(Check out the video here)
‘What shoe size are you?’ read the email I received from Beth, owner and operator of Alter Action Sandboarding, a 20-year-old independent company that takes the adventure seeker out to sandboard down a 34° dune – complete with a launch pad.
I emailed her back and we agreed on a 09:30 pick up from the Hotel Europa Hof
At the allotted time I was received by Beth in a late 70’s VW Combie with Zak, Beth’s 2-year-old (and very friendly) Irish Setter hound. The drive out to the dune was about 7 K’s south of Swakopmund, on the C34 highway. The road quickly turned from asphalt to gravel once we made the turn-off for the big, red (and surprisingly inviting) dune.
“Does it have a name?” I asked Beth, thinking of ‘Dragon Dune in South Africa.
“It’s known as either the Big Dune or Beth’s Dune,” said Beth.
As we waited for other guests to arrive I marveled at the beauty of the Namib Desert, sand dunes piled up all around, reclaiming the dry land. Black stains from oxidizing metal minerals covered the faces of the slopes.
I’ve sandboarded before, in South Africa, but this was different for a few reasons:
– This dune belonged to the Namib Desert (the one in South Africa is privately owned being on a farm)
– Alter Action has sandboards galore (formally snowboards) with boots (the one in South Africa needed you to come with closed shoes)
– The boards for the lying-down slide are plywood (the ones in South Africa are acrylic, nose turned up with a fixed handle. Plywood, I would soon discover, is much faster)
– The walk up Beth’s Dune is much easier (the one in South Africa has you regretting ever being born.
– Beth’s Dune has a built-in ramp for take-offs and has, I would later discover, softer and more inviting sand to face-plant into.
– Alter Action employees 3-4 instructors on site, plus a videographer from Kick Sands Video to give you a lifetime memory.
– They also have a speed gun to clock your speed as you fly down the slope
– A light lunch and cold drinks (beer or soft drinks) are included for the N$300 ($30 AUD). In South Africa you’ll be forking out N$380 ($38 AUD) without any of the above mentioned perks.
The briefing, led by Beth, patiently answers all the questions you can think of when it comes to sandboarding and after figuring out how many goofy (left foot back) riders there were, we were asked to pick out the shoes, laid out in size-order.
I tried on a size 40 which attempted to back-bend my toes so I moved up a size to 41. That had me wishing I had trimmed my toe-nails until I settled for a pair of size 42 which fitted perfectly.
“Test the bindings on the board,” called out Jay, one of the instructors, “because the last thing you want to do is come back down to change a board after climbing the dune.”
After making sure everything that needed to be attached was indeed attached, the entire group of 22 people – a mix of parents, kids, teenagers and holiday adventurers, began the long climb up the dune on the ridge.
“If you step into the footstep of the person in front,” directed Jay, “the sand won’t sink as much.”
I climbed up barefoot, slipping my feet into the boots at the top while taking in the view of the Namib Desert spread out before us to an endless horizon. Behind us it met the Atlantic Ocean where we could see cargo ships further out. To our north lay the small town of Swakopmund, green palms a relieving site after the never-ending yellow-red of the desert.
Jay explained and showed us how to wax the boards. “You’ll need to re-wax them before every run,” he said, spreading the petrol-scented wax on the bottom of the board and then using the sand on the dune to polish it.
“Wax on, wax off,” he grinned as we copied his instructions.
After splitting into those that snowboard and those that have never (I was in the latter), Beth took the beginner group to the middle of the dune where she explained the basic principles of sand boarding.
“Since I only remember your name,” she looked at me, “you’re going to be first.”
Sweet, I grinned. That means I get the fresh face of the dune, like fresh powder on the mountains (I’m guessing here).
Beth explained how to rollover in what’s known as, “The Polar Bear roll,” and she demonstrated so that I could follow, showing the other students how it’s done (although, I’ve yet to see a polar bear strapped into a sand\snowboard rolling over). I completed the roll and, “Now he’ll stand to his feet, digging in his toes so that he won’t slide,” Beth continued the tutorial. “Just like the emergency brake in a car.”
Indeed, with my toes dug in, I wasn’t going anywhere.
“When he leans back on his heels, he’ll start to slide.”
Lo and behold I began to move. Immediate panic rained on me and I quickly dug my toes back in.
“And, since he’s a goofy rider, he’ll need to look over his right shoulder.”
I looked over my right shoulder. My stomach completed a somersault the likes of which China’s national gymnast coach would have been proud as I stared down the incline. 34° doesn’t seem much on paper or when it’s thrown in a sandboarding tutorial but when you’re at the top of said number, well, if you have balls they start to shake (not sure what happens to ovaries).
“So just lean back on your heels,” Beth repeated, “and cut across the dune and head on down.”
Seeing as I didn’t have a choice in backing out and I was setting the example, I calmed my nerves, congratulated my stomach on the 10-point somersault and proceeded to cut across the dune, smiling bravely at the videographer that came with the package.
As a surfer, snow and sandboarding work on the same principles of balance. But in surfing, your feet aren’t strapped in (unless you’re at the 60-foot wave level), making it impossible to adjust your balance by moving your feet, depending on where you are on a wave.
It’s a weird feeling to be strapped in, locked down if you will, and then sent over the edge of a huge dune like some sort of medieval punishment. I dug my toes in and then leaned back on my heels, repeating the odd dance until I finally obtained that feeling of, ‘I’ve got this.’ I reached the bottom, unhinged myself from the board and stared up to the top of the dune where my fellow boarders seemed to be the size of ants.
The climb back up was surprisingly easy and not as disheartening as the one in South Africa (which will have your calf muscles giving you the silent treatment pretty loudly for a week). My second run was with a lot more confidence and just as I was about to prepare for my third run I saw that the ramp had been prepared for take-offs by being covered with sand.
I watched as an experienced boarder took off and landed nicely, slipping a bit before continuing down the dune.
Looks easy enough, I thought. Then again, you watch anyone who has experience in anything you’ve never tried and they make it look easy.
“Can I attempt a jump?” I looked around to see who was the brave soul that was courageously stepping up to the plate and then realised, too late, that it was me.
“Sure,” said Jay. “Do you need help with the turn?”
“I’ll try on my own first,” I said before missing the ramp completely and somehow shuffling my way back to the top. “On second thought,” I grinned sheepishly, “a little assistance may be required.”
“You wanna stay straight and land, bending your knees,” Jay explained patiently. “It’s like when you have a late take-off on a wave” – I’ve had many of those – “so just keep your balance and don’t swivel to the left or right. Just stay straight.”
Easier said than done, I thought as Jay turned me into the line-up and I passed the point of no return. I launched off and my immediate reaction was to lean back which had my board face the sky and my ass hit the sand.
“Haha!” I laughed out loud, grinning. I polar-beared over and headed down the dune.
Upon returning to the top, I decided it was time to try the tummy-slide. Alter Action are no amateurs – these guys come prepared. And when I mean prepared I mean they have their own speed gun, waiting to clock the sliders.
“You can reach speeds anywhere between 60 to 70 K’s an hour,” Jay had said at the briefing. “One guy did 88.”
Woah, and I immediately made it my mission to crack 80. I grabbed a plywood, took off my boots and socks and listened to Eldon, another instructor, on how to ride the slide.
“Lift the plywood up to your chin,” he began, “and stick your elbows out to the side like bird wings. If you find yourself sliding sideways, dig your toes into the sand.”
“Gotchaya,” I said, lying down beside him as he launched me down.
I have never gone so fast without the help of something mechanical (although a mountain bike ride in the Colorado Rockies a few years back saw me overtaking cars on a downhill road where the speed limit on the sign was 70 miles – about 110 km).
“61 km\h,” informed the speed gunner. “Top speed so far.”
“Sweet,” I grinned. Adrenalin was racing through my body like an F1 car as I found myself practically running up the dune to go again.
“74,” on the second run.
“Haha!” I yelped, dancing like a monkey and ran back up the dune. “Hey Eldon,” I turned to the slide launcher, “what’s the best way to get aerodynamic on this thing? I gotta crack 80.”
“OK, so you even out your weight,” he began, instructing me where to lie on the plywood, “and as you go down, suck in the air and fart at the same time, like a jet engine.”
I blinked. “Really? That… Oh! I get it!” and we burst out laughing. “Almost had me,” I grinned and lay down on the plywood. “This is the one, man. I’m gonna fly now.”
He launched me off and I could feel the incredible speed I was gaining only to be disappointed by the, “76,” called out.
On my last run a slight side-sliding slowed me down and I only managed a, “75,” but proudly maintained the day’s top speed.
I ran back up the dune where we all put our boots and boards back on. It was the last run of the day and I was gonna make this one count – like a boss. I figured I should go out in style and attempted my second jump off the ramp. This time I managed to hit the ramp without Jay’s assistant (although I almost missed and flew off the side).
I landed the jump and fell to my ass but it was better than my first attempt. I then polar-beared over and headed down.
A little too fast.
A little outta control.
A little face-plant at the bottom had my face exfoliated and an imprint of my shnoze left in the Namib Desert for eternity (or until the next winds cover it up).
“There’s cold beer or soft drinks and a light lunch for you guys,” said Jay.
“Ah, the magic words,” I grinned. Cold and beer.
Lunch was a spread of bread rolls, a mystery German meat, cheese, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with an option of butter, mayo or mustard (or all of the above) accompanied by a salt shaker and black pepper grinder.
“Help yourselves to as many drinks as you like,” Jay said.
I didn’t have to be told twice. I had just eaten, along with the bread roll, half of the sand from the dune. It took 3 cans of Tafel beer to wash it down.
I thanked the awesome crew of Alter Action and Beth dropped me off at the Hotel Europa Hof where the staff raised some eyebrows as I walked in, sand cascading off my face.
“Just sandboarded,” I grinned.
“We can see that,” they said, probably wondering how much of a mess I would leave in the room.
I got undressed in the bathtub, shaking out my clothes and emptying my pockets, the tub quickly filling up with a mini-dune as I washed off the Namib Desert.
So what do you get for N$300 ($30 AUD) per person for 4 hours on the dune with Alter Action Sandboarding (50% for repeat boarders)?
– Pick-up and drop-off from your accommodation in Swakopmund
– Professional gear with professional guidance by the professionals
– A choice of stand-up sandboarding, lying down tummy slide or both
– A light lunch with a choice of cold, refreshing beer or soft drinks
– A DVD of your day on the dunes with option to buy still photos for N$20 per photo ($2 AUD) filmed and photographed by a professional videographer for Kick Sand Videos (under http://www.fantomfilm.com/)
– A world premier screening of the day’s DVD with the group you were with in the evening (BYO drinks)
– And the most amazing memory of an unforgettable adventure for the rest of your life
Visit alter-action.info\web for more information