In the heart of the desert

When I read MLSlavePuppet’s comment on my post Ephemerality, a memory from my childhood was sparked, and I jotted it down to see if it would fit in with one of Feve’s prompt. When the prompt ‘space‘ was announced, I knew exactly what I wanted to share, and I apologize beforehand for a somewhat longer post. This memory is really dear to me, and I wanted to share it all (thank you, Feve, for taking me back to such happy times!).

I was fourteen, and in the third year of high school in Windhoek. I always worked hard at school to earn good grades, and this served me well, as that year the school selected 40 girls to go on a survival trip for a week. They only chose girls whose grades were good enough for them to miss a week of school. I was one of the 40 girls, and thrilled to be chosen, as we would be going to Swakopmund, one of my favorite places.

We were to leave on Monday morning, and return on Saturday afternoon.

Overnight at Spitzkoppe

Where the trip from Windhoek to Swakopmund is just more than 3 hours by car, by bus it surely takes longer. Also, besides the fact that the week was called a ‘survival week’, obviously it was also about fun. Their were frequent stops on the way to our destination, and a lot of exciting squeals from us teenage girls. I clearly remember a photo (which I still have somewhere in a photo album) where I sit on a rock with four other girls. That photo was taken on one of our roadside stops.

The program for the week said that we would first drive to the Spitzkoppe, even though this would take us off the direct route to Swakopmund.

The Spitzkoppe is a group of bald granite peaks or inselbergs located between Usakos and Swakopmund in the Namib desert of Namibia. The granite is more than 120 million years old and the highest outcrop rises about 1,728 metres above sea level. The peaks stand out dramatically from the flat surrounding plains.

Spitzkoppe, Namibia
Source image

We arrived at the Spitzkoppe somewhere in the afternoon, and there was… only nature. After a snack and something to drink, the teachers rounded us up and we started walking towards the granite peaks. Thinking back on this, I can still ‘feel’ the freedom of nature; the beauty of being in a place where there were no man-made things, only what nature has created.

Tiny red velvet spider
Source image unknown (found on Pinterest)

On those granite rocks we found large ants — about 1 to 1.5 centimeter in length — and spiders. At first we didn’t know it were spiders, those red velvety creatures running around in the sun. We were told they were harmless, and this was the only time in my life I held a spider in my hand. They were beautiful and tiny, smaller than those ants.

After our adventure on those rocks, we went back down to the bus. Where all the girls thought we would get back in and continue to Swakopmund, we were wrong. We were told to get our backpacks, and roll out our sleeping bags. A fire was started to prepare the evening meal, and by the time we ate, the only light we had was that of the fire. Out there in nature, in the desert, it got so dark that you couldn’t see a hand in front of your eyes.

A scream woke me that night, somewhere in the early hours of the morning. The next sound I became aware of was a deep grunty-growly-snorty sound. It definitely came from an animal, but where was it? The teachers told us to be quiet, to be calm. I can’t remember if we went back to sleep — I don’t think so — but as the day broke, we found the den of a common warthog not far from where we slept that night.

The barracks

In Swakopmund we slept in the barracks that were once property of the army, but now used by schools for these kind of survival trips. After being assigned our beds, we all gathered outside, where we were also give the planning for the rest of the week. During daytime we would mainly be outside on the obstacle course, climbing over or crawling under contraptions that were once used by soldiers. Between these outdoor activities, we had some theoretical and practical lessons about survival.

We had enough downtime between those activities, even though we all had to do our chores of sweeping floors and doing dishes too. The teachers added an element of competition when we were on those obstacle courses, dividing us into teams and setting goals for us to reach. Of course each team wanted to win, and it made for lots of laughter and camaraderie.

Compass, map and coordinates

When we were told the planning, it was said that they had another surprise for us later in the week. After two nights sleeping in the barracks, on Thursday morning we all stood ready to go to back to the obstacle course again, but the teachers told us to get our backpacks, and our sleeping bags. We were all wearing tracksuits, and were told to make sure we have our tops packed, as well as an extra jersey. The rest of our clothes were to stay in the barracks. Once we had everything, we all got in the bus.

As we drove away from Swakopmund in the direction of Walvis Bay, the teachers handed each group a compass, a map and a the same set of coordinates. Somewhere along the road the bus stopped. On one side of the road was the ocean, on the other the desert. The first group was told to come to the front of the bus. A big box was opened, and each girl was told to pick one tin of food and put it in her backpack. The group got off the bus, a teacher spoke to them outside, and the bus drove off, leaving them there.

When it was our turn, we each took a tin of food — the labels were removed, so we didn’t know what we picked — and got off the bus. We were told to use the compass and the map to get to the given coordinates. And, there was the element of competition once more: the first group to arrive of course would be declared the winner.

We used what we were taught in those survival lessons to read the map and the compass and started walking, straight into the desert. We were chirpy and motivated, but as the day wore on, there were tears too. We encouraged each other to keep on going, when one wanted to give up. We dragged each other along. We found how hard it was to walk up a dune on the leeward side, which is mostly steeper than the windward side. It was tiring, so damn tiring, and it took us most of the day to finally, finally get to the coordinates, where the teachers already waited. We thought we would be the last group to arrive, but as we approached the teachers, we saw another group heading towards them. We couldn’t run because of the sea of sand around us, but we didn’t want to be the last group in, so we found some energy from somewhere and increased our speed. Fun fact: we happened to be the first group in!


Once again it went from bright daylight, to a short period of dusk and suddenly it was DARK! By then each group had already shared and eaten what was in the tins — yuk, we had two tins of sweetcorn — and with all the walking and climbing and our aching muscles, we were all tired. With the sun and warmth gone, the cold came. I never realized how cold it could be out in the desert, until that night. Despite the tracksuit, the extra jersey and crawling deep into our sleeping bags, several of us shivered with cold. All. Night. Long. I had never been so happy in my life that a night had passed!

The Namib Desert, and the ocean in the background on the left
Source image

The next morning we rounded up our stuff, and had to gather up the courage to walk through the sand again. Some girls even cried before we started, thinking back on the pain and desperation of the previous day. The teachers urged us to start walking, and so we did. As we got to the top of the dune, some of us cried with relief. There, a couple of hundred meters from that dune, was the road where we were dropped the day before, and the bus!

Never to be forgotten

We returned to the barracks, and that last night was all about fun and laughter. We performed for the teachers – song and dance and poems and stories. Many friendships were formed that week, and I hope some of them still exist. What we all knew, is that we had shared a unique experience, and back at school the next week, it was difficult to share with those who stayed behind, what we had found out there in the vast space of nature.

How I would love to return to the Spitzkoppe, to Swakopmund, and maybe even to climb at least one dune again. Being in the heart of the desert, surrounded by nothing but sand, had taught a fourteen-year old girl some life lessons, and had given her a memory never to be forgotten.

© Rebel’s Notes

Reminiscences: Musings in Memoir

14 thoughts on “In the heart of the desert

  1. Swakopmund lol, what a name!
    Reading this post I can feel your joy and excitement. The picture of you on the rocks reminds me of a picture me and my friends in France on a school trip we had. The area you went to is a lot more breathtaking, however!

    HOW DID YOU NOT KNOW THAT WAS A SPIDER. I had to scroll back up instantly lol. Then covered that side of the screen with my hand to keep on reading. Omg I would not dare sleep outside knowing there were spiders like that around lol. Also lol, did they consider the safety of everyone sleeping out in the open when animals could attack??

    I feel like I would have both loved and hated this experience. Or maybe rather during I would have hated it, then looking back I would have loved it. Thank you for sharing this. I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Swakopmund… if you look at the pictures, you see the German influence. Before it was known as ‘Namibia’ it was ‘Suidwes Afrika’ and before that it was ‘Duitswes Afrika’. And Swakopmund is a place I really would love to go back too. So many good memories there.

      Haha I should’ve warned you about the spider 😉
      As for the safety, I am sure they considered it, but of course they didn’t tell us, or I forgot. Hey, it was survival… lol

      There were some parts I really hated during, but afterwards I am glad I did it.

      Thanks for reading, ML!

  2. This was fascinating. Hardship and competition away from modern convenience and comforts will definitely form some strong bonds. Well done Marie for sticking it out and enjoying it.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Polly. It’s a memory that will stay with me forever.

  3. I didn’t know you lived in Africa. I often think about moving to Africa as it’s beautiful. There are more opportunities to bask in the nature while in Africa than there are in western countries as so much of our land is developed.

    It sounds like a wonderful trip…although, I think I would skip the hike up the dune haha.

    1. I was born and raised in South Africa, and moved to the Netherlands when I was 28. Africa is a stunning place, and Namibia is one of the safest countries on the continent.
      And yes, the hike up the dune… that was something!

  4. What a fabulous experience! definitely fits in with “space” as the theme. Do you remain friends with anyone from that trip? Or did moving thousands of miles stop that from happening?

    1. Sadly, I don’t have contact with anyone anymore who I was in school with. My parents moved around quite a bit, and the year after this experience we moved away. And I moved a lot after that, so lost contact. I have found one or two of them on social media but other than befriending each other, we don’t actually talk.

  5. What a wonderful piece. The pictures you have included show what an amazing landscape it is and the whole experience clearly had a lasting effect on you. You took me right there with you. Thank you ?

    1. It is a stunning country, and especially the coastline is full of contrasts. Thank you for reading and your nice comment 🙂

    1. It would be interesting to know if they still do it, but at least I have the memories of this experience. Thanks for taking my thoughts there with your prompt 🙂

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