Skeletons in the closet
Namibia’s Skeleton Coast is guarded by fierce surf on one side and by the searing dunes of the Namib Desert on the other. Over the years the combination has claimed the lives of countless sailors. In May 2011 nine novice explorers completed the world’s first unsupported trek along the coastline from Terrace Bay to the Angolan border, a journey of over 500km. Emma Thomson tells her tale.

 

The sun tightens its grip around our throats, wringing them dry and leaving us light-headed. “Close your mouth and breathe through your nose,” barks Sam, our expedition leader. “It stops your mouth drying out as quickly.”

So we lie still and silent under the tarpaulin, with the oppressive desert heat rapidly baking our nostrils.

Expeditions have always fascinated me. What makes a person leave the cup-of-tea comforts of home and travel to the most inhospitable places on earth? The pursuit of glory, I assume, or perhaps an attempt to find their own physical limits. Deep down, I’d long feared that I didn’t have the strength to complete such a monumental challenge, but last year I decided to truly test myself and find out for real.

But how on earth was I going to join one? After all I was just a writer, and certainly no Ranulph Fiennes. And I’d famously led my bronze-winning Duke of Edinburgh Award school team up the wrong mountain. How could I contribute to an expedition? In search of clues, I attended the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore event, which helps people plan expeditions. And there on the notice board was my answer: “Have you ever wanted to be part of a world-first expedition? Well, now’s your chance! We welcome any age and fitness level.” Bingo!

After five months of squelching through mud-ridden Hertfordshire hills with an increasingly heavy backpack as a means of training, I am now at Terrace Bay, an outpost of white-walled, red-roofed cabins inside Namibia’s Skeleton Coast National Park. Tendrils of fog swirl around us in the pre-dawn darkness as we wait for word from our leader. After peering at us from under his threadbare safari hat, Sam steps up. “Right,” he says, pausing to roll and light a cigarette, “look after yourselves, look after each other, and good luck!”

No fanfare, just the quiet crunch of sand under boot as we march single file into the shadows.

Five hours in and the rucksack straps are cutting into my shoulders like cleavers. The sand we walk across is coarse and dark, laced with deposits of iron, and studded with stones which, rounded by the wind, are hard as punches to the soles of our feet.

The seriousness of what we’re attempting hits us when, mid-morning, we pass a grave: a simple white cross bearing the words “Marcelle Basson 10/04/1969 –24/06/1996” positioned a few yards from the shore. He (or she) was just 27 years old.

Come five o’ clock we’ve covered only 14 miles. We shrug off our backpacks and crumple to the ground, exhausted. But the day is only half done. Our world-first attempt requires us to be totally self-sufficient. No jeeps delivering gin and tonics once the camera is turned off. Every drop of drinking water has to be collected from the freezing Benguela current, which sweeps up the coast from Antarctica, and pumped manually through a desalination filter. So with daylight fading fast, Sam wades up to his knees and casts a sack into the ocean. He hauls it in and we ferry it up the beach to where we’ve set up a pumping station. Suspended from this series of tripods made out of walking poles is a huge waterproof bag. We tip the seawater into it and dangle the filters of the four pumps in the briny broth. Taking turns, we sit on the ground and manhandle the lever up and down, up and down, sucking the seawater – litres and litres of the stuff – through the filter until precious drops of pure drinking water dribble out the other end. Our group requires 55 litres a day. By the time we finish the sky is covered with a swathe of bright stars.

Later, inside my tent, I gingerly peel off my socks. Great strips of skin dangle off the back of my heels, red raw and weeping blood.

Four days on and the blisters have caused an old knee injury to flare up. I shuffle along, biting my lip, trying to ignore the pain. Each step feels like someone trying to prise my kneecaps off with an oyster knife. Exhaustion pulls unasked-for tears from my eyes, pooling in the rims of my sunglasses.

But this I had expected – wished for even – so that I could prove myself. What catches me off guard is the mental maelstrom. It’s embarrassing enough that I’ve lost control of my body, which buckles under me and weeps without invitation, but it’s the black thoughts pouncing on me without warning that I’m unable to shrug off. We tramp across a ridge strewn with white and pink amethyst rocks like a pirate’s cave. Sweeping views of the shoreline stretch before us and there, swimming through the steely waters, is a pod of dolphins. Amazingly, they turn around and follow us for a kilometre. It’s nothing short of magical, and yet I barely register it. Instead, I’m wondering why the hell I’m here.

“Sam,” I blubber, “what are my options?”

“Here,” he says, handing me a sweet and ignoring the question. And just like that I realise there are no exits. I’ve just got to keep walking, and without warning I feel happier. Our world shrinks and the days merge into a routine of walking, pumping, eating and sleeping.

Halfway, we encounter Cape Fria’s resident Cape fur seal colony. The nose-wrinkling stench of rotting carcases and excrement carries for miles. Slick and brown, the barking, braying and belching seals look like freshly-licked cigars scattered along a kilometre section of the beach. The skulls of pups, caught and crushed to death under the weight of horny bulls chasing cows, protrude out of the sand everywhere.

Days later the skies clear, but the wind is atrocious. It buffets our backs, propelling us along the beach, with currents of sand weaving between our legs and scalding exposed calves.

“Embrace the suck!” yells Steph, a petite bleach-blond ex-US Army officer. We grit our teeth and keep our heads down, passing whale ribs the size of boat hulls. At lunch we erect the rucksacks in a semi-circle and shelter behind them, trying to shovel food into our mouths, but ending up with the inevitable ‘crunch’ of sand between our teeth. By morning our tents are hemmed in by 2ft-high sand drifts.

Soon we will reach the diamond-mining concession, which marks the end of our trek along the coast. From there, we turn inland and it’s a short 30km sprint back to civilisation following the Kunene River. And despite nature’s tooth-and-claw attacks, excitement starts to spread through the group.

“Don’t tempt the Gods,” warns a now heavily bearded Sam.

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Sure enough we quickly reach the river. On the Namibian side, towering sand dunes tumble into the river and, across the water, Angola sits flat and rocky. Pied crows fly in and out of the vegetation sprouting from the riverbank, squawking, “Fools, fools!”


Away from the cooling sea breezes, we wrestle against the searing heat and step, like tightrope walkers, along the ridgelines of the bosomy dunes. Sweat strips away my patience once more and I start to blame my backpack, resenting its weight like a stallion rejecting its saddle.


At midday we judder down the 300m-high dunes to the riverside to restock our water supplies. We dump buckets of ice-cold river water over each other’s heads to cool down, keeping an eye out for crocodiles. The climb back up is so horrendous we decide to ration our water and make a dash for the finish.


As we descend another dune, the Gods decide to strike – Sam trips, landing on his already damaged left knee, and lets out a guttural groan. Walking – let alone climbing – is excruciating for him, so we make a call on the satellite phone to move our rendezvous point closer. With the battery dying, we’re unsure if the message got through.


And so here we are, on the final day in 45° C heat, camped in our domed tents like cooking turtles. We now have two possible pick-up points, we haven’t eaten since yesterday at lunch and our water reserves have dwindled to just half a litre each. The situation is becoming precarious.


At four o’ clock the temperature has dipped enough to break camp, so we dust the sand from our bodies and faces and start walking. Grateful for the cooling cover of night, we reach the end of the dune field and enter the sand grasses of the Marienfluss. Crickets, disorientated by our headlamps, jump across our path and smash into us like head-bangers at a heavy-metal concert. We arrive at the original rendezvous point and scan the horizon looking for signs of life and light, but it’s silent and black. Sam gives his whistle a few short, sharp blasts to ensure no one is out there, but they echo across the plain unanswered. So we shoulder our rucksacks once more and make towards the other meeting point, some 10km west of where we stand. We haul ourselves up dune after dune, trying to ignore our stomachs snarling for food. Then, with just 3km left to go, we hear the unmistakable rumble of a car engine. We stop in our tracks and shush each other. There it is again, and suddenly a pair of headlights rounds the corner. Everyone whoops and calls, waving their walking poles in the air. There are tears and hugs all round as we grin manically at each other. Encrusted with 18 days’ worth of sand, sea salt and sweat, I had lost toenails, knee cartilage and my pride, but above all I’d confronted the skeletons in my closet. 

 

The documentary on Emma’s Skeleton Coast expedition is currently in post-production and should be aired on UK TV at some point in 2012.

 

 

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