Serial adventurer Peter van Kets doesn’t do half-measures. So when he decided Namibia needed a notch on the bedpost, it turned epic very quickly.
Images: Jacques Marais
I spend a lot of time in the saddle sweating it out in some of the most beautiful parts of the planet. This is why I love mountain biking so much. It’s a collaboration of heart and soul, agony and ecstasy, friendships and solitude. Whether I am on my own or with groups of people, single track or open gravel roads, there is something unique about mountain biking.
I am sure that every hardened mountain biker has had similar experience, but have you ever asked yourself: why the hell am I doing this? So, lets paint a picture quickly. It’s day four of our Beyond the Desert Edge Expedition and I am strangely tired (funny that). I’m suffering with a serious, lingering sinusitis (not what you want on an expedition) and a small dose of sleep deprivation, which I usually have no problem with. The worst issue, however, is the nagging pain in my buttocks.
There is this little voice in my head that is constantly speaking to me. We all know the
voice. Every time I press down on my Giant Anthem’s pedals, the pain that shoots into my groin gets the voice going again. A voice I’ve heard many times before. I know I need to ignore it.
“It’s physically impossible do another 11 hours on the saddle today. Will you be able to continue if this injury gets worse? Have you actually done enough training to complete the expedition? Is the equipment you are using the best suited for you? If you feel like this now, can you imagine how it will be tomorrow?”
I started asking myself serious questions and my mind is playing games with me. I think you get the picture. Having spent most of my formative years as a bare foot, khaki-broek, kettie-wielding Windhoek boy, I have a taste for wide-open desert landscapes. It was those wild years that gave me a palate for exploring remote wilderness areas, especially deserts. This wanderlust for adventure would someday lead to one of the most spectacular desert rides (in my humble opinion) on the planet.
It would become known as the Dunlop Beyond the Desert Edge Expedition.
The whole concept for this ride came from a collaborative effort between myself and the infamous photojournalist and adventurer Jacques Marais. We were going to ride from just inland of the Cunene River mouth following the edge of the desert approximately 30km from the coast 1 250km down to Swakopmund. Our sponsors, Dunlop Tyres SA, was delighted as this would be a fantastic opportunity for them to truly test the new AT3G vehicle tyres, which were launched earlier this year.
One of the most alluring parts of the expedition was always going to be the area along the Cunene River near the Wilderness Safaris, Serra Cafema Camp. When we first started conceptualising the expedition, this was the region that captured our imagination. Fantastically rugged mountains, blistering desert dunes with a green snake of water meandering towards the coast. Totally inhospitable and yet a few Himba people live there. This was going to set the scene for the start of beyond the Desert Edge Expedition.
SERRA CAFEMA – ONDUSONJENGO RIVER
Day 1 of any expedition is always going to set the scene for the rest of the ride. Good and bad. The ride out of Sierre Cafema was a hard grind and its difficult to describe a mixture of rugged mountain climbs interspersed with red Namib sand dunes. Somehow they don’t seem to mix, but they do and it makes for some challenging slow riding. But it’s so worth it because once we reached the Hartmanns plateau we were met with breathtaking views. After 11 hours in the saddle, cycling with herds of mountain zebra and gemsbok we rode into the dry Ondusonjengo River bed. Exhausted and at the same time totally exhilarated by what we had seen and experienced.
My backside was ruined from the new seat, bad cycle shorts and new bike. Note to self – don’t be a d**s, be lekker. Never use new equipment at the start of an expedition. I slumped into my camp chair. The sun slipped behind the dunes and I cuddled an ice cold beer. You just have to love deserts.
THE NAMIB GARDEN ROUTE
– ONDUSONJENGO RIVER TO SECHOMIB RIVER
Few people have passed through the stretch of the Namib Desert west of the Hartmans Valley. Besides the incredibly adaptable gemsbok and mountain zebra there is no life to be seen. Nestled neatly against the only tree in the area Jacques and I came across a ‘statue’ made of rock. From a distance it appeared to be real. We had heard about them before, but to actually see one is just phenomenal. They have been called the “lone men of the Koakoveld’. An unidentified artist has evidently made a few of these and positioned them in the most remote parts of Namibia. This was one of them. I sidled up next to him and took a moment to take in the remoteness of where we were and how fortunate we were to share it with him.
After a brief look at a nearby spring we ascended into what can only be described as the most beautiful place I have ever had the privilege of visiting and on a mountain bike, nogal. Jacques and I were surrounded by granite mountains with almost perfectly rounded boulders. We had to play in these so we scrambled up one of these mountains and were completely blown away by the sheer magnificence of that place. Our Wilderness Safaris desert guru guide, Gerhard Theron, who had joined the team for this section called it the Garden Route of the Namib. It sure was.
SECHOMIB RIVER TO HOARUSIB RIVER
One of the weather features we thought we would avoid by riding between 30-40km inland was the coastal south-west trade winds. We were cycling from North to south, which meant if we had this wind, it would be on our snouts. We had it in heaps. Despite this wind we had phenomenal experiences. One of the largest flat plains we rode on during this whole expedition was just before descending into the Hoarasib River. In every direction, as far as you could see, there was simply nothing. Not a blade of grass – no life. The only miracle is that there were signs of black desert rhino tracks and freshly thrashed dung piles everywhere. How on earth these huge desert animals survive is beyond me.
The descent into the Hoarusib River is every mountain bikers dream. 25km of wild oryx single track between rugged desolate mountains. What goes down must go up and I knew that the next morning I would have the same, but in reverse. When you bottom out in the riverbed there is just an abundance of game and signs of the desert pachyderms.
Wilderness Safaris manage some of the best wilderness areas in Africa. Their lodges are spectacular and none finer than their camp at Hoanib River. Although we were not staying at the camp as they are always fully booked, we were looking forward to being a bit pampered on our way through. The dry riverbed is alive with game and one of the few places where you can get up close to the elusive desert lion. We saw our first pride just two kilometres before finishing our day’s ride. A close call. I would have a closer lion experience later in the expedition…
I started the ride out of the Hoanib River early in the morning. It starts at the confluence of the Hoanib and Moederoep Rivers and it seems to wind endlessly up into the horizon and beyond. While the rest of the crew headed off in the Isuzus in search of the, so far, elusive desert elephants, I sweated it out on my Giant. The river bed is crusty in places which makes it easier to ride and then, inexplicably, becomes soft again, without warning.
I was amped that morning and set a cracking pace hoping to see the rest of the team only once I had summited. Having seen lions the day before I was keen to have my ‘bear banger’ close at hand. 24km into this uphill wind, the team returned wild with excitement having had the ultimate encounter with a small herd of these desert elephants.
I was slightly envious. But my turn to feel the adrenalin course would come. In heaps.
ACHAB DESERT ELEPHANTS
We had just arrived at the Achab River in the Palmwag Concession, a little breathless after an incredibly rocky ride through a rugged mountainous section after having spent so much time in the desert. My backside was really feeling it now. The campsite we chose snuggled up again a small soft sandstone cliff to the one side and the river bed to the other.
I settled into my camp chair with a cold frosty catching up with some news from the rest of the team and as I did this a female elephant strolled determinedly into our camp. We were as surprised as she was and we could see that there was some other issue, besides us. She dug her heels in, flapped her ears, hooked a 180º turn and sped off in the other direction. Unbeknown to us she was being hotly pursued by a large male who was very obviously in must.
It was a quick encounter, but my first ever with desert elephants. There is little more exciting than straddling a mountain bike to the roar of lions and you are in the middle of nowhere. Jacques and brothers, Peter and Graham Kirk had left early to visit the Wilderness Desert Rhino Camp to do some expedition administrative work and I was left with Johan, a Wilderness ranger who would guide me through the concession. We had just stopped to look at another herd of elephants and was
about to head off when we heard the first roars. If you have ever been near a male lion when it roars you would understand my concern at this point. Johan assured me they were far away, in the riverbed; we were skirting the river we would not have to worry about them.
On I rode.
Six kilometres later we descended into a vast open plain which looked like the source of the Achab. I stopped just before we entered the plain as I noticed something that looked a little unusual 100m away. At first it looked like scattered sandstone rocks and when I looked closer, it was easy to see that they were lions. I signalled for Johan to catch up quickly. The lions looked very still and poised for action. Johan, who had turned a slightly grey colour spent no time at all bundling me and my Giant into the back of the van. We drove past three female and a male, all crouched, all ready to pounce and sad at the lost opportunity. Johan turned to me and said, “Jeepers, Peter. that was a close one. A few more metres and they would have been on you.” Note to self: keep guide a bit closer. Trust your own instincts and a bear banger is a great deterrent when there is imminent animal threat, but in no ways would it have stopped those lions; there would have been no time to use it. Lions are super quick and super aggressive. Bliksem.
THE GARNET DESCENT
Sandstone cliffs and deep garnet coloured mountains line the track south of the Palmwag concession. I managed to get Jacques to join me on the best (we were to discover) descent of the expedition from the top of the Huab River Valley to the Ugab River; still in wild lion territory. This 46km downhill blitz starts off between the garnet mountains, descending to open plains, dodging ancient welwitschia mirabilis plants and slowly narrows into the most inhospitable and at the same time most beautiful canyon until it’s just a mere four meters wide. This was one of the most incredible rides of the expedition and of my life. It was also the last of the true wild we were to experience of the expedition. Once we popped out of the Ugab valley into the Brandberg area, we would have to face civilisation again and something of the untamed would be lost.
This expedition was the first in a series of five Beyond Expeditions Jacques and I will be doing over the next few years. The Beyond the Rift Valley Expedition is up next, starting in September 2018, and we will once again be sweating it out in some wilderness areas in Central Africa.
We use our expeditions to raise funds and awareness for Children in the Wilderness, a non-profit organisation supported by ecotourism company Wilderness Safaris to facilitate sustainable conservation through leadership development and education of rural children in Africa. Insight, care and commitment are required to conserve Africa’s pristine wilderness and wildlife areas where we all like to ride. If we are to ensure that these places continue to exist – in this generation and those to come – we need the rural children of Africa to understand the importance of conservation and its relevance in their lives.
The main regions you will pass through is Kaokoland, Damaraland, Erongo and the Dorob National Park. All you need to know, however, is that you will be riding in ‘Desert Proper’. Sand, rocks, stone, reptiles, more stone, rugged outcrops, dry riverbeds, sparse savannah plains … and did I mention sand and stone …?
It is important to understand that these are some of the last remaining wilderness areas on Planet Earth, and you will be riding through conservancies where dangerous animals roam free. These include Palmwag, Torra and Dora !Nawas, and although there are public tracks, you need to know where the private concession areas limit – or prohibit – access.
Ensure you familiarise yourself with these boundaries, and stick to all general wilderness rules: leave nothing behind and stay on existing tracks, as fresh vehicle spoors may take decades to disappear.
DO IT YOURSELF
Take note This is not the type of adventure you’d want to take on without the necessary experience. The north-western Cunene region is an extreme wilderness area with a testing desert climate, and with rare access to water, fuel or any provisions.
You would require a proper off-road vehicle and a high level of outdoor skills, and should be able to apply self-rescue techniques and basic first aid. One way to attempt the ride is with an accredited operator like Gurney Blackbeard
(www.dualpurposetraining.co.za), or to otherwise settle for the comfort and luxury of one of the world-class Wilderness Safaris destinations – more details at www.wilderness-safaris.com
If you do go solo, it’s worthwhile investing in Tracks 4 Africa mapping software, as this will help you stay on track and find campsites in the dry river beds. Once you’ve lit your fire, you can sit and listen all night tothe surrounding thousand-mile silence.
This deep in the desert, you sometimes don’t even hear an owl or jackal as you lie in your tent and it will be eerily silent, quiet enough to hear scorpions or beetles scuttling by in the dark.