Namib Desert (27 – 28 May 2014)
The long drive to our next destination took us through hills and mountains, valleys and canyons. I was quite surprised since I had thought that we would be driving through the desert. On the other hand I doubt that anyone of us would have appreciated going up and down the dunes for hours like we did during the desert adventure tour just the day before.
We made a quick stop at the edge of the Kuiseb Canyon for some photos. We could not really gauge the depth of the canyon from where we were standing, but the view overall was quite astounding.
In the glare of the morning sun, the canyon looked quite unearthly.
The most touristy thing we did that day was to make a photo stop at the sign that read “Tropic of Capricorn”. I dare say that it was much worthier of a sign and attention than “The Most Southwestern Point of Africa”, but it was terribly touristy nonetheless. On the other hand, I would be interested in a sign that read “Equator”.
We stopped at the little settlement of Solitaire for lunch. This place seemed to be mainly a stopover point for tourists and it has the only general dealer between Sossusvlei, Walvis Bay and Windhoek. The ghosts of vintage cars lying around the car park as ornamental pieces were interesting but accentuated the solitude of the settlement in the vast arid landscape.
Our accommodations for the next two nights were at the Namib Desert Lodge which stands at the foot of some fossilised dunes. If no one had told me it was just compacted sand I would have thought that they were red stone hills.
The lodge offers daily sunset tours to the fossilised dunes. All of us in the group except the Canadian couple joined the guided tour on the day we arrived. We were put on huge four-wheel drives with the rest of the tour and taken on a drive through a little of the grassland outside the lodge and then onto the dunes. The waning sun gradually shrouded the landscape in changing shades of colours. There was a herd of oryxes quietly having their evening meal on the slopes of the dunes while us humans chattered away like our lives depended on it.
The grand show however awaited us at the top of the dune.
The next day started at 5 am. It was still awfully dark and the desert winter was terribly cold. I was however more affected by the fact that I had to be up at that ungodly hour. Fortunately the drive to Sossusvlei would take about an hour and so I could have a short snooze. At that hour, no one on the bus was in the mood to make any conversation and that was perfect for me.
We were second in queue when we arrived at the Sesriem Gate just before sunrise. The gate is one of the entrances to the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park and opens at sunrise. We had to enter from here to get onto the road that leads to Sossusvlei. When the sun finally rose above the horizon the guard opened the gate.
I saw the wisdom of waking up so early in the morning the moment I laid eyes on the desert dunes. The low sun fired up the red and orange hues of the dunes on their eastern faces and cast contrasting dark shadows along their backs. It was pretty as a picture.
Forty-five kilometres after the gate we arrived at Dune 45. We had come to climb this over 170 m tall dune.
The climb looked easy before I started. Again I had fallen into the trap of trusting my visual perceptions too much. I only realised how difficult the climb was when I had but gone a mere few metres up. The fluid sand made the climb even more tiring and difficult for me. It was a perpetual case of two steps up and one step down. If someone should have come after me with a machete and the only way to safety was up the dune I would definitely have died.
I kept having to fight the urge to just give up and join Dl at the bottom. She was clever enough to not risk her life doing the climb.
The younger members of the group were far ahead of me. I was panting much too loudly and so it was just as well that no one was climbing with me. Other visitors were overtaking me one after another and I finally learnt what it meant to “eat dust” whenever someone was close enough in front of me.
After I had gone about a third of the way up, Ar started his ascent. He looked like he was floating. I had never known what it felt like to be overtaken on a climb by a person a whole thirty years older until I came to Dune 45. Ar overtook me on the upward climb so rapidly that the experience had an almost ethereal quality to it like it were a sci-fi movie.
By and by I dragged myself up to the top of the dune. I sort of forgot a little the near death experience coming up once I saw what was around me.
The descent was much more enjoyable however. I gave myself to gravity and let my legs do the rest. The ease, fun and speed with which I reached the bottom made the ascent seemed so needlessness dramatic.
After a picnic breakfast we hopped onto a park vehicle to get to Deadvlei. By this time the sun was shining strong and it no longer felt like it was winter. The desert dunes were quickly losing the lovely chiaroscuro effect of the early morning.
I had told Ay a few days ago that I would climb Big Daddy with him but after Dune 45 I decided that it was not a good idea at all. Big Daddy is twice the height of Dune 45.
I contented myself by wandering around Deadvlei with the rest of the group. The vlei is a white clay pan and what remains of an ancient pool of water. It was hard to imagine that a place like that could tolerate any visible water at all but there it was. Camel thorn trees dead for centuries dot the pan. The arid climate ensured that these dead trees could be mummified for the enjoyment of visitors.
Although the pan is called Deadvlei, and it did look quite dead, there is life there. Some grasses and shrubs can grow and I do remember seeing at least two trees just at the edge of the pan that looked quite green still. But of course the Namib Desert is not bone dry and every morning fog comes in from the ocean and provide that little bit of essential moisture to the desert. There was also growing by the pan some !nara plants that seemed to be able to survive a nuclear disaster but relied on that fog to survive too. I had seen at least one Namib Desert beetle scurrying around at the pan. These beetles get their drinks by using their backs as condensation panels and allowing condensed fog to flow down their backs to their mouths.
We spent about an hour at the pan while waiting for Ay. He had set out to conquer Big Daddy on his own and reached the pan about fifty minutes later. I thought that was outstanding.
Everyone was leaving the desert by late morning. It had become scorchingly hot. The temperature difference within a span of just five hours was incredible. It would probably become even hotter in the afternoon. While waiting for the park ride out to our bus we all had to wait under the shade of a huge tree. To kill time I tried teaching Dl more Singlish.
The drive out of the national park was a little sad for me. It was the last attraction of the trip. We would all be going back to Windhoek the next day where the Namibian adventure would formerly end. As we drove past Dune 45, we noticed that the footprints we had left earlier that morning had completely disappeared, swept away by the desert wind. I had only the half bottle of sand collected from the top of the dune to remind me that I had been up there.
We drove back to the lodge after lunch at Sesriem to enjoy the rest of the afternoon at leisure. The Belgian family decided to go on the sunset tour again. I decided to take a walk around the lodge to properly enjoy the gorgeous scenery of the Namibian grassland.
I had probably walked a little too far out when I suddenly remembered P had told us that there were leopards in the area. I did not think that my flesh was particularly tasty but I thought it was best to be a bit more careful. A leopard would have needed at least a bite to know that I tasted nasty.
But the view was so alluring. There were no tall rugged mountains and deep valleys and gushing streams, but there were tall feathery grass swaying in the breeze and gently sloping hills in the horizon. There was a peaceful quiet away from the madness of people. I did not need to be on a mountain peak to feel like I was on top of the world.
The view around me was the best goodbye that Africa could give me.