Run 55: Swakopmund Parkrun (and not being munched by a lion), Namibia, 7 July 2018

Dumbo! And not the one charging us…

Left. Right. Left. Right. Left Right. Mmm. I’m no zoological expert BUT … this seemed a little odd. Its head was shaking more and more aggressively which I kind of guessed wasn’t a brilliant sign. Then, its legs started kicking/scratching against the shrubs. And then, the most humongous of trumpeting sounds…

0.1 milliseconds later, pedal to the floor, we were skidding the hell out of there: that was the elephant’s very very final warning that it was about to squish us and I wasn’t too keen to test its, or the rest of the 25-strong herd’s, patience…

So, in summary, let’s just say our last day in Namibia was a little more adrenaline-filled than anticipated!

Having said all that, apart from the lions, venomous snakes and prickly insects, Namibia is a super safe and lovely country to visit, with very strong infrastructure, clean towns and even vegan burgers in some supermarkets! And they had parkruns. Parkruns! But more on that later.

They look so cuddly …. and deadly

It is, however, absolutely huge (roughly the size of Germany + France) but only has around 2 million people living there: i.e. it has the second lowest population density in the world (3 people/km2. For comparison, Macau has 19,000) and you notice it. The driving can seem interminable: I think the longest we went was 75km (!) on a straight road without crossing another car (on a main road) or human. And, while the stunning landscape (a geologist’s dream) will keep you alert, the majority of the roads are BumPY aS HeLL (a chiropractor’s dream…)

Anyway, this being a pseudo running blog, I obviously kept my training/obsessive behaviour up while out there and I’ll focus on that. I thought it may be interesting to review each place we stopped/ran in for tourism/running appeal so I’ve given that a shot.

Spoiler alert mind you: Namibia is not a running paradise. The only running group we came across was on our last day, and they were running on the hard shoulder of a 120kph motorway…

Anyway, let’s kick this off.
Lake Oanab

Our home for 2 weeks

Our first stop was a one-night stopover to break up a loooong two day drive at a lakeside campsite with a small game reserve. This was a very good place to start the trip with our naïve fresh-off-the-plane eyes, but may have been a bit unexciting had this been our final stop. However, we bumped into a giraffe so it makes the cut!

Our sole run was a out-and-back in the campsite perimeter at dawn: 2km one way, back, and repeat. Exhilarating.

The main purpose was just to stretch our legs after the long flight but, having seen a few zebras etc on the drive in the day before, we hoped to get lucky.

And, surprise surprise, within a few minutes, we had to stop to let a herd of zebras cross the road (a zebra crossing! Boo boom. I’ll get my coat). We then saw the usual mix of antelopes and, hidden behind a (tall) tree, our first giraffe of the trip! Cue a number of totally un-posed photos …

Finally running past someone taller than me

Tourism value: 4/10
Running potential: 2/10

Sossusvlei (and the middle of the desert)

Remember, as a kid, when you read in Geography books that deserts get warm during the day and cold at night? Well, it’s true! Add into the mix an unusual easterly windy weather front and it gets exceeeeptionally cold: think 1 or 2 degrees with constant 50kph winds. As you can imagine, it was perfect camping conditions. A bit like camping in Northumberland in February.

The world-famous Sossussvlei sand dunes

That said… the camping was a means to an end. We were here to visit the famous Sossusvlei sand dunes, which reach a whooping 350m high (that’s high). All around is the Namib Desert which is more the rocky and flat type of desert than the “Aladdin” type. It’s also one of the driest places on Earth, to the point where you can visit a fossilized forest of trees nearby which died thousands of years ago but has been preserved as they were because the air really was THAT dry (you should see what it does to your skin after a few days…)

Running-wise, sandy dunes were clearly not going to be very useful though they did provide some excellent backdrops for photos (I think other tourists thought we were weird)! Technically, I managed at least a few 100m sprints for some shots so that counts as interval training right?

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On the opposite end of the spectrum, the surrounding desert is quite well suited for long runs with – literally – hundreds of kilometres of uninterrupted, essentially straight and flat roads. You could technically go off road but, aside from the odd remains of a crashed car, the acacia and other bushes look identical from one mile to the next so you’d pretty quickly get lost. Out and back in a straight line was safest!

You’ll be a little hard pushed to get lost out here…

Add to that the fact that, in the desert, the night appears very suddenly (and early! 6pm?) and that the temperature plunges accordingly – oh and there’s zero phone signal within a few hundred kilometres – then common sense and timing suddenly become very important. So leaving at 5.30pm for a 10km run was probably cutting it a little fine.

On the plus side, if you do mess things up and end up holed up with the snakes and jackals overnight, you’re in for a treat: the night sky is absolutely spectacular! Also, did you know the ‘dark part’ of the moon when there’s a crescent was less dark than the background night-sky? Did you? Well, whatevs. Us townies never see that!

Running through Deadvlei, a 2,000 year old fossilised forest

Tourism value: 8/10
Running potential: 6/10
Swakopmund

Welcome to Bavaria … sorry, I mean Namibia

Now we’re talking. Other than the sandstorms, the wind, the heat and the confused looks on locals’ faces, Swakopmund is the easiest and best place to run in Namibia: flat, safe, with paved roads (hallelujah) and enough variety in scenery to keep you interested. It also, amazingly, hosts a weekly parkrun!

The first odd thing about Swakopmund is that the pristine German colonial architecture makes it feel like you could be in Bavaria rather than on the edge of the Namib desert. Once you’ve got to grips with that, the first obvious thing to do is to sniff out fellow runners. Lo and behold, we came across a French couple wearing running t-shirts on a tour of the desert so we followed up with the usual “soooo, do you guys run” question? It turned out that Anna and Romain were very nice too so, on top of hanging out with them, I went on a long run with Anna too, which was a relief as my legs were getting twitchy after a week off.

Sniffing other runners out in the middle of nowhere

The town – one of the largest in Namibia with a whopping 35,000 inhabitants, is handy for running as it’s (broadly) a big grid with extremely wide roads and, all along the waterfront, a really well kept promenade. The wind which had frozen us to death in Sossussvlei was still going strong which, in one way, was exhausting but, at the same time, was brilliant because it kept the mist which Swakopmund is famous for at bay. There are normally 300 days of mist per year. We were there for 4 days and got: zero. It was still toasty mind you and I made the most of the sprinklers to cool myself down. I’m not sure about the wisdom of watering parks in full sunshine but, for runners, it’s a great idea!

A few days later, it was time for – let’s be honest – one of the most exciting bits of the holidays. Forget lions, forget crazy landscapes: it was parkrun time! We’d found out from a friend a week before travelling out that this tiny town hosted weekly parkruns and, after a little bit of excited calculations, realised we’d BE there on a Saturday. The standard is a little lower than London ones, unsurprisingly, but they still normally get a hundred or so runners coming along normally. While the course record is pretty sharp (low 15 minutes!), the previous few weeks’ winners were around the 20 minute mark so I was pretty confident I may be running solo for a while.

On top of that, the wind wasn’t dying down and we were now full blast into a sand-storm so numbers were a little low. On the one hand, it’s great for exfoliating your teeth. On the other hand, it’s probably not great for your lungs.

If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of these on the run

We went through the standard pre-parkrun shebang, thanking volunteers and outlining the course. However, they were a little short of volunteers that week so the organiser explained that he hoped the signs would be out by the time we get there, though hopefully it’ll be people who know the course who get there first in any case. I think I spoiled that plan.

And then, as per traditional parkrun method, halfway through a sentence, they said GO and we were off.

The first 200m are downhill towards the seafront. By this point, I was about 20m ahead of the person in second and the gap didn’t get any smaller. By 1km, after running into a absolute bitch of a gale, I was probably 100m ahead of the second runner: so this is what it feels like to be super-fast and at the front of races!

Flyyyyyyyyying at the front of the race (and sandboarding the day before)

As I suspected I’d be near the front, we’d done a little ‘reconnaissance’ the day before (which I realise is a little OTT for a parkrun) so I knew roughly where the U-turn would be. As it happened, the sign was earlier than expected but, despite being a little confused, I still zipped over the only sandy part of the course down to the promenade and, the wind now in my sails, gained a little speed. The setting was stunning, with waves crashing by on one side and blonde sandy beaches on the other.

Parkrun’s course along the Swakopmund promenade

We were told to run along for a couple of kilometres before reaching a yellow van. Then, after three palm trees (!), make a u-turn. The problem was that there were both small palm trees, big palm trees, and I wasn’t really sure when to start counting 1, 2, 3. Without too much to go on, I counted a few and what seemed like a ‘fair’ distance before turning around and zipping back towards the finish line.

I suspect I turned a few meters early but, as I was over 2 minutes ahead of the runner in second place by then, it didn’t really make too much of a difference. Having said that, I was also told after I finished that I cut the last corner short, having gone on the inside of the roundabout so maybe it all starts adding up. In my defence, I hadn’t been told to go on the outside due to the lack of volunteers so I’m not going to feel too guilty. I think they were just a little surprised that someone ran so quickly (albeit ‘only’ 17.57, which wasn’t that fast at all).

Winnnnneeerrssss

A couple of minutes went by before the second runner came in before a gradual trickle of runners started coming through. I was desperately hoping that the first female I’d see would be Pippa so that we’d ‘win’ both male and female categories. Unfortunately, two other women (well, young girls) came through just ahead of Pippa.

Buuuuuuut, neither of them had a barcode so Pippa got given female first place. All glory be ours. #powercouple #couplegoals

#powercouple #couplegoals

Tourism value: 8/10
Running potential: 8/10
Uis

From there, we got the joy of driving through thick sandstorms and potholes up to Uis, a little ex-mining town in the middle of, well, nowhere. Like…nowhere. There’s a T-junction just outside the ‘town’: one way, the next nearest village/hamlet is 115km. The other way: 121km. The other way: 123km. Really: nowhere.

Uis: in the middle of no-man, no-woman, no-anything land.
A contemporary (terrible) re-creation of the White Lady confusion

It’s a good place to break a long journey up but that’s about it as there’s isn’t much to do.

You can visit the famous 5,000 year old ‘White Lady’ painting (which, anecdotally, is actually of a black man but hey, accuracy and all that…), or drive 5 hours (kill me) to see some petrified forests but … that’s about it.

There was so little to do that I even managed a pre-dawn, pre-breakfast interval session one morning.

What have I become?!

Uis’ “Hollywood” sign in the background

There are, however, some long (120km…) straight roads you can use for long jogs amongst the rocky desert, which I did a couple of times. Based on the nature of the area, you can pretty much only do “out-and-backs”.

However, being wild, I was crazy and took a right turn at the T-junction and did a little detour that way. Ooo. Mental.

Pippa braving the (lack of?) leopards too

The only added ‘spice’ to this run was that I’d been told by one receptionist that there definitely weren’t any leopards in this area, but by another that they actually were hunting in this area.

I trusted the first one because, well, you can’t NOT stick to your training schedule.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing like the solitude of the desert to help your mind run wild. Suddenly, it was a foregone conclusion that the bushes were littered with hungry leopards, licking their lips in anticipation. And, believe me, there’s nothing like thinking you’re prey to get your quads firing. But, then again, wouldn’t the extra sweat alert the predator? Maybe I had better slow down. But then I’d be easier to catch. I was wearing bright green anyway so surely it wouldn’t confuse me for an antelope. Ooor, surely, it would be curious and wonder what this funny-coloured bony two-legged meal tastes like. I better speed up. But then the noise of my heavier breathing would … Aaaargh. RUN. Idiot.

I lived.

Tourism value: 3/10

Running potential: 4/10
Etosha National Park

After another bumpy 6-hour drive, we made it to Etosha National Park which was simply a.m.a.z.i.n.g. At least it is in the dry season, which was when we were there. There were so few waterholes that hundreds, if not thousands, of herds would take it in turn to come refuel and we just watched the day go by as they come and go. Zebras and antelopes by the thousands, giraffes, elephants, rhinos and lions by the dozens: it was one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ experiences. Clap clap.

However, that last point about lions was important: there genuinely were lions all around. We knew that for a fact because we saw so many of them.

Thankfully, when we weren’t in our car, we were safely in the campsite’s perimeter, protected by a 2 meter high wire fence. Because lions and leopards can’t jump 2 meter fences right. Right? Mmm.

Loops of Halali campsite. Times 20.

Anyway, if we had been going to get mauled, it was most likely in our sleep so running around the Halali campsite wouldn’t be too high a risk. In actual fact, in 4 days of trotting, the full list of animals I came across was 2 fluffy-eared bunnies who absolutely shat themselves when I turned a corner and stumbled upon them.

As for the runs themselves, well, a figure of 8 loop of the campsite was exactly one mile. All you could do was do that 20 times over the course of a few days, try not to fall asleep and that was about it in terms of running unfortunately. No cars mind you. Or lions.

They were all outside and these are some of our better pictures:

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Tourism value: 10/10

Running potential: 3/10

So there you go!

Namibia is a beautiful country and absolutely worth the visit. You’ll win parkruns. You’ll clean your teeth on sand. You’ll lose tons of weight from the shivering in the desert. And you’ll wear bright green to avoid getting eaten by leopards.

Don’t forget that last one.

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