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The Namibian Snow-2-Sand fatbike experience
Text Guy Jennings | Photography Piers L’Estrange
In July this year, a bunch of guys (and a girl) from Namibia, South Africa and Alaska met at Mannie’s Mecca bike shop in Windhoek to undertake a bike ride with a difference. A world’s first on bicycles, the ride would take the team through the beautiful, ancient and unspoiled Namib Desert to Walvis Bay.
The bikes that the group were to ride were 9:zero:7 fatbikes, so called because of their fat ‘takkies’ (wide tyres) – some measuring 4.8 inches wide and designed to ‘float’ over the snow in Alaska and other similar, chilly, places. The bikes had been ridden in sand before, but no one, including bike designer, owner and team member, Bill Flemming, knew how they would perform in the massive sand dunes in this remote part of the world.
Fatbiking is the fastest-growing cycling sport throughout America. The fatbike was invented to handle winter riding in Northern America and Europe. The concept behind the original bikes was that the fat tyres would float across the snow, and not leave the rider buried up to the top of their fork in soft snow, meaning that people could ride and race all year round. Due to their fun factor and comfort, the bikes caught on so fast that they are now a popular sight commuting and on riding trails worldwide.
The Namibian Snow-2-Sand expedition was the brainchild of bike designer and co-owner of the 9:zero:7 fatbikes, Bill Flemming. Bill was up for a new challenge, and while googling the least populated countries in the world, Namibia, with its vast tracks of desert dunes, came up high on the list.
Sand is just like snow, surely?” thought Bill. And thus the expedition was born.
The team consisted of an eclectic mix of people, keen riders one and all, with a common challenge in mind. The itinerary had been set just a few weeks prior to their meeting, but no one really knew how hard, or easy, it may be, exactly how long it would take, or indeed, whether it was possible at all.
All logistics and support vehicles were supplied by Namibian-based company NatureFriend Safaris and on 22 July friends and friends-to-be piled into a bus and set off for the Namib-Naukluft Park, via the Kanaan Gate, to begin this epic six-day 580-km adventure.
DAY 1 …
… was a wake-up call for any riders expecting an easy ‘sightseeing tour’ of Namibia by bike and resulted in a bit of a ‘suffer-fest’. A strong, hot headwind for over 100 km of constant slight uphill riding and a miscommunication with support vehicles lead to some of the groups running out of water, not to mention their sense of humour.
A mayday call over the ever-present and essential two-way radio ensured that water made it to the riders and they safely reached the glorious first camp, set up by the ever-affable Uys and his camp crew from Namab Desert Tours.
An excellent hot desert shower and our first experience of the glorious stargazing on offer made for a spectacular first night. A few bitterly cold Tafels quickly restored faith in humanity, cycling and, perhaps more importantly, restored everyone’s sense of humour.
The next day dawned with perfect weather, and nine slightly tender, tired bodies mounted their fatbikes and headed out for DAY 2. The desert is a constantly changing place, and the terrain immediately took on a different look and feel, becoming increasingly more remote than the previous day.
No two days are the same, no two dunes look the same or ride the same, and no stretch of sand is the same.
You can be a metre away from a fellow rider and sink into annoyingly soft sand, flailing like a caught fish on the beach, while your mate floats along, grinning gleefully, atop completely rideable, firm, concrete-like sand. This was one of the more challenging and exasperating aspects of the ride; it was also a great source of mirth for the rider who chose the line on the solid surface.
DAY 3 …
… was always going to be the ‘big day’ – big dunes and a big challenge. We were not disappointed. After about 15 km we headed into a stretch of massive dunes without the support vehicles, as being fully laden they couldn’t make it through the huge sand cliffs.
At this point all vegetation had disappeared and we were now headed deep into the most indescribable beauty.
The sense of freedom was unbelievable. Riding up huge dunes, then dropping off the other side down the cliff-like slipface immediately turns a bunch of grown (mature) adults into happily laughing, screaming children.
There can be no better feeling on a bike than that of dropping off a dune, feeling the bike grip at the top in the soft sand, then picking up momentum at upwards of 55 km an hour down the almost sheer 70-to-80-metre drop off, screaming with laughter and already looking forward to surfing up the next biggie.
The day was made even better by the view of the ocean ahead of us, riding through this giant sandpit of exhilarating fun, with the riders getting together as we looked down on vast flocks of flamingos standing in the shallows, before dropping down for a few hours of soft, draining beach riding, culminating in our only permanent camp of the trip – Namab Camp at Meob Bay.
DAYS 4 and 5 …
… consisted of more amazing dune riding, hard and soft beach riding –which can either be a long and draining slog – or an easy glide over a rock-hard surface, dodging the chasing waves and following the numerous tracks of the ever-present jackals and, more excitingly, the huge unmistakable brown hyaena paw prints.
Riding through the old deserted diamond mines, with half-buried buildings, an abandoned ox wagon and the small rock ‘cairns’ marking the claims of long-dead miners was both beautiful and eerie… Riding in a driving sandstorm (luckily from behind for the most part) was just plain sore!
Our final day along the beach, through the salt mines outside Walvis Bay and up our final annoyingly soft sand dune was both a cause for celebration and sadness. We had achieved what we had set out to do – certainly not to conquer the desert on bikes, but perhaps to tame her at least a little. We had also arrived back to civilisation, to the real world. Space and solitude replaced by development and people.
We would carry with us memories of a beautiful, spacious and silent landscape, incredible night skies, followed by crisp clear mornings, campfires and new-found friendships, and most of all the most incredible riding you could ever wish for.
Now, several weeks later, back at our respective desks, countries and jobs, the Snow-2-Sand group have had to return to adulthood and sensibility – however, thanks to social media, emails and an amazing array of wonderful photographs, a return to being children in a giant sandpit remains just a click away.
Namib Desert Facts
– Believed to be the world’s oldest desert, the Namib is estimated to be between 55 and 80 million years old.
– The name ‘Namib’ is Nama for ‘vast’ or ‘vast place’.
– The Namib Desert stretches for more than 2,000 km along the south-western coast of Africa; its sand dunes can reach up to 300 m high and 32 km long.
– Average rainfall is limited to approximately 10 mm a year in the desert proper.
– The Namib is home to more endemic fauna and flaura species than any other desert in the world.
– In 2013, the Namib Sand Sea was proclaimed a World Heritage Site, Namibia’s second WHS after Twyfelfontein with its world-renowned concentration of rock engravings.
– More than 1,000 shipwrecks litter the Skeleton Coast, which encompasses the northern part of the Namib.
– Average daytime temperatures can reach up to 45˚C in some parts of the Namib and can fall to below 0˚C at night.
Cycling & mountain biking in Namibia
Namibia plays host to numerous MTB races and cycling expeditions every year. Here are some of the races that allow cyclists to truly experience the wonders of Namibia from their bicycle seats:
– Nedbank Cycle Challenge – February
– Klein-Aus Vista MTB Challenge – May
– Windhoek Light Namib Quest – May
– Kuiseb Classic MTB – May
– Otjihavera Xperience – August
– Desert Knights – September
– 9 Day Cycling Namibia – October
– The Namibian Pick & Pay Cycle Classic – October
– 100 km of Namib Desert – November
– Cycletech Spring Festival – November
– FNB Desert Dash – December
Mountain biking is all about the trail, about the surroundings and the terrain.
Riders will always remember and talk about a great piece of trail, a ‘gnarly’ rocky, technical section, or a ‘mother’ of a climb from a great ride.
Riding through the desert is different.
It is glorious, wonderful, smile-inducing freedom.
We had an approximate distance to cover each day, and way points to follow, but apart from that, riders rode where and how they wanted to – picking their lines, surfing the dunes and all loving the freedom of such a remarkable place on these remarkable bikes.
Looking up at times, we could be literally kilometres apart, yet still within visual contact and all thoroughly immersed in the silent beauty of the dynamic, shifting sands of the Namib.
This article originally appeared in the Travel News Namibia Spring 2014 publication.