Quad-biking over the sand dunes sounded to me like something a bunch of dopey guys would do when they wanted to impress each other.
But everyone who had done it kept telling me how great it was. My friend Nikki--who as a driver for Dragoman overland trucks had done just about everything in southern and eastern Africa—told me not to miss it. Jenny—an Irish-Australian nurse I’d had dinner with a few nights ago--told me quad-biking was awesome. Finally, with just a few days left in Namibia before heading south to Cape Town, I gave it a try.
It was fantastic.
I went with three independent travelers and a guide. We were all given helmets and automatic quad-bikes (ATVs), as we were all beginners (riding a motorcycle six times in L.A. in ’95 did not qualify me as “advanced”). Willy the guide gave us instructions including such gems as “accelerate when going up dunes” and “use your brakes to stop.” Off we went, following him in a tentative, jerky line. I noticed that Willy rode a manual quad-bike, and that he wore gloves.
“I thought we were going on dunes,” muttered one of the group.
“We will,” I replied. “The dunes are over the river.” The Swakop River separates the town from the massive orange dunes.
Willy led us over the river and into the desert. At first, we went in a straight line. Then he started added curves to the mix. A few of us went off the track a bit initially. Driving on sand takes some getting used to.
A minute later, he sped up a dune, curved at the top and careened down. “Okay,” I thought. “A hundred tourists do this every day. I won’t wipe out.”
And I didn’t. Neither did anyone else. In no time, we were zipping up and down dunes with glee, racing along in the desert sun and enjoying acting like a bunch of dopey guys trying to impress each other.
Sometimes Willy led us over what appeared to be sheer drops, but actually had steep slopes, hidden by the edge. I was too chicken to speed down and would just let gravity do the work. Other times Willy did wheelies, which no one tried to mimic. He jumped a few times and some of us succeeded in copying him. I did not.
The ride along the dunes lasted two hours, which was exactly enough time for my gloveless hands to get cold. We passed the sand-boarding dunes, where my lack-of-navigational-skills made Shawn wipe out on the tandem in 2001. We passed near the Atlantic Ocean. Most importantly, no one (including me) froze up on the steep dunes and no one fell off.
I’m sure there’s lots of eco-reasons not to ride quad-bikes. They probably damage the desert or something. But they sure are a lot of fun.
I walked home from the booking office afterwards, noting that a Dragoman truck had pulled in at the lodge across the street. Was it a truck I’d been on, perhaps Oscar who took me through Pakistan and Iran in ’98, Nikki behind the wheel? Or PAZ, Marky’s truck that got me into Ethiopia in 2001 before I’d gone my own way in the Isuzu truck that fell over? No, its name (as painted on the side) was Claudia.
Disappointed, I continued walking. There was an African man walking towards me with a familiar gait.
“Oh my god. Sam.”
Sam, the Kenyan cook from Marky’s truck, looked at me with a glint of recognition, but mostly he appeared confused. He shook my hand, probably hoping I’d give him a clue as to why I knew him.
“2001. Ethiopia. Marky Mark’s truck. You know, I was always leaving the truck and going off by myself. Nikki’s friend, Marie. I shared with Monica.”
I said the right words with Ethiopia and Marky Mark. Now he was starting to figure it out. He had that slow dawning look on his face as he realized he knew me, and he started to laugh. He laughed harder when I told him I was living in Swakopmund and writing a book about the trip that had included him as a character. He knew Nikki from when they were bogged in mud together for six days in Malawi, so I caught him up on Nikki’s life. But he couldn’t—in his British accent learned from too many years in the company of Drago-drivers--catch me up on Marky’s with any more that I’d learned in Uganda—Mark had gone home to the UK. No one expected him to stay there.
It was great to see someone I knew, and I happily skipped home to get the sand out of my shoes.