In September 2013 Sarah Sands embarked on the iconic Across The Namib trip – which is one of In The Saddle’s fastest and most challenging horse riding holidays. She very kindly wrote this lovely piece about her adventure and has allowed us to share it with you! We hope you enjoy reading it as much as we did…
I’m well known for adventurous holidays (such as climbing Kilimanjaro or sleeping in an ice hotel) but this year I completed my hardest challenge to date: crossing the oldest desert in the world on horseback.
The route covered nearly 400km over 7 days, starting in the central highlands and ending on the Atlantic Ocean, covering between 20 and 70km each day. It traversed the Namib Naukluft Park which, incorporating the Skeleton Coast Park and the Sperrgebeit Park, is the largest Nature Conservation area in Africa.
The Namib is a coastal desert in southern Africa. The name Namib is of Nama origin and means “vast place”. It has endured arid or semi-arid conditions for roughly 55-80 million years and has no permanent habitation from man (although the hunter gatherer San Bushmen traditionally followed game in the area depending on the rains). A desert is classified based on the amount of rainfall versus how quickly it evaporates and at present Namibia is in drought. The Namib has unpredictable ranges and amounts of rainfall varying from zero to over 100mm. However, it is fog that provides reliable moisture.
My group of 12 intrepid international riders (from Australia, England, France, Ireland, South Africa, Switzerland & USA) met in a lodge just outside Windhoek. We were transferred to the start of the ride via the red dunes of Sossusvlei, a UNESCO world heritage site where we attempted to scale one of the dunes – it is much harder than it looks! When we arrived at the first camp and had a terrible night with the East wind!
In general, the day started at 7am with sunrise, of which we had wonderful views. Next was judicial use of wet wipes, checking shoes for unwelcome visitors and packing up the camp bed (which consisted of a stretcher and swag; a waterproof bag containing, duvet and pillow). Then the visit to the “long drop with a view”! The waterproof bag was essential as although there was no rain, the closer to the coast you got, the more you were affected by the fog which is the main source of water to plants in the region. It was wonderful to sleep out and see the stars without light pollution each night and to get a free facial in the morning!
Namibian food is mainly carnivorous and when I enquired as to the national dish, I was informed that it is MEAT– with chicken for a vegetable! Therefore breakfast was usually protein based with copious amounts of coffee.
Our horses had already eaten their breakfast so we set about grooming and tacking up, before an 8am start. The horses were Arab crosses, Namibian Warmbloods or South African Boerperds and the tack was western style trail saddles (although not as heavy) with a cinch rather than girth and large stirrup irons.
Even though it was spring, the sun was hot during the day and for me, required all skin to be covered. The temperature soon dropped as the sun went down and as we got closer to the coast.
The morning ride would take us to meet the support vehicles for a light lunch and a rest for both riders and horses and then an afternoon ride to arrive at camp at about 5pm. After ensuring that our mounts had had a good roll in the sand, were fed, watered, groomed and tied up for the night, we sat down to a medicinal “G&T” sun downer and a lovely game based evening meal. I was amazed at what can be cooked on the open fire, including a chocolate brownie with Amarula cream! All water had to be carried in the support vehicle, so each night we were entitled to a bucket of hot water dispensed from a shower attachment for a “boat shower” – get wet, turn off water, lather up, turn on water, rinse. It is surprising how little water you actually need.
The terrain in the early part of the ride was hard going over calcrete (an impermeable calcium-rich hardened layer formed as a result of climatic fluctuations). After crazily steep descents through the Gaub and Kuiseb Canyons using routes not previously ridden, (we had to dismount, and persuade out mounts to leap down without landing on top of us), we arrived at the Kuiseb river, where the ground became softer and sandy so we had many gloriously long gallops (jumping over aardvark holes and gerbil burrows) and “wacky races”.
We were treated to views of desert-adapted game such as Oryx (Oryx gazella), Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis), Ostrich (Struthio camelus) and Hartmann’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) whose stripes extend down the legs but do not meet on the belly. All desert animals have two problems to overcome: keeping cool and water conservation. They use colour, orientation of their body with respect to the sun, moving to higher points on the dunes, water balance adaptations such extracting all water from their diet without the need to drink, concentrating their urine and heat exchange systems rather than sweating.
We observed the Namibian Fairy Circles which according to the latest research by Professor Norbert Juergens of the University of Hamburg, are created by termites (Psammotermes allocerus). They clear a patch of ground by eating the roots of short-lived, annual grasses and the bare, sandy earth becomes an effective rain trap, which collects just below the surface where it can sustain the termites and a supply of perennial grasses at the margins of the circles. These are available to eat even in the driest seasons. And I can confirm that my horse much preferred this grass to his lucerne even though to me, the lucerne looked more green and palatable!
We also saw the living fossil plant Welwitschia mirabilis which has two permanent leaves, unique in the plant kingdom as they are the original leaves from when the plant was a seedling. These are leathery, broad, strap-shaped leaves continue to grow without being shed and lie on the ground, becoming torn to ribbons and tattered with age. Carbon dating indicates that on average, Welwitschias are 500-600 years old, although some of the larger specimens are thought to be 2000 years old. Their estimated lifespan is 400 to 1500 years.
Another plant we observed was the cactus like Hoodia gordonii that is traditionally used by the San Bushmen of the Namib desert as an appetite suppressant as part of their indigenous knowledge about survival in the harsh desert conditions. There has been a case regarding biopiracy and although an agreement was reached to provide a percentage of the revenue to purchase land for the San people who had been dispossessed from their lands by white settlers, in the end Unilever discontinued marketing the product due to safety concerns and lack of evidence of efficacy.
On the final day we rode across the coastal dunes at Swakoomund – trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade our mounts to paddle in the ocean and a well-earned “mug” of champagne!
After all this exertion I treated myself to a lodge stay at N/a’an ku sê Foundation. Marlice van Vuuren, one of Namibia’s most well-known conservationists, and her husband Dr. Rudie van Vuuren started the Foundation in 2006 with two aims – to protect and conserve Namibia’s vulnerable wildlife and to improve the lives of the marginalised San Bushman community. Here, I was able to participate in their research projects.
Most of Namibia is farmland and almost every Namibian family has a farm – even if only as a weekend farmer. Consequentially conflicts with predators occur. The cheetah is listed as vulnerable, the leopard as near threatened and brown hyena are listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List for endangered species. One third of the entire cheetah population live in central Namibia, 95% of which live outside protected areas on commercial farmland, where most of the leopard population also reside. These carnivores are sometimes killed by landowners who perceive them to be a threat.
Naankuse works to translocate predators from conflict areas, research the outcomes (via GPS collar data) and cost effectiveness versus compensation schemes but they also educate farmers in the use of camel thorn fences and the use of stallion donkeys who will defend the herd against carnivore attacks and is thus provide a low cost solution. I also got to meet some of the hand reared residents: a caracal named Alex and a cheetah named Kiki. Naankuse does not receive any government funding and is reliant on contributions from individuals, companies, trusts and foundations across the world, which supports their projects. If you are interested in finding out more, please visit their web page: http://www.naankuse.com/support-us-at-naankuse.html