Sossusvlei and the Great Sand Sea

29 July 2018

[Above photo: It’s difficult to surpass natural beauty. This is shot from the top of Dune 45 near Sesriem in the Namib-Naukluft Park in central Namibia.]

With our flexible scheduling, never knowing where we’ll want to be in two days and, thus, never making reservations, we sometimes have to adapt. In Sesriem, we camped in the “overflow”, as all campsites in the park were booked. This was next to the main road into the camp in a dusty flat area under a tree. But somehow we settled in and, after borrowing a bench from the next camping spot, we stayed put for two nights, happily. We could easily have camped or stayed in a chalet outside the gates but being within allowed us an hour earlier start on our drive to the immense red (ferric oxide) powdery sand dunes the next morning. And an extra hour after sunset, as well.

As we cruised around the first evening after erecting our tent, we could see the sun setting on the tops of the stunning dunes. They are tall. “Big Daddy” is over 100 meters. We climbed it in the morning just before sunrise, along with the hoards of other unwashed. It felt like my version of circling the Kabbah in Mecca.  The lines from Handel’s Messiah kept running through my mind as I followed, and led, so many others to the top: “Oh we, like sheep, have gone astray.” Still, it was so magnificent, struggling up in our bare feet in the cold, soft sand and knowing that everyone else was having their own aesthetic, if not spiritual, moment.

The colors and curves and lines, let alone the size of the dunes, are entrancing. It is no wonder that photos of them grace any publication about Namibia. Uncharacteristically, my bowels seized up on the way down and, as there was no one in view I relieved them quickly. It felt like soiling the Vatican, but in that dry climate all will be reduced to dust in a couple of days. And probably provide some nutrition for the beetles that dash about.  It is amazing how one animal can extract nutrition from another’s leavings. Since elephants aren’t ruminants, their food is barely digested and, although expelled in great volume, has no discernable smell.  They ruin woodlands because they must eat so much each day.

Our last evening was graced by a visit from an Oryx (Gemsbok), those of the 4 foot long sharp and straight horns. He paused across the road, staring at me. Of course, I anthropomorphized the meaning of his visit, feeling he wanted some human companionship with those soulful eyes. I was tempted to, but didn’t, walk over and pat him. It turns out he is a regular at the campground, going through the garbage bins. How the beautiful and noble have fallen! I clapped my hands and shouted him away, disillusioned in this most striking of beasts who has no apparent need to drink water, urinating in dry pellets. Oryx can survive the most extreme conditions of drought and heat; they have special vasculature in their nose so if they breath rapidly they can cool the blood going to their brain. Their bodies can be up to 6 degrees hotter than their cerebral circulation. Otherwise, they couldn’t think straight.

Our next stop was to be on a working ranch in the most beautiful dunescape. We were really out in the bush (minus any bushes) as we pulled up to the 12 km entrance road to find it locked with an accompanying sign saying: “We are sorry but we cannot accept anyone who hasn’t pre-booked.” Our system of not making reservations was breaking down but we drove another 40 km or so and found the most lovely campsite you can imagine, tucked up into a rocky hillside. We were the only campers. A woman who lives across the main road in an oasis of flowers and trees owns the property. She and her husband couldn’t make a go of cattle ranching, so they built some attractive rooms and two perfect campsites on their property. Her husband died 4 years ago and she manages it. With total privacy and shaded by pepper trees, the campsite was 75 feet above the valley floor with wonderful views of the surrounding terrain which was filled with termite mounds and, beyond, orange mountains.

We next drove to Luderitz, a small port city and commercial fishing town. The Orange River, further south, forms Namibia’s southern border with South Africa. It arises in Lesotho, thousands of km to the east in S. Africa, and passes by Kimberly, from where it has washed millions of carats of diamonds down to the river mouth. Over time, the Benguela Current, a cold ‘un, which runs north along the coast, swept many diamonds north, offshore of Luderitz. There has been an active seafloor diamond mining industry in Luderitz since the 1990’s.  The town itself is quaint, with numerous buildings and homes from a century ago, built by Germans drawn here for guano mining, fishing, and the land-found diamonds. Imagine picking up handfuls of diamonds from the ground. Poor Luderitz himself prospected unsuccessfully for copper for years, no doubt walking all over the diamonds strewn about. Died a poor man. Poor man!

When we arrived at Luderitz, we tried, unsuccessfully, to get a room in two guest houses we’d chosen. So, back to the tent! Always a handy option. If travelling in foreign lands, carry a tent. Our campground was called Shark Island. Not an island and nary a shark, it is the tip of a peninsula forming the protection for Luderitz Bay, across the water from town. It is just down the road from the guest houses. The campsite was run-down and the night “guard” was drunk, but the setting was insanely beautiful, especially after the desert. We decided to braii one night. Linda had visions of eating steamed mussels and grilled fish and drinking chilled white wine, sitting on the breakwater, watching the sun set and the full moon rise simultaneously. (Little did we know it was the occasion of the most complete eclipse of the moon for a century. Also the occasion for a “blood moon”.) The braii wood was impossible to start, the wind was howling—-oh, there was no seafood in the supermarket and the fish market was already closed—, and we noticed the moon risen half an hour after the fact, so engrossed and asphyxiated were we trying to get the fire up. We grilled the chicken and ate it, and salad, standing up. Then went to bed. Still, the chicken was good and even though my masculine ego took a blow when Linda had to reconstruct my fire so it would actually start—“I start fires with wet wood in Maine every night during the winter, so don’t feel bad.”—, we did eat, no one got burned, and we had some laughs about it. I mean, I can start a fire in the rain while camping in the Northwest—but then, we have cedar which practically ignites itself.

Near Luderitz was a fabulous ghost town, Kolmanskop, the remains of the diamond boom. Deserted since 1959, the big fancy homes are filled with sand, It sported its own ice manufactory and tiny steam railroad to deliver the ice daily to each house, etc. And a 250 bed hospital tended by German physicians, one of whom had each patient drink a glass of red wine every morning. The works of Man are transient, and the town is being swallowed by the desert. There was a miniversion of this on a forlorn, moonscape of a peninsula nearby, Dias Point, where an elderly woman ran a small restaurant and places to sleep: campsites, two beached fishing boats, propped up, with ladders and berths, and several small cottages, all now reverting to sand with the neglect of their absent (Dead? Retired?) caretaker.

Next we drove to the bottom of the Fish River Canyon, to Ai-Ais.  After nine nights in a tent, we got a bungalow with a kitchen and enjoyed every minute. We hiked 6km into the canyon, pestered by little flies, and decided we are glad we didn’t try to do the 5 day backpacking trip the length of it. We were surprisingly tired after the hike up and down the canyon, even though it wasn’t far or steep. It was sand, and that can be difficult slogging. I’d rather go down the Grand Canyon again, as lovely as this is.

We went to the outdoor pool early one morning to watch the sunrise. The pool is very warm, heated by natural hot springs. I stuck my toe in to test the waters and lost my balance, falling in. Only Linda and one swimmer saw me and my cellphone was back at the bungalow so I simply wrung out my sweatshirt and t-shirt and went for a swim.  Make the best of your situation, I say.

Linda read about the Fish River Lodge in our Bradt Guide (superb for Namibia) and it sounded so enticing that I called and secured us two nights. Besides, we are getting used to beds, not worrying about hyenas or baboons, and not having to walk half a km to the ablution block at 2AM.  And the lodge appears to be right next to Hobas, the north end of Fish River Canyon, whose viewpoints we planned to visit the next day.

I should note we’ve met our friends, Peter and Caroline, twice more. They saw our red car at Shark Island in Luderitz where they camped against the toilet so as to have a windbreak the night before. We had a glass of wine together and went out to supper to a cozy place with a fire.

More of the other (fourth) meeting in next week’s post. What did Caroline say to Peter? How did Peter respond? Were baboons involved? Hold on to your seats.

PS Linda received a very sad WhatsApp from our landlady in Blantyre, noting that our wonderful, creative, and hard-working gardener/guard/artist, Chimwemwe, had been struck by an automobile and was in coma at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital. There is little we can do from here and it is so awful; he is a wonderful man and father of two young children. If he is alive when I return I’ll see him and offer some financial help.



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