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.,
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:
And here we are in the sophisticated VIP lounge of the main terminal building…
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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….