Text and Photographs: Annelien Robberts
Text and Photographs: Annelien Robberts
The Skeleton Coast has gained a reputation of being a haunting, frankly eerie, piece of land. The name itself speaks of its features. Among the scattered bones of animals that have succumbed in bygone days, many a ship have met their fate on these sandy shores. Numerous Portuguese sailors, the first Europeans to experience this inhospitable shoreline, named it ‘the gates of hell’. Local San called Namibia ‘the land that God made in anger’.
Blistering sands in hues of black, brown, purple and rusty red. The icy Atlantic Ocean. Notorious, searing easterly winds and thick coastal fogs. All these elements contribute to the sheer splendour of this place which is, astonishingly, home to hyena, jackal, gemsbok, springbok, ostrich, flamingo and seal to name but a few.
Today the biggest risk when visiting this area is getting a flat tyre, or even worse, a fat camera battery. Many visitors, local or international, come here to unwind. They pitch their tents in what seems the middle of nowhere and enjoy long summer days angling and barbecuing fresh fish on an open fire.
Challenge-seekers from all corners of the world gathered here for an extraordinary thrill: a rough-country endurance footrace through the desolate landscapes where many shipwreck survivors previously lost their way. Runners of the 4 Deserts Sahara Race will remember this place as the brutal, yet breathtaking desert they raced through.
While following the runners on their 250 kilometre journey through the world’s oldest desert to the finish line, I was blown away by the strong wind, However, more significantly, it was rather the participants’ passion for the desert and for running that blew us all away in the end, as well as their incredible endurance.
The Sahara Race’s origin is in Egypt, but it was relocated to Namibia in 2016 due to political instability in North Africa and the Middle East. This race, that still bears its original name, is part of the 4 Deserts Race Series that takes place in Africa, China, South America and Antarctica. Divided into six stages, the extremely rewarding suffering takes place over seven days. In general, 20% of the competitors run all the way, 60% combine running with walking and 20% walk the entire distance.
Trying to escape the wind, I stood behind one of the 4×4 vehicles with event director, Samantha Fanshawe. “Namibia has some of the most beautiful and iconic scenery that I could ever imagine. The Atlantic Ocean, the unique wildlife and untouched pristine areas are all features that certainly surprised me,” she said. Samantha was also very impressed with the dedicated local team led by Oliver Ahrens and camp manager, Francois Snyders.
Each day after the runners kicked off at the start line at eight in the morning, the camp was packed up and moved to the next location, be it among the dunes, on the beach or in the dry Koichab River. The cut-off time was generally at six in the evening, when runners could recover and prepare meals. Hot water was provided. Other than that, runners were completely self-sufficient: in a backpack they had to carry everything they needed during the week away from civilisation – food, gear, extra clothing. To give you an idea, the lightest backpack at the start of the race weighed almost six kilos and the heaviest more than fifteen.
On the last day, as a tiny figure appeared between the dunes, volunteers at the finish line started clapping and shouting enthusiastically while speculating about who it could be. This was surely just a fraction of the exhilaration the runner must have felt after the final 10 km (described by most runners as a walk in the park compared to previous distances) as he neared the bright green banner that read Sahara Race 2017. A place of refuge where water and shade awaited.
The desert always has the last say, but the competitors’ energy seemed inexhaustible at times. Many managed to still crack jokes even after the 82 km stage that extended into the next morning. For them, desert running is not a professional sport but a hobby fuelled by passion, dedication and endurance.
Riitta Hanninen exchanged her 4 Deserts management role for running shoes in this race and arrived at the finish line apologising for being late.
“How are you doing?” Tobias Verwey from Namibia asked me when he sat down to recover. As if it weren’t him who just spent 15 hours running through the desert.
Felix Allen from England, who came in third place overall, was rarely seen without a smile.
Ralph Crowley from the United States competed in his ninth 4 Deserts Race and left from the third checkpoint on the night run, saying that he might as well finish since he had nothing else planned for that night.
For Hannes Smit from Namibia, it was a huge moment when he arrived at a checkpoint where a group of Namibian women were singing and cheering him on.
After a round of hugs for everyone at the finish line of stage 2, Jovica Spajic from Serbia threw his hands in the air and exclaimed how incredibly beautiful Namibia is. With an attitude like that and limited signs of exhaustion, it comes as no surprise that he came second overall.
The winner of the race, Mo Foustok from Saudi Arabia, a down-to-earth guy with his feet firmly planted in the sand, gave me his expert advice for the next race, “If you want the real experience, put on your running shoes and join us next time. You will hate it, but you will also love it.”
If you think you have heard it all, the inspiration level at the race was boundless. Germany’s most famous desert runner, Rafael Fuchsgruber, is celebrating a decade of running in the desert. Several members of his Little Desert Runners Club based in Germany accompanied him on this journey to Namibia and for him there was no better way to commemorate his 10-year anniversary of radically turning his life around from alcoholic to athlete.
Club member and accomplished runner Kirsten Althoff, pursuing her first 4 Deserts medal, won an astonishing first place in the women’s section.
When competitors were informed about the ‘big animals out there’, questions started racing through everybody’s mind. “What do they mean by big?” The Skeleton Coast is home to many animals, among them the remarkable lions that have adapted to life in the desert.
Dr Philip Stander from the Desert Lion Conservation Trust compares runners to the lions in this desert area, especially in terms of the distances they cover per day – which could be up to 70 km. He travelled with the 4 Deserts team during the whole race to monitor lions’ whereabouts.
In stark contrast to the desert-adapted lions, who can survive on very little water, competitors drink up to 9 litres of water per day. They had up to 11 litres during the unseasonably hot weather conditions in May.
Races have led to humbling endings and happy beginnings. Aside from witnessing several engagements and newfound friendships along the way, Samantha herself met her husband through the 4 Deserts Series.
The team continues to offer life-altering experiences internationally, and will return to Namibia next year for more desert action on this side of the planet. Over some of the highest dunes, into thick sandy sections and rocky areas, onto the beach, past seal colonies, over the Jack Scott Bridge overlooking the Huab River valley…
If this race does not inspire you to stick to your training programme, or perhaps even start one, I am not sure what will. As we are reminded by 69-year-old Tadashi Murakami from Japan, the oldest competitor in the race, age is not a valid excuse.