“I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain…”
The Namib Desert is not only the oldest desert in the world, believed to be in existence for over 55 million years, but also one of the most diverse and breathtakingly beautiful. Constantly shifting sand dunes, gravel calcrete plains, rugged mountains, cavernous tortuous canyons, fossilised lunar landscapes all bisected by a capillary network of parched river beds, a land bountiful of contrasts and steeped in wonder. Despite the harsh vengeful aridness of the Namib, it is the only desert in which the endemic plants and wildlife have evolved and adapted to the barren conditions. The Namib is a phenomenon, a land of curiosity and marvel a land of infinite space and immense scope……..a land perfect for exploring from atop the equine alter.
The desert has always been a landscape I’ve been drawn to. Ever since my first steps skirting across Australia’s Great Sandy or galloping across the mystical sands of Jordan’s Wadi Rum, I’ve found it to be a place of serenity and stillness, a place of peace and calm, a place of ethereal beauty where one can find the answers to their ponderings floating on the breeze. Crossing the Namib was to be one of the most pivotal trips of my travelling career. Of course the opportunity to roam free and wild across 400kms of wide open spaces on the back of a horse is an adventure not to be missed……to sleep under a star studded sky free from any light pollution is what my soul yearns for, to undertake a mammoth journey with the trust, respect and companionship of a horse is what the blood coursing through my veins desires……….but in some ways I felt that perhaps Crossing the Namib would be my adventuring swan song, the perfect trip to hang up my travelling boots.
It was September 2013 when I entered the oldest desert in the world, seeking answers from its ancient sands. I was thirty years old and facing a serious cross roads in my life. I had already travelled around the world, visited every continent (except Antarctica), partook in numerous amazing horse riding expeditions and adventures ……………I had lived an amazing life full to the brim with wonderful memories and some pretty insane experiences……….and now I was faced with the prospect of unsettling change. After spending a year in the Australian Outback working in Health Promotion with Indigenous People ( read more about my experiences in Fitzroy Crossing here………..https://www.indiananeenersglobetrottingcowgirl.com/outback-janinearoo-from-radiographer-to-sexual-health-promotion/) I returned home to a flurry of engagements, weddings and pregnancy announcements. Well isn’t that what happens when you enter your thirties……….marriage, mortgage and reproduction?! Doesn’t Society dictate that by the time you reach thirty you should have it all figured out and be ready to enter a new phase of your life, be ready to adult?! My friends and peers were all moving on with their lives……wasn’t it time I did the same?! Travel challenges and changes you, it’s not always pretty and it’s not always easy, but the journey itself alters your thoughts, your ideas, your way of seeing the world, it changes your perceptions, it forces you to question ideologies and probe for answers…its deep, its personal and it’s permanent. I was still on the cusp, I was in that place where if I really wanted to I could assimilate back to “normal living” and conform to Society and all its demands…….but if I kept skipping along my nomadic path of wanderings and ramblings it would not be such a smooth transition to mediocrity and I would be consumed by the abyss of my gypsy heart.
Touching down in Windhoek International Airport my heart gave a little flutter of happiness to be back on African soil, it’s almost a primal instinct, a sense of returning to a place that is printed on your soul. I think the following passage is a perfect description…..
“Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the Savannahs of long ago?”
Before embarking on the epic desert crossing I decided to have a quick two night stay at Naankuse Lodge and Wildlife Sanctuary and immersed myself in a little slice of conservation heaven. Situated amongst camel thorn tress, hills of blackthorn, fields of tall grass, river beds and an ancient stone canyon, Naankuse’s 3,200 hectare reserve supports a wide variety of flora and fauna, an oasis for the African wildlife of Namibia. In addition to being a safe haven for free-roaming game such as giraffe, eland, zebra, kudu, hartebeest and springbok, Naankuse also provides a home for various orphaned and injured wildlife and rehabilitates them towards eventually returning to the wild. Unfortunately due to various reasons, mostly related to human impact, not all the animals are suitable candidates for release so some will remain on the sanctuary. I spent a whole morning visiting and learning about the carnivores that are housed at Naankuse….lions, cheetahs, leopards and caracals,……some were rescued from poachers traps sacrificing a limb for a life, some were orphaned, again by poachers and some had been kept as pets and once sexual maturity set in were too aggressive to keep (funny that since they are wild animals!!). Naankuse had also recently become the custodians of a family pack of Wild Dogs, one of the top three rarest carnivores in Africa. Unfortunately for Wild Dogs they tend to hunt and eat anything that moves……that includes farm animals and livestock, so the family were moved to Naankuse to protect them from a bleak future of possible slaughter and to ensure the continued conservation of these stunning animals.
The River Crossing Lodge in Windhoek was my next port of call to meet up with the rest of the riders that were going to tackle the Mighty Namib Crossing. We were fourteen in total, including an 81 year old gentleman who would be the oldest rider to complete the 400kms ride……..making adventures and making history. Among the group was also my Australian partner in crime…….you know when you just meet somebody and you have this intense knowledge that you are going to get along……that’s exactly how it was. She was a girl after my own heart, travelling around the world for a year on the back of a horse, we’d actually been to a lot of the same places and met a lot of the same characters, and we spent the whole 400kms of that trip laughing and joking, enjoying life and making some epic memories. Taking charge of this enormous group was our guide, Andrew Gillies who I believe to be one of the best horsemen I’ve had the privilege to ride with, coupled with being an incredible host, it’s a winning combination for the Namibia Horse Safari Company.
Instead of a horse, a bus was the mode of transport for our first day’s outing. Meandering along gravel roads we spied our first glimpse of the immense beauty of the sprawling Namib from a lookout point just outside Sesriem, nothingness stretched as far as the eye could see……no pollution, no people, no concrete jungle, just a vast expanse of stark allure, enchanting charm and natural beauty. We stopped briefly at our camp just outside Solitaire to meet the crew and dotted amongst the ancient camelthorn trees were our horses! Namibia Horse Safaris have a wide range of horses to suit everybody…..from sturdy Boerperdes to zippy Arab crosses, reliable Warmbloods to hard working local ponies……a wide range of shapes and sizes dotted the desert landscape. My desert steed was to be Chocolate, a bay local horse who had traversed the desert many a time……a pro at his job but a little complicated at times so I was told…….I do love a horse with personality and I was to find out that Chocolate had it in bundles! I’ll of course speak more about my little Chocolate button in my “Meet the Horses” section, an amazing little horse that has a heart of gold, courage of a lion and the sure footedness of a mountain goat.
No trip to Namibia is complete without a visit to its most iconic and dramatic landscape. Located in the Namib-Naukflut National Park, the salt and clay pans of Sossusvlei are also home to the tallest and most dramatic sand dunes in the world. The dynamic vibrant red sand dunes dominate the skyline, shape shifting with the gentle caress of the wind, illuminated by the burning desert sun, its rays seeming to dance across the grains of sand, a glittering masterpiece rich and majestic against a cloudless blue sky, a smattering of lonely scraggy trees completed the vision of isolated beauty. Not content with basking in the glory of Dune 45 we set of to climb it and avail of the spectacular views from its majestic height……..the deep troughs of russet hued sand engulfed my feet in a blanket of fire, note to self, flip flops and burning hot sand do not make a good combination so not wanting to suffer third degree burns prior to the commencement of the big adventure I decided to retire early and frolicked down the Dune to safety! Watching the spectacle of rich reds, burnt oranges and vibrant pinks shimmy across the Dunes as the sun set was a breath taking finish to a wonderful day spent in this emblematic landscape.
Our first night camping in the Namib Desert is one I will never forget! There was a powerful east wind blowing and all fourteen guests together with our team scattered to find a nice sheltered spot to set up our camp. Some people opted for tents, some just for the swag and camp bed……I wanted no roof to cover the amazing stars above, twinkling crystals on a velvet cloth of black. A few drinks around the camp fire and slowly but surely everybody retreated to bed, me and my Australian and Yorkshire comrades the last to withdraw from the heat and wander to our cosy rock faced sanctuary. A few moments to get settled and I must’ve dropped off into a deep sleep, the last thing I remember was laughs of surprise and embarrassment as my torch less and disorientated Australian companion almost ended up in Yorkshires swag after a midnight trip to the loo!! The next thing I remember was gazing up into bright beams of light thinking the sun had risen, but once I’d wiped the sleep from my eyes I realized it was our team bedecked with head- torches, dragging a tent to our sheltered spot, something about the way they yanked that canvas demonstrated annoyance and vexation……..I sniffed a story. A few moments later and my comrades stirred, Australia staring at me with mouth opened disbelief when I said I had no idea what was going on, my blank faced look assuring her that I had indeed slept through the night’s trials and tribulations, and so she enlightened me. Settled into her swag not long after her amusing trip to the toilet, my Australian sidekick heard a voice floating on the wind….. “help me, somebody please help me….”, so she followed the sound and arrived to the tent of a hysterical guest, crying and pleading for somebody to help her. She was afraid that her tent was going to collapse around her with the wind, so she removed everything from it and was now standing outside in a state of sheer panic and delirium, screaming and sobbing fitfully, with every tear she woke another of our party (apart from me!). So Australia did the only thing she could, she woke up our guides to let them deal with the problem…….and that’s when I woke up, when they literally brought the problem to my door step!! Bleary eyed from lack of sleep, a nice strong cup of coffee in my hand, I set to find out the rest of the story from the guides at breakfast time. It transpired that this lady had never camped before, didn’t read her itinerary and assumed that we would be staying in lodges with electricity and running water……since we were crossing the oldest desert in the world on horse-back these amenities are simply not available, which I thought was just common sense. On hearing that we would in fact be camping for the entire adventure (as stated in the itinerary!!), she declared that she be airlifted out immediately, at the Company’s expense!!! They somehow cajoled her to stay and continue the adventure………well if this was only night one I could only imagine what was left to come…….be warned, there is always one on every trip!
The east wind was still blowing as we left our camp at Namib Nakluft, the horses heads bent low against the breeze, manes and tails being whipped and grazed by the wind……..we were off into the abyss, to explore, to adventure and to pioneer!! There is no greater feeling in the world than riding a horse through wide open spaces, landscapes so pure and natural that it feels like nobody has been there before. We spent our days in the saddle galloping across open sandy plains, negotiating calcrete rocky outcrops and conquering canyons, the ride was varied and fast paced. Our first two days were spent negotiating the foothills and grassy plains on the edge of the Namib Sea, oryx, zebra, springbok and ostrich accompanying our travels sporadically, an easy introduction to what was to come! The following days we negotiated the Gaub and Kuiseb Canyons, scrambling on foot, guiding our horses down the steep rocky trails into the cavernous depths. Our pace then quickened as we left the technical riding behind and rode across the tinkas and tumas plains to Hostas, traversing the lunar landscape of moon valley to the Swakop River, eventually reaching the sparkling blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean after 400kms of desert dust.
By night we camped under a myriad of glistening stars, winking gently in the inky black night skies, enjoying delicious camp dinners and drinks around a roaring camp fire, laughing and joking about the days events, swapping stories of intrepid adventure and travels and always looking forward to what the next day would bring, making sure to pack my boots and chaps away from the prying teeth of the black backed jackal’s that roam the desert. Before tucking into my swag for the night and surrendering my body to exhaustion I’d gaze upon the night skies, completely contented and satisfied at where I was.
After 400kms we galloped along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean…..we had traversed the oldest desert in the world and reached Swakopmund. I was exhausted, dusty and sun parched and I had spent approximately 60 hours in the saddle, but I could not have been happier or felt more at home. Gazing out at the rolling waves of the Ocean I knew that there were many more adventures to be had. I was surrendering my heart to the wanderings of my gypsy soul, I was ready to jump down the rabbit hole of nomadic life because the truth is, I like camping and being covered in sand and dust, I love the smell of horses penetrating every fibre of my cloths, I feel alive when I’m exploring faraway places and getting off the beaten track on four hooves and in travelling with horses I have found my tribe and what my heart beats for……….
“The shit that makes your heart beat faster and your eyes glow when you do it or talk about it……..do that. Do it as often as you can. Because that’s what life is about. Creating as many passionate, happy moments as possible. Don’t let anyone stop you from doing the things you love – not even yourself……..”
Namib Desert Ride with Namibia Horse Safari September 2013.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)