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Posted on November 10, 2017
In this blog entry Abbie from In The Saddle tells us about her trip to the Namib Desert earlier this year.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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 Namib 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 the Namib Desert, where friends are made, challenges are met and the memories last until the call of the wilderness becomes too strong to resist.
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.