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Pete's next big adventure

In February 2006 Peter van Dongen did his first charity challenge - a Husky Sledding Trek in the Norwegian Arctic, raising money for The Blue Cross. He enjoyed it so much that he decided to do another one this year. He decided to do something completely different from last year's trip, so he chose to go to the desert! Here's the story of how he got on in Namibia in temperatures of 32 degrees plus.

In May 2007 I took off to Namibia, in South West Africa, for a week long Desert Walking Trek across the oldest desert in the world, the Namib, this time raising money for ‘Dogs Trust', the UK's largest dog charity. The challenge was to walk for about six hours each day, at day-time temperatures of up to 40*C, with freezing cold nights, over varied desert terrain and without any creature comforts at all. The trek was organised by Across the Divide, a British organisation, but my fellow trekkers were 20 Americans, all raising money for AMFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

Be prepared
As I'd had experience of preparing for a big physical challenge from the year before, I started my exercise program about seven months before the actual trek. I went to the gym every week, went cycling regularly, did agility throughout the year, but mostly I walked many miles each week to slowly build up stamina. I bought all sorts of special gear needed for the trek, including lightweight, quick-dry trekking trousers and shirts, lots of pairs of walking socks and, most importantly, a rucksack with a built-in 3 litre water bladder. As last year, I started to raise money for my chosen charity by advertising in agility magazines, on Agilitynet, at work, and by asking all my friends and family to help out. By the start of the trek, I had raised about £3000 for Dogs Trust!

Who's game?
I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia's capital, a day before the beginning of the trek, and met up with the British team leaders, Daz and Gillian, and the South African doctor, Arno. That morning we went into town for a look around, and in the afternoon we visited a small local private game reserve, Okapuka, for a game drive. This was the first time I ever went on a game drive and it was fantastic! We saw various antelopes, such as springbok, kudu, eland and Oryx, as well as warthogs, giraffes, a crocodile and the rare black rhino. After that we watched as the three lions were fed. It was amazing!

Walk or don't walk?
The next day we were to meet up with the Americans and make our way to the first camp site in the desert, firstly by transfer by coach and then on foot for about 10km. Unfortunately the flight was delayed and we were to miss out on walking that first day. Instead we spent five hours on a coach, mostly driven over dirt roads, whilst seeing all sorts of wildlife through the windows: ostrich, baboon, various kinds of antelope and warthogs.

Whilst on the coach we got an extensive briefing on what to expect in the coming week, as well as all sorts of safety and security tips. This included how much water to drink (4-6 litres per day!) and how to avoid infections and illnesses. All water had to be disinfected throughout the week.

Then we were transferred onto an old 4 x 4 army truck, which was to accompany us for the rest of the week. After all our, by now very sandy, bags were chucked into the truck, we were chucked on top! The very rough ride took about an hour over the most undulating and rocky terrain, in the dark. Let's just say we all got to know each other quite well.

We arrived at our first campsite, Brandberg Camp, in Damaraland, where we found that all the tents had been set up for us by the local expedition team and its leader, Faan, a Namibian ex-army guy. Dinner was ready as well and we all sat down for a dinner of rice with Kudu mince (!) with salad and fruit.

After dinner we settled into our individual ex-army tents and got used to using our head torches to find anything from the toilet tents (of the long drop variety) to the wet wipes with which we were to ‘wash' ourselves for the next week! Let the adventure begin!

Hot, hot, hot!
The next day we all got up at 6am, just before sunrise. We got our first glimpse of the camp site at daylight and its surroundings. It was awesome! The Brandberg (‘fire mountain') is the highest mountain in Namibia and at sunrise it really burns! We got organised for our first day walking after a breakfast of toast, scrambled eggs and coffee and tea. Every day began with a proper warming up session to avoid unnecessary injuries.

At about 7.30 we started our ‘walk in the park'. We were to walk for about 20 km, mostly over a dune like surface of sand with loads of very dry and prickly grassy bushes and some rocks. We saw much more wildlife than would normally be expected in this extremely remote region of Namibia. We got to see lizard, chameleon, springbok, zebra, ostrich, spider, beetle, kudu and rhino poo! At lunchtime we found that the Namibian expedition team had set up a gazebo for us, with tables and chairs and all, for us to have a rest in the shade and some welcome refreshments.

There was also a water replenishment point to fill up our water bladder or bottles for the afternoon. Unbelievably, I drank about three litres of water each morning and each afternoon, whilst walking, and this was on top of several cups of tea or coffee in the morning and lots of soft drinks in the evening. In total I would drink about 8 litres of fluids throughout the day! This was to continue for the rest of the week.

After about six or seven hours of walking on this first day, with temperatures rising to 32*C, we arrived at our second camp site, Dune Camp, just in time for getting ourselves organised in our tents and getting cleaned up, before it got dark. We did a short 'warming down' routine, again to reduce the chance of injuries and stiffness the next day.

Some of us went to sit on top of a mountain to see the amazingly beautiful sunset. After that it was dinner time, today's menu was mash with lamb and salad, and sitting and talking around the camp fire. When we all felt really tired we went to bed, but by this time it was only 9 o'clock or so! We were all looking forward to the next day and what challenges it would bring us.

After getting up at 6am again, we started the day with a good breakfast and warming up session again. Today we had a long day ahead of us, with many ‘undulations' as Kobus, our Namibian leader, called them. We were to find out that what he called undulations; we would have called mountains!

Today's surface was mostly rocky underfoot, which, initially, we thought was going to be easier than the sandy surface from the day before. At the end of the day, we thought otherwise, as the rocks were quite hard on the ankles.

At lunchtime we ate another one of the beautiful animals we had seen, this time in the shape of Oryx sausages. We were all hoping to see either rhino or giraffe today, as we were walking in the region where they would normally be found. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. We did, however, see zebra, springbok, chameleon, lizards and snakes again.

After some 22 km we arrived at our next camp site, just before dark again, and again enjoyed the awesome sunset. After dinner (BBQ'd fish, pumpkin and potato salad) we had another quiet evening around the camp fire, while Patti, a physiotherapist, gave some of the by now slightly weary walkers a nice massage.

Look into your future
The next day we were to walk less of a distance (about 18 km), but with some very heavy going. We had some severe climbs to do, with temperatures rising to 38*C! This proved to be quite a challenge, as we went up a huge old and extinct volcano, to experience some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. The views reminded me of something like the Grand Canyon, with flat topped mountains in the distance, past enormous plains, full of rocks and boulders. It is said that in Namibia you can see three days into your future, meaning that what you can see in the distance will take you three days walking to reach!

Today we saw springbok, oryx, chameleon and, most excitingly, a jackal with a reasonably fresh springbok kill! We also found a skull of a mountain hyrax, a type of African mountain marmot.

Tonight's camp position was very different from the last few days again, in the middle of a vast plain. The sight of the camp appearing in the distance, at the end of a long day, always put a spring back into our step, especially today, after a very hard and tiring day of walking.

After dinner of chicken on couscous with pea salad and sweet corn, Faan found an enormous and poisonous scorpion in our camp! This re-iterated to us all the advice he had given at the beginning of the trek, namely that it was quite sensible to properly zip up your tents during the night! After that we all made sure we did.

As we had all done so well that day, the management team told us that we were to get a surprise in the morning.

To bee or not to bee!
After breakfast we got to know what the surprise was: we were to go on a short game drive on the army truck through a dried up river bed, where we might get to see some more wildlife (the day before Faan had seen lots of evidence of recent wildlife passing through just here!). Ten of us went inside the truck, and with ten of us on top, we went off on our 4 x 4 adventure. Health & Safety would have had a field day!

We were soon rewarded as we saw springbok (what else?), Oryx, kudu and hyrax, before getting a glimpse of a more exciting and rare animal, a giraffe! We followed the giraffe for a short while, when we saw an even much rarer animal, the Black Rhino! He was quite far away, but nevertheless we saw him. I've never heard so many camera clicks at any one time. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we got to see a short glimpse of an even rarer experience, when an African Wild Cat clambered up the mountain side. Finally we saw a couple of Eagles fly from treetop to treetop. It had certainly been a good idea to go for this drive!

When we got back to camp we set off on our walk for the day, which was now to be cut short by two hours, to be able to get to the next camp site in time. Today's temperature was to be only about 34*C.

Lunchtime today was a bit special as well, but for the wrong reasons: When we arrived at the lunch gazebo, we found that a large swarm of bees had also found the surprising supply of food and water in the middle of the desert. We tried to enjoy our rest and lunch but couldn't as several people got stung badly. Luckily that did not happen to the one person who was truly allergic to bee stings!

We cut our break short and went on our way quickly again. Today we didn't see that much wildlife whilst walking, but we did get to see an elephant shrew and a grasshopper.

A few hours later we were picked up by the truck for the last few kilometres to our camp for the night, which was to be the best camp site of the whole trip, being positioned under a huge rock formation in the middle of a huge moon-like plain. It was called Hyena's Den, as hyenas were known to have made use of the rocky shelter in the recent past.

We arrived in two small groups and as I was one of the earlier arrivals at this magnificent site I decided to get up on the rocks for the most amazing views of the area. I also decided that, after several days of not washing properly, it was time for a change! I got myself a bottle of water, a towel and some shampoo, stripped on top of the rocks, and had my first ever ‘bush shower'! I felt so clean and good after that.

A short while later, we experienced the best sunset of the week, from a high view point on top of the rocks. We just couldn't get enough of it, it was so beautiful. Dinner was spaghetti with Oryx mince, peach chutney and vegetables, and even chocolate mousse! A large camp fire was started under the rocky overhang and several people decided that tonight was probably the best night of all to sleep under the stars, instead of in a tent.

I decided that the spot on top of the huge rock, where I had had my shower, was a perfect place to spend the night, away from everything and everyone else. I took my mattress, sleeping bag and head torch and went up, to experience the best night I've ever had. The starry night sky has to be seen to be believed, as literally millions of stars can be seen, including the entire milky way! It was truly unbelievable to lie there, in the middle of the desert, in total and utter silence, watching the stars! It had to be one of the most memorable days of my life.

Ice, Ice Baby!
Today was to be our last full day of trekking (23 km!) and it was to be hot, hot, hot! The temperature was expected to rise to 40*C, and it did. We had a long, hard day ahead of us, but the views were, once again, to be so different from the past few days, that it was all worth it. We started with a long walk across a vast rocky field, before we reached a strange geological feature, an irregular but natural ‘wall' formation, which we walked on top of for several kilometres.

Subsequently we crossed lots of ‘undulations', flanked by two dry riverbeds, towards our lunch spot. After lunch we were told that any people, not totally fit and happy to do some very hard climbing, would have to go on the truck instead. Six of us did just that. The others, including me, were to go over some very difficult terrain, where ‘rescue' was to be impossible if anything were to go wrong. We went through canyons and gorges before reaching a bit of shade.

This is where we all had a short break in which we were to go off on our own for a few minutes, to have a bit of ‘me time'. We all sat, separately from each other, and spent some minutes thinking about why we had chosen to do this particular trek, or about whatever we felt like. It felt a bit weird being ‘alone' so far away from anything we would normally be surrounded by, and it gave us all time to have some deep thoughts.

A bit later we found that we had to do a very steep and dangerous descend into the next riverbed, or turn around and go back for six kilometres. We decided that we would go down, and made a ‘human chain', to guide each other down the steep mountain. We all felt quite elated when we all made it in one piece.

We then walked through the Ugab riverbed, where the famous Namibian Desert elephants often pass. Of course, we were all hoping to see these magnificent animals, but, again, were unlucky. We found lots of evidence, in the form of huge piles of poo, that they had been there though!

Our last camp was set in the riverbed, surrounded by trees and bushes, and, once again, I had a short bush shower. Dinner this evening was a BBQ,  with oryx sausages, lamb steaks and salads on the menu, and even garlic bread. The big surprise was that we had ice cream for dessert! Daz found a small desert Gecko at our camp site. These small, nearly rubbery, animals were often the only ones we heard, as they would ‘quack' during dusk.

That evening there were some speeches from various people in the group, including the management. After that it was the by now obligatory drinks and talks around the camp fire, tonight including some music and (drunken) dancing! We also got a spontaneous performance by the four Namibian expedition guys who had helped us all throughout the week with their camp-building and -breaking up work as well as their brilliant cooking. They sang some African songs for us and did an African dance as well!

Various people slept around the fire that night, but I chose my tent this time. It was sad to think that the next day was to be our last day walking.

This last day we were allowed to sleep in, till 8am! We only had a short walk ahead of us, about three hours walking, to the finish line, from where we were to be picked up by coach for our transfer to Walvis Bay, on the Namibian coast.

Just outside our camp we saw a very fresh Leopard print in the sand! This leopard must have walked straight past our camp in the night, whilst we were asleep in our tents. Wow!

About one hour into our walk, we arrived at the ‘head office' of the local Save the Rhino Trust, amidst a very small village and camp site. This comprised of a single shack type building, above which the lady running it lived. There were souvenirs for sale, the proceeds of which were for the SRT. I think we bought nearly everything on display within ten minutes or so, mostly wood carvings of various indigenous animals.

A couple of hours later we reached the ‘finish line', which was an actual finish line banner, strung up between the trucks! We all walked through the finish line together as one big group, before enjoying a glass of champagne (well, a polystyrene cup actually) and a hug or two. We all congratulated each other on a big achievement and took our celebratory finish line photos.

After that it was a three hour trip on the coach towards Walvis Bay. It gave us all a bit of time to think back to the last six days, exchange stories, watch back photographs on our digital cameras, exchange e-mails and addresses, have lunch and more.

We arrived at the ‘hotel' at about 3pm. After our first proper shower of the week - God, that felt good! - some of us, including me, decided to take a short drive to Dune 7, the tallest sand dune in the world, and climb it (as if we hadn't done enough this last week).

We arrived at the dune about half an hour before sunset and started to make our way onto the top of the dune. It looked as if it was going to take about 10 minutes to get to the top, but this was hugely underestimating the difficulty in climbing a mountain, made up of very loose sand. After nearly half an hour of continuously sinking away in the sand and completely losing my breath doing so, I finally reached the top, to be rewarded by the most amazing sunset yet again. When we got back to the hotel, another shower was called for!

That evening we had our gala dinner in a nearby restaurant, run by a couple of emigrated Brits. It was quite interesting to see everybody, all nicely scrubbed up, in nice clothes, cleanly shaven (the boys mainly) and wearing make up (the girls mainly). You would hardly have recognised some of us. There were some more speeches as well as lots of drinks to the fantastic experience we had just had.

Time to say goodbye
The last morning of the trip we all got into town together for a shared breakfast. After that we visited a local community centre, the ‘Walvis Bay Multi Purpose Centre', where, amongst other things, the locals try to educate especially young people to help and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. We were given a presentation about what they were all about. It was quite an eye opener to hear the sad facts about how HIV/AIDS is ruining the local community and the wider population in lots of sub-Saharan African countries, and especially Namibia. This visit had been organised mainly for the AMFAR supporting Americans I was travelling with, and it gave us all an insight in how truly devastating this easily prevented disease is.

Finally we went on our way towards Windhoek again, where we all went our separate way after an emotional goodbye. Most of my fellow travellers were to stay on for a few more days, or went on to South Africa, whilst Gillian and I went straight to the airport for our return flights to London.

So what did I get out of this trip? Well, firstly it gave me the fulfilment of having done something really challenging, both physically and mentally. It also gave me the chance to see one of the most beautiful and rare environments I had ever been in, as well as lots of amazing wildlife. It was also great to share this experience with like minded people and make some great friends in the process. Finally, I felt like I had done something really worthwhile for a very deserving animal charity, namely the Dogs Trust, for which I managed to raise about £3.250 in total.

Since I've come back, I have been telling everybody about my great experience, I've written articles for the Dogs Trust magazine Wag and for Veterinary Times, as well as this one. I've been sorting through my nearly 500 photos I took, and I've organised an evening talk and photo show for all those people who were kind enough to sponsor me for this trek.

And... I have decided that I'll definitely do another trek again next year, again with Across the Divide, of course. My chosen destination for next year is Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas in the high Andes mountains in Peru. You can be sure that I'll be asking you for some sponsorship money again next year!

For now I'm still just enjoying the many recent memories from an amazing trip to an amazing country!

About the author...
Peter van Dongen qualified as a vet at the Utrecht Veterinary school, The Netherlands, in March 1990. He worked in a mixed practice in Louth, Lincolnshire for three years, before deciding to limit himself to small animals only. In 1993 he joined Pennard Veterinary Group, in Sevenoaks, Kent. From December 1996 till January 2005, he ran his own branch practice in Allington, Maidstone. Currently he is a Director at Pennard Veterinary Group, now a 12 vet, four branch, small animal veterinary practice.

In May 1995 Peter started agility (after years of just thinking about it!) with his Jack Russell X 'Basil' (a bitch!), then five years old. Since then they qualified for many finals, including 'Crufts' and 'Olympia'. Basil won the coveted Crufts 2001 title in the individual mini agility.

Peter passed the British Agility Club Instructors' exam in October 1999 (first class) and has since done the British Agility Club Judging Workshop. He regularly writes for various agility magazines and web sites and has been the official British Team Vet for the Agility World Championships for the last six years.

Since last year Peter has started to do yearly charity treks, first to the Norwegian arctic and this year to the Namibian desert.

Peter and his wife Carry still live in Borough Green with their two dogs and two cats. His little Jack Russell Cross, Sky, is now at Grade 6 and might one day follow in Basil’s footsteps!


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