We’ve been toying with the idea to run from Uis to the Atlantic Ocean probably as long as we’ve been living in Damaraland, so roughly 3.5 years. The allure? In Uis we are fortunate to live on a 7 913 km² unfenced farm, that is 791 300 hectares of wilderness, within which we are free to roam along with desert-adapted rhino, lions, elephants, giraffe, mountain zebra, and various other game species. Away from the C35 main road there are no power- or telephone lines, and in fact, there is very little man made between Uis and the ocean. And which way could be better to experience this vast, beautiful open expanse than running it?
So one evening, as we sat gazing at the Brandberg, enjoying each other’s company over a drink, I told Nico that I needed another running challenge before the end of the year to fill my goal of 1000 km. Before I could finish my sentence, Nico had already worked out an itinerary for a cross-desert run. And also added that we’d better get going before we were too far along in summer and the heat might put us off.
Well, ten days later we were all packed and ready to hit the road. And as Murphy would have it, our trip coincided with the first major heatwave to hit this part of the subcontinent.
The shortest route from Uis to Hentiesbaai is along the C35, roughly 120km. But for this adventure, we opted for the scenic route around the northern parts of Brandberg. The route passes through the Messum crater towards Mile108, which is more remote but much more scenic.
Of course, no adventure could be fun if only half the party was enjoying it. So as always, we tried to devise the itinerary as such to make it comfortable and exciting for the boys. Being kids, they, of course, don’t need much in the form of entertainment when they can be outdoors, but we couldn’t expect them to be cooped up in a car for hours on end while following one of their parents slow-trotting the desert. On the other hand, there would be little in the form of shade at any campsite for the largest parts of the days, so the car’s aircon would be the only way to keep cool during midday.
So inevitably we had to do the running bit of the expedition during the heat of the day. In this way, we could make the most of the shade at the campsite while it lasted, after which the non-runners could keep cool in the car and arrive at the next campsite just in time for the afternoon shade again.
Nico and I took turns, each running on alternate days. I was to run the first leg from Uis to While Lady Lodge in the Ugab River.
When I left home that Thursday at noon, my Suunto read 28°C. That was the cool part, which lastest about 20 seconds. The average temperature for this 30km section would be 37°C, with a maximum soaring around 42°C with not even a wisp of wind. It was HOT! When Nico and the boys met me on the district road, about 10km from the Lodge, I made a significant dent in our ice-water supply that was supposed to last for the entire trip. But I can’t remember when last cold water was that well received.
Nico and the boys went on ahead to set up camp and enjoy the Lodge pool, which I also thoroughly did once I got there.
Nico started the second leg from White Lady Lodge around 10 am the next day. Again, we had to plan to keep the boys cool in the car during the hottest part of the day. So after we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, the boys and I had a swim while Nico completed the first 12 km of this leg around the northern parts of the Brandberg.
With elephant and lion activities in the region, we decided to steer clear from the riverbed and to rather follow alternative tracks. Temperatures were soaring thoroughly, and we soon discovered that our car’s cooling system was also taking strain in the heat. The plan was to closely follow Nico as a safety precaution, but with no wind on the radiator the car soon overheated and the aircon cut out. The result was that we got to enjoy a (few) siestas beneath the shady Ana trees dotting the Ugab River for the next several hours.
With the car sufficiently cooled off, Nico resumed his run towards the western side of the Mountain, well away from big feet and the thoothed-mained ones. The splendour of the rolling rocky foothills on this side of the mountain was awe inspiring.
We have only once traveled this route before, but our memories of it was a rather bumpy, endlessly winding track that mauled weary travelers who were looking forward to relaxing with a beer next to a campfire. Now, forced to travel slowly, all the windows rolled down and stopping often, we were much more present and mindful in our environment and allowing us to really appreciated it for what it was. And this is, of course, the beauty of trail running or undertaking a running safari as this one was. It forces you to slow down and appreciate your surroundings in a much different way than merely speeding through it, tightly shut off from the surrounds in the comfort of an air conditioning vehicle.
Nico completed his 22 km section for the day as we neared our campsite for the evening. The boys each received a 2-man tent from oupa Doep last Christmas, which has taken outdoor venturing for these two to a whole new level. They now enjoy having their own private abodes, and as soon as they are set up they promptly empty the entire content of their backpacks and start playing while Nico and I prepare the rest of the camp. The boys also discovered that there is indeed one thing that is better than walking around a bush camp with a torch at night: Riding your bike around camp with a torch at night!
Day three was another scorcher, and my Suunto measured average temperatures of 37°C and a max at 42°C again. The first 8 km on the western side of the Mountain was interesting en scenic, but crossing the district road into the Messum was more of a challenge. The trail changed to deep, sandy jeep track and with almost no wind, gnats and lazy flies were my biggest challenge.
Nico and the boys drove up ahead in search for a decent shady campsite, but with the horribly corrugated roads, it took them more than two hours there and back to me. I took shots in the heat, constantly battling with the pests around my head and was unsure if my water supply would last until the guys returned. The two-way radios we used for comms only works in a short range, and even though I could see for miles up ahead, I still tried calling Nico every now and then to see if they were on their way. By that time I was hiking more than running, the heat just too much, not daring to drink too much without knowing when I would be able to refill. After what seemed like ages, the radio crackled to life and I could hear my beloved’s voice as they were nearing. With cold water!
We enjoyed a siesta in the shade of an overhanging cliff while the boys investigating the geology with Nico’s hammer and pitching rock chips at various targets. When the heat of the day dissipated a bit with the coastal breeze, I completed the final 8 km for a total of 30 km for the day.
Nico followed his gut despite my objections and we discovered the most incredible overhanging cave in the middle of an otherwise barren Mesum Crater. The spot which we got to call home for that one night made for an incredibly special experience, one which we will remember for many years to come. Nico prepared baths for us in the huge skips we hauled along especially for this reason, and with a beer and that view we couldn’t think of any other place we would rather be.
With no space to put up tents, everyone was content to sleep out in the open, which was another first and huge adventure for the boys. Not that sleeping was a priority for these two, who much rather would have preferred to climb and hammer and explore for as long as they could.
The next day marked the final leg of our adventure, a 25 km section for Nico towards Mile 108 on the coast. He was energised by the cool breeze from the ocean and enjoyed being in ‘the zone’ with a rather hasty, even pace.
Ironically, we ran a total distance of 108 km out of a total 180 km between Uis to Mile 108. Sure it was hot, really hot, but as per usual, extremes in nature always add a whole different, deeper dimension to an experience, which results in heightened levels of awareness for all involved. And isn’t it exactly this heightened awareness that makes for the best and ever-lasting memories?!