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.
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.
DAY 2: THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
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.
DAY 3: WHEN LOST, RETRACE YOUR STEPS
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.
DAYS 4 AND 5: THE MAGIC OF SPITZKOPPE
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.