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Published: March 8th 2007
A long ride on the truck along the wild wild west of the Namib desert, WeiL and I arrived at Sossusvlei right at the peak of the desert heat. The truck was turning oven-hot from hours of baking under the African sun. The wind did not help either as it was very hot and dry. It was more likely for anyone to get windburnt by simply sitting by the window. Miles and miles, the scenery was mainly that of desert plains. Isolated. Desolate. It would be a surprise to see anyone walking down the dirt road at this time. The temperature out there was probably bordering between the high 40's and 50's celsius. The sun seared anything beneath it. Sossusvlei was a harsh place. But perhaps not to the springboks, impalas, kudus, and ostriches. They could be spotted once in a while grazing lazily, although it did not seem there were much for them to eat.
I must admit, I have not even heard of Sossusvlei until I was planning this overland trip. When one is asked of the ultimate desert scene, most people would think of the Sahara or Gobi. But Sossuvlei turned out to be one of
Dead oasis of acacia trees that died hundreds of years ago.
the highlights of our trip in Africa. Although most guidebooks and pamphlets gave the impression that Sossusvlei was the desert, home to the world's highest sand dune, strictly speaking, Sossusvlei is not a desert. It is a clay pan that lies within the Namib-Naukluft National Park, surrounded by desert and sand dunes. And this is where Namibia got its name. "Namib" means open space in Nama
and this is indeed the land of open spaces, with the vast desert plains extending beyond the horizon. The Namib-Naukluft National Park covers an area approximately the size of Switzerland!
The Sesriem campsite was around 45-minutes drive away from Sossuvlei but apparently it was one of the nearest accommodation available in this area. After the past few days of practice, WeiL and I could now set up a tent within 5 minutes and we did not need help anymore. We have established a routine over the past few days. The moment we arrived in a national park, WeiL would run straight into the campsite and choose a nice shady spot for us to set up our tent. I was to stand guard and gather our belongings as they were chucked out of the
Balancing on the mighty sand ridge
truck. The campsite was simple but huge with mushroom-huts dotted around. There were many huge camel thorn trees around to provide shades.
We sat under the shades for a while but it was way too hot to stay outdoor. So we spent the afternoon in the bar, having countless glasses of fruitjuice and beers. WeiL and I both signed up to go on the Bushmen Trail just to learn a bit more on how the Namib Bushmen live here. But we were quite uneasy and unsettled as whether we should be pressing on with it. Not that we were being softies and hoping to have things easy (we have been adequately burnt in South Africa and have endured many long truck rides before this), but it was simply too hot. We could feel our skin getting scorched the moment we were exposed to the sun and having 7-layers of sunscreen on would not really help in Africa.
But what the heck, I might not be coming back here again. So I decided to stick to the plan and go on a the desert trail with a Namib bushman. Our bushman, 'Klek' (for non-Namib speakers, he is also known
A long long road
From Fish River to Sossusvlei
as "Clark") is a small tough guy. Klek was not really his name. The Bushmen speak and end each sentence with a 'clicking' sound, that's why I called him Klek. The heat did not appear to disturb him at all. Some of us were visibly struggling in the heat. We were trudging 20m behind him. Klek sauntered effortlessly while he explained to us the life of the desert as though he was in a lecture theatre (although he should have noted that some of us just could not catch up with him).
The Namib desert was thought to be one of the oldest desert in the world. Apparently the age of the desert can be ascertained by examining the colour of the sand. The older it is the brighter it becomes. Sossusvlei is filled with a mix of blood red and bright orange sands. It must be ancient! The colour develops over million of years as iron in the sand is oxidised (like rusty metal). The westernly wind brings in fog from the Atlantic ocean which helps to accelerate the process. Many many years ago, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei (vlei in Afrikaans means a shallow depression) were filled with water
Klek - Our Bushman
So far ahead, leaving us to catch up
from the Tsauchab River nearby. But over the years as the sand dunes were swept inland, the waters from the river could not flow in Sossusvlei. The clay pan eventually dried up and leaving a spectacular sight of dried Acacia trees in the middle of the forlorn desert.
Klek claimed that those who are able to read the desert 'map', which can found right in front of them wherever they are in the Namib desert, will never be lost in the Namib desert. The wind direction can be clearly determined by looking at the sand ridges. Easternly wind blows in the winter, bringing moist air into the plains while westernly wind blows in the summer, bringing the desert heat to the Atlantic coast. By looking at the sand pattern, one can tell the wind direction and hence determine the general direction. Water source can be traced by following the shrubs. For food, there are always kudus, snakes and lizards. For vegetarian options, there are always ostrich salad. Many years ago when the colonists first arrived, many bushmen were killed by them as they exploit the area for diamonds. The Muzungu (whitemen) could find the diamonds easily as they sparkled
Struggling to keep up
brightly under the clear moon night. Unfortunately, I could not see nor find any diamond in the desert, maybe we were just blinded by the glare of sunlight. There goes my hope of early retirement. Many foreign MNCs expressed interests in mining for natural minerals in the Namib desert but thankfully the government declared the area as natural reserve.
The bushmen trail was interesting and educational. But we could not wait to take on the legendary Dune 45, apparently the tallest in the world, rising more than 300 meters above the desert floor. From the 'base' of the dune, it did not look all that formidable and I thought we would reach the peak to witness sunset right at the top of the dune. The tricky thing about sand dunes is with every 3 steps you take, you sink 2 steps back. It was laborious and exhausting just to reach the 3/4 mark and the sun was dipping. So, we just sat there quietly and tried to take in as much of Sossusvlei as we can. With the bright red desert at the background, the sunset was just spectacular.
Sossusvlei was also our last stop in the desert before hitting civilisation again. The stars were bright and the southern cross could be seen easily at night. It looked like a quiet evening until around 4am when a sandstorm swept through the area. Funnily, I did not notice a thing until the next morning when I realised our tent and sleeping bags were full of sand. There was just sand everywhere including in our hair and ears. As we packed up, we were just thinking maybe it was a sign. It was time to go.
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