The Delirious Dunes of Namibia
It’s all about the dunes.
Before sunrise you leave your lodge and drive along one of Namibia’s few tarred roads, paved to avoid contaminating the rusty orange of the sand with the dust of a gravel track. As light rises you pass them, nothing less than mountains: Dune 1, Dune 45, Big Daddy. They are hundreds of metres tall, these dunes, higher than skyscrapers, and they flow in sinuous turns, full of contrasting colour and shade as the sun rises and lights their sides.
These are heavy, stocky dunes, full of iron; their vivid orange is because they are rusting. They might shift a little but they have been intact for millions of years in the world’s oldest desert. At their floor, stoic water-starved acacia trees are tiny and dwarved, eking out an unlikely survival in intense aridity. And in places, like the Dead Vlei white clay plan at the base of the highest dunes, those trees that have died have remained as bone-dry skeletons, scorched but intact seven hundred years after their death.
This is Sossusvlei, Namibia, the heart of the Namib-Naukluft Park, and it just might be the most photogenic desert on Earth. Everything here is pleasing colour and contrast, vivid and brilliantly desolate. It is an arduous six-hour drive from the capital, Windhoek, but still thousands of tourists make the journey, to stay in luxury lodges, enjoy hot air balloons or scenic flights, or to walk among the dunes and pans.
So as the sun rises today there are already dozens of people, visible only as tiny silhouettes, climbing the spines of the signature dunes.
In truth, climbing a dune is not a whole lot of fun. Every step you take, the sand shifts back down, making this the most literal version of three steps forward, two steps back you’ll ever encounter. Your calves and thighs scream and you gasp in the hot and dry air.
Once up there, it’s wonderful: you are on the spine of what is to all intents and purposes a mountain range, and you can just keep going along the ridges, enjoying the views, indefinitely. But the process of getting up there is a slog.
Getting down again? Now that’s a different matter.
There is a brief slice of video we have come to cherish in our house. In it, my wife descends the world’s largest sand dune in a strange goose-stepping flail like a gangly-legged crane in loose denim shorts and a blue bucket hat. She is yelling: “I can’t stop! I can’t stop!”
She can’t stop.
She also can’t control her direction, which becomes a steadily more pressing matter for my daughter, who is doing the filming.
“Go to the side! Go to the side!” she shouts in mounting anxiety as the unexpected missile of her mother bears down on her from considerable height and with impressive acceleration. Eventually mother zips past daughter without collision but with an audible swoosh and the Doppler effect one might normally perceive in a passing ambulance. “I can’t stop!” she shouts again, and disappears out of sight towards the floor of the dune, the Dead Vlei, and, ultimately, if unstopped, the South Atlantic Ocean.
If you don’t want to clamber up a dune, or fall off one, there are motorized options too.
One day we take a four-wheel drive tour of Sandwich Harbour, a beautiful area south of Swakopmund, inaccessible in 2WD transport.
The norm is to barrel off in a modified Land Cruiser driven at hair-raising speed up and down sand dunes and along the beach in the fog, pausing occasionally for us to take photos and put our stomachs back where they are supposed to be. It all concludes with sparkling wine and oysters atop a dune, which seems like an even worse idea when you get back in the Land Cruiser. As with all fine Namibian things, the trip includes a moment when you are abandoned on top of a 300-foot-tall sand dune and you have to descend it yourself.
Our guide that day is at least as memorable as the terrain he is driving on. He is a barrel-chested, obtusely outspoken white Namibian who has two pet cheetahs called Benson and Hedges, believes that using a Toyota Land Cruiser for shopping or the school run is an act of abuse, and owns a farm property out near Solitaire in the distant desert, where the last time his young nephew came to visit he was taken off on a three-day adventure from which he returned wearing only underpants, covered in mud and carrying a spear.
He is tough as hell, then, which makes it all the more interesting when he speaks with such genuine pride and warmth about Namibia, Namibian conservation efforts (52% of the country is protected), and Namibian efforts to resist apartheid under South African occupation.
Namibia is unique. For a start, there’s the enduring Germanic motifs. Namibia was a German colony before being taken over by, variously, the British and then the South Africans before independence finally arrived in 1990. But it’s the German influence that sticks.
This is most obvious in the coastal cities of Luderitz and Swakopmund, where German architecture exists amid the palms along the breakers of the South Atlantic; you find yourself constantly on streets with names like Bismarck, in bars with umlauts in their names, and in restaurants where the staff are African but the signature dish is Bavarian pork knuckle. Namibia’s varied history can make for some jolting juxtapositions today: in Windhoek, there’s a junction where Nelson Mandela Avenue, Robert Mugabe Avenue and Promenadenweg intersect, just up the road from Von Eckenbrecher Street.
Namibia is distinctive for other reasons too. It is said, with neighbouring Botswana, to be the safest place in Africa. Certainly it feels safer than South Africa, and while no doubt racial tension must exist, it is far less obvious to the visitor.
But to try to refer to the population in any homogenous block is an oversimplification: there are numerous tribes and customs here, some more visible to the visitor than others.
For example, Damaraland is a stark, spartan, brilliant wilderness landscape, one where the environment seems to change every half hour, but its physical attractions are secondary to its people. Here, more than anywhere, you are likely to be welcomed to a lodge by an apparently scratch collection of waiters and managers who turn out to be able to burst into beautiful, multi-part harmony, soaring, pitch-perfect song together. They do another song when you leave, before trudging back off to whatever their duties were as if nothing had ever happened.
They speak a variety of distinctive languages. In Doro !Nawas lodge, for example, it is the norm to translate the evening menu into the local click language. That’s what the exclamation mark in the name means: it denotes a click.
But not just any click. Languages in this part of the world have four distinct types of click, utilized by doing something different with your tongue and your teeth and the side of your mouth for each. The Lonely Planet section on the !Kung San language, delivered with a customarily unrealistic view of the effort tourists make in unfamiliar places, is illustrative: “Names that include an exclamation mark are of Khoisan origin and should be rendered as a sideways click sound, similar to the sound one would make when encouraging a horse, but with a hollow tone like the sound made when pulling a cork from a bottle.”
Lonely Planet encouragingly adds that locals “will forgive” an inability to distinguish correctly between the four clicks. So you’ve got that going for you.
The other thing people come to Namibia for besides sand dunes is wildlife. Its signature attraction in this regard is the Etosha National Park, where animals congregate around a vast salt pan. But having gone in expectation of black rhinos and elephants, it was a surprise to find myself falling in love with a small bird called the Sociable Weaver.
You occasionally see these apparently innocuous birds moving en masse in coordinated swirls from tree to grass and back again, the sort of mesmerizing flock behavior where it seems each of a thousand birds knows exactly what every other bird will do, and does it simultaneously, changing direction in a wave as if a single mind controlled them all.
Interesting though they are, they’re nothing compared to the magnificent oddity of their nests. Deftly woven (hence the name) from individual sticks and, if you’re not careful, parts of your lodge’s carefully constructed thatched roof, these nests become enormous until they resemble vast muppet-like mammoths hanging from tree branches.
The ‘sociable’ bit refers to the fact that a single nest can house dozens of individual homes for different birds, each of them with their own entrance, often from beneath so as to be impenetrable to snakes and other predators; the problem is they are so sociable, and their nests so consequently immense, that they occasionally bring down the tree upon which they are built. This makes a sorry and slightly cartoonish sight: a mighty branch snapped in half, an upturned stick-built fraggle of a nest looking reproachful and abandoned on the desert floor.
Still, not all wildlife in Namibia is so joyful.
Do you know what smells worse than a seal colony? I’ll give you a clue: nothing. Nothing smells worse than a seal colony. I know this from having visited Cape Cross, a reserve for Cape Fur Seals, which is said to be home to 100,000 of them.
Everyone warns you that you smell it before you see it. They’re right. You can pretty much smell it before you enter the same time zone as it. We later meet a pilot who recalls a scenic excursion which passed over the colony at insufficient altitude to avoid the smell (that is, several miles), whereupon two children in the back of the plane spontaneously threw up in each other’s faces.
It is the smell of the shit of a hundred thousand seals, coupled with the smell of a large number of rotting seal corpses, most of them pups, as if it needed another layer of misery upon it.
Then there’s the sound. A seal colony sounds like a thousand Chewbaccas at once, but a very specific Chewbacca noise, one that he might emit at a moment of unparalleled mourning and loss, perhaps upon the destruction of his entire species while having his testicles nailed to an X-Wing fighter. So as you walk along the reserve’s boardwalk, you have a winning combination of a stench that will remain with you weeks and continents later, a sound of betrayed agony from a football stadium-worth of overweight seals, and the sight of dead and abandoned pups littering the ground in every direction.
I loved Namibia and encourage you to go there. But I don’t think I can really recommend the Cape Cross Seal Reserve.