In the mornings, thick fog rolls in across the Namibian coast – a serious navigation hazard. Over the centuries many ships have found their final resting place here, on what is known as the Skeleton Coast. The most famous is the Eduard Bohlen, a 310-foot-long cargo ship that ran aground on 5th September 1909. It now lies almost totally buried beneath the sand and, with the receding coastline, more than 300m from the coast. Rat Race Adventures latest Bucket List offering is a challenge crossing of the Namib-Naukluft National Park from East to West, finishing at this ominous reminder of what the desert can take.
Thirty-eight keen adventurers took on this first iteration, offered in two formats: a two-day bike, three day run/walk or a 5 day foot only. We gathered at Namibgrens farm for the pre-event administration; a tourist desert camp complete with outdoor plumbed showers, tents with camp beds and real crockery and cutlery – a glamping experience that gave a false, but not unwelcome, sense of the degree of difficulty of this endeavour.
While the bike group began from Namibgrens, we in the foot group were advanced 100km to the edge of the national park. Thoughts of a last-minute nap were quickly banished with the first animal sightings – zebra and oryx - disturbed in the early morning light by a bus of excited challengers. Arriving at the start line gave the first true indication of what we had embarked upon – a vast plain of nothing extending in all directions beyond the starting banner.
Before too long I had settled into my position at the back of the pack, breathing in the vast open space. The quiet. The big blue sky. And what at first appears to be nothingness begins to reveal itself – the patterns in the sand, the insects, the small lizards. Most strange to me was the long-legged darkling beetle – a kind of bluish beetle on disproportionately long legs, most of whom decided that of the 360 degrees they could run, the obvious choice was right into my foothold.
Crossing a desert for five days is a chance to slow down and really see what surrounds us. Contrary to file photo images of “the desert”; there is no one single face. Every day was different. Vast, open, desolate plains that were home to oryx, zebra, springbok and ostrich. Deep, rocky canyons filled with trees whose roots reach far down into the watercourse below, and home to the black mambo snakes that had us wary of seeking any relief in the shade. Dune ridges in lines parallel to the sea, separated by ankle-breaking gibber plains. And former seabed, punctuated by shells standing to attention and whale bones reminding of a distant past.
Being at the back is not to say I was alone. I shared my journey for a few kilometres at a time with a range of inspiring people. Experienced multi-dayers and first timers alike, all with their own personal reasons for being in this desert. Late on day 2 the bike group caught us, and the sight of them grinding along the soft sand on their fat tyres left me not unhappy with my format choice. And as is often the case from the back, I spent a good chunk of time with the sweep – in this event experienced ultrarunner and new friend Allie Bailey, who was to become the first person to cross this route on foot twice.
The desert took a toll on us all. For me the searing heat made progress slow and the lack of vegetation increased the relentlessness of it all. At the end of day 3 I could barely remove my shoe, due to a flare up of old stress fractures in my foot, and I was unable to weight bear. Knee, achilles and hip injuries were common around camp, as well as the inevitable blisters and one fractured wrist from a fall from a bike. But not one person quit. Rather we moved as we could, in vehicles for periods if needed; on foot as much as we could manage.
At the front the competition was fierce. In the mid-pack strong bonds were formed as a large group set and maintained a steady pace to the end of each stage. At the back we plodded, we marched and we overcame to conquer the desert. And at every stage, a team of volunteers and crew providing water, food, hugs, photos, first aid and even the odd icecream (!) to keep spirits high.
At times the desert, and its huge dunes, seemed endless. But then - in a way that seemed strangely too soon - the Eduard Bohlen was in sight. The final crossing over the receded sea bed, past cheering volunteers, crew and finishers, and into the circular ribbon of the enormous medal placed around my neck.
There is no question that Rat Race Adventures knows how to celebrate a finish. Pink bubbles and fresh local oysters in front of the wreck was unlike any other finish I have experienced. Then an exhilarating dune crossing - past jackals, sea lions, flamingos and salt pans - to our hotel in Walvis Bay.
Why would you come here? Partly for the challenge. Partly for the friendships. But the hero of this event is the desert itself. Brutal and spectacular. Taker of life and giver of memories. Home of the largest dunes in the world. And one of the most beautiful places I have been.
Race to the Wreck 2020 will be held in Namibia from 15-22 November 2020. See: