Last May, I went on a seven-day camping trip through the Namib desert. I call it a camping trip because although I was working (from about 6 a.m. until midnight for seven days straight), I was not one of the 200 people who had decided to run, walk or hobble my way through 250 kms of rough country, sand and sand
dunes (the second largest in the world!). Instead, I was the on-location writer, providing daily updates and twice daily features.
It was my first time in Namibia and to date the farthest I’ve ever traveled for a work project. Also the most challenging because while I wasn’t doing the equivalent of a marathon a day for six days straight, while carrying everything on my back except water and a space in a tent, I did have to pack everything I needed for a week, including food (hell it was mostly food in there), shove it all in a single duffle bag and throw it into the back of a pick-up truck.
Though I wasn’t like some of the competitors who opted to compete in the same pair of socks for an entire week in order for their back pack to weigh slightly less, I did have the same experience in that I had little sleep and went without a toilet or a shower for a week. At one point I threw a little bit of water from a leech-infested lake onto my bangs (this was before we knew there were leeches), but in the end, nothing really took away from the fact that I hadn’t showered in a week.
It was probably one of the best “vacations” (working holidays?) of my life.
I learned a lot.
And not just that Windhoek beer tastes delicious, that grilled Oryx is fantastic (or that an animal called an Oryx exists) and what it’s like to fall asleep under the stars, sans tent and stranded in the middle of the Namib desert, but stuff about writing.
1. You never know how your previous writing is going to impact your future writing.
One of my favourite people in Namibia was an Italian ultra-marathon runner named Marco Olmo, who was 59 when he ran the race and came in third overall, beating the likes of many younger runners. He started running at 37 and became an absolute legend on the ultra-marathon and trail-running scene, winning over 20 races of 100km or more.
Marco only speaks Italian, but since I spoke Italian we were able to do a long interview in his tent one afternoon after he finished running. I asked him why he thought he was able to run so fast, when he had started relatively late in life.
The answer was that Marco hadn’t. Though he ran his first race at 37, Marco’s father was a shepherd in northern Italy and was therefore sent into the hills to retrieve the sheep or run into town to get groceries. He then said his toughness came from the jobs he had – farmer, truck driver, and then at a cement plant. Actually, I think the only word in English came when he said “Catepillar”, as in describing what he did for a living.
So you never know. Maybe that terrible series of sonnets I wrote in 10th grade will come in handy one day. Or not.
2. Having more time doesn’t mean you’ll write more or write better.
This is the kind of trip where you get up at 6 a.m., change your underwear and your socks in your sleeping bag (and then put the old clothes back on), leave your tent to brush your teeth and then come back in to pack up and wash your face with a MAC make-up wipe. It’s the kind of trip where instant oatmeal and hot chocolate is a must, the kind where you drive around the second most populated place on Earth for four hours before running out of the car to interview a few runners passing by. It’s the kind of trip that by the time you get to the next campsite, it’s nearing dark, you need to help set up a cyber tent, interview anyone and everyone and get to work on three articles of 500 words each.
You write quickly, the only light being your computer screen and a headlamp. There’s food, but it’s dehydrated and you just add water. Sometimes in the middle of a feature story on whether any of the competitors think they will find diamonds in the rough as they run near Lüderitz, the videographer tosses you some Pringles.
There isn’t much time to write, so you do it quickly, sitting on the tent floor and hoping your headlamp doesn’t run out. You write as well as you can, in part because it’s your job but in part because there are people all around the world wondering how their family and friends did during the day’s stage.
You write quickly because the biggest concern isn’t how you write, but how long it takes for the satellite to transmit everything. Because if the satellite isn’t up to the job, then you’re not going to bed.
3. The day’s stage isn’t 100 km, it’s 10km ten times.
My friend Tony has walked his fair share of these 250-km races and, because he can’t get enough of them, he volunteers at others. While I was officially working as a writer, I subbed in as a volunteer at a checkpoint during the week’s longest stage – a 100 km over two days.
In these kinds of races, there’s a checkpoint every 10 km, where we write down times, hand out water and if competitors need to, they can sit for a few minutes, have a snack or a whinge. Sometimes at these checkpoints, the competitors want to drop out. I don’t blame them. I would too. 10 kilometres is long enough, never mind a 100. But as I’m nodding at their lament (too afraid to say anything), Tony sweeps in and says: “Do you think you can make it another 10 km? Because the checkpoint after this has a fire and hot water and you can sleep there over night if you need to.”
The competitor thinks about the 60 (!) kms that remain and while he maybe can’t envision himself doing the entire 60, another 10 seems manageable and so he finishes his water, puts on his pack and carries on.