It began simply enough. The BBC in London
wanted a series of adventure films. An associate producer at Mosaic
Pictures was assigned the job of finding film-worthy adventurers.
He lined up a hang-gliding world champion and an Amazon-rafting zoologist,
a famous mountain climber and a deep-sea diver.
Eventually, with adventuresome fanatics becoming scarce, he called up a publisher friend to ask for suggestions. She replied that she didn't know anyone who was suitable. But later, she dimly remembered a certain eccentric desert-trekking friend who was living in Botswana. And that's how I entered the world of adventure film making—I'm the friend of a friend.
After three months of faxes, phone calls, and a video-taped screen test, my proposed adventure was accepted by the BBC. The plan was for me to walk across the Namib Desert from Brandberg to the coast, a distance of 120 km, using no vehicle for support, and carrying a five-day supply of water on my back. The film crew would walk along with me, or so they thought.
I flew to Windhoek two days before the crew was due to arrive. This gave me time to inquire about our intended route with the Directorate of Nature Conservation and to get detailed maps of the area from the Office of the Surveyor-General. Then, with the summer's heat reaching its peak, the first members of the team arrived. Thus began my two weeks as an "expeditioner" for Mosaic Pictures and the BBC. Here are excerpts from my log:
I go to the airport to meet the British half of the team—Matt Dickinson, presenter/director, and Jeremy West, sound recordist. Matt is younger than I had expected, Jeremy is older, and both are veterans of countless expeditions on five continents.
We check into the Kalahari Sands Hotel. I spread out the maps of our route and explain to Matt the conditions that we are likely to encounter.
Jeremy gets a loose connection in his sound equipment re-soldered at a local toy store. Matt buys a packet of fire-crackers, saying: "We can use them to scare off those jackals you were talking about. It'll make a good sequence." I try to explain that a Namibian jackal is no more menacing than a British red-tailed fox.
We shop for food and meet up with the remaining members of the team—Fanie van Der Merwe, the South African cameraman, and Pinkie Coetzee, the Namibian driver. Fanie has filmed expeditions from the Himalayas to Antarctica. Pinkie, at 60-something, has spent his whole life the the Namib and knows every back road in the country. I've been billed at the Desert Survival Expert, but I feel like a novice.
We pack up for the long drive to the mammoth sand dunes at Sossusvlei. I ask Matt how this will fit into the film, since we will cross no large dunes where we'll be trekking. "We want some good visuals," says Matt. "This will establish your personality before the start of the trek."
For the first film sequence, I'm to climb the side of a mile-high sand dune. We unload a mountain of equipment from Pinkie's truck: cine-camera, tripod, lenses, film canisters, tape recorders, boom, radio microphones, etc. I try to help, but the jargon has me stumped. "Where are my legs?" asks Fanie. "I need the fluffy dog," says Jeremy. Only later do I learn that legs means tripod, and that a fluffy dog is the microphone's furry wind cover.
When the camera is ready, I start up the dune. My pack is loaded with 50 pounds of water bottles, providing authenticity. With each step upward, I slide half a step back down. I climb higher, and the wind blows a plume of sand around my head. Up and up I climb, getting more and more tired. I realize that no one has told me how high to go, and I'm afraid that if I look back it will ruin the scene. Perhaps they are already calling for me to come back down but the wind is keeping me from hearing them. Or maybe they want to film me at the top of the dune? Higher and higher. I need to rest, but that too might ruin the scene. Gasping for breath, I finally hear a distant voice shouting: "OK. OK!!"
`I slide back down, and empty the sand from my boots. "That was good," says Matt. "Thank you. Now, if you'll walk along this ridge..." That's how my personality is established.
After a night at the Sesriem camp site, we're up at 3:30 AM. We drive back to the dunes, arriving before sunrise. I make a camp and pretend to be sleeping. I get up, pack my things, and walk off—twice. Fanie's cine-camera purrs away. Jeremy's fluffy dog hovers in the air. Matt gives me directions: "Now, zip the pack again. Faster please. Yes, look up, but don't look at the camera. Good. Go back to when you shake the sand out of that cloth. Very nice. Thank you. OK, let's have a close-up."
We film throughout the day, returning to Sesriem at 8:00 PM.
Another pre-dawn start. We tape and film diary pieces, with Matt and Jeremy asking me questions: "Why do you usually travel alone in the desert?"
"What is the attraction of such desolate places?"
"Do you feel the soul of the desert?"
"Wait a moment," I plead. "Let me think about this!"
"No, keep rolling. We want it to be spontaneous."
"Well, I—I think, uhh..." I waste half a reel of film before I manage any coherent statements. Matt reminds me that six-million people will be watching—a sobering thought.
We load up the truck and drive to Walvis Bay, so that the film rushes can be sent to London. Fanie checks the video equipment and charges the batteries.
The rushes go off with DHL courier express. We buy more food and some extra water bottles.
On the drive to Brandberg, we stop just once, to film Matt and I walking through the mirages that form over the gravel plains. Matt is thrilled with the good visuals. "This really shows the heat," he beams.
We get ready to begin the trek. Fanie films us packing up and weighing the packs. My own pack, with 31 quarts of water, tops the scale at 84 pounds. On camera, we take turns discussing our fears—worries about the heat and a possible shortage of water, the chances of getting lost, or of stepping on a puff adder.
When the midday heat has passed, we set off—Fanie, Jeremy, Matt, and I. Pinkie will wait at Brandberg for two days in case we have to turn back. After that, he will drive around to the coast to meet up with us in five days.
Today's route is easy to follow—straight down the sandy bed of the dry Messum River. I set the pace, slow and easy, a half hour's walking, followed by a short rest. Matt says it's the heaviest pack he has ever carried. Fanie says the pace is just right. Jeremy is quiet.
As darkness settles, we make camp. To save weight, we are carrying no tent, sleeping bags, nor stove. We much some food—biscuits, tinned meat, dried fruit. There is very little conversation, and no filming. We crawl into our cloth sacks, cover ourselves with our plastic rescue blankets, and shiver though the night.
Up at 5:00 AM; sip some water, chew some biltong. Resume the march. After one and and a half hours, we leave the river bed to climb over a range of rocky hills. On the far side is a valley of gravel that reflects the heat like an over. Everyone seems sluggish.
At 11:00 AM, it's too hot to continue. My thermometer reads 120°F. We have to get out of the sun. There are a few Welwitschia plants, but no trees, and no shade. While the others wait, I climb into the hills and discover a small cliff where we can fasten our rescue blankets to provide some shade. I go back for the crew, and we film the rigging of the shelter.
While we wait for the day to cool off, we reach a difficult decision. In the interests of speed and safety, Jeremy and Fanie will turn back. We hope that Matt and I will make better time, and be more certain of success, if we go alone.
At 3:00 PM, the cameraman and the sound recordist start back. Matt and I continue westward. We carry with us the small video camera and a miniature tape recorder.
After another frigid night, Matt and I descend into the Messum meteor crater. The sand is completely smooth and barren, having an other-worldly look, rather like the surface of the moon.
In the center of the crater is a peak of stone where we discover a cave. This gives us luxurious shelter from the day's heat. I put some water and Ramen noodles in a cup and cover it with a plastic bag. I place the cup outside the cave, where it cooks from just the heat of the sun. Matt film the process.
The afternoon march carries us out of the crater. During the night, the wind whips Matt's rescue blanket from his grasp and it's lost. Out of commiseration, I put aside my own blanket, and we both sleep fitfully in wind-chill temperatures below freezing. Matt remarks, "It's amazing that in the day it's so hot that your blood is boiling, and at night it's freezing. It's freezing!"
We have now consumed so much food and water that our packs are no longer physically painful to have on. From here to the coast, there are no landmarks, so I check the compass every few minutes to ensure that we stay on course.
With Matt filming, I catch a lizard by hand and demonstrate how it can be put soundly to sleep by gently rubbing its belly.
Our midday shelter is a crawl space between two rocks. During the afternoon, the sun shines in, turning it into a furnace. We abandon it, and continue on. The walking has become mechanical—putting one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.
For our final night, we dig a trench in the sand and fasten our remaining rescue blanket over the top. This blocks the wind, and we sleep somewhat better.
We can hear the rumbling of the sea, but it's still 30 km away. I force the pace, and Matt lags further behind with each stretch of walking. I think that his legs are sore, and that he has blisters, but he has never complained.
Knowing the end is near, we drink lavishly of our remaining water. We walk two hours without a pause. At noon, we see a strange sight. Up in the sky is a reflected mirage of the breaking waves. In the distance, we spot Pinkie's truck. He turns off towards the sea—at the exact spot where we're headed.
Fanie films our arrival at the ocean. Pinkie shakes our hands. Jeremy records our tired voices.
There's no time to enjoy our success. We need to get to a phone so that Matt can call London about the film rushes. I ask Matt what will happen if the rushes are bad. "If they're bad," he says, "we'll have to go back to the desert and re-shoot."
Fortunately, the rushes turned out to be good, and two days later we were each headed home—Pinkie to his farm, Fanie to Pretoria, Jeremy and Matt to Britain, and I back to Botswana. Since then, I've heard that the footage from our trek was so good that the film is being produced in two parts, and that the BBC will be broadcasting them as the opening two episodes of their Classic Adventure series. Once it's aired it will mark the end of my brief career in adventure film making, unless I should get another call from a friend of a friend.
See the Book: Across African Sand
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