‘How would you ever cope if you had to do an expedition on your own?’ asked former Royal Marine Donnie Campbell. This was a fair question. After all, I am a red-haired, fair-skinned Scotsman, and I had just arrived – with Donnie – at the entrance to one of the world’s hottest deserts. Without any sunscreen.
The mighty Namib desert boasts, at around 400 metres in height, the world’s tallest sand dune as well as some of the most spectacular night skies to be found on Earth. It is an area of such spectacular beauty that when veteran desert expedition organiser Dave Scott showed Donnie and myself three images of the region, and challenged us to run more than 500km from Luderitz in the south to Walvis Bay in the north, we agreed without hesitation.
No-one had run this route before and we were determined to find a way to get the job done. The Namib’s gigantic dunes formed an unbroken line across our proposed route, which was devoid of water and permanent habitation. On the other hand, we would have the potential rewards of encountering shipwrecks marooned inland, abandoned mining villages, whale graveyards and a surprising plethora of wildlife ranging from flamingos, fur seals and gemsbok to scorpions, snakes and hyenas. It was the prospect of these encounters that motivated us to run up to 200km every week on Scotland’s rain-lashed mountains and sand dunes in the two months before departing for Namibia in order to strengthen our minds as much as our legs.
Just making the start line amounted to an impressive feat of diplomacy and logistics. Our proposed route traversed a special concession area that had not been previously accessed by foreigners on account of its diamond-rich sands. Thankfully, Tribal Chief Kooitjie proved a masterful negotiator with the Namibian government. A permit was secured for the expedition, along with the full support of the local Topnaar tribal communities. The permit allowed Donnie and myself, along with our trio of four-wheel drive support vehicles, to enter the region.
The dunes reared into view a scant ten kilometres after we ran out of Luderitz. 20km later and we seemed to be lost among them. My thermometer breached 40°C. And we had with us only a modest amount of water. Dave Scott’s warning that, ‘The desert can kill you in a day – if you let it,’ rang in my ears.
There was no sign of our support vehicles. Was our compass and GPS navigation equipment awry? Would the vehicles appear or were they on a different bearing? We held our ground and waited. And waited. The sight of the first 4x4 that finally emerged over the dunes that afternoon was almost as beautiful as my wife Jennie when she walked down the aisle.
It turned out that the dunes were just as hard for the vehicles to negotiate as they had been for us. Laden down with a tonne of water and fuel for the ten days we hoped our run would occupy, two of the three vehicles accompanying us that day had become stuck simultaneously. Fortunately the third wagon, which had remained clear of trouble, managed to tow the other vehicles out. Maybe it is easier on foot, we thought.
On we ran, moving slowly with huge effort against a majestic backdrop of fierce orange dunes and a piercing blue sky. Pitching camp at the 60km mark, we surveyed the scene. Dunes stretched as far as our eyes could see. Two gemsbok glanced warily in our direction, as shy as Highland deer on a Scottish moor. There were no people, no shops and no services. We were now reliant on our training, our equipment and our support team, which included people from Britain, South Africa and Namibia, including the Topnaar communities.
I re-checked my gear, which had stood up well to the initial examination. Then I lay on the ground and reflected on our situation. Although it had no physical walls, I felt as though I was sleeping in a five million-star hotel with a ceiling formed of the Milky Way. There was nothing to hear other than an occasional murmur from a nearby tent. Although we had met our daily target of 60 kilometres, the tough terrain had made it feel nearly double that. Was our pace sustainable? Indeed, was it wise to continue, given how disorientated we had become in an uninhabited desert on the first day of the crossing?
A new day often brings with it a fresh perspective and renewed optimism. Our blisters were not too bad after all, and we had feasted on chicken and pasta the previous evening. We decided to push on. To minimise the chance of a similar situation to the previous day befalling the support team, we called in a fourth wagon to further reduce the possibility of every vehicle becoming marooned at the same moment. We also agreed that Donnie and myself would stay in sight of the support team whenever it was practical to do so.
The Namib shoreline has earned the moniker ‘Skeleton Coast’ on account of the multitude of shipwrecks hereabouts. Reported sightings of the ghosts of sailors, together with the ethereal mist that rolls in from the Atlantic, adds to the mystery of this special place. To reach the coast, we had to negotiate the ‘Devil’s Workshop’. This uncompromising stretch of dunes in the stunning Namib-Naukluft National Park was the crux of our challenge. In multi-day events in temperate climates, Donnie and I normally cover around 14 kilometres per hour. On one of our two memorable days in the Workshop, that same distance took us almost four hours on account of the heat and the structure of the dunes.
The Workshop turned out to be a concentrated version of the overall challenge. The dunes, many of which were taller than The Shard in London, were steep and unrelenting. The terrain gave no respite to our legs. Summiting a single dune was a drawn out affair and it reminded me of climbing a mountain at altitude.
The heat was unrelenting. When I experienced extreme cold on Alaska’s Mount McKinley, I had simply put more clothes on. But when the temperature in the Namib climbed higher than my own body temperature, dealing with the heat wasn’t just difficult, it was dangerous. With no wind to convect body heat, and with the temperature gradient radiating heat to us, losing heat through sweat evaporation was our only option.
Each hour we drank up to two litres of fluids to replace what we had lost. Profound nausea would sweep over me as I doubled up in an attempt to avoid vomiting the precious water and electrolytes I had just consumed. The sand absorbed every bead of sweat that fell from my clothing. I felt like a roast dinner.
With the Workshop behind us, we continued our run through the national park. Now that we had succeeded in cutting down to the coast for the final few days, we encountered massive colonies of social Cape fur seals. We were tempted to swim with these playful creatures until Chief Kooitjie’s son, Lenny, graphically described a series of seal-related injuries suffered by tourists.
Namibia reminded us of its wild side to the very end. On our penultimate day, we rounded a 200-metre tall coastal dune. But instead of being presented with another vista of dunes, we came face-to-face with 300 kilograms of male gemsbok. Armed with rapier-like horns almost a metre in length, he gave Donnie and myself a look dirtier than any I have encountered in Edinburgh’s nightclubs. My heartbeat quickened and my eyes narrowed. Should I run away or take a photo? The gemsbok lowered its head in a final warning for us to back off. We took the hint.
Earlier in the expedition, Lenny had explained to me that being free from fur, and having an ability to shed heat rapidly through sweat, the human body has evolved almost perfectly into a persistence hunter. Indeed, southern Africa is home to some of the last tribes in the world that practice persistence hunting. Hunters chase game such as gemsbok until they succumb. But that afternoon I felt like the hunted, not the hunter.
Donnie and I persisted across the Langervan dunes and on to Sandwich Harbour, a wetland inhabited by thousands of bird species. It was here that we saw the first vehicle tracks not made by our support team. On day nine we arrived in Walvis Bay, and stopped running after 509 kilometres. Our welcoming party consisted of flamingos, pelicans, Chief Kooitjie and two cold beers. Did I really want that beer, and the promised hot bath? Or would I rather be back out in the Workshop? The eleven blisters on my feet answered my question for me.