The lure of the desert

Many moons ago, I was a young lad who spent weekends on the farm.  Now my mind drifts back there, to a cold winter’s night, when I sat glued to the television, mesmerized by a documentary about strange-looking humans running across a desert.

I took in their dusty, sunburnt, wild looks and their packs which appeared uncomfortably large, fitted with water bottles on the straps, sleeping mats and bags.  I was intrigued by their odd caps with flaps hanging over their ears and neck.  Not to mention the contraptions covering their shoes, sometimes reaching up all the way to their knees.

The look of these pole swinging desert runners, was very far removed from that of road runners in races such as the iconic Comrades Marathon.  The narrator went on to say that these men and woman were taking part in the Marathon des Sables (MdS), the toughest self-sufficient footrace on earth.  I could not fathom how they survived 250km’s, over 6 days in the Sahara desert in southern Morocco, where competitors must carry everything on their backs (food, emergency and medical equipment, clothes, sleeping bags and mats).  Only water and a spot in an overnight tent are provided by the race organizers.

During that early stage of my life, I could not comprehend the challenges those athletes faced, but I was intrigued.  The impressive images of the television footage were burnt into my memory forever.  Nowadays, self-sufficient multi-stage desert adventures have become synonymous with ultra-running, embodying the ultimate ultra-challenge.  Although the MdS kept toying with my imagination over the years to come, I yearned for a gentler introduction to desert running.

That was how and when in 2012, I learnt of and instantly entered the Aussenkehr Desert Extreme 100km Trail Run (ADE) staged in the southernmost region of Namibia, just north of the Orange River.  The ADE is the perfect introduction to multi-stage desert running.  The event covers 3 days (36km, 36km, 28km). The race is not self-sufficient; it even offers the option to upgrade accommodation for nights one and three, from a tent to a chalet at The Norotshama Resort.  Which I did!  My motto was, and still is: I prefer to suffer in comfort, if that is an option.  Namibian hospitality is a great experience and we were treated to delicious, generous breakfasts and dinners.  There was even an option to book a massage after each stage, for recovery and TLC.  Which I did!  The race date is June, winter in the Southern hemisphere; so ordinarily at ADE one is not faced with extreme heat, as opposed to other desert ultras held in summer.  The closest I got to discomfort was on night two, when our sleeping kit was transferred to an exciting remote location and we overnighted under the full moon and a gazillion stars.  The route’s scenery is breathtaking, with descriptive place-names such as Camp Canyon, Pothole Canyon, King Kong Canyon, Quiver Tree Valley, Hikers Canyon, Skull Canyon and Kings Throne Canyon.  There is a fair amount of free running (i.e. no definite trail), which has the potential to make a day a lot more interesting!  Runners encounter some soft sand in the river beds, but those sections are relatively short.  The final day ended with us running through Aussenkehr Village, where happy local kids cheered us on at the top of their voices.  All in all, ADE was a desert run with no sand dunes or extreme heat.

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Photo credits: Mountain Extreme Events.

After three days of great running in the Aussenkehr Farm and Nature Reserve, spirits were high at the final race dinner.  I was raving about how wonderful a race destination Namibia was.  Next thing a fellow participant was raving about her awesome desert experience at the Namib Desert Challenge (NDC).  I registered her words “five days, Sossusvlei, five-star dinners” and fell for the NDC hook, line and sinker!

Adding a bit more hardship and a bit less comfort to the mix than the ADE, the NDC is a multi-stage extreme endurance footrace, covering 220km’s over 5 days in the Sossusvlei area.  The NDC made real my fantasy of returning to Dune 45 and Big Daddy, for a footrace and introduction to running desert dunes and extreme heat.  Thankfully the NDC is also not a self-sufficient race, i.e. one carries food for the day and enough water to last between checkpoints.  Each day had a few checkpoints, where participants were required to drink a glass of the race organizer, Kinetic Event’s, unusual tasting electrolyte mix.  Everyone downed it, no questions asked, as proper hydration is of utmost importance for survival when out and about in such extreme heat.  Boy oh boy, did it get hot!  Day two’s final 20km’s took us over a thick sandy stretch and here the temperature soared to a whopping 53 degrees Celsius!

The NDC set up our base camp, a stone’s throw away from the Sesriem Campsite, providing individual tents and good shower and toilet facilities.  Boiling water, cutlery and crockery were provided, but we had to prepare our own breakfast and lunch.  Foodstuff was easily obtained from the well stocked garage shop nearby, that sports a convenient internet cafe from where to connect with loved ones back home.  Apart from the scenery, everyone agreed that the NDC’s dinners were unmatched by any race in the world.  Staff from The Sossusvlei Lodge arrived every evening, providing a feast so fabulous, that it could qualify as my imaginary last meal!  The cherry on the cake was the last evening, when we were transported to remote caves for a bush dinner, even more extravagant than any of the campsite dinners.  At last we got to rest our weary bodies in the luxurious five-star rooms of The Sossusvlei Lodge.

The best comfort one could possibly ask for, after battling it out in the heat for hours, is an ice-cold swimming pool.  And that’s exactly what the NDC’s campsite offered!  The scene reminded me of an oasis, where about twenty of nature’s toughest footrace animals congregated after every stage, exchanging stories and replenishing mental reserves.

The NDC takes place in The Namib-Naukluft National Park.  Some of the routes are exclusive and inaccessible to the general public.  My highlight memories are running through Sesriem Canyon and summiting two of the highest dunes in the world: Dune 45 and Big Daddy.  After descending Big Daddy, the route took us through Deadvlei where dead black Acacia trees create a surreal landscape, the wood so dry, that it can not decompose.

My experience at the NDC got me one step closer to that image that was burnt into my memory many years ago, with enough comfort added to make it an extremely enjoyable multi-stage desert experience.

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Sesriem Canyon. Photo credit: Hannisze Xuanyi Yong.

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Deadvlei. Photo credit: Hannisze Xuanyi Yong.

2 Responses to The lure of the desert

  1. Bev Scher 23/07/2013 at 8:50 AM #

    Oh wow ! What an experience you had. Except for the 53 degrees(that means roasted feet and fried brains?!

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