By Mike Jacobsen
I’ve been solo traveling overland across Southeastern Africa for 52 days and arrived in Swakopmund, a small touristy town along Namibia’s western coast. It’s squeezed between the Atlantic on one side and the rolling desert on the other. It’s clean, neat, and fairly cosmopolitan, yet it has a village feel. There are a lot of activities in Swakopmund from the beach and surfing to skydiving, sand boarding, quad biking, horseback riding, helicopter rides, hot air balloons, and camel tours. I set out early with a dozen others for sand boarding.
We arrive on the outskirts of town, it’s bright, sunny, desolate, and all I can see are rolling hills and mountains of sand as far as the eye can see. We’re given some basic instructions and a small piece of paneling like particle board. We don helmets, gloves, and elbow pads then march toward the dunes. As we begin to ascend toward the peak of these enormous dunes everyone falls into a single file line stepping in the footprints of the person ahead. Doing so makes it significantly less strenuous a climb as the sand packs hard and the ascent becomes more like a stair stepping event. If one veers off course from the footprint path the top couple inches of sand is soft and slides around engulfing ones shoes as if stepping into soft flakey snow making it significantly more difficult.
We arrive at the peak, legs sore from the hike and the task is simple, scary for some and exhilarating for me. Lay the board on the ground, plop your belly on the board, grab the front lip and go screaming down the dune, sand flying everywhere as if tobogganing down a ski slope. Awesomeeeeee!!!!! Arriving at the bottom a lady with a radar gun tells me I clocked 73 mph down the dune. Not quite enough for me to break the record of 76 mph for the day. We repeat this cycle all morning hiking up a dune to go screaming down in seconds. I could do this for a few days of fun, however this afternoon I’ve booked a quad bike (also known as an ATV or four wheeler) to play in the dunes.
I arrive at Desert Explorers and my ride of choice is a Honda 250 cc Quad full of power and oomph. We set out single file following a guide into the rolling Namibian desert; picture the Sahara only bigger dunes. It starts out slow for everyone to get comfortable with their bike and quickly progresses to an all out pace. Some of these dunes are huge, soaring from base to peak an easy 400 feet or more with flat valleys of sand in-between. The desert in Namibia is home to the largest/highest dunes in the world, some peaking as high as 900 ft.
The weather is brisk with a cloudless blue sky and with my sense of adventure I quickly start fishtailing the bike in the sand, as the top inch is loose above a hard packed base. This bike has some power and only a minor increase on the throttle can make the rear of my bike swerve back and forth in the sand, throwing up a dust cloud of sand as I quickly shift up to accelerate. As we approach the first dunes I quickly discover if I’m not going top speed in the flat valleys there is not enough power to reach the peak due to the altitude increase combined with the loose sand bogging down the engine. Quickly I pick up when I’m in the flats to floor it to top speed and once I hit the base of the dune start down shifting to keep momentum in an arched bank as if riding a bike around a corner on a professional banked race track.
I’m having the time of my life and with a few more runs like this push it faster and faster. I’ve just come off a dune and I quickly accelerate, shifting through five gears to reach speeds easily exceeding 70 or 80 mph, my jacket flapping in the wind, grains of sand pebble me as I leave a sand cloud in my wake. Reaching the base of a large dune I downshift as fast as I can, maintaining as much speed as possible and just before reaching the peak swerve the bike while accelerating, creating a skid, throwing up a roster tail of sand. Similar to a car skidding on ice I steer the bike into the skid while leaning my weight away from the skid to assist in control. Once the bike comes out of the skid I shift up accelerating down the dune, reaching ever-higher speeds, racing toward the next dune to repeat the same thing.
For an hour and fifty minutes I repeat this pattern over and over, gradually building my confidence, slowly losing awareness of how dangerous it can be. I feel invincible and boy is this fun. I come off a dune following another quad biker as fast as I can. I’m in the valley and straight ahead is a dune half the size of the dunes I’ve been repeating this stunt. Hitting the base the bike barely decelerates and I only have to downshift twice. I quickly peak due to the faster speed and skid the rear wheels, steer into the skid, and hang off the bike with one hand. In the blink of an eye the bike flips as I instinctively let go, slamming into the dune, bouncing at least twice, and then roll/flip down the dune a dozen or more times as the bike bounces and flips, three times I’m told, landing a few feet away from where I’ve come to rest.
Fortunately I’ve come to a stop laying flat on my back. I’ve had the wind knocked out of me and I can’t get a breath. Fellow quad bikers are quickly at my side asking if I’m ok as I gasp for air. Unable to initially respond I hear some of them commenting on how epic the wipe out was. I wish someone had a video to show off the carnage.
Next to come, desert rescue and hospital treatment.