Kalahari Desert

And Then, There Were 12

Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa, April 4th, 2004.

Bags were packed as I locked the door on my life in Alaska, not knowing what to expect on the next leg of this journey. I had been selected as one of 12 people to compete in an adventure based reality television show called Global Extremes. We would travel to three countries with extreme environments; the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, the Rainforests of Costa Rica, and the Icecaps of Iceland. All the time competing in multi-sport races, with the goal of finding the best five athletes to form an elite team to make an attempt on Mt. Everest. Far beyond my wildest dreams of even getting through the preliminary elimination rounds, I had been selected and made all the cuts in the first two rounds in Moab and Aspen. I was on the edge of my seat with excitement with the thought of traveling to places in the world I had never been.

On my 36th birthday I boarded a plane, bound for South Africa and the first stop on this round the world journey. Oddly, four days later, the first episode of previous elimination rounds of Global Extremes appeared on TV in the States. Exhausted from 27 hours of travel, we landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. Immediately we boarded a small charter plane that would take us deep into the Kalahari Desert. I sat on that plane looking out the window at the vast, torrid landscape wondering if I could really handle the Kalahari Desert. I had spent the best part of the past 10 years in polar environments. I knew nothing about this place except that it was hot, dry, and that we would land in the middle of an African summer. How crazy was that?!!!!!

On a small paved airstrip, in the middle of nowhere, we touched down. When I stepped off the plane, I was nearly knocked over by the heat. It was HOT, even with a 20 mph wind blowing across the landscape. My journal from that day reads, “The heat here is oppressive, it hits you like a wall.” Our group is met by a group of Bushmen in native dress. Everyone is amazed by how skinny and short all the people here are. We spend an hour with cameras rolling talking with these people and taking pictures. Someone had a Polaroid, which was a big hit, as the children in this group had never seen such a device and were astounded to see pictures of themselves, instantly.

Like all countries we would travel to, the first week would be spent learning about the culture and the people native to that country. The balance of our time would be spent racing all over the countryside. Finally, ending in an elimination ceremony, that would cut out several people from proceeding to the next round.

The first week was spent learning about how the bushman lived and survived in the desert. Not only did we learn about the people, but also about the environment and the creatures that exist in this forsaken land. The production company hired top notch outfitters to cook and teach us how to train for very hot desert conditions. We started slow and progressed up to levels that we would be required to perform at. By day four we were doing three hour runs through the desert, then stopping halfway to do wind sprints up sand dunes. I thought I’d die, as the weather went from a cool 109F to a scorching 120F.

All week we learned from the bushman about hunting, tracking, and surviving. We also learned about nutrition, hydration, running, and driving a four wheel drive vehicle to maximum performance; all from experts in the field. All the time camping under clear, star filled nights, trying to avoid scorpions on the desert floor.

By the second week, it was time to race. We were split up into teams of four for the duration of our time in Africa. For the next two-and-a-half weeks we would everyday. In the end there would be a 36-hour race, with the loosing team required to eliminate one of their members. My team was extremely strong and consisted of Sam, a multi-sport endurance athlete with some amazing races and triathlons under her belt, including Eco-Challenge. Eric, a special forces Marine and finisher of numerous Ironmans. And Darren, an Outdoor Leadership instructor, Eco-Challenge racer and navigational guru.

Always there were interviews to be done and cameras filming our every move. Often there would be a cameraman with our team, usually working harder than us to haul heavy gear around and get footage of the team as we moved through various events using various modes of travel. We were up before the sun and didn’t get to bed until the late night hours. There were short races and long races, always involving running, biking, kayaking, climbing, horseback and camel riding, and mostly navigating. Fortunately, Darren and Sam were both excellent navigators with experience in a variety of races and situations. My team, Shackleton, (named after a legendary Antarctic explorer that is a hero of mine) turned out to be the strongest in the field, but we didn’t race smart. We could move fast and far, but not efficiently. Nonetheless, we won every race, except one that was heavy on kayaking, and one we were eliminated because at the finish line we lacked all the required gear. The other teams were not exempt of their own problems, but always problems and indifferences were worked through. The 12 of us would prove to be great friends out traipsing around the countryside having fun. The friendships were to be a huge reward from this experience.

In the process of all this racing, we were exploring the far reaches of the Kalahari. Vast landscape filled with wildlife, sand, and heat. Always it was at a fast pace, and typically at high temperature levels (usually around 120F), not how I’m typically used to enjoying an environment, but nonetheless, I started to look at it as small snapshots of an amazing place. I knew I just had to keep up and endure the heat, no matter how fast we traveled. Typically I did without too much struggle. Except for the one race that started with a five mile camel ride that ended with me getting kicked in the leg by a camel. It hurt. It hurt a lot. But what was more difficult was the subsequent 15 mile bike ride across blazing salt flats followed by 12 miles of running and navigating in ankle deep sand. By the end of the race I wondered how much harder I could push myself through the heat and pain. Fortunately, the next day was spent paddling kayaks and not running, and I was able to recuperate.

36 Hours of Speed

We were in first place going into the final race. It didn’t really matter. No matter what, whichever team lost, would eliminate one member. The remaining 11 would go on to Costa Rica. With our speed, it didn’t seem fathomable that we could lose. The experts had warned us time and time again that in adventure racing, it’s not always the strongest team that wins. I was more concerned about how I would hold up in the heat. We would have two solid days and one long night of high endurance events to get through. I had been on some long hikes and climbs, but nothing of this magnitude.

It started with a long bike ride through vineyards, followed by several hours in kayaks down the Orange River rapids. Followed by navigating, on foot through a huge river gorge, complete with rock climbing and repelling. All the time, working off maps and navigating with a compass figuring out where the next check point was. By mid day, Team Shackleton was out in the lead and going strong. We spent hours along a river, on foot, in and out of the water to stay cool. Eventually there were hours away from the river were we sweated and hoped for some relief from the heat. Finally it came. One phase of the race required us to sit in inner tubes and paddle with our arms, several miles downstream. It was bliss to be in the water in the heat of the day, even though, after several hours of paddling into the wind, I thought my arms would fall off. Then, more running in ankle deep sand. All the time, we were trying to stay nourished and hydrated. At one point Eric and Darren were out of water, again, and we had to find a spot to fill up. It was amazing to me that these guys had consumed twice the amount of water that Sam and I had in the same amount of time. We filled up and thought nothing more of it. By nightfall, we were on our bikes facing a 30 mile bike ride in the dark. I felt great and was ready to go. I anticipated the night hours, not having to battle the sun. Less than an hour into this bike ride, Darren started to weaken and get sick. Before long, in pitch darkness in the middle of nowhere, he was on all fours getting sick. Eric was not feeling well either. Later we learned, they drank too much water and the body’s response is to flush itself. This inflicted Darren for most of the night as we watched our lead disappear, while the other team’s slowly passed us and gained a huge lead! For nearly six hours Darren struggled along to the next checkpoint. There was nothing the rest of the team could do but be patient, compassionate and let him recover. Our starry filled night was spent moving at slower than a snails pace while the other teams sprinted onward, increasing their lead. By four AM we reached the next checkpoint, where Darren had the option to drop out or take an IV to rehydrate his system. He choose the IV, and thus, to continue on, and maybe salvage the race by catching one or both of the other teams. Just before sunrise we were on the trail again, climbing a rock wall and repelling down again. Back on our bikes, laboring through ankle deep sand as the heat of the day continued to build. More running and navigating and pushing bikes in the scorching sun. We moved fast, but, never fast enough for Darren, who wanted to sprint to catch the other teams. He knew if we lost this race, someone would be eliminated. I felt all we could do was keep a steady pace and hope for the best. Any more sprinting in this heat and any of us could overheat and “crash” physically. By the finish we had gained almost two hours on the other teams, but it was not enough. We finished in last, and thus knew our fate.

In reality TV, drama is what every producer wants. So, exhausted, physically and mentally, at the finish line we were required to eliminate one of our teammates. There ended up being two days of drama revolving around this elimination decision. For me it was impossible to eliminate a teammate. How could I? They were all extremely fit, talented, and friends. How could I assess their climbing ability on Everest by some events we had done in the heat of the desert? Moreover, they were all elite athletes and very capable of taking anything on, individually or as a team. As a result, much to the dismay of the drama seeking Director, I used a random game to determine who I would eliminate, Darren. In the end it was tie vote between Sam and Darren and the experts ultimately made the decision to eliminate Darren. Not because he got sick and lost the race for our team, but how he had carried on after he had recovered.

In the course of all this, I was told they were having a hard time building a character out of me, for TV. This was a huge compliment, rather than an insult. Despite the pressures of being on TV, I was able to keep my personality and not let any of the production pandemonium affect me. I was typically a pretty quiet, middle of the road, average sort of guy. Maybe my personality wasn’t fitting for TV drama, but maybe level headed enough and very suitable for Everest? Time would tell.

I boarded a plane to leave Africa with relief. The long days in the blazing sun were over and I had persevered. There would have been no disappointment had I been eliminated, for I had made some great friends and had amazing experiences. This alone was satisfaction enough for a journey. Yet, it wasn’t over, as we flew under the cloak of darkness, headed east, across the ocean to Costa Rica.

Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, Alaska. He is a native of Dubuque, a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School, a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. He writes about his adventures and experiences from around the world. Copyright 2004 Troy Henkels