Taking Turns With The Dune Skier

Escaping a life of hardship in East Germany, Henrik May finds his peace skiing sand dunes in Namibia

Henrik May is the fastest sand skier alive. PHOTO: Ski Namibia

Sylvian Saudan, the father of extreme skiing, once said, “Skiers that can ski the stones can ski any type of snow.” Henrik May never heard that quote, but he still made a life of skiing the stones—albeit the much, much smaller stones.

For over a decade, the German-born May has been pioneering the sport of sand skiing in Namibia’s picturesque Namib Desert, home to some of the largest dunes in the world and thousands of miles from the nearest snow. His company, Ski Namibia, is one of the very few dune ski-specific operations in the world.

“It’s similar to deep snow skiing but you don’t sink as much,” explains May. “Sand skiing is still in the beginning stages, but I think the concept could become a fantastic ski attraction.”

May started his touring company in 2003 after discovering that the dunes near his parents’ compound outside of Swakopmund, Namibia were ripe for downhill sliding. Since then, May has logged over 5,000 ski descents. He broke the Guinness sand skiing speed record, and in many ways, he introduced “Wustenskisport,” or dune skiing, to the Internet and the world. Nowadays the German expat attracts clients from around the globe looking to enjoy their summer months in one of the most exotic ski locations on Earth.

“I love to try new things and…was itching to try and ski on sand,” says Thilo Wilhelm, a German engineer living in Reno, Nevada who recently connected with May via e-mail. “It’s obvious that [May] is a total enthusiast about sand skiing. The business aspect of what he is doing comes second.”

May is unequivocally a skier first. The 37-year-old was born into a divided Germany, growing up in East Germany’s Thuringian Forest, and skiing by age four. Along with his brother Christian, May competed in Nordic Combined with his local ski team for ten years before taking a job as a police officer.

From East Germany to Southern Africa, Henrik May found his peace skiing the sand dunes of the Namib Desert. PHOTO: Ski Namibia

When the Wall fell in 1989, the Mays were one of many East German families that celebrated the chance for a new life. But after five years of struggling to make ends meet, the family was running out of money and options. May’s father, Dieter, had seen a TV report about German families living in Africa and decided to take a leap of faith. After one reconnaissance trip, Dieter sent his oldest son to Namibia with 6,000 Deutschmark (about $3,000) and the hopes of starting over.

May and his family settled 7 miles outside of Swakopmund, a city 170 miles west of Namibia’s capital Windhoek that is known as the “Jewel of the Namib Desert” They opened a bed and breakfast for European tourists complete with African bungalows, campsites, and a dinner bar and began to settle into their new life.

May credits the start of his dune skiing career to a pair of visiting tourists. The couple lent him a pair of old HEAD skis to try in the sand formations near the property. It worked better than anticipated and May started to shred the sand whenever he could. Not long after, a Dutch couple asked if he could take them out dune skiing and the young man realized he had more than a hobby—he had a business opportunity.

Through the local rumor mill, May stumbled upon an old Frenchman’s cache of ski equipment down in Swakopmund. According to May, the Frenchman had wanted to promote dune skiing (a sport dating back to the early 1920s) but had never found proper footing. May bought the lot of rusty equipment for what he describes as “a very high price” and, after restoring the skis to working order with the waxing and tuning skills he acquired as a young Nordic athlete, he took his first clients—an Austrian couple—into the Namib Desert. Ski Namibia was born.

Today May leads downhill skiers, telemarkers, and cross-country skiers from North America, Europe, and Australia on guided tours of the coastal desert. Runs are usually between 200 to 400 vertical feet with climbs around 20 minutes (May will shuttle your gear upon request).

The landscape for May’s Ski Namibia is a true anamoly, as the Namib Desert stays cool and pleasant due to a wind vacuum that draws cold air from the Antarctic-born ocean current known as the Bunguela Current. The desert also has a dynamic dune structure that shifts with the ocean winds, making for fresh ski landscapes on a weekly basis. That same wind wipes out tracks overnight, rendering May’s operation virtually footprint-less.

Beyond the tour, a Ski Namibia package includes equipment, clinic, refreshments (read: beer), and transportation to the dunes in May’s desert jeep for 100 Euros a day from late June through November.

Fresh tracks every day and an entire desert all to yourself. And, yes, that is a near-extinct tele turn. PHOTO: Ski Namibia

May’s successful attempt at the sand skiing world record (57.2 miles per hour over 100 meters) in 2010 helped publicize his unique operation, as did a 2011 visit by NBC’s “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” (though NBC wouldn’t let Lauer and May ski together). Still, Ski Namibia remains relatively unknown on the world ski map.

The Namib dune skier has even published a book (an English version is also in the works) and competed in snow races like the Inferno-Rennen Mueren in the Swiss Alps last winter in hopes of attracting the eye of winter sports companies who may be willing to make sand ski equipment—the next step in the sport’s development according to the Ski Namibia founder. May has already developed and uses a technology for faster sliding sand skis, he just hasn’t found the means to take it to market without a corporate budget.

But while May continues to struggle with the industry, he is happy to promote his sport as an athlete—skiing over 15 miles a day across the shifting dunes in his adopted homeland. May has found his second coming sliding on sand 5,000 miles south of where he learned to slide on snow.

For the rare few that have experienced its splendor and the rest of us filled with an inexplicable wanderlust by the dune skier’s tale, May leaves us with a moment of zen sure to stoke our adventurous fire and maybe inspire an impromptu trip to southern Africa:

Imagine a sunny afternoon with a small breeze from the blue Atlantic in the distance. In front of my ski tips, mountains of untouched sand. Suddenly I feel like I’m back in my homeland, and I fly down into the open desert.

To find out more about Ski Nambia, contact Henrik May directly at henrik@ski-namibia.com.

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