Sossusvlei — Where People Disappear in the Sand

A good day’s journey through the Tropic of Capricorn, past tons of ostriches, some zebra and oryx, takes us on our way south to the inexorable end of the trip. The landscape changes from chalky white to sparse yellow grasses. Strange, unexplainable perfect circles of sand amidst the brush (known as ‘fairy circles’) dot the landscape.

For lunch, we stop at the town of Solitaire in the middle of nowhere. It’s actually a misnomer, since it’s more a cluster of low buildings than a town. However, it strangely boasts an authentic German bakery, operated by a great big man aptly named ‘Moose’, and we have huge slabs of authentically delicious apple strudel. There are scattered remnants of old cars and motorcycles incongruously but artistically arranged amongst the dunes and cacti.

Solitaire, Namibia

The next day, we leave at 5 am for Dune 45, a 120 meter tall dune located within the national park (dunes are numerically cataloged starting from the sea, with the highest being more than 300 meters). The top looks deceptively close, as if you could run up it in 5 minutes, but in reality, it’s hard slogging up the deep sandy ridge and ¾ of the way up, my knee gives out, but the rest of the group soldier on and make it to the top, including the 60- and 70-somethings (shame!) enjoying a fleeting sunrise and mimosas at the top. Ebron has a cooked breakfast waiting for us.

Dune 45 at Sunrise

From there, a pick-up truck comes to take us on a bumpy ride to where we start our desert walk. The dunes are actually located in Sossusvlei (meaning ‘Where people disappear in the sand’), an old haunt of the bushmen who would shoot poisoned arrows at their enemies, never to be seen again. The walk is led by Boesman, a fascinating white Namibian with bare feet and an Afrikaaner’s accent.

He is part naturalist, part survivalist, and has an irrepressible love for the desert. It starts to feel like the best ‘field trip’ ever. He leads us past springbok tracks (given away by a line connecting the hoofprints because they drag their feet in the sand), a trapdoor spider’s hole (which he deftly uncovers and then coaxes the spider to shut), and shows us how to catch a lizard (throw your hat into the air, wait for the lizard to burrow in the sand and then scoop it out) and save energy by walking in someone else’s footsteps. Move over, Bear Grylls, this is survival gold…

Our walk culminates at the Petrified Forest. It is a depression which previously flooded 1,000 years ago, leaving a hard coating of bright white lime. The trees which previously grew in the ‘vlei’ (meaning ‘place where the waters meet’) are now dessicated and denuded, providing a stunning contrast in colors and textures – the white of the dry cracked limestone, the dark brown of the bare trees, the red of the dunes and the bright blue of the sky. It’s almost impossible to take a bad photo in this eery, otherworldly place.

Sossusvlei Petrified Forest

On the way back, Boesman finds dry jackal droppings and picks out seeds from a pumpkin-like plant, unshells them and eats them. This guy is hardcore. We get to the 30 degree edge of a sand dune and he shows us how to dive, roll or bound down the sides. Finally, he relates the terrible plight of the bushmen, who in the early 20th century were shot on sight with impunity. They were truly remarkable people to be able to eke out a living in this unforgiving environment, but at times, had to take equally harsh measures of leaving the elderly and children behind to die, in their never-ending quest for food. All too soon, the walking tour is over and we return to the campsite.

In the late afternoon, we take a walk along Sesriem Canyon and watch the setting sun cast a rosy glow that turns into a deep purple over the landscape.

The next day, a long drive turns into a colossal one when the road we take is suddenly closed due to sluice gates being opened on Fish River. We chance it and drive 15 km before we see a small creek. Wil goes out and checks it and unfortunately the sand beyond it is soft and tricky.

Once bitten, twice shy from our Himba ordeal, we deliberate, vote and deliberate some more. We decide to backtrack to the main road which adds another 4 hours to our journey. Remarkably, we still make it in time to see the sunset over Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon in the world after the Grand Canyon.

We set up our tents in the dark. I am so ready for a real bed and the comforts of home. This is also the place where George was bitten by a scorpion a few months ago, so we’re doubly careful.

We roll ourselves out of our tents at 6:15 am in time to see the sun rise over the canyon and walk along its rim. The delicious cooked breakfast that we know awaits us back at camp adds urgency to our steps.

Fish River Canyon

A short drive takes us to the strangely named Felix Unite campsite along the banks of the Orange River separating Namibia and South Africa. The lawns are incongruously lush in the middle of the desert; we haven’t put up tents on grass in weeks. In the afternoon, we go on our canoeing trip which we all end up ruing.

Canoe of Death. Or at least of Jelly Arms.

A trailer takes us to a jetty 12 km from our campsite and we have 2.5 hours to leisurely row ourselves back and have a swim in the cool waters – or so we thought. Our cameras go into sealed buckets. Most tours do the canoeing in the morning, when there is no wind, but by the time we’re out on the water, a strong headwind negates any effort we make. Soon, our muscles are burning and we tire of the same old scenery. There are some baby rapids, the water rushing over round river stones. We navigate the first one, gleeful at the current that pushes us along. On the second one, our boat grates over some bumpy stones and we have a laugh until we hit a big rock and our boat capsizes. My camera washes overboard, but thankfully, in a dry sac. We’re told to lay down flat, feet forward, if we fall overboard in the rapids. It works, except for the unevenly high boulders that pound me in the butt. Thankfully I have natural padding that cushions me from all but the biggest rocks. After three hours of hard rowing, we finally make it back to our campsite with arms of jelly. With that, we get set to leave the ‘real’ Africa behind and head into South Africa the next day. Namibia has been a bittersweet experience. The animal life has been disappointing due to the rains (save for the amazing cheetahs) but the contrast in landscape between the soaring sand dunes, the dry cracked earth, the harsh grey seas and the vast openness of it all along with our personal experience with the Himba have been spectacular…

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