By Steve Moseley

"Why don't you mind your own business," they replied.

Not one with a penchant for brawling, I let them be, feeling a bit sorry that they were going to head into the arid zone looking for a place that was 1 500km further south.

I related the story to a work colleague, who pointed out that there was in fact a small nature reserve in the Kalahari that goes by the name of Witsand, so called because of its rolling white dunes.

Blushing slightly but not convinced, I dialled up the Internet and sure enough he was right.

What's more, the annual desert challenge mountain bike event, held there each year in June, was just four days away, which didn't leave much time to train, but I had to see this place for myself.

I got out the atlas, found the section on the Kalahari and located a small green speck indicating the location. I phoned for accommodation, but the 10 chalets were booked out so I settled for a campsite, serviced my bike, and was ready the day before the event.

Witsand Nature Reserve lies to the east of Upington and is reached via Olifantshoek on the N14 or Groblershoop on the N10. From the fair to middling dirt road, the white dunes could be seen rising above the red Kalahari sands long before pulling up at the entrance gate.

Under the impression that the Kalahari was this unending sea of red sand, I stared in disbelief at this white apparition, almost taking the left mudguard off on the trunk of a camelthorn tree.

Next morning, before the sun had risen and while a thin layer of frost still coated our tents, the camp came alive with competitors performing vigorous warm-up exercises.

From the look of their top-of-the-range bikes and gear, I could see they were serious competitors and, not wanting to stand out, I joined in and then followed the steady stream of bikes to the start.

By the time I'd enrolled, Dozi's version of Ryperd was droning from the PA system and the crowd was swelling at a rapid rate.

The Witsand - Kumba Desert Challenge, as it's known - is a great outing for the entire family, full of fun and fitness, in what has to be one of the most scenic and beautiful areas of the Northern Cape.

This year there were 317 competitors, an increase of more than 100 on the previous year. Following the dirt roads traversing the park, categories ranged from an 8km fun walk through to a 10km fun run, a half-marathon, a fun ride, and then the 22km and 52km mountain bike challenges for the fit. I recognised a group of top riders from Kimberley and ambled over for a chat.

"Are you here to win?" I asked.

"Nah, but we'll settle for the top 10," they replied.

Each half-hour, a category was put under starters orders and I joined the bunch on the start line for the 22km ride. Rubbing shoulders with me were the two blokes I'd met in the pub, but they didn't seem to recognise me and I let them pull ahead as soon as we set off.

Before long I found myself way out on my own at the back of the pack, not so much because of my lack of fitness but rather my total absorption in the scenery, fauna, and flora - at least, that was my excuse. The white sands themselves are a fascination of undulating knolls and wind-sculpted curves 9km long and 5km wide.

Their colour is the result of leaching by the vast amounts of water that fill a huge basin deep below the surface. The different colours and nuances are pleasing on the eye and vary from white satin to smooth cream and rich caramel.

The reserve doesn't have big game, but fat Kalahari springbok and ground squirrels with rotund tummies were plentiful along the road leading to Brulsand (roaring dunes). I'd heard about this phenomenon earlier from Bertus Bester, the tourism manager for the reserve.

"The roaring sands or Brulsand are probably the most well-known feature of the reserve, and one of the main attractions visitors hope to experience," Bertus explained.

"This occurs on the southern face of the dunes during periods of hot and dry conditions, and the sound can vary in intensity from a hum to a roar."

I'd never heard of such a thing and could hardly wait to finish the race so I could go and test the sands myself. Juddering along in the warm winter sun, something caught my eye atop a nearby Shepherds tree and I hit the breaks, coming to a slithering halt.

Looking over its shoulder and staring straight at me was a Pygmy Falcon, a sought-after addition to any birders' list and just one of almost 170 species in the reserve.

In the same tree, bunches of bright flowers belonging to the parasitic mistletoe were pointing skyward and a troop of vervet monkeys rustled through the golden grass beyond.

To the east, the curved buttresses of the Langberg range flowed into the Acacia woodland that covered the flats, and way out to the west the Skurweberg shaded the horizon.

I was brought out of my stupor by the high-speed passing of the 52km riders, many of whom I had heard were veterans of the recent "Epic" held down in the Cape, so I didn't attempt to keep up.

Near the Namaqua Sand Grouse bird-hide, we had to dismount and take to running as the circuit ascended a red dune to a view site where the sands suddenly faded to cream.

Nearby, the branches of a camelthorn tree bowed under the weight of a huge communal sociable weavers' nest, and a rock monitor ambled away in his usual muscle-bound gait. Perched on top of the outer rim of the dune field, the views were spectacular; perfect for a cold beer at sunset, I thought.

Stopping to catch my breath, I was joined by a group of riders sporting Kumba attire - the main sponsor, Kumba Resources, owns the Sishen iron ore mine - and who were being urged on by a verbose character wanting them to ride down instead of run.

One took up the challenge, his front wheel digging into the soft sand within seconds and, to the delight of his companions, he landed on his face over the handlebars.

Plunging down the other side, I remounted on firmer ground, entered the quarry obstacle course and came unstuck in the mud along the narrow edge of a waterhole.

With a few scrapes and bruises and a coating of brown sludge I at least looked like I'd made a serious attempt at tackling the "challenge", and even drew a few glances as I put in my fastest sprint over the finish line.

On legs as unstable as silicon implants, I managed to wrap my fists around a doughnut and a can of Coke, and then collapsed in the marquee listening to Mandoza and picking up on some of the comments of the finishers.

"Technically the course had enough variation to make it challenging," someone remarked.

"Tougher than last year," stated another. "More curves and kinks."

The festive atmosphere was distinctively platteland, with the smells of good cooking, brightly coloured flags and a jumping castle that kept the toddlers amused between bouts of tears.

Distinctive Kalahari characters took pride in their perfectly braaied wors, and the koeksisters and pannekoek were selling out fast. Eugene Gotz, from the Free State, crossed the line in 1hr 58min to win the 52km event, and the boys from around the Big Hole finished second in a group 12 minutes later.

I knew I wasn't in for any prizes, so I took myself off for a shower in what must be the cleanest ablution block in the country, and then hobbled into the dunes for a closer look. The scope for photography was endless. It really is a place in which the outdoor enthusiast can revel - the habitats and scenery are so diverse you could never get bored.

Throughout the dunes, natural seeps held shallow pools of water and Fulgurites could be found protruding through the surface. These shafts of fused silica, created when lightning strikes into the white sand, can measure up to a metre in length, and due to the high water table and the elevation of the dunes, strikes are a frequent occurrence.

At Brulsand, the sands were staying silent but I watched some youngsters pulling a few moves on their sandboards, before heading for the view site and the sundowner I'd promised myself earlier.

The next morning I stopped at reception to find out when I could hear the sands roar.

"Any month with an R in is the general rule," Bertus assured me.

The school holidays are in September, so before I left I booked a six-bed chalet for a whole week.

  • Phone 053 313 1061/2; email [email protected]; or visit www.witsandkalahari.co.za