually not a problem without the wind, but we were being pushed in all directions but forwards. At the re-fuelling break everyone was exhausted, although we had only completed half of the 65-kilometre target. Tokkie had to give us what would become a regular feature of the ride – the Tokkie team talk – encouraging and telling us, his demoralised riders, in a tantalising way that the wind would soon change and be at our backs. We shouldn’t have believed him.

The infamous Ostwind

This is a wind Namibians speak of with trepidation: the infamous Berg or East Wind. In the desert winter, very occasionally, the hot air from the interior is sucked towards the cold coast, where the icy Benguela Current sweeps from the Arctic northwards to the equator. The wind gathers momentum as it whips across the hot furnace of the Kalahari and plunges over the 1 000-feet escarpment east of Damaraland, the area of our route. It was this wind, which is partly responsible for building some the highest dunes in the world, that was blowing straight into our gritted teeth.

For a brief two kilometres, the road turned west with the wind and we shot happily along, but only for 10 minutes. The road turned again… directly into the wind for the next 15–20 kilometres, resulting in a harrowing struggle. It also delayed us catastrophically – the plan had been to arrive at camp by midday before it became too hot, but by 14:00 hours in the afternoon, the raging wind and sun had turned the land into a furnace. Rocks reflected the sun’s heat, reducing us to clay pots placed in God’s kiln for firing.

On reaching the camp set up by our support team, we collapsed, most of us speechless, just about capable of appreciating the beauty of the desert and definitely more capable of appreciating the food. Huge plates of lamb potjie were wolfed and washed down with bottles of Savannah Dry cider and cans of Windhoek Light beer. After all, we were supposed to be having fun as well as being challenged.

Under the stars

On the second day we were rewarded by spectacular scenery – a giant’s playground of huge basalt blocks teetering on top of each other and a near collision with two groups of eight gemsbok. One of the groups crossed the track 100 metres ahead of us. We speeded up and so did the gemsbok, hell bent on their trajectory. Galloping frantically for their lives, the second group crossed our path just 20 metres ahead of the front cyclist, a euphoric moment.

We camped under a huge cliff that had been sandblasted into a wonderful formation, turning deep red at sundown. Most of us resisted using the tents, opting for the joy of sleeping in a bedroll on the desert floor under a star-studded sky and a gradually maturing moon.

Another dawn saw us tearing downhill on a complete high, the waving grasses tinged gold by the rising sun. As we rode into the red heart of Damaraland, we started seeing more of the distinctive Euphorbia bushes dotting the landscape as big, spiky, round clumps, perhaps three metres in diameter and over a metre high. The spiky leaves hold poisonous milky-white latex, which protects the bushes from most herbivores, except black rhino and kudu, which eat them with relish. Rhinos especially love them, as mattresses and shade, rolling over and over on them for the lethal juice to clean out the ticks from their hide.

Pedalling downhill

After the horrors of the first day, the cycling was tough but hugely enjoyable. The final day should have found us careening up and down dry riverbeds, ecstatic at being so close to completing our challenge, with only another 50 kilometres to go to reach the comforts of Palmwag Lodge and the delights of a swimming pool. But our troubles were not over. Once again, the Berg Wind struck, this time with even greater force, blowing directly in our faces for the entire 50 kilometres. It was so strong that instead of freewheeling downhill, we had to pedal with all our might. Mannie Heymans, the Olympic mountain bike pro on our support team, commented later that the wind’s force was equivalent to doubling the distance to 100 kilometres (which over rocks and gravel is pretty extreme). Even he thought it was tough going.

Physically demolished we may have been, but mentally we hung in there when we all eventually rode into Palmwag, one of the first lodges in Namibia and with, in my opinion, the best pool bar going. It had been one hell of an experience, life changing for those who took part and a valuable fundraiser for Save the Rhino Trust, helping it to continue its work of saving these amazing prehistoric animals that so many of us come to Namibia to see.

Rhino Cycle Namibia is dedicated to Blythe Loutit and Mike Hearn, two of Namibia’s best-known conservationists, who dedicated their lives to rhino conservation. Blythe was the co-founder (with Ina Britz) of Save the Rhino Trust and Mike was its director of operations until their untimely deaths in 2005.

This article appeared in the Aug/Sep ‘07 edition of Travel News Namibia.

 

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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