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Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2000

TRUE GRIT

Catching air in the Namibian dunes


By JONO DAVID

I stood atop the sand dunes looking out across the waterless sea, wondering where the winds are leading the Namib Desert. Pools of shadow collected in the troughs of the curvaceous vista, inspiring reverence for the world's oldest wilderness of sand. Forty-five seconds and a great big granular grin later, however, I was at the bottom of "Little Nellie," the first of half a dozen gritty slopes. I came here to sandboard.

Sandboarders snake their way up the tall dunes outside Swakopmund, Namibia.

Ten km and a world away from the bright lights and little city of Swakopmund, Namibia, tourists fork out $20 for three hours of up-and-down adrenalin thrills that locals have been getting free for years. The fee raises the eyebrows of many local residents who are as disinclined to pay for a mouthful of sand as anyone in, say, the Rocky Mountains or the Japan Alps would be to shell out for a frost-bitten ride on a piece of wood down some snow-covered hill.

But there I was, along with 20 other intrepid tourists, breathless from both the climb after the first run and the view itself, gazing at the golden face of "Briget," a little bigger and a little bolder than her sister. I was determined to make the most of this forbidding coastal stretch, christened the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area.

Tightening the chin strap of my bicycle crash helmet, positioning the elbow and knee pads just so, and pulling on my gloves with a confident tug, I mounted my racing machine: a shoe-polished piece of plywood. Then, with a gentle push from one of the assistants, I slipped from the curl of Briget's spine, darting toward her sunken belly. With the wind whistling in my sand-filled ears, the helper's voice came racing up beside me: "Elbows up! Keep your elbows up!"

A challenger hurls down the dunes.

Lying on my stomach and doing my best impression of an airplane, I managed to hold my own. But I didn't quite keep the board tipped up long enough, letting go before I came to a complete stop, and getting a mouthful of grit. I pulled nearly every muscle in my back and neck in the process of the 50 kph, 40-second flight, but still I felt great, eager for more.

Laughing the dust off, I began the next ascent in haste. "Lizzy" and "Dizzy," the terrible twins, called to me, the bends of their wind-blown crests beckoning me up to their 200-meter heights. At the top, I took a breather in the "Playground," the pit-stop ridge. I gulped down a few swigs of water in time to the lapping thirst of local canine Sandy, the indefatigable dog of the dunes. I was not alone in feeling exhausted just watching this animal race time and again up and down the slopes at breakneck speed.

Sandboarders get geared up for their day in the sand, while Sandy, the indefatigable dog of the dunes, quenches her thirst.

Rested, I looked Lizzy in the eye, and rose for the challenge. The highest and steepest hill yet, she grabbed at me, nearly pulling the board out from beneath me. But I held on, controlling my direction with a few light touches of my booted toes. At the bottom, I exchanged a wordless though noisy expression of delight with a woman who went before me. And then I turned my attention to the dune's twin.

After riding Dizzy's voluptuous slopes and curves it was time to take on "Papa." Also lovingly called "Knuckle Eater," Papa vied for my attention, howling in the wind and kicking up sand into my face.

One look down Papa's sheer gradient was enough to clip the intrepid wings of a few people. As they were calling it quits, I was slapping a fresh coat of shoe polish on my board, building myself for speed with an ultimate slick.

Stepping up to the starting gate, I lay myself down head-first on the high-tech device, with the front edge of the board lifted high. I dashed downward into Papa's concavity with a sensation of a free fall at the mercuric speed of 80 kph. G-forces literally rippled my cheeks as I braced myself for a sensational tailspin that never materialized. So thrilled was I that I ran back up the tower of sand for one more go nearly as quickly as I came down. The second flyby was no less a wallop of wacky fun.

The last ride of the day brought me back to Little Nellie. This time, however, the run promised to end in a tumultuous jump. I watched a girl from London cast herself off from a spot only a couple of meters from the original take-off point and rocket from beneath my feet, zooming into the curling descent, only to rise a few seconds later into the launch of the jump. Her moment of airborne grace ended in an ungainly shroud of exploding sand, but her laughter remained aloft, flying all the way back up to the starting gate.

Then it was my turn. Launching myself into the sandy abyss, I bisected the tracks of the earlier runs with speed. I prepared myself for the approach of the ramp, fixing my eyes on the target and making a conscious effort to keep the front edge of my board raised. More importantly, I remembered to keep my mouth shut.

But then something remarkable happened: I didn't jump the jump so much as I went through it. Whereas I was anticipating a momentary catch of air and the sensation of flight, I received a sudden blow to the face, the jolt of which filled my sealed mouth with a force-fed granular sandwich. By now, not only my gullet, but literally every pocket and orifice was sand-plugged.

The girl from London was in stitches, doubled-over, tripled-over in fact, at my unforeseen display. But when her mother erupted in a golden cloud before me, twisting and turning with a facial expression of drawn horror, then shaking herself off like a sopping wet dog, I nearly laughed myself back to town.

The last of the jump-junkies down, we gathered up the gear and I shook a veritable dune out of my boots. We then headed back to the trucks for a refreshment of soft drinks, beers and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. No one had much to say as hunger and thirst held our tongues. But as we all stood around, beverages in one hand and food in the other, I noticed everyone was grinning. Sandy the dog was smiling, too.



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