Another Day in Swakopmund

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Another day in Swakopmund, another group of travellers, another early minibus out to the dunes.

This pretty German Colonial town is marketed as Namibia’s adventure capital. There is sandboarding, quad-biking, ballooning, camel-riding, sky-diving, parascending and deep-sea fishing. Yesterday was sandboarding, today is ATV’s.

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Travellers stepped out of the minibuses which had collected them from tour agents, guest houses and campsites around town. We were funnelled inside, given waivers to sign and helmets to wear, and led off in small groups.

I pulled on the helmet, started the quad bike and we rolled out of the centre in line astern behind the guide, past grassy hillocks into the open desert. The sun cast long shadows behind us, the sky was a deep and improbable blue, the sand glowed orange and pink.

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Skudding across the floor of the desert, throttle wide open, engine howling, feeling the heat rise from the crankcase, looping up, along and down a high dune, treating it like a berm on a mountain bike trail, kicking up the odd puff of sand; back onto the flat, then bumping over the crest of a smaller dune. The driver in front takes the next one too slow and bogs down; the back wheels dig in, churning up sand in clouds. I swerve round her and keep the throttle open and make it up and over the top, getting momentarily airborne.

It is a landscape of majestic nothingness: a sea of sand blown into waves by the wind, the colours changing as the sun rises as the morning unfolds. They filmed Mad Max: Fury Road here, using these dunes to represent the apocalyptic landscape of a world after a nuclear war. In reality, the toxic smoke would block the sun for years and start another ice age, but only the cockroaches and hardier sorts of wasp would mind: humans and everything else would be extinct.

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The guide raised his hand to get us to stop, left his quad bike running and walked off into the desert. He came back with a namaqua chameleon in his hand. When he released it, the dark chameleon began to lighten until it was a similar colour to the sand, although it is said to be a myth that they change colour for camouflage. It shuffled off, then, with its comedy power walk, all elbows and knees.

We pressed on into the desert and the surefooted ATV’s clung to the side of the dunes, and powered up steep slopes and rolled down the other side, and I felt in control throughout and never in much danger and came round to thinking that the popular idea that these things are deathtraps was just scaremongering by the tabloid press.

Then I heard later that one of the guys I had got the minibus with that morning had gone over the handlebars and wound up in hospital with a broken scapula.

© Richard Senior 2016              

65km/h on a Sandboard

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Swakopmund, Namibia. A mind-bending, hallucinatory place: an authentic slice of small-town Germany deep in Southern Africa. Cutesy, pastel-coloured Jugendstil buildings. Signs on store fronts in Gothic script, all umlauts and harsh consonants. A Lutherian church; a bierhaus selling good lager and sturdy plates of sausage and sauerkraut.

Leave town early in the morning in an old Volkswagen minibus. The sandboards strapped to the roof; a mangy dog standing on my knees so it can look out the window, wobbling as it tries to keep its balance.

Arrive at the dunes. Take down a sandboard, change into snowboard boots; trudge up the long curving track to the top. Grab a cloth, dip it in wax and smear it over the bottom of the sandboard. Find a place to sit at the edge of the slope.

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Third in line. The first guy struggles to stay on his feet, falls over a few times, wobbles, squats and touches the ground, as if reassuring himself it is there. The second is an experienced snowboarder and streaks down the dune at speed, slaloming round imaginary poles to show off.

My go then. Follow the instructions: turn my back to the slope, do a backwards roll. Straight away scudding diagonally across the dune, balancing better than expected.

Picking up speed. Halfway down. Much faster now; faster than feels comfortable on a first attempt. Shift my weight to my toes to slow the board; but it digs in and stops dead and the kinetic energy flings me forward onto the sand and rolls me like a barrel with the board still clipped to my boots.

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Unclip from the board, spit out the sand, empty it from each of my pockets in turn, wipe the thick off my arms, then plod back up to the top of the dune.

You looked like a helicopter trying to take off sideways,” someone says.

I get further down the slope on my second run then come off again, but not as spectacularly. Land head-first. Glad of the pisspot helmet. But it rattles my brain nonetheless. On the third run – or it might have been the fourth – I glide all the way to the bottom and feel good. The snowboarder, by then, is doing jumps.

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Move to a different slope, and a different, brutally straightforward, style of sandboarding. Take a big sheet of plywood, lay face-down on it, lift my feet, grab the corners and curl them up, then just hang on as the board careens down the slope. There is no slowing, or stopping, or steering, as there is with a proper sandboard: just staying on or coming off. It feels stupidly fast – I will find out how fast – and totally out of control, which I suppose it is, except I could bail if an unexpected springbok suddenly heaves into view.

Whisk past the guy at the bottom with the speed camera, heading for the run-off slope. Somehow hit it at the wrong angle, bury the board in the sand, fly a few metres then bury myself. Spit out the sand, shake it from my hair, rub it from my t-shirt, empty my pockets again.

65k,” the guy with the camera says.

© Richard Senior 2016

Camel Train to the Sahara

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How are you, my friend?”

“I’m very good, thank you. And you?”

“Very good. Insh’Allah. First time on camel?”

“Yeah. I’ve ridden elephants, though.

“Camel is different.”

“Of course. No trunk, right?”

There is an art to getting on a camel. No one told me what it was. I got on like a drunk trying to scale a fence. The Bedouin, then, told the camel to get up and, in three distinct movements, it thrust its head forward, extended its back legs – tipping me forward as if in a roller-coaster going over the top – then brought its front legs up to meet them.

There was a group of us – British, French, Dutch, Austrian, Canadian, Korean and Japanese – gathered from hotels, hostels and riads around Marrakesh and driven 350 miles across country to the edge of the Sahara where the road stopped abruptly and the towns thinned out to villages, then hamlets and finally to nothing but an isolated hostel and sand. The camel train would take us the rest of the way.

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The camels were roped together in two groups of four with a Bedouin leading each group. I had the camel at the front of the train behind a Bedouin in an ankle-length thobe and turban, and jeans and Asics trainers. He hummed to himself as he ambled through the dunes, until his smartphone rang. He was a digital nomad.

The winds had stacked, shaped, sculpted, smoothed and polished the sand into hills and valleys, peaks and troughs, soaring anything up to five hundred feet, then plunging back to the desert floor, gently undulating, and soaring up again; the ridges were sharply creased, the slopes pristine.

It was all the same to the camels, who plodded along with deliberate steps, never slowing, never slipping, up sinuous inclines, along knife-edge trails across the dunes, and down slopes steep enough to worry me about going over the handlebars. They have a reputation for being foul-tempered things which spit and burp and growl, but then so do some of us. These camels had a relaxed air and beatific smiles. They seemed barely to notice, let alone to care about, the strangers on their backs.

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The sand glowed orange in the dying sun of the late afternoon; the shadows were long and dark. We stopped at the top of a dune and looked west and watched the sun slip below the horizon, then set off again in the twilight.

It was a lot more comfortable on the camel than I imagined it would be, but my thighs eventually began to protest at constantly stretching around the saddle bags and I was glad when we got to the camp.

The camels sank to their knees and I got off as clumsily as I had got on. The Bedouins unloaded the saddle bags and we dumped our stuff in the tents. They were a roughly rectangular shape, flat-roofed, waist-high, with a wooden frame covered with stitched woollen blankets.

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There was a big communal tent, too, with flickering lanterns, low tables, Berber rugs and a family of tabby cats. The Bedouins poured out mint tea, lit a crackling camp fire and cooked a simple but perfectly good tagine. The cats noisily begged us to share it and, as always, it worked with me: they got the chicken and I had the bread and potatoes.

I had packed an overnight bag and shorts and a t-shirt to sleep in, but I am not sure where I thought I was going to find water, nor whether I really envisaged stripping off and getting ready for bed in the dark and the cold of the desert. As it was, I just laid down fully-clothed and pulled a couple of Berber rugs over me.

The cats crept into the tent in the middle of the night, or at least I assume it was them: something around that size bolted out when I got up to go to the loo, and I didn’t want to think about what else it might be.

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A wind had picked up by then and howled with a quiet determination. The sky was crammed with stars. The camels were sleeping with their necks stretched out across the sand in front of them. The last embers of the fire glowed weakly.

I was perhaps an hour, as the camel plods, from the nearest hamlet but it was easy to imagine that I was hundreds of miles in any direction from human habitation, further from the modern world and all its annoyances: far from endless TV shows about forgotten celebrities and amateur property developers, interspersed with excitable adverts for products which nobody needs, from constant finger-wagging and pettifogging rules, from unsmiling one-upmanship where fun ought to be, from lives too busy for living. It was just an illusion, though.

We were back on the camels in the bitter cold dawn, hooded and gloved, to welcome the sun back up.

© Richard Senior 2016