Text and photographs by Ron Swilling who experienced a genuine Namibian adventure
It was all laid-back-surfer rhythm as I gave cool-cat Bambo “It’s Rambo with an B” an African handshake and climbed aboard ≠Hata Angu’s minibus for a morning of sandboarding in the dunes outside Swakopmund.
A jumble of boards that looked as if they’d witnessed ample adventure was piled high in the back of the vehicle. They seemed to have a life of their own, as if about to burst forth with all the stories they could tell. They competed with the anticipation and excitement I could sense from the motley group of travellers who filled the vehicle.
Bambo beat them to it, and my attention turned to him as we drove into the Dorob National Park. He informed me dorob meant ‘dry’ in his language, Damara, as we passed the railing protecting the Damara-tern-breeding area from would-be intruders. He began to relate the amusing story of how he had been awarded the ‘best wipe-out’ prize in a recent sandboarding competition held on a monster dune referred to as the Matterhorn.
I was rapidly learning that it’s all about fun, games and enjoyment on the sandy slopes of Swakop. It’s about feeling ‘da rythm of da sand dunes’ as the Hata ≠Angu website advertises. Only seven kilometres south of the town, we arrived at the drop-off point next to the towering dunes to embark on our climb in the spectacular sand sea.
Before we began, the array of sandboards and slightly thicker snowboards – with an extra layer of Formica and a good layer of wax to reduce friction on the sand – were arranged on the sand below the apricot dunes. The group was split into those who had sandboarded or snowboarded before, which many a European visitor has, and those who were doing it for the first time.
For those with some experience of snowboarding, mastering the slipfaces of these slithery megaliths isn’t a huge leap. It’s a combination of weight-boarding, surfing and snowboarding, I’m told by Bambo and fellow-guide, Costa. Beginners, such as myself, started to receive our sandboarding education and began to understand the sandboarders’ lingo. Initially thinking I was being insulted when Costa enquired if I was goofy, I soon realised that he was referring to which leg I favoured on the board. Since I was not the only one to look confused, he gave someone a gentle push to ascertain if they were ‘naturals’, that is whether they needed to place their left leg forward on the board to keep control on the right, or whether they ‘goofy-footed’, that is kept the right leg forward.
Amazed at the courage of some of the boarders to careen down the steep slopes, I picked up my camera to capture these breathtaking moments of movement on sand
The group also had the choice of sandboarding while standing up or lying down. Those opting for lying down, like myself, could forego most of the gear and instead received a ‘high-tech machine’ – an oblong piece of hardboard – and a helmet. With helmets, boots and boards doled out to the rest (and after signing our lives away), the stand-up boarders started trudging up the first dune, looking like a combination of moonwalker and construction worker in heavy boots and helmets, or part of the Mad Max movie that was being filmed further south. The first dune gave us an idea of what was in store as every ride down meant a climb up – and for the stand-up boarders this also meant a great deal of unstrapping and strapping of bindings.
“Welcome to our playground,” Costa exclaimed when we reached the top. We had barely a moment to appreciate the spectacular glittering dune sea that extended to the horizon when it was time to learn the basics of sandboarding. Those with sandboards needed more elbow grease, wiping wax on and rubbing it off with sand before every slope. Then there were the instructions: Bend your knees to absorb the shock; stick out your chest and open arms; steer with hips and shoulders; don’t look down; look where you’re going; and finally, extend your arm in the direction you want to go.
Our directions were much easier to grasp, as we were told to hold up the front corners of the hardboard and to keep our elbows and feet up. The advice given to all of us, however, was to relax. “If you relax, you have control of the board. If you’re tensed up, it has control of you,” Costa informed us casually before the beginners started on a small slope, tumbling, careening down or hardly moving at all no matter how hard they tried. It was all in the name of fun, I remembered as I tried out my first small slope, ‘whizzing’ down on my high-tech machine with a Cheshire cat grin from ear to ear. The boards are not to be sneezed at. They can reach speeds of up to 80 km/hour! A few more rides and climbs to the top of the small dune and I was ready to rest and watch the more advanced boarders, who were attempting a slope that seemed to drop into oblivion, and then had a seemingly mountain-like climb back up to repeat the performance.
As the Hata ≠Angu website advertises, enjoyment of the sandy slopes of Swakop is about feeling ‘da rythm of da sand dunes’
Amazed at the courage of some of the boarders to careen down the steep slopes, I picked up my camera to capture these breathtaking moments of movement on sand. As the morning wore on and the sun attempted to shine through the thin layer of Swakopmund mist, even the beginners found the nerve to take a shot at the higher dunes, probably spurred on by those spirited sandboards. The last dune was attempted by most, some weaving, some tumbling, some creeping and others elegantly ‘surfing’ down the high dune waves in the unusually beautiful ochre sea.
Over brötchen and cold drinks below, with music playing softly from one of the vehicles, the contented bunch caught up on travels and stories. Ochre and apricot flashes of people surfing over the sand accompanied us back in the vehicle as we were dropped off in central Swakopmund. And with those lively sandboards, the minibus was full with the adventure of the morning, not to mention all the extra sand that had hitched a free ride back into town.
This article was originally published in the Air Namibia in-flight magazine, the December 2012 Flamingo edition.