Posts Tagged With: camping


The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world, but I have not asked to see its driver’s license to confirm this. It is also one of the driest places in the world, which I can definitely attest to on the basis of my cracked leathery lips. It’s long and skinny in shape, paralleling the Atlantic coastline of the country and totaling roughly 4000 square miles (10,000 sq km) in area. With a sand covering that averages about 10 meters in depth, I calculate that it holds on the order of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand (yes, that is an actual calculation… it’s what I do), which is very roughly equal to the number of stars in the observable universe. (This is why I became an astronomer.)

Interestingly, it has several geological distinct areas with different surface characteristics. We are in the southern Namib, known for its dune fields, e.g.,

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More on those in a moment.

We flew into the Kulala region, in the south, on a pair of smallish planes over terrain like what you see above. The airstrip was, well, a desert airstrip:

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And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…

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(That is actually the entire airport.)  We loaded ourselves into our van and trundled off over the moonscape to a nearby hill, our 4×4 grinding through the steep sand to an outcropping at the rocky  summit from which we could watch this boring and not at all colorful sunset.02 Kalula Day 1 2017-090

I should emphasize that despite a healthy dose of self-congratulation and genial self-delusion, even given the stark and sere surroundings one would have a hard time making the case that we are roughing it. Our first evening’s hilltop “sundowner” (repeated each of the subsequent two nights) included the ever-affable Lloyd and our two drivers — Michael and Castro — serving us drinks and canapes as we marveled at what intrepid explorers we all were. (Side note: yes, “Castro”.  Cuba and Russia were big supporters of Namibian independence. We have so far on this trip had two drivers named Castro.) But hey, this is how we roll. Overseas Adventure Travel, our most excellent tour operator, caters to active, educated, affluent seniors or, as we like to call ourselves, “The Reason Our Children Won’t Have Social Security.”

But I digress. Another short 4 x 4 drive brought us to the Kulala Desert Lodge, our home in the desert. Our accommodations are notionally tents but are really comfortable cabins (electricity, full bathroom with shower, plenty of hot water, and marginal wifi) with canvas walls.

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Those are solar water heaters at far left. Notice also the ladder at the left side of each cabin, leaning against the adobe (I think) rear wall.  The top of that structure is a flat surface with a low wall, and upon request the staff will set up a mattress and bedding there so that you can sleep under the African stars. We did this last night, and it is quite the primal and even romantic experience to do so, especially when you wake up in the middle of the night and open your eyes to the vault of the Milky Way arcing overhead through the velvet sky. Though it is, admittedly, somewhat less romantic to then climb down the ladder in pitch blackness and work your way around to the front of the cabin in order to go inside to pee. Plus you run the risk of running into an antelope whilst doing so. We were actually awakened in the middle of the night by an oryx clopping around next to our cabin and brushing against the ladder. (Trust me, it puts a whole new spin on the old “Honey, wake up! I think I here something downstairs!” trope.)

Notice my clever segue into the animal life here. It is astonishing to me that many of the large African mammals — elands, oryx, zebras — have adapted subspecies of themselves to survive in a climate that gets bare millimeters of rain in a good month. They look like their savanna counterparts but have evolved sophisticated hydration and cooling systems to survive. The oryx, or gemsbok, is probably the iconic Namibian animal, a regal antelope that stands about 4 feet (1.3 m) high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 600 lbs (290 kg) or so. They are all over the place, including marching through our camp at night. The Hartman’s Mountain Zebra looks like your regular Kenya/Tanzania/your local zoo zebra but has adapted to survive on, well, pretty much nothing at all.

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There is even a species of bird in which the female absorbs water through pores in her breast and stores it there, then suckles her young (after a fashion) by allowing them to suck the water out through the pores. Such is life in the dunes.

Ah, the dunes. Massive, orange fields of them. This area, called Sossusvlei, is rich with them. The largest have numbers or names, the numbers representing their distance in kilometers from some fiducial measuring point. The tallest of them all in this area is aptly known as Big Daddy, towering at 1,066 ft (325 m) high. That was a bit too ambitious for us, and so we undertook instead to conquer the most popular of the touristic dunes, the locally-famous Dune 45 at a mere 100 m or so high. Up we trekked, along with dozens of others, on the ridge of the dune that in some places was only about a meter wide. When you crane your head to admire the view, or to let someone pass, there’s a real risk of tumbling off the ridge and rolling down the face of the dune, which might or might not be fun but would definitely obviate your upward progress.

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Hiking up a sand dune is hard, hard work. You’ve gotten a very small taste of it if you have ever run across a sandy beach — not the packed sand closest to the water line but the deep, loose stuff, say 15 meters further inland. Now imagine tilting that up to about a 30 degree angle. You take your stride, say 2 feet (60 cm) in length, plant your foot, start your step… and your leading leg ends up pushing a six inch depth of sand downhill towards your lower foot, so despite expending all that muscle power your 2 foot stride buys you about six inches of forward motion. It is slow and exhausting, pushing all that sand around for such slow progress, and you end up at the top with aching legs, heaving lungs, two shoes full of sand, and a satisfyingly spectacular view.

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Now you’ve got to get down, and you’ve got a decision to make. Your options are (1) go back along the ridge the way you came up, or (2) screw it and go barreling down the face of the dune like the two figures in the photo above. We opted for the latter, thus:

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That’s our travelmate Cheryl in the middle, on her butt. This was a deliberate strategy on her part because she has a bad knee and figured (correctly) that this would be hard on it. Her posterior technique was successful, in addition demonstrating that is possible to go for the better part of a day wearing a pair of underwear that holds over 3 kilos of sand.

The more traditional technique is being demonstrated by Al, in the white shirt on the left. You lean back a bit and step downhill heel first, which slides you down by several inches with the flat of your foot acting as a brake. Then you repeat the operation with the other leg, shifting your weight back and forth sort of like ice skating. It gets you down fast and is rather exhilarating. Then you spend the next twenty minutes shaking sand out of your shoes and socks, which is a lot harder than it sounds because the dune sand is as fine as dust.

Not far from Dune 45 is Deadvlei, another peculiarity of Namibian desert geography. It’s a former — very former, as in 800 years ago — oasis, now a hard clay pan because the river that fed it changed course. The dried clay has a top layer of white calcium carbonate (chalk, basically) and the bed is dotted with 800 year old dead acacia trees, making for an extraterrestrial landscape that has been the setting for a number of films and countless surreal photos, including mine:

02 Kalula Day 1 2017-245 The following day dawned dark and early as we awoke pre-dawn for the highlight of the trip so far. I’ll let the pictures tell the story.

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We were part of a flotilla of three balloons, each holding up to 16 passengers in a large waist-high wicker basket. Our pilot was the owner of the company, a genially cocky, ponytailed Jack-Sparrow-like native Namibian named Dennis. All of the women had a crush on him, and man, he controlled that balloon like nobody’s business, eventually setting us down at the landing site onto the back of a flatbed truck. (Admittedly with some help from the ground crew, who pulled us over to the truck as we hovered about five feet off the ground. But even so….) Here’s Alice with Dashing Dennis, along with the champagne breakfast in the desert that followed our successful flight.

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One of the many remarkable things about the flight — and if you’re bored by the images above, please check your pulse — was the bird’s eye view that it afforded of Namibia’s famous “fairy circles”. These are flat bare circular areas in the landscape, ranging from about 2 meters to 10 meters in diameter, ringed with tufts of grass, and of utterly mysterious origin. Here’s what some large ones look like from the balloon. (That’s a dirt roadway for size comparison.)

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Biological phenomenon or M. Night Shyamalan movie?

Explanations for their existence include fungi; termites; a complicated moisture feedback loop involving the surrounding grasses’ root systems; local radioactivity; and aliens. Pick your favorite.

It’s hard to overstate the sense of wonder and transcendence that this balloon flight affords. The scenery was beyond spectacular, the sense of scale and otherworldliness overwhelming.  When we first booked it, the flight seemed a little pricey at US$350 or so, not a small amount. It was worth it. If you ever make it to this region, bite the bullet and do not fail to do this with Namib Sky Balloon Safaris.  Tell them Rich and Alice sent you. They’ll have no idea who you’re talking about, but it’ll make us feel good.

Our final stop of the day was Sesriem Canyon, a sight that to be honest was so utterly anticlimactic after the balloon ride that my laptop is sneering at me as I write about this. In a nutshell, it is a canyon, about 100 ft (30 m) high, carved by a recently-dried-up river and composed entirely of knobbly conglomerate rock. When the river was flowing, local travelers used it as a water source, gauging its depth by tying lengths of leather thongs or belts together; the name itself means “six belts” (or “thongs”) in Dutch and Afrikaans.

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This fascinating geological phenomezzzzzzzzzz……….

We hiked down to the bottom and followed the riverbed upstream for a few hundred meters. The walls are dotted with rock pigeon dens (with corresponding collections of guano on the ground), and the ground hosts poisonous horned adders (sidewinder snakes) as a welcoming committee. We encountered a couple of these, which our guides herded out of the way with long sticks.

OK, better quit now as this post is clocking in at over 1900 words, about twice as long as usual. We’re out of the desert as I write this, having moved on to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund, both on the cloudy coast. About which more in the next day or two….


Categories: Africa, Namibia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Nerdstock: Eclipse-o-Mania

Well, the eclipse has most spectacularly come and gone, and as you can see we were dressed for success: 2017-08-21 08.49.13


Anyone who sees this picture — notice the NASA logo on my left arm — immediately recognizes that we are serious people who are not to be trifled with. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Having made the wise decision to push on to our B&B in Bend on Saturday night, we could take a relaxed approach to our preparations on Sunday morning while keeping an eye on traffic via Google Maps. The normal drive time from Bend to Madras is about 50 minutes, and we figured we’d hit the road once we saw that number starting to creep up.

Our warm and wonderful B&B hosts, Deb and Kevin — seriously, look for Duck Hollow if you ever overnight in Bend, Oregon — equipped us with pillows, blankets, sleeping bags and a backpack filled with utensils, paper plates, etc., to help us weather the ardors of sleeping in our Macho Mobile out in the desert with a gazillion other people. They bid us a cheery “Namaste” (they’re like that, and this is Oregon) and off we went at 10:15 AM.

And a good thing too, because our traffic planning turned out to be just right, and had we left even an hour or two later we would have gotten badly bogged down in Traffic Hell. Alas, our exotic travel buddies Steve and Thumper (the “exotic” applies to both “travel” and “buddies”) were an hour or two behind us and ended up bailing out before ever reaching the parking area in Madras, opting instead to find an “unofficial” field or parking lot a bit further south in which to overnight. But we did successfully connect with my old astronomer friend/colleague/grad school flatmate John, who drove up from San Francisco with his partner Marianne and his telescope. Here’s the man, the setup, and the setting, about an hour before the eclipse started:

Solar Eclipse 2017-015 You will immediately note three things: (1) John looks like Santa Claus; (2) there are a lot of cars; and (3) there are clouds in the sky. The latter mostly disappeared in the nick of time, fortunately. As for the cars, yes, there were a whole lot of them, and quite the panoply of people as well, e.g.,

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That’s Mt Jefferson (10,495′ / 3200 m) in the background in the middle photo. The bottom photo (taken by Marianne) speaks for itself. I’m not sure what it’s saying, or who those people are, but it definitely speaks for itself. Note that in addition to the metal hats and ray guns, the three men are all wearing metallic, um, crotch protectors. They explained the choice thusly: “It’s to protect future generations.” All righty, then.

You can tell from the photos that the terrain was basically a fallow field. Well, not basically: it was a fallow farm field, three of them in fact, all baked to dust in the high desert sun, with endless row of shallow farrows stretching to infinity. They covered about 100 acres (40 hectares) in total and held row after row of cars, the occasional food stand, and the definitely-too-occasional portable toilet. By the time we arrived, the first two fields were full and we were one of the first arrivals in the third.

The temperature was broiling in the midday sun, the air filled with lightly blowing fine dust that got into absolutely everything… and the sky was cloudy and smoky. Oregon has been plagued by serious wildfires whose smoke has blanketed parts of the state, and there was a real worry that our view of the sun would be impeded by it. Happily, it blew away overnight with a change in the wind. But smoke or no smoke, the atmosphere was nerdily festive to the point of surrealism (see “protect future generations” photo above). There was a nearby small airport housing a skydiving school and a collection of World War II warplanes, and we were treated to both: large teams of skydivers (nearly 20 at one point) periodically dropped from the sky to land in a field diagonally across the street from us, and we were occasionally overflown by squadrons of WW II warbirds, half a dozen 1940’s fighters and bombers circling the sky above us.

I found the WW II planes kind of reassuring, Nazis being a thing again these days, apparently. You can’t be too sure.

We were comfortably ensconced in the Macho Mobile with our blankets, sleeping bags, and a few kilos of windblown dust, but it was not a comfortable night. A goodly fraction of those thousands of cars were rentals (including ours), operated by people who were not yet accustomed to all the little buttons on their car key fobs. And thus the desert night was punctuated by one or another car alarm going off about every five minutes, as some hapless driver attempted to exit his or her vehicle in search of a Port-a-Potty, pressing the panic button instead of the unlock button. (Full disclosure: I was one of these.)

But we survived the night, and the day dawned clear. We joined up with John and Marianne (and several members of her family) and set up our equipment together. My camera having a big snazzy looking lens, and John’s telescope being snazzy in all respects, we attracted the occasional onlooker, most gratifyingly a gaggle of three seriously cute twenty-something girls who were dazzled enough by our gear, astronomy pedigrees, and our advanced conversational skills to hang around with us for the duration of the event.  (It has been decades since cute twenty-something girls thought I was cool. In fact, it may never have happened before. I can recommend it highly.)

The onset of eclipse arrived quite exactly on schedule at 9:06 AM. (Eclipses are notoriously punctual.) The moment when the moon’s shadow first impinges on the solar disk is called First Contact (no, not the Carl Sagan sci-fi novel or subsequent Jodie Foster movie). And here it is, taking a little nibble out of the upper right part of the sun:

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Yes, those are clusters of sunspots, four near the middle of the disk, and two more at lower left, near “7:00”.

Thirty-five minutes later, the Dragon God had consumed those central sunspots and advanced significantly further:

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Thirty-five minutes after that. things started to get really interesting. The sky darkened and Venus and the bright star Regulus (in the constellation of Leo) appeared. The lighting was like a deep twilight, and the air temperature, which had been dropping slowly, nosedived another 10 F (~5 C). An orange sunset glow began to envelop the entire horizon — a 360° sunset! — and the sun looked like this:

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That reddish glow around the slim crescent of the sun is not a camera artifact: it is real, a part of the sun’s atmosphere, normally invisible to the eye, called the chromosphere. A few moments later it was more pronounced:

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Notice also how the crescent is petering out into a sort of dotted line at the edges. That’s real too: you are peeking in between the mountains on the horizon of the moon!

And then: the moment of totality! Here is my awesome photo of it.

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Gentle readers, I blew it. Because if there is one thing that anyone photographing a total eclipse must remember, it is to remove the solar filter from the camera lens during totality. Even in the late partial phase, the sun is very, very bright, and you continue to use a filter — like those goofy solar sunglasses for your eyes — until the last minute. Only during totality is the scene dim enough to safely behold with the naked eye — or camera lens.

And I forgot. I was so excited by the reality of the thing itself — the corona, the red splash of color in the chromosphere, the sharpness of the shadow disk — that I just plain forgot to remove the filter. I clicked the shutter a few times then looked down at my review screen to see the picture, and was instantly discombobulated to see that it was black. I spent about 30 seconds fiddling around with various settings in a desperate attempt to figure out what was wrong, never even noticing the obvious. So I gave it up.

And you know what? I’m disappointed but not crushed. The actual fact of the matter is that with rare exceptions everyone’s totality images, taken with decent equipment and preparation, look pretty much alike. And so mine would too. The important thing was seeing it, experiencing the chill and the sheer other-worldliness of it all. I am more distressed about having wasted a solid 30 seconds or more of a two-minute event than I am of having blown the shot. Those were precious seconds, but I’m happy with what I got.

Once totality passed — 2 minutes and 3 seconds at our location — it was though it had never happened. The sky brightened immediately, the desert temperatures returned with their dusty teeth, the horizon glow vanished… and a whole lot of cars sprinted for the exits.

We knew in advance that that would be a pointless endeavor, so we hunkered down in the car — sweating and roasting in the sun — until the traffic thinned a bit. Even so, it took us over three hours to get back to the B&B, where Deb and Kevin namaste’d us home, listened to our stories — they had watched it from a kayak in the middle of a lake, and more power to them — and encouraged us into the hot tub. Which, after visiting one of Bend’s countless legal marijuana dispensaries, we did.

(Weed dispensaries are as ubiquitous as Starbucks here, with cutesy names like Doctor Jolly’s, Oregrown, Cannacopia, etc. They sell the traditional dried plant, oils, and assorted edible forms such as mints and chocolate bars. And they are staffed by cheerful — really cheerful — twentysomethings who happily explain that this type makes you mellow, and this type makes you energetic, and this type does something else, and on and on. It’s a total hoot.)

And so our day, and principal motivation of this sojourn, ended. The next total solar eclipse visible in the continental US is nearly seven years from now, on April 8, 2024. Like this one, its swath will include a significant fraction of the populated area of the country, though on a path running northeast from Texas to Maine. And, health and circumstances even remotely allowing, you had better believe that we are going to be somewhere along that path.




Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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