Horses in the Namib desert. photos by Dina Bennett.
Namibia: A Safari on Horseback
Some say, once you’ve been to Africa it forever calls you to return. I’ve dodged hippos and crocs along Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools, lingered with the Omo tribes in Ethiopia, bush walked Zambia’s South Luangwa Park.
But for sheer breathtaking animal and bird life nothing could top my long-distance horseback safaris in Kenya and Botswana. They were pure Out Of Africa experiences, though unfortunately minus Robert Redford. I longed to return to somewhere in Africa, once more to feel the hush come over the bush as the sun set in a fiery ball, to inhale that pungent perfume which is smoke from a cook fire mixed with warm leather and sweating horse, to see a sky so bright with stars I couldn’t sleep.
Perusing my favorite horse tour websites, I discovered the Namib Desert ride. Starting from a point west of Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, the ride crosses 280 miles of the world’s oldest desert, ending at the Atlantic Ocean. Though supported by a truck supplying food and water we’d take care of the horses ourselves, sleeping under the stars.
“Toughest ride in the world,” the website trumpets, followed by “not for the faint hearted,” and “an extreme riding challenge.” It seems the organizers are trying to scare people away. If so, this is the ride for me.
A strange and wonderful place
The Namib Desert is a place of so little rainfall that riverbeds may not gush with water for centuries, the only moisture being dense fog which rolls in from Namibia’s 2000-kilometer shoreline with the Atlantic, the Skeleton Coast.
Rocky descent into the Namib desert.
Though the fog has caused many ships to wreck on offshore rocks, it’s a boon to plants, insects and animals which exist through ingenious survival methods. As just one example, there’s a small beetle, which, by tilting its abdomen at a 45-degree angle can trap fog droplets and drink what condenses on its body. I’m not so highly evolved, so slaking a raging thirst by gulping fog is going to take practice.
I choose to ride the Namib beginning of September, when days should be hot and nights cold but not bone chilling. I already have trail riding gear galore, so need just a couple of specialty items. Long days in the saddle produces sweat, which in turn leads to chafing. And chafing, as any baby with diaper rash will tell you, is uncomfortable enough to make you cry. I discover all kinds of CoolMax undergarments guaranteed to wick moisture away from tight places like.... toes. A friend shares a treasured jar of powder, labeled “Monkey Butt.”
We meet our horses at a country farm two hours from Windhoek. I’m thrilled that our leader is Waldi Fritzsche, who pioneered this desert route twenty years ago. A leggy woman in her fifties, she has a no-nonsense demeanor and is a scarily good rider.
Surveying us with pale blue eyes, she pushes her cropped blond hair under a broad-brimmed bush hat, ties a scarf over her face, and mounts up, waving us onward as if commanding the Charge of the Light Brigade. Her intent is to flush out complainers and those who, in a fit of egotism, have misrepresented their riding ability.
My ride starts poorly, with a horse impervious to all stimuli. I worry Colorado horse language doesn’t translate into Namibian, but am loathe to reveal the problem. Who wants to be a whiner before the adventure even starts? But on a horseback safari, the quality of the horse makes or breaks the trip, so when Waldi offers me her horse, aptly named Sir Do-A-Lot, I’m prepared to kiss her boots. If she’s riding him, he must be the best.
A foggy morning in the Namib desert.
Next morning, as the desert waits, Waldi lectures us. “We carry enough water for the horses and for you to drink. So, there is not enough water to also wash your horses. You will have to clean them with the brushes.” Waldi waves a worn curry brush in the air.
“You must pay careful attention. If you don’t brush them clean, your horse will get sores. If that happens we take you off and you finish the trip in the truck!”
Waldi barely pauses for breath. “You will check your horse every night. If he has a sore back, I will take him away from you. We have a couple of extra horses with us, but if you use them up, you will ride in the truck with camp staff!” We laugh sheepishly, to confirm that none of us would dare slam down hard on our horse’s back.
The first day is a deceptively easy 15km ride, meandering through bush savannah and down rubbly slopes. We are traversing the Great Escarpment which separates the Khomas Highland from the Namib Desert 3,600 feet below. The sun is warm. My lips start to chap in the dry air.
At lunch we clamber to a cave whose smokey black walls speak of long ago use by Bushmen. The current occupants, betrayed by ample droppings, are baboons, thankfully out foraging when we arrive.
As I daydream about the ride ahead, Waldi’s voice breaks through. “You must drink water!” she commands. “At least two liters every day. Dehydration is a big problem. If you get sick,” she continues, and we chorus in unison: “You will finish the trip in the truck!”
Settling in with Do-A-Lot
There’s a set routine for arrival at camp. I lead Do-A-Lot in on foot, leaving his tack on racks sticking from the side of our mammoth supply truck. He gets to guzzle at the water trough and then search out a patch of thorn-free ground to roll off the worst of the sweat, after which I tie him to the high line stretched between the supply truck and a thorn tree and bring him a tub of high-calorie grain. Next comes vigorous brushing and checking for back aches. Crossing the Namib in a truck doesn’t interest me at all and I’m determined to ride Do-A-Lot all the way.
Though tents are offered, I prefer to sleep in the open, bedroll spread on a folding cot to keep me away from scorpions and snakes. In the middle of the night under a moonless blue velvet sky, I wake up shivering, despite the sheep fleece under me and the bedroll and sleeping bag over me. I yank on my watch cap, wool scarf, wool turtleneck, heavy wool sweater, vest and gloves. Plus socks. Bundled like an Eskimo I eventually subside into sleep. The climate websites were, apparently, only half right.
Waldi riding a dry riverbed.
Waking at dawn, we breakfast on smoky eggs scrambled with vegetables coming off the ashy campfire. From now on we’ll cover 50km a day, under a blazing sun, whipped by ripping, dry winds. When we stop for lunch the only shade is from acacias, a low thorny tree that’s been ripping shirts and provides lacy, meager shadow, not enough to cool anyone.
Do-A-Lot’s nimble footwork spares me the thorns, but eventually he makes a mistake, carrying me under a low-lying tree limb--bare of thorns, thank God-- which scrapes a long, red welt across my back. I forgive him.
A touch of the ocean
Finished with lunch, we drift toward the horses. “Relax!” Waldi commands. “We will not be leaving until the ocean breeze arrives. Around two o’clock, maybe later.” We eye each other, amused. The air is hot as a pizza oven. As for the ocean, it’s a hundred miles away. I sit with a damp kerchief over my face, listening to the horses snuffle and stamp at flies. When I feel something deliciously seductive caress my face I whip the kerchief off and glance around. Indeed, there’s now a breeze, gentle, persistent. And cool.
“Saddle up! The breeze is here. Now we will have a nice ride to camp.” Our start is delayed by a befuddled, but harmless, Namaqua chameleon which thinks it should be climbing my horse’s leg. Still, we reach camp with plenty of daylight for a shower before the sun sets.
Yes, I said shower. Because in addition to 12,000 liters of water for the horses, 80 bales of hay, one ton of horse grain, a fridge-full of veggies and a freezer storing haunches of zebra and oryx, our truck offers a jerry-rigged shower head. It’s enough to rinse my snarled braid, clear the pale desert dust off my face and refresh me immeasurably.
Riding the desert
The desert is ever-changing, one day sandy ground covered in the palest blond grass rippling like a golden sea, the next a steep, shale slope down which we lead the horses on foot. We canter the pebbly Kuiseb River bed, surprising a small herd of kudu around a bend. Small oases support springbok, which survive on plants containing as little as 10% water. I clamber up a granite slope to see the sun rise over undulating apricot hills, sprinkled with an occasional silvery shrub.
This is a tree. It will come back to life when the rains come.
Wildlife is sparse. Every once in a while someone points to a dot and shouts “Oryx!” or “Ostrich!” I’m too near-sighted to tell, which doesn’t bother me. My game-viewing curiosity has been amply satisfied on other rides. I love the purity of isolation around me, marveling at any animal’s ability to survive this unforgiving environment, grateful that Do-A-Lot remains strong and steady.
Eventually, the Namib reveals its true, hostile face. For hours, days, we follow narrow game trails through a flat expanse of sand stretching to the horizon, strewn with ankle-twisting black basalt cobbles. The two spare mounts run free, stopping at times on a small rise, as if stunned by the harsh terrain left to cover. We ride in silence, the monotone landscape leaving us clueless as to our progress.
One morning we wake to a fog so thick we can barely make out each other’s cots. We ride in jackets that day, a disturbing wind in our faces. There’s anxious talk among the staff, to do with evacuating us if a sandstorm blows in. When the fog lifts and the air stabilizes that evening we are all grateful, as much for the ability to ride another day as for the oryx stew and coal-roasted potatoes and squash for dinner. The glass of robust red wine offered is a gay ribbon on this gift of a meal.
And so we make our final night’s camp, on the broad dry bed of the Swakop River. Our last dinner is leftovers: grilled chicken, broccoli with cheese sauce, potato-onion hash and stewed pears with chocolate for dessert. Talk is quiet around the campfire, laughter strained as we each contemplate tomorrow’s parting.
Next morning we follow the dry Swakop River river bed, passing homesteads and dirt roads leading to coastal farms. There’s canter after canter through dunes shaggy with sea grasses, until we crest a high one and suddenly stop, faced by roiling breakers slamming onto a broad, sharply sloping beach. Sea gulls screech and wheel overhead.
Spray lofts skyward, no doubt forming that fog and breeze which we so welcomed over the past week. And though I thought I’d steeled myself for the inevitable, my eyes fill with tears as I stand on the beach, Do-A-Lot at my side. I rode him well and he brought me through safely.
Breakfast in the desert: eggs beans and toast cooked on the campfire.
Riding trips around the world
Unicorn Trails: unicorntrails.com
In the Saddle: inthesaddle.com
Wild and Exotic: wildandexotic.co.uk
My favorite riding safari organizers:
Namibia: namibiahorsesafari.com (incorporating Reitsafari, founders of the Namib Desert ride)
Where I buy my riding gear
Dover Saddlery:(Ovation moisture-wicking underwear, boot-length socks, a sand-colored Troxel helmet and more)
The Tackroom: tackroominc.com (Tuffrider Eco-Green Bamboo britches, inexpensive riding gloves and a colorful selection of cotton neckerchiefs)
Ex Officio: exofficio.com (my favorite quick-drying long-sleeve shirts)
SmartWool:smartwool socks(Simply the best, itchless wool tops and socks. I can’t live without them!)
Dina Bennett is a writer who lives in Walden, Colorado. Recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal Second Acts she records dispatches from her journeys and the ranching life on her website www.dinabennett.com.
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