Here, the desert is almost complete: it is prehistoric, with sand in layers everywhere, bare rock peeping out between tufts of grass and a few hardy (or foolhardy) bushes, and shadows stretching away ink-black as the sun sinks.
From high in our little plane the landscape looks like a rumpled brown duvet, all hills and crevasses in varying shades, then we're over the plateau and the colour changes to rust, valleys widen and the mountains rise higher to meet us. Where I've once wondered why there aren’t more names for shades of green, here I ponder over the lack of suitable descriptive terms for all the browns around us – red-brown, beige, dark brown, tan, blonde... nope, not enough.
As always, Namibia hits me in all the senses, overwhelming me with what is not there. I feel like someone has given my eyeballs a good scrubbing as everything is so clear, springbok seem so much closer than they really are in this clear, heady air. The silence of the night is complete, broken only by the rasping noise of a barking gecko.
We are up before the sun. As it rises behind us, the black knolls in front of camp slowly and ever so shyly flush rosy pink and then redden. Filled with coffee and anticipation, we alight our vehicle with Angula, our guide and champion dune climber.
Off we whiz through the Wilderness’ private gate into Namib Naukluft Park, stopping only to watch the sun finally lift itself up from behind the desolate rocky mountains in the east. As it does, we turn around to gaze up in wonder at Dune 1 – an enormous hill of sand that had been black then grey, before gaining colour to finally flush that triumphant, bold, African orange-red.
I’ve seen the photos, hell, I’ve written the text, and nothing prepares you for the actual grandeur of the spectacle.
It’s not just the size, but the sweep of time. For 40 million years, each grain moved infinitely slowly, starting as silt coming down the Orange River many miles to the south, then washed out to sea and pushed first north by the Benguela Current and then back onto land and right up the old river mouth and bed for kilometres, unhurriedly, to where they began to build up and up and up, moved by wind this way and that to become a huge, towering dune – and from the air, a sand sea made of red waves. Each grain played its part to shape one of the great spectacles on this planet – an enduring work of art by the prime Artist.
The wind picks up so Angula suggests we only climb one of Big Daddy’s arms. Halfway up, puffing and blowing, we are blessing his sagacity. You have to walk on the crest of the dune, and if possible in someone else’s footprints as that’s easier. Finally we reach the top – and run straight down the steep side to the bottom, yelling a bit on the way, naturally. You can’t fall 'cos your legs sink into the sand so that you are held up and supported by the sand that kept you back when climbing. Wobbly-legged, I keel over and lay flat on my back on the blessedly hard floor of Dead Vlei and admire the 800-year-old gnarled trunks of dead trees that persist on this moonlike surface. Yet it’s clearly not the moon; even here we see toktokkie, fog-basking and long-legged beetles scurrying about, and a shovel-snouted lizard diving head first into the sand.
After all that exercise we journey on to the actual vlei that is called Sossusvlei, just next to Big Mama dune, and park under an enormous camelthorn tree for coffee and bikkies. There’s something very restful about sitting in the shade sipping coffee and watching other people climb laboriously up that steep dune. All around us are beetles and birds busily doing their thing, flitting in and out of the dusty green leaves – at every turn I see life and its superb adaptations to an unforgiving environment.
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