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An expedition in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast National Park

By Mac Messenger ’72 / Namibia

T
eton Coast National Park in Namibia. The coast is named for the bleached whale and seal bones that still cover the shore from the time when the whaling industry was active. There are also the skeletal remains of more than 1,000 shipwrecks caused by the strong on-shore winds combined with dense fog and rocky coast- line. The area is so desolate that very few people who did survive the shipwrecks managed to live very long after being marooned on the coast where there is no fresh water or edible vegetation. Namibian bushmen named it “The land God made in anger.” Early Portuguese sailors called it “The gates of hell.”

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Our expedition of eight amateur explorers, a camerawoman, and two guides began at Terrace Bay in the Skeleton Coast National Park. From there we walked north almost to the Angolan border and the mouth of the Kunene River where we turned inland. Eighteen days later after walking some 500 kilometers on rocks, soft sand, crushed seashells, and traversing large sand dunes, we finished on the Kunese River just south of Serra Cafema Camp, one of Africa’s most re- mote destinations.

Our days were long and we fell into a routine, almost military in its execution. We woke up at 4:45 a.m. and started walking at 6:20 a.m. After every hour of walking we took a 10-minute break. After five hours of walking it was lunchtime. This was followed by more walking until we covered the necessary distance for the day, which could take another three hours. Each afternoon, we spent an additional three to four hours pumping 400 to 500 liters of sea or river water which gave us 44 to 55 liters of cooking and drinking water; enough to usually last us until the next evening. On hot days we had to pump extra water during the lunch.

To raise funds in support of people living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and for MS research, in mid 2011, I traveled across an ocean to take a fundraising walk in the park. This was not just any park, but the Skelbreak. Dinnertime was at 6:30 p.m., and we turned in for the night by 8:00 p.m. at the latest.

The last days of the expedition were physically the most difficult. It was during these last three days, having walked 425 kilometers, that there were two especially memorable moments.

2 Days Until End – This was our first day on the high sand dunes after leaving the Skeleton Coast. The last couple of kilometers to the mouth of the Kunene River were a restricted area around a diamond mine. We were not permitted to pass through this vicinity. Since there was no continuous beach route along the river where we could walk, we had to make our way up to the top of the sand dunes where we could parallel the river on our way to our rendezvous point. The soft sand, combined with having to cut back and forth diagonally, meant that it took us more than an hour and a half to climb the 200 vertical meters to the top of the dunes. Climbing the sand dunes reminded me of the old cliché – two steps forward and one-step back – except in my case it was one step up and three- quarters of a step back down. It felt like I was walking in quicksand because my boots would sink into the sand and more sand would cascade down on top of them. I had to continually pull my boots out of the sand to take the next step. This process was repeated for each step up the sand dunes.

I was in the lead and breaking the trail on the lower slope of the dunes. I had the most difficult job and I was also the oldest person on the trek by more than 20 years. As I made my way up the sand dune I kept telling myself that climbing the dune was just like pedaling up a mountain on my road bike. I just needed to put my head down and concentrate on the climb not on the pain of the challenge. I picked a route to follow and only looked up periodically to ensure I was still heading in the right direction. Physically the climb was very demanding and my heart rate was well into the red zone. About half way up the first large dune the assistant guide pointed to a change in the shape of the dune and the texture of the sand above us. We changed routes, and went in that direction. It was a relief to make our way to the top of the first dune on somewhat more stable sand.

When we finally reached the top of the dunes the sun was low on the horizon and painted the dunes in the distance a soft pink and orange. The contrast between the shadows and the colors of the dunes made the scene look like a photograph in an art book. It was an incredibly beautiful sight and we all broke into huge smiles and felt is was a fantastic reward for our struggle up the dunes.

Shortly after we finished setting up the tents, the sunset over the ocean about 16 kilometers away, the horizon was a deep orange color set against a darkening sky. It was another magnificent sight. I spontaneously suggested that we have a period of 10 to 15 minutes of silence so we could just enjoy the moment. Every- one agreed, stopped what they were doing, and embraced the quiet time. We sat at the top of the sand dune, hundreds of miles from civilization, and watched the silhouettes of a flock of birds fly through the orange sunset in the distance. There was no sound; even the wind had stopped. The waning moon was visible only as a thin rim of light, like the smile on a happy face drawing, and stars were beginning to appear as the light faded under an absolutely clear sky. This was reminiscent of my time in college during the 1960s in California when we all relished the opportunity to live in the moment.

As the sun drifted below the horizon and the sky darkened, more stars appeared overhead. Once the sunset, the sky was literally filled with stars. The Milky Way was magnificent, Jupiter and Venus twinkled just above the opposite horizon, and the International Space Station passed overhead, along with many shooting stars. As the minutes passed, we were each lost in our own thoughts. I marveled at the beauty of the sunset and the sky and how lucky I was to having this experience. The rest of the world seemed not to exist; it was truly a magical moment.

1 Day Until End - Since we were not able to walk along the river because of the diamond mine, and knowing that a trip down from the dunes to the river the next day to find water would take at least five hours, we deviated from our usual schedule and spent the afternoon pumping extra water. We filled dry bags where we had stored our clothes and taped empty plastic snack sacks over the mouths of bottles that had no lids. We were able to collect an additional 12 to 15 liters of water. We ate our evening meal on the small beach at 4:00 p.m. and then climbed to the top of the dunes where we set up the tents for the night in anticipation of our final push to the rendezvous points.

Last Day - In the early morning darkness at 5:00 a.m. we headed out with headlamps following our compass bearing to cross the last 16 to 26 kilometers of sand dunes between our camp and the primary and backup rendezvous points.

The day was hotter than any of the previous days, and by 10:00 a.m. it be- came too hot to continue. We put up our tents and stayed in them with the aps open until 4:00 p.m. During that time the temperature increased to 45 degrees Fahrenheit in the tents and the ne sand kept blowing through the tent screens coating us in a gritty sheen. The conditions in the tent were quite cramped, which is okay for sleeping at night, but very difficult to spend six hours with practically no movement. It was too hot to sleep; I only dozed for a few minutes every now and then. We were also trying to conserve water, so we took occasional small sips, had very little conversation, and breathed through our noses to reduce the amount of fluids lost when we exhaled. Time passed slowly, each of us lost in our own thoughts. I thought about the taste of the food and drink we would be able to enjoy later that evening when we finished our trek.

At 4:00 p.m., we packed up and started walking again hoping to reach the first rendezvous point by 6:00 p.m. We were able to make it to the first point, but when we arrived, there were no vehicles in sight. It was disappointing. I had already mentally prepared myself if the vehicles were not there. I knew that if I needed to push on to the final rendezvous point it was only 10 kilometers away, my normal manageable training distance. We continued on, and it was dark by 6:30 p.m. We needed to navigate by compass with only our headlamps to light our way.

We saw lights on the horizon around 8:15 p.m., and the first vehicle met us a few minutes later. For all of us it was a tremendous relief. We were exhausted, very low on water and had eaten nothing for 28 hours, since 4:00 p.m. the previous day. At the same time, we were all exhilarated and very proud of ourselves for what we had accomplished. There were lots of high fives and hugs and mutual congratulations.

By the time the second vehicle joined us, which we learned had just missed us by a few minutes at the first rendezvous point, we had consumed several liters of water and were all grinning from ear-to-ear. All of us knew that finishing the way we did – two hard days and one last very hard day –was the very best way for the expedition to end.

Around midnight, we finally had dinner. While the drivers were barbequing food for us over an open camp re, we reflected on the final days of our expedition. We all were amazed that we were able to make the final push in the manner that we did. Yet having been together for the previous 17 days, we all knew that we could do what was necessary. Despite the lost toenails, blisters, weight loss, sore knees, and being physically drained, all eleven of us were relieved to have made it in such relatively good shape.

Although we started the expedition as strangers, throughout the 18 days we grew to be friends and to have more confidence in guides, our each other, and ourselves. You never know what you can do until you are really pushed to accomplish your goal. All of us had a tremendous feeling of accomplishment for what we had achieved. I don’t think any of us stopped smiling for at least two days.

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Mac Messenger is a 1972 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management. His business and pleasure trips have taken him to over 70 countries in Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America. A latecomer to endurance sports, he now combines his passion with raising funds for charitable organizations including guide dogs for the blind and Multiple Sclerosis.