Posts Tagged With: horse riding across the namib desert

I Left my Heart in the Namib Desert

In this blog entry Abbie from In The Saddle tells us about her trip to Namibia earlier this year.

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A blog is something I do when I return from a trip, to summarise and recount amazing horsey adventures in far off lands. But I’ve been putting off writing this one. Why? Because writing a blog means the trip is over, as if stamping the experience with a definitive “The End”, and if I’m honest I don’t really want to do that.

The Namib Desert Ride is more than a riding holiday, more than the sum of its parts – fast riding, camping and long days in the saddle – it is an experience like no other. I’ll tell you all about it, and although I am sad it is over, I’m sure I will enjoy reliving the most incredible adventure I’ve ever had.

When I last visited Namibia in 2012 I fell in love with the wide open spaces, a nothingness which has to be seen to be believed. The vast plains and endless horizons seem to encourage you to take time out from everyday life and just stop, and breathe, and take it all in. What stayed with me particularly was being in the desert, the feeling of freedom above the deep red soil and below the bright blue skies. I simply couldn’t wait to get back to the Namib Desert, where mile upon mile of open space seems to call you – it has to be the ultimate place for limitless canters.

PIC 1 Endless canters

Namibia – the perfect place for limitless canters

In August I travelled to Namibia to cross the oldest desert in the world on horseback. The Namib Desert route is one of In The Saddle’s more challenging rides, encompassing a journey on horseback of some 320km from close to the desert oasis of Solitaire to Swakopmund on the fierce Atlantic coast. Ever since I joined In The Saddle back in 2006 I’ve been dying to do this ride and when the opportunity came up I literally jumped (up and down) at the chance!

Our riding group meets for the first time at River Crossing, a comfortable guesthouse on the outskirts of Windhoek. We are twelve riders in total, from France, England, South Africa and Denmark. About half the group have their own horses, but everyone has ridden for many years and all are experienced in the saddle. Our guide Andrew Gillies meets us at 17:00 for the ride briefing. After a thorough run through of ride safety and the signals Andrew will use to chance pace, we begin to relax and look forward to the adventure ahead. Over a cool gin and tonic we introduce ourselves and Andrew asks us what sort of riders we are and what we look for in a horse. Requests vary from “fast and spirited” and “fun and forward-going” to “easy to stop”. It is this information along with the details from travel companies like In The Saddle that Andrew and Telane use to allocate horses. A delicious three course evening meal and plenty of wine awaits, before early to bed after a long day of travelling.

The next day we are up early for our transfer to our first campsite at Ababis. It is a journey of about four hours and we spot oryx, springbok, baboons and secretary bird along the way. We stop at a viewpoint on the way and Andrew points out where we are going to be riding in the days to come. The incredible view heightens our excitement as we imagine the journey ahead – think of the amazing views, the adventure, the endless canters – we cannot wait! The sheer open space and lack of people will take some getting used to…whether you come from busy London or rural Shropshire.

Pic 2 viewpoint

The viewpoint – taking in the vast desert landscape

We reach camp around midday and are met by Phoebe, Telane and Kim. The team take it in turns as back-up guide, but on this particular trip we are in the very capable hands of Kim from Germany who is on her third stint as volunteer. Kim is great fun to ride with and clearly loves her forays into the wilderness of Namibia. Phoebe is a constant beacon of fun and positivity. Cheerfully waving us off each day and then racing against the clock with the back-up crew to set up the lunch spot or the next campsite whilst at the same time preparing mouth-watering meals – she accomplishes so much that we begin to wonder whether she has an identical twin!

PIC 3 Phoebe_s Food Truck

“Phoebe’s Food Truck” – always a welcome sight

Telane, biologist and wild horse researcher, is in charge of the horses’ welfare. During the trip Telane is more often found with the horses than the humans, as she carefully checks them for sore spots, lameness and other ailments. I was fascinated to hear that when she meets a guest for the first time Telane will often ‘see’ a horse. For example when she met Claire on our trip, Telane ‘saw’ Lavoca. This was a great match as throughout the week Claire rode her horse with great sensitivity and I loved seeing them at a speedy canter weaving in and out between other riders, eager to get to the front, a big smile on both their faces!

Pic 4 Claire and Lavoca Joes pic

Claire and Lavoca – a perfect match (image courtesy of Joe Davies)

Next we are given a run through of what to do when we reach camp each evening. The horses are un-tacked, allowed to roll and led to water. Then they are left to dry and are brushed off later (we usually do this whilst waiting in the shower queue). Then we can take a stretcher bed, bedroll and bag to a spot of our choice, be it beside a tree, next to the horses or close to the campfire. The bedroll (each one named after animal species such as rhino, bush pig and impala so they don’t get mixed up) is ours for the duration of the ride and encompasses a sleeping mat, feather duvet and two pillows all tucked inside a waterproof and windproof canvas swag. The duvets are incredibly warm even if the pesky east wind is blowing, although there are extra blankets to use if you feel the cold.

After a lunch of oryx skewers, stuffed peppers, salad and fresh bread it is back on the road again as we travel the 150km to the famous red dunes of Sossusvlei. Andrew tells us about the different types of dunes. These dunes at Sossusvlei differ from those in the Kalahari because they are dynamic, ever-shifting in the wind and taking on a variety of shapes. We kick off our shoes and climb Dune 45, a few of us happy to go part of the way up and then sit and take in the view, whilst others climb right to the top. It is just beautiful.

Pic 5 Sossusvlei

Karien taking in the view at Sossusvlei

Returning to camp we have time to de-sand ourselves with a hot shower before dinner. We are spoilt this evening as we are eased into camp life, for tonight we have hot running water and flush loos. There is much giggling over the ‘mini-Sossusvlei’ left in the shower by a fellow rider – how on earth did she manage to get that much sand into her shoes and still walk?! Making my way back to my stretcher after a shower I make the mistake of hanging my towel to dry on a nearby tree…only the following morning do I realise I’ve used a camelthorn tree and it takes a while to extract my towel from its fierce spikes!

Today’s the day – we get to meet our horses and set off on our desert adventure. There is Marnie a sweet grey Arab mare, Xerox the ‘photocopier’ horse, speedy Sundown, the chestnut ‘pocket rocket’ whose speed has to be seen to be believed, Titan a handsome dun gelding, fast and spirited Raven, front-runner Zarron, well-mannered Coco and my own diminutive ‘black Philip’. He was in many ways exactly what I’d asked for (small and straightforward), but he was also so much more than this; I cherished his professionalism, sweet temper and polite enthusiasm from start to finish.

Pic 6 Philip and I

Philip – the perfect gentleman

After a hearty breakfast it is time for a saddling demonstration. The horses are groomed and tacked-up with an incredible level of care, which is continued throughout the ride. After the usual first-day adjusting of stirrups and saddles we set off towards the oasis town of Solitaire about 15km away. The horses are keen, but controllable except perhaps Raven and Joe’s first horse, each having their own ideas about the speed we should be going at. At one point Joe disappears off in front at a purposeful but unintentional canter, only to double back at great speed heading straight for us. A swift bridle change makes little difference, so a horse change is quickly carried out instead – much better, and well ridden Joe. At Solitaire we enjoy a delicious lunch of quiche and salad, followed by the bakery’s famous apple crumble – yum. A further c. 15km ride in the afternoon takes us to the first of our beautiful wilderness camps, Koireb, nestled in a dry riverbed.

Over the next few days we settle into the wonderful rhythm of camp life. Literally we eat, sleep, ride and repeat. It is priceless, absolute bliss, as if you are in a little bubble where it is only your fellow riders, your guides, the back-up team and your horses and it feels almost as though your normal, everyday life doesn’t even exist.  The day begins with Zarron’s high-pitched whinny and the call of the French rooster. We wake up each morning and watch dawn creep onto the horizon, getting dressed as quickly as possible in the cool of the morning. That first cup of tea and a rusk has never been so delicious as you gather your riding gear and break down your little camping spot. Breakfast is taken around the fire, and then perhaps there is time to snatch a quiet moment with your horse before the adventures of the day begin.

PIC 7 Philip eating marmite on toast pheobe's pic

A quiet moment with Philip (image courtesy of Namibia Horse Safaris)

Each day we set off to journey through amazingly diverse desert scenery, cantering across the plains with oryx on one side and zebra on the other. We enjoy a cold Savannah cider and lunch in the shade, before setting off again for more incredible canters and gallops across the open terrain. We arrive in camp, un-tack and let the horses roll and drink, before sipping a cool G&T whilst grooming the horses. Then a quick bucket shower to wash away the red-brown dust of the desert.

Pic 8 Grooming the horses at sunset

Ganab camp – Phoebe grooming the horses at sunset

Each evening Andrew gathers us around the fire saying ‘Dearly Beloved’ and outlines the plan for the following day. Each day is different and yet filled with the same magical ingredients of good company, incredible riding and thrilling gallops; the only thing that seems to remain the same is that “breakfast is at seven”! After a delicious two course meal we go to bed each night feeling nicely weary and drift off to sleep playing ‘join the dots’ with constellations or counting shooting stars in the amazing inky-black African sky.

Pic 9 night sky courtesy of Tony Marshall

The Namib night sky (image courtesy of Tony Marshall)

One day we are doing some LSD (Long Slow Distance – Andrew’s term for a steady canter) and Andrew stops us all, saying he can see something unusual ahead. So we approach slowly and to our disbelief, there in the middle of the day is an aardvark! He is so intent on his quest for termites that he seems oblivious to our presence and we sit and watch him for ten minutes or so. We edge closer and closer until finally he spots us and darts away in confusion.

PIC 10 Aardvark

An unusual sighting – an aardvark out in the daytime

Another day we are not far from camp and during a canter, our guide takes us on a winding route through bushes and low trees as the sun starts to fade. Before we know it we are out in open ground again and in front of us, as if by magic are three giraffe. What a wonderful sight to end another incredible day in the desert (although Coco is not a fan and is still snorting by the time we reach camp!).

PIC 11 Three giraffe

Spotting three giraffe – the perfect end to an incredible day

One day the group splits off into pairs and has ‘wacky races’ along vehicle tracks which make for perfect going. A day or so later we canter across grassy plains so vividly green after the calcrete plains we have just crossed and then we’re invited to let loose, whoop it up and let loose our inner cowboys as we set off at a roaring gallop. My horse Philip is wonderful and tries so hard, but he’s not the fastest horse in the world. We set off feeling good, galloping well, but are soon enveloped in a huge billow of dust as those with more impressive turns of speak streak past us. Quite literally streaking in the case of Ben, whose wardrobe seems to be in a permanent state of malfunction, shirt undone and chest showing!

On our longest riding day from Ganab to Marble Mountain, we ride 40km before lunch and our 20km afternoon ride is one of my most memorable. The entire late afternoon ride takes us along sandy plains of perfect going and we ride towards the sinking sun,  literally riding off into the sunset – magical. During a long canter, Joe who has been part of the ‘rear guard’ until now suddenly storms to the front of the group, taking most of the others with him and setting off an impromptu cavalry charge – whoops!

It is incredible to be cantering along in the remote Namib Desert hearing only your horse’s breathing and the beat of his canter. At one point the evening light and the dust begins playing tricks on me, making it look as though the horse in front is in fact cantering towards me – eerie.

Pic 12 riding into the sunset izzys pic

Riding into the sunset (image courtesy of Izzy Crane)

On Day 6 the landscape takes a dramatic change and ahead of us lies a real challenge; crossing the Kuiseb Canyon. It was here that geologists Hermann Korn and Henno Martin went into hiding during the Second Wold War, as told in the book ‘The Sheltering Desert’. We ride into the badlands where we have an amazing sighting of a magnificent lone zebra who is really intrigued by us. Then we make a technical descent down steep terraces leading our horses on foot.

PIC 13 Descending into the Kuiseb Canyon

Descending into the Kuiseb (image courtesy of Namibia Horse Safaris)

After watering the horses and a quick picnic lunch, it is time to begin our climb out of the canyon. From the base of the canyon the climb looks impossible, but the horses, guides and back-up team are incredible as they clamber across sheer rock and make light work of the steep, rocky ascent.

PIC 14 Karen and Sundown climb out of the Kuiseb Izzy's pic

Karen & Sundown climbing out of the Kuiseb (image courtesy of Izzy Crane)

We make it to Aruvlei our next camp by mid-afternoon, in plenty of time for a fabulous sun downer in celebration of surviving the Kuiseb.

Pic 15 Celebratory Sundowners after surviving the Kuiseb

Mariette & Gill – sundowners at Aruvlei

As our adventure begins to come to a close we make our way up the Swakop River, the energy seems to change and the horses are on edge a little. Perhaps they can sense their journey is almost over? We have wonderful canters along the dry riverbed and gaze up at the rock formations on either side.

PIC 16 Riding up the Swakop River

The Swakop River – riding towards civilisation

On the way to our last stop on the trail we pause for a break under the shade of a tree and notice that the ground underfoot looks like huge fish scales, crunching underfoot.

PIC 17 Fish scales Rebecca's pic

The Swakop riverbed looks like huge fish scales (image courtesy of Rebecca Hast)

Signs of civilisation begin to appear, a house, a fence, dogs barking; it seems so strange after having been isolated in the desert for ten days.

Our final ride is bittersweet, we’ve nearly done it, but we don’t want it to end. An idea circulates about heading north when we get to Swakopmund, riding up the coast to explore Damaraland and then on to Etosha, before turning south and heading back to Windhoek. Then having a little rest and doing some washing before riding south to see the Wild Horses and then on to explore the Fish River Canyon. What an adventure that would be…shall we start planning?!

As we ride towards Swakopmund we cross a railway and a few roads, before passing towering dunes and then we catch our first sight of the Atlantic Ocean. Our incredible Namibian adventure ends with a final thrilling gallop along the beach at Swakopmund, champagne corks popping as we reach the end of the beach.

It has been a wonderful ten days, full to the brim with adrenaline-fueled gallops, wonderful company, amazing food, ever-changing landscapes, dust, sunshine, and incredible game. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried and we’ve finally fulfilled our dream of crossing the Namib Desert. As Joe put it so eloquently in his thank you speech to Andrew and the team, “we’ve ridden like hell and eaten like horses”.

PIC18 We_ve done it

We did it – arriving into Swakopmund

So there it is, I’ve finally faced it and written my blog. I now have to write “The End” and admit that my adventure is over. But what will keep me going is the hope that one day I’ll return to the wide open plains of Namibia, where friends are made, challenges are met and the memories last until the call of the wilderness becomes too strong to resist.

The End

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As well as this adventurous ride crossing the Namib Desert, In The Saddle also features other challenging trail rides in Namibia including the Damara Elephant Safari, Desert Canyons Safari and Wolwedans to Wild Horses.

If you’d like to find out more about our Namibian rides, please contact Abbie on +44 1299 272 239 or email abigail@inthesaddle.com

Categories: Equestrian Travel, horse riding, Horses & riding, in the saddle, Riding expeditions, Riding Holidays, riding holidays africa, riding holidays namibia, Riding safaris | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sarah Sands shares her experience of riding across the Namib Desert

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.

Our group of 12 riders ready for an adventure

Our group of 12 riders ready for an adventure

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.

The spectacular landscape across Namibia

The spectacular landscape across Namibia

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 horses were a selection of Arab crosses, Namibian Wambloods and South African Boerperds

The horses were a selection of Arab crosses, Namibian Wambloods and South African Boerperds

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.

Exploring Canyons not previously ridden through

Exploring Canyons not previously ridden through

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”.

Getting close to desert-adapted game such as Oryx

Getting close to desert-adapted game such as Oryx

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!

Enjoying the view from one of my rides

Enjoying the view from one of my rides

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.

What a memorable adventure on wonderful horses

What a memorable adventure on wonderful horses

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.

Caracal at Naankuse

Caracal at Naankuse

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.

Wild dog at Naankuse

Wild dog at Naankuse

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

Meeting a cheetah named Kiki

Meeting a cheetah named Kiki

 

Categories: Equestrian Travel, Horses & riding, Ride reviews, Riding expeditions, Riding Holidays, Riding safaris | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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