TRAVEL: Marzahn Botha’s five-day jour­ney into the Namib Desert

Led by ad­ven­turer Anette Grob­ler, I trekked 100km into the Namib Desert over five days with 24 other hik­ers. But for Anette it was more than just a hike: it’s where she got lost years ago – this trek was a chance to put those hor­rific mem­o­ries to rest.

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eigh­teen years ago, dur­ing a solo ad­ven­ture race in the Namib Desert, Anette Grob­ler got lost. She spent two days in the desert try­ing to get her bear­ing, with­out any food and wa­ter, and not a soul in sight. Anette lived to tell the tale, but she never re­turned – un­til July this year, when she made a longde­layed jour­ney back to the place where she came face to face with death. And this time, she had 25 hik­ers walk­ing along­side her.

Anette, who was a ma­jor in the South African army, has led many hikes and ad­ven­tures. She was also the first per­son to do a solo ad­ven­ture through the 370km Death Acre route in An­gola, a bru­tal stretch be­tween the dunes and the At­lantic Ocean, and she was the first to do a 570km solo walk along the Skele­ton Coast, from the Ugab to the Kunene River in north­west­ern Namibia.

About three years ago, she founded hik­ing com­pany Si­lent Steps. Their mantra? ‘Outer ad­ven­tures – in­ner jour­neys.’

‘Women are at the core of ev­ery­thing on my trips, but men also love them,’ says Anette. ‘If I can help peo­ple get closer to their goals and change their per­cep­tions of them­selves, Si­lent Steps has done its work.’

We were all on a new hike that Anette had cre­ated. It trails the Khan River, not too far from Swakop­mund – ex­actly where she got lost all those years ago. The Can You Khan? takes five days. It be­gins at Goanikontes Oa­sis Rest Camp, about 50km south­east of Swakop­mund in an area called the Moon Land­scape, and fol­lows the dry riverbed of the Khan River through val­leys, dolomite and gran­ite canyons, and farm land, end­ing about 30km from the mag­i­cal Spitzkoppe peaks. DAY 1: WINDSWEPT The Nama word ‘goanikontes’ means ‘the place where you re­move your fur coat’ – his­tor­i­cally, this area served as a rest stop for trav­ellers. It’s also the place where the 500-mil­lion-year-old Moon Land­scape meets the Goanikontes Oa­sis, and wel­witschias and palm trees grow side by side.

Hik­ers from South Africa and Namibia, and one Euro­pean, met at the oa­sis: the youngest was 21, the old­est 67.

Twenty kilo­me­tres of desert lay ahead of us on the first day, but we knew that as long as we fol­lowed the cen­tral vein of the dry riverbed and stayed hy­drated, any­thing was doable. Anette and her sup­port team of five ve­hi­cles and 10 ex­pe­ri­enced ad­ven­tur­ers made sure that there was an over­sup­ply of wa­ter: about five litres per hiker, per day.

Even so, that first day was rough. The sun beat down on us, with tem­per­a­tures soar­ing to 35˚C, and the wind tried its best to blow us off course at speeds of 60 km/h. River sand swirled ev­ery­where, but luck­ily we’d come pre­pared: sun­glasses and buffs kept it out of our eyes and mouths. Trudg­ing across thick river sand is tir­ing and can cause some pain and blis­ters. Ev­ery evening, Mandy Min­naar (our ‘blis­ter sis­ter’) had her nee­dle and thread at the ready. That evening we camped in a de­serted val­ley pro­tected from the wind. Si­lent Steps is renowned for host­ing hikes in style: as the team got started on din­ner, out came a ban­quet-style ta­ble com­plete with se­quined run­ner

and golden flow­ers. And on the menu? A but­ter chicken curry, fol­lowed by brown­ies, all pre­pared by Marietjie van Schalk­wyk and her daugh­ter, Mon­nique Kruger. Dur­ing din­ner, Til­lia Kotze read a Sun­day Times ar­ti­cle about Anette’s or­deal to us, writ­ten by Sy­brand Mostert:

Grob­ler (36) was tak­ing part in the Old Mu­tual Desert Ad­ven­ture Chal­lenge near Swakop­mund, Namibia: 16 com­peti­tors ran 21km on the beach be­fore dawn, pad­dled kayaks 20km in the sea, did a 6,5km dune climb, cy­cled 45km, hiked 85km into the in­te­rior overnight, cy­cled an­other 50km, and fi­nally fin­ished the gru­elling event with a 1km climb and ab­seil in the for­bid­ding Spitzkoppe moun­tains.

Round about noon, Anette got lost in the main riverbed dur­ing the hik­ing leg. The sun burned down, and tem­per­a­tures soared above 40˚C. She faced get­ting out of deep, rocky ravines and cross­ing a low moun­tain in a di­rect route – and her wa­ter was dan­ger­ously low. ‘I was do­ing ev­ery­thing I could to re­tain body mois­ture, wrap­ping cloths about my head.’ With 17km to go, she stored her own urine in her now empty wa­ter bot­tle. She tried dig­ging into the riverbed for wa­ter and sucked the mois­ture from plants on the banks. Her feet were badly blis­tered, mak­ing walk­ing dif­fi­cult.

Anette knew she had to go in a westerly di­rec­tion. Af­ter 36 hours in the in­tense heat and cold of the world’s old­est desert, she had lost con­trol of her bod­ily func­tions and had be­gun to hal­lu­ci­nate... Then she saw the Röss­ing Ura­nium Mine. She was fi­nally brought in by an em­ployee.


On the sec­ond day, we got an early start to avoid the af­ter­noon heat. Dis­tracted os­triches darted across the riverbed through­out the trip, caus­ing many anx­ious mo­ments. One hiker, Malissa, came across an enor­mous pair of kudu horns in the sand and de­cided that they just couldn’t stay be­hind.

We walked past an old ghost town as well as the Khan cop­per mine that had closed down in 1918. In­ter­est­ingly, it is still pos­si­ble to see signs of a lost civil­i­sa­tion here.

The back-up team set up camp in an area they had nick­named ‘The Choco­late Fac­tory’ – the rock for­ma­tions looked like Willy Wonka had poured lay­ers of white choco­late onto lay­ers of dark and milk choco­late, form­ing in­tri­cate pat­terns that left us in awe.


On day three, seven Khan hik­ers who had gone ahead of the group fol­lowed a de­cep­tive side vein of the river and walked along it for al­most 7km. When Anette reached the trib­u­tary, she knew they had taken a wrong turn. She also knew she couldn’t run fast enough to catch up with them, so she sent su­per-fit hiker Liezel de Vosto to call them back. ‘It trig­gered a lot of mem­o­ries,’ Anette said. ‘I could see the head­lines al­ready! It’s so easy to get lost in the desert.’

Even­tu­ally, with ev­ery­one back on the right path, we headed for a mag­nif­i­cent val­ley with quiver trees grow­ing out of cracks in the rocks, where we spent the night. The mag­ni­tude of the si­lence sur­round­ing us was pal­pa­ble. With 40km to go, we were look­ing good but feel­ing achy.


I had blis­ters, which made it hard to walk, but Anette and fel­low hiker Elsa Spiess duct-taped a pair of size 9 Crocs slops (I wear a size 5!) to my feet. It worked – they were like snow­shoes in the soft sand.

The climb on day four was the most stren­u­ous; we had to take a de­tour up a cliff be­cause there was an over­growth of reeds in the Khan River!

Day five was all about fin­ish­ing early enough to reach Spitzkoppe by noon. At the fin­ish, the team’s bakkies ap­peared fly­ing the South African flag and play­ing Chris de Burgh’s ‘Rid­ing on a Rain­bow’ to cel­e­brate our achieve­ment: we had made it!

That evening we cel­e­brated in the mag­i­cal Spitzkoppe Tented Camp, look­ing out over the Spitzkoppe and Pon­dok Moun­tains. The gran­ite peaks are 120 mil­lion years old and tower 700m above the desert floor – it’s an ab­so­lutely ex­tra­or­di­nary land­scape. ✤

Our camp­site on the first evening.

What used to be an old po­lice sta­tion in the Moon Land­scape. The land­scape is said to have been cre­ated 500 mil­lion years ago when cliffs broke through the earth’s crust.BE­LOW Buffs and sun­glasses helped Anette Grob­ler (left) and Til­lia Kotze keep sand out of their eyes and mouths.

Anette Grob­ler, the founder of Si­lent Steps and a true ad­ven­turer.

The camp­site on the sec­ond day at the so-called Choco­late Fac­tory.

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