Day three in Namibia was an early start. At 5.30am in the middle of nowhere in the desert, it’s freezing cold and it’s dark. I left the warmth of the sleeping bag and set about my first day of a new morning routine: a wet wipe “bath”, deodorant, clothes on, head torch on, go outside for the toilet and to brush my teeth, pack my bag and then head for a coffee.
Packing light and organising myself in such a small space on long train rides across Russia and Mongolia came in handy here, helping to keep my bag organised, prepare well the night before, and pack things quickly and easily in the morning.
Grabbing a coffee in the darkness of the morning, trying to make out faces as head torches were shining everywhere, it was obvious the group (most of the group at least – I’ll get to that later) were in good spirits and raring to go. A few groans from those not used to an early start were drowned out by the palpable excitement of our first full day trekking through the Namib.
I was ready to go early on and had a wander (not too far, in case lions) up a small hill to watch the sun rise.
We set off in two groups as the support crew started to bring down the campsite. It takes a bit of time to warm up in the mornings. Despite it being the Namibian desert and clear skies, it was fleece and wooly hat weather to start with and only after the sun was a decent way above the horizon did the temperature start to rise. But when it came, it warmed up fast.
The day started with Brandberg Mountain on our left-hand side – Namibia’s highest and a magnificent site – and it barely left us for the entire day, despite the distance we walked. Other mountains were on the horizon and gave us some waypoints to aim towards.
This was the first taste of how desolate the area really is, and it hit home for many of us that this was it: we were genuinely in the middle of nowhere, we weren’t going to be meeting anyone, and it was just us for the next few days.
The route ahead showed very little. Well, it showed desert scenery – the terrain was some bits of grass and shrubs, rocks, not much else, and in the horizon there were some mountains. The terrain rolled into the distance away from us and looked sandy the further away it was. Despite how desolate and utterly barren the desert was, it was stunning. At times there was nothing at all ahead of us and the site of the group trekking into, well, nothing, was incredible.
The first morning was relatively tough. Not least because of the terrain and the heat, but a bug swept through the camp the night before and had quite a few people up most of the night and feeling horrific most of the day (thankfully I missed it). Regular toilet stops were required, and as with anything else out here, it had a routine to follow. Dig a small hole, do what you need to do, set fire to the toilet paper, bury it. Try doing that multiple times a day in the desert heat when you’ve been hit with a stomach bug. Or try doing it in an area where there isn’t even a bush to provide some cover.
After a few hours of walking, a welcome site appeared in the distance. The food tent stood out amongst the emptiness of the desert and it was a taste of how incredible our support crew were. Each day they would pack up the campsite, drive on ahead, set up a lunch stop for us, and then continue on ahead to set up the campsite for the evening. The lunchtime stop was a little oasis in what felt like the searing heat of the desert.
I was delighted for some shade in the early afternoon sun. Strong sun really gets to me (it’s one of the reasons I signed up for the challenge, to see how I coped with this); it makes me feel itchy and uncomfortable, I burn really easily without slapping on the factor 50. Getting some tasty food and snacks out of the blazing sun – in an area where there is really very little shade for miles around – was welcome.
Our crew packing up the lunch tent was our sign to start the afternoon leg of the trek. By the time we were leaving, there was already barely a sign that we had been there, aside from the heavily packed cars which were ready to head on their way.
The afternoon route intially took us through a shallow valley where there had been some recent sightings of a rhino (and the inevitable tracks and rhino shit to back this up). The hand signals came into use as our group leader went further in front to check for wildlife before we caught him up.
The landscape continued its trend of changing every few miles. After the valley, we walked over a relatively flat area which had a collection of massive rocks – right in the middle of nowhere. I can’t imagine what caused them to end up there but it’s certainly an interesting spot.
Continuing on for another couple of miles, a little red flag was spotted in the distance, fluttering in the wind above some rocks. It was the sign for the camp for the evening, already set up and ready for us by the superb support crew. This time it was in a sheltered area with some high-up spots on three sides. In particular, one rocky area with a magnificent view of Brandberg behind us, and on the other side down towards a valley with the sun setting behind it, which would be the start of our route tomorrow.
An ever-growing crowd of us started to gather at the spot as the sun went down. It was around this time that it was sinking in for me just how cut off we were. There was no hope for a mobile phone signal, and while that inevitably broke the habit of reaching for the phone every couple of minutes (I hate it but I still do it), it meant I had no idea what else was happening in the world.
I don’t mean that from any kind of global news perspective. Much of the news is filler which is irrelevant on a personal basis and can be comfortably ignored. But, for example, my other half was on a trip to Canada while I was in Namibia, and at that moment I didn’t even know if her flight had landed safely. I had no way of finding out and wouldn’t for a few days yet. That’s a really strange feeling.
Another aspect was having no connection whatsoever to work. For a few of the group this seemed to be a challenge but it was one that there was no choice other than to accept. And I’d say it was more than welcome. We all need genuine switch off time and the enforced switch off time in the Namib was spot on.
That’s too much talk of mobile phones and signals. Sitting on top of the rock with such an incredible view, watching a memorable sunset, it was the first time on the trip I felt genuinely switched off. The first full day of trekking was wonderful; not necessarily a challenge for me but really enjoyable. And when your only responsibility in a day is to walk from one place to another, it is truly a switched off time.