Twenty people stood in a single file line at the lip of the dune, mouths agape staring with disbelief as Volker’s Land Cruiser surfed atop an avalanche of sand for 200 meters down an almost sheer face.
I’d never seen (or heard) a dune quite like it. An absolute mammoth of a mound with an overall inclination approximating that of an Egyptian pyramid.
It was big and it was steep and it looked rather like a giant orange tsunami.
And its name was ‘The Long Wall of Death’
“The intelligent people who study the desert still aren’t sure what makes these dunes rumble,” Volker (the proprietor of Desert Magic Tours) had earlier told us as we made our way in single file across the vastness of Namibia’s Naukluft National Park. “It could be air trapped between the sand grains or it might be static electricity. Nobody really knows.”
But whatever the reason, there can be no denying that to hear a giant dune roar is to hear the voice of Mother Earth herself.
Problem is though, she didn’t sound very happy!
“Bloody hell,” said one of the clients as we watched Volker’s vehicle become smaller and smaller as it slid down the giant roaring dune towards the Atlantic below. “Is he serious? Are we all going down…there?”
We all gulped in unison.
And yes, he was serious. We were all going to have to go down there. He had gone, he wasn’t coming back up, and without him, we would no doubt be sharing a similar fate with some of the skeletons we had earlier seen littering the dunes.
“Oh, and one more thing….” shouted Volker once he had reached the bottom
“Keep your wheels strait, lay off the accelerator, avoid using the breaks too much and try not to camber or roll.”
So, once again we all swallowed hard, and one by one, committed our vehicles and our souls to the mercy of the Long Wall of Death.
Children screamed as if on a rollercoaster, women clung tightly to the handles in their cabs, whilst the men drove with white knuckles and wide eyes.
It was exhilarating, it was frightening, but in the end, we all made it down safely.
Thing is, we were now in the real desert; that unforgiving killer where water is as scarce as chickens teeth and mortality awaits the unprepared.
And the Long Wall of Death was our ‘point of no return’
“You’re committed now,” said Volker with a mock look of grave concern etched into his face. “For better or for worse, there’s no turning back now.”
And we’re off
Two days earlier, our eight car convoy had parked off at an inconspicuous little gate on the south-eastern boundary of the great Naukluft Park 120 kms from the non descript, scruffy and desiccated town of Aus.
Here, Volker Jahnke, one of the best desert navigators in the world, had instructed us on what we must do to safely traverse the 500 or so kilometres of serious off-road sand driving that lay ahead of us.
We were on a recce of sorts; an expedition which Volker hoped would, at some later date, become a licenced 4×4 route for his company.
We would traverse romantic and exotic sounding places such as the Tiras Mountains, and the Haiba flats, and we would travel off road across golden prairies and gravel planes and through rocky granite landscapes.
We would enter the desert proper and navigate a labyrinth of sand dunes of all shapes and sizes before moving onto the monolithic mass of the black Urihauchab mountain.
On day 3, our mission would be to plough through yet more sand until hitting Saint Francis Bay where we would then (should we still be in once piece) traverse desolate beaches in a southwards direction before setting up camp under a coastal dune in a whale bone littered cove.
Day 4 would see us head back inland across rolling dune fields to overnight at a place named Bushman’s Paradise before, on day five, finally emerging from the desert, cracked of lip and squint of eye, somewhere close to Aus.
Presumptuous? probably! After all, none of the clients had driven on sand before, and we did have a great deal of potentially clutch frying dunes to span before then.
“Nothing in the desert is for certain,” Volker had told us. “Except for the sand, that is.”
The Great Trek
“Here in the Naukluft we have seven major types of dune,” said Volker as we stood around our vehicles for his intro speech to our adventure. “The shifting crescent dunes are the ones shaped like a half moon. They can move up to 150 meters in a single year; but petrified dunes are almost solid and don’t move at all.”
We also have barkanoid dunes near the coast which pile up against each other like pillows and then we have the star dunes which stand alone and when viewed from above look very much like, well, a star.
Linear dunes are obviously in lines with dune streets in-between them, and then there are the hammock dunes which you find pushed up against mountains and rocks and other static objects like Landrovers.
Last of all, we have the transverse dunes which are the ones that are often compared to the soft and curvy bits of a woman”
I had no idea there were so many different kinds.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of driving on sand on this trip,” he continued in his gravely German accent. “But then again, this is a desert after all; the oldest desert in the world in fact.”
He then went on to explain to us a variety of rules, regulations, hints, tips and general instructions on how to pass through the desert in one piece.
“No egos are allowed,” was his first bit of advice. “Because egos will get you stuck. There’ll be no alcohol either. At least not when we’re driving. The desert does not forgive an idiot.” And then he went on to explain about all the awful things that could happen to our vehicles and ourselves should we not pay attention.
“If you break down in the Naukluft, we can’t just tow you out,” he said. “We’ll have to come back and try to fix your car where it stopped. If we can’t fix it, we’ll have to cut it up and bring it out in pieces because were not allowed to leave junk in the park.”
At that, he gave the only Land Rover in our convoy an involuntary sideways glance.
“Our route is non commercial. You are the first group to do it, and as such, there might be a few hidden surprises ahead. But if you leave your egos at the gate, pay attention to what I tell you over the radios, and look out for each other, then there shouldn’t be any serious problems.”
Everyone looked at each other nervously
“Ah, but what do you lot have to worry about?” he added as an end note “We’re not a group of testosterone driven dune bashers now are we? We’re families. Women, kids, nice guys right? No egos at all!”
And he had been right. Here we were, a team of 20 men women and children about to tackle a landscape which has traditionally been the domain of the hairy chested “tough” guy group. The men who drink Brandy and Coke for breakfast and see everything in life as a competition.
But we were not here to ‘conquer’ the desert. That’s a fool’s chain of thought. Rather, we were here to pass through it as gently as possible and to really appreciate the beauty.
The fact that we would be doing some seriously hard-core dune driving on “One of the most technical areas on earth,” according to Volker, was merely the icing on the cake.
And so, over the course of the next 48 hours, with Volker at our helm and his recovery team at our rear, we honed our driving skills as best we could.
We revved up the faces of smooth sided dunes which, in the soft morning light, had looked like abstract works of art, and we had also safely managed to survive a series of steep-sided slip faces and the occasional gaping sand hole.
Of course, as to be expected we (Volker excluded) had got stuck on numerous occasions and on numerous dunes; but Volker’s team was always on hand to tow us out.
No matter how often we got into trouble; Volker managed to rescue us. Without him, we wouldn’t have got more than twenty meters into the desert.
END OF PART ONE
For more information on desert expeditions visit Volker’s company page