Blissed out in the desert

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November 7th 2009
Published: January 13th 2010
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The Namib desert is the world's oldest and contains some of the planet's tallest sand dunes but I have high hopes that these dry facts won't be the most interesting things about it. I haven't seen a decent desert since Dunhuang 1.5 years ago and, having bypassed the Sahara, I have some serious sand yearnings.

By paying for a mid-range tour, I strike exactly the balance I was hoping for, with just two other guests (a pair of friendly Swedes - E, rocking a Bjorn Ulvaeus beard circa "The Singles", and V, who shows no compunction in criticising my English) and some of the best accommodation I've stayed in in Africa. It's hardly in keeping with any definition of independent travel but frankly I don't care - if the last month of four years of nearly constant travel doesn't qualify as a likely period for a splurge, then I don't know what does.

The air-conditioned minibus is a comfortable vehicle even on the gravel roads that comprise most of the route to our camp, and we stare at the picturesque green and brown hills of the Namib-Naukluft range. The occasional springbok or jackal shows that there's animal life out
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here. Our first rest stop reveals that E has a jumping fetish. At every photo opportunity, he wants a shot of himself leaping in the air. This is what happens when a country eats beetroot.

Our camp contains permanent tent/chalets that, apart from all the usual stuff, each have a fridge, hot plate, and sink. A small swimming pool gives views across the scrub to the mountains. An outdoor bar with large TV offers an alternative if the sight of all this nature pales. Our guide rustles up a filling dinner that finishes with chocolate pudding and, as I head to my chalet under a blanket of stars, the $170 per day I'm paying for this almost seems reasonable.

Our one full day in the dunes starts early, and we're in a queue of vehicles at the Sossusvlei park gate before 6AM. In that extreme desert way, it's bloody cold and we sit huddled in fleeces, knowing that we'll be roasting in just hours. The early parts of the park road pass impressive sand dunes glowing red in the sun's early rays but the guide dismisses them as pitiful compared to what we'll see later.

However there's one element of concern. There's a tremendous amount of cloud above the area we're heading to, and the guide says this is the most cloud he's seen this year. The misty moisture drifts across the tops of the highest dunes. Even though the scenery is becoming increasingly spectacular in terms of the size and grandeur of the dunes, it's seen through a grey light. We pass the famous Dune 45, already supporting several groups of tourists on its spine, but it's leached of colour.

Once the road gives way to sand, we have to park and switch to a 4WD shuttle to take us just shy of Deadvlei. It's only a 4km journey, but the open-backed 4WD is perishing cold. I'm enjoying not having to wear any sunscreen but this is possibly the coldest I've been in Africa. However it's a good temperature for our walk into the dunes. Walking on sand takes that little bit more energy out of you, the price of never having anything firm to push off against.

The day really starts when we crest a rise and see the stark beauty of Deadvlei spread out beneath us. Deadvlei is a pan, a remnant of when the river Tsauchab flowed this way. The river has since changed direction, beaching a myriad camelthorn trees. They've been dead for 600 years, the protection of the surrounding dunes and their own extensive root systems freezing them into eternal immobility, like the victims of Pompeii. The sun chooses this moment to break through, the clouds disintegrate to mares' tails, and the white pan, the black trees, the blue sky, and the red dunes challenge you to take a bad picture. This is comfortably one of the most awe-inspiring things I've seen anywhere in the world.

We gain another perspective on the vlei by plodding up a nameless dune to the north. Sparkling blue beetles and shovel-nosed lizards skitter across the sand, disturbed by our scrambling progress. The temperature has also climbed but there's a pleasant breeze atop the dune. We're the first people up this particular one today, our sliding feet blunting the sharpness of its crest, but soon the wind will begin to hone the edge again, and there'll only be our word that we were ever there.

Descending the dune is considerably less effort and more fun than climbing it. Striding down its steep slopes, sinking feet into the rippled sand, there's a give that's gentle on the joints. E dives happily for the camera, finding no pain but filling his holes with sand.

The guide has convinced himself that we're all in good enough shape to tackle something larger, but first he wants to assert his own authority. This is done in the age-old way of seeing who can spit a dried oryx turd the furthest. Of course he wins, but my impressive second place is a worrying demonstration of what a set of trivial skills I possess.

The sun is out sufficiently strongly now that I give myself a layer of sunscreen. It doesn't take long to realise why desert dwellers don't tend to wear sunscreen, instead relying on long garments to protect their skin. Sunscreen in a windy and sandy environment reminds me of pictures I made as a child, drawing an invisible pattern in glue then shaking glitter onto the page to reveal the pattern. It's the same principle here.

Our next dune is Sossusvlei, the guide's favourite and justifiably so. Its ridge curves in sinuous fashion and the view from the top (100m high) is breathtaking
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Desert Camp
in all directions. This is desert on such a massive scale, and with such appealing colours, as to make my previous desert experiences seem as though they were missing a dimension.

The sand on Sossussvlei's slopes is so deep as to mean, at the bottom after the descent, I have to empty my boots and socks.

We return to Dune 45 for our third and last climb of the day. In contrast to when we'd first passed it, it's now empty. Its shape isn't as interesting as Sossusvlei, but it's 50% higher. It's also extremely windy, to the point where I have to hang on to my hat, and the sand is blowing in so many directions at the top that I have to close my eyes to prevent the inevitable contact lens trauma.

On the way back to Windhoek, we stop briefly at a windswept settlement called Solitaire. Its isolation has been emphasised by the artful positioning of various ancient, rusting, cars near the general store that is Solitaire's hub. The apple pie made here is famous amongst African travellers (I'll subsequently meet a man in the Kalahari who goes into raptures over it), and the guide buys us each a slice. He also picks up four American girls who are hitching back to Windhoek having burned out the clutch of their car in Sossusvlei. Being something of a Jack the lad, his face falls when they reveal that they're here on Christian mission work.

I find myself increasingly falling victim to an absolute scale of experiences, e.g. Victoria Falls isn't as "good" as Iguazu, the Serengeti isn't as "good" as the Masai Mara, etc, instead of appreciating things for what they are - perhaps a natural consequence of travelling for so long. But the Namib Desert was such a different experience that I really can't compare it with anything else I've seen, deserts or otherwise. Definitely in the African Top 3.

Additional photos below
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13th January 2010

Great photos
Excellent landscape shots, very impressive!
14th January 2010

Love it
I love that first picture man...well done!!
16th January 2010

Have You Been?
Did you visit San Pedro and the Atacama in Chile? It is the driest desert in the world, according to desert-ologists.
16th January 2010

Re Chile
Unfortunately I haven't been to northern Chile but it's on the list for some point in the future.
30th August 2010
Camelthorn trees

Great photo!
Just popped up on the front page - inspiring me to visit Namibia :)

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