An African Diary, Part III: Sossuvlei

DSC_0784Day 7: Wednesday, November 25th 2015

I had the most terrible time falling asleep last night. I just couldn’t quiet my mind. I was excited about my sudden change of plans to stay another ten days in Namibia and I was crazy excited for our sunrise adventure in just a few hours. Finally, around 1am I drifted off only to awaken an hour later needing to pee. The moon was so full and bright, I didn’t even need my head lamp as I trudged half asleep across the dirt road to the bathroom. I fell back asleep quickly, but 445am came all too soon. Up we rose and within 20 minutes we had the tent all packed up, were dressed, made bathroom stops and boom – we were on the road! I was impressed with our efficiency – we were getting damn good at packing up camp in a hurry! We were third in line to get to the gate and only had to wait for five minutes before they opened it and let us through.  You could feel the excitement rippling through the line of vehicles waiting, it was like the line to get in to Disney World or something; I didn’t know people could collectively muster that much excitement at 5am! Rug and I blasted Macklemore’s Downtown to get us even more pumped up.

I would have loved to have gone a half hour earlier to get the full effect of sunrise, to be able to enjoy the vast array of colours as the sky shed her sapphire night gown and donned her flushed violet, copper and  periwinkle ensemble. But alas, they don’t open the gates quite early enough so as to limit driving in the dark to protect the wildlife. The drive only took a half hour this time as we were following the other cars who were most definitely not obeying the speed limit! And so by the time we reached dune 45, most of the pre dawn stunning sunrise colours had already played out. But we could still at least catch the sun itself as it crested the dunes if we scrambled up this dune fast enough. 

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Hiking up Dune 45 with the other sun chasers.

Up we went, huffing and puffing, the loose sand filling our shoes with each step. We made it to the top just in time and plopped down on the ridge of the dune and watched with loads of other sun chasers as the king peaked above the distant red dunes and mountains, staining the whole desert in a jarring scarlet glow, half cast in shadows. I’ve always preferred sunrises to sunsets, but have usually always been too lazy to get out of bed to catch them.  Travelling has taught me that they are always more than worth it, and suddenly it’s not so hard to wake up knowing what is waiting for you. With sunrises, you usually experience them in a much quieter environment. However, today there we at least 50 other people perched on the dune crest with us so it didn’t feel quite as special – but it was still without a doubt a beautiful and unique sunrise.  I mean, we were sitting on top of a sand dune in the Namib desert, come on!  

Because of the number of people, we didn’t really linger around after the sun was up, but instead sped down the dune at a half run, bogging our shoes down entirely with sand. We dumped them out at the bottom and hopped in the White Wildebeest. She was about to take us through the deep sands that we had dubbed the ‘oryx trap’ as there were always oryx around distracting people who ended up stuck or trapped in the deep sand trying to get pictures of the beasts! 

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Not a bad view for sunrise!

We were on our way to Big Daddy Dune – 345 meters of pure beast (near 1200 feet!) – among the tallest in the world- and were going to summit him! Everyone climbs Dune 45 because it’s easy – only about 20 minutes to to the top. Far fewer people climb Big Daddy each day. It was 7:20am when we left the Wildebeest in the parking lot and began our trek. We had a tortuous 1.2km hike across a mixture of sand and petrified mud (very old mud as we learned later). It was already a stifling day, easily in the high 20s and the sun hadn’t even been up for an hour. We finally reached the base of the dune and began the climb. Rug was not impressed with my idea to climb both Dune 45 and Big Daddy back to back in this incredible heat.  He joked/complained the whole trek over to the base, making it very clear that he was only going up to the first plateau and would wait for me there. I secretly hoped he would feel the need to finish and summit with me. The first part was actually one of the hardest.  The path had been cut into the side of the base of the dune and then cut straight up to reach the first apex. It was only about 50 feet up, but the #1 rule of dune climbing – which I learned in Huacachina, Peru- is never try to walk straight up! You go one step backward for every two forward. I had to run at this section in three parts to finally reach the top – sweating and panting already and we’d barely just begun! But the next bit was much easier and I began to cruise up the dune. I passed several people, which was more difficult than it seems as you had to step off the little path along the ridge and sink in the deep sand on the steep banks and hold your balance while trying not to slide down too much while simultaneously increasing your speed to pass!  Rug began to fall behind me – choosing to take his time, and since he had said he was only going to the first plateau, I cruised on, wanting to keep up my strong pace and go with the energy burst I was feeding off of. I had read it takes an hour and a half to summit Big Daddy so naturally I wanted to see how long it would take me, and if I could crush that time. I reached the first curve in the dune, took a few moments to catch my breath, sip some water, check on Rug, and on I pushed.

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You can see the tiny tail, dotted with tiny people, heading up the first small plateau zig zagging up Big Daddy

I reached the first plateau and felt great; I still had so much energy! Breathe- hydrate-breathe-hydrate – and on I went. The dune curved again and I found myself on the final stretch. After this last long and especially steep section I would be at the top! I looked back at Rug who was still chugging along, secretly cheered him on, and then pushed for the top. I could now feel the steepness burning in my legs. They were pumping harder than ever to push through the soft sand and began to burn. At the same time the sun suddenly seemed to get 10 times hotter and I was sure the heat was pushing close now to that awful +40 mark. The intense heat, the burning of my legs, and the top so close but so far made the last ten minutes a little more torturous, but at last I made it! There were about eight people sitting up at the top and I walked past them all so I could sit alone at the far end of the very top of the ridge of Big Daddy. In front of me I had the startlingly beautiful vista of Sossuvlei and the vast expanse of the Namib desert sprawling before me. It was a sea of red dunes and maroon mountains backed by a crisp azure sky.  It was so peaceful, especially compared to this morning on the Dune 45 where there were so many other people. I felt like I was on top of the world. I sat in lotus and meditated for a few minutes to settle my breath and centre myself as I perched on this crest of Africa.

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I looked back and saw Rug had passed the last plateau – yes! He was coming to the top! I was so happy! I sat and stared off into the pretty sanguine abyss as I waited for him. We celebrated with high fives and water chugs when he made his way over to me, dripping with sweat. We both sat on the edge of what felt like the world and savoured the view that we earned after our hard hike.  It was worth every minute and more. Rug suggested a yoga pose to which I excitedly agreed.  These were he places that inspired me the most, that I wanted to express my appreciation for, in the form of an asana. I went into lotus again, when rug suggested head stand.

“Here?!’ I asked incredulously, ‘teetering on the edge of this massive sand dune? I might fall!”

“Ya, forward, not sideways”, he said.

He had a point… and my headstand was strong.  I cleared a small area on the apex to level it and then easily bloomed up into headstand giving myself a spectacular view of the desert upside down, another amazing perspective. I felt so overwhelmed with appreciation, with love for this special desert as I looked at her upside down, sprawling out as far as the eye could see. How lucky I was to be there, in that present moment to appreciate the beauty of Mother Earth in the oldest desert in the entire world. How blessed I am to be able to admire her ancient sands as they blew in the wind, cresting these malleable and ever shifting mountains. How blessed I am to feel the wind across my cheek, the same wind that shapes these mighty dunes. How blessed I am to feel the scorching sun beat down on me, the same sun that sets those tiny grains glittering like stars. How blessed I am to stand atop this dune, this towering beast so mighty, yet is only built of trillions of individual minuscule grains. How blessed I am to learn a lesson from a mighty sand dune that something which seems so colossal, is but the coalescence of countless seemingly insignificant grains: Alone we may be but one, but together can build mountains ❤

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And now it was time for the fun part – going down! Some people went down the same way we came up, but we were going the fun way – straight down the side of the dune! It would take us right into Deadvlei – a clay pan from an old dried up lake formed from the flooded Tsauchab River.  Deadvlei is now long dry, the ground bleached white and cracked into hexagonal shapes. On the lake at the far end of the shores stood 900 year old dead trees- gnarled and twisted, baked into shapes reminiscent of agony from thousands of years of roasting in the tortuous sun.

But first – we had to get down there! We began running down at a break neck pace and after a couple of steps I stopped and turned to Rug, laughing in bewilderment.

What is that sound?!” I asked between laughs and gasps for breath.

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Our feet were making this hilarious deep thump! sound from the suction they caused by sinking so deep and being pulled out so quickly. The whole way down we had this comical sound along with our laughter as our soundtrack. It was staggering how huge the dune was and took a surprisingly long time to descend, even running the whole way. At the bottom, Rug dumped out his shoes and I dumped out my socks (I decided to go shoeless). We were now at the far of the long dead lake. Before us sat a hard white crust expanded on all sides, eerily resembling a frozen lake. The brightness was contrasted all the more by the rusty dunes and cobalt sky.  I put my shoes back on and we began out trek across the lake, slowly bringing us closer and closer to the scraggly grey contortions of trees that dotted the far shores.  As we approached them it was like stepping into a Neil Gaiman novel.  The colours were so vivid, the placement of the trees strangely impeccable. The eerie mangled trees seemed almost fake. It was spooky, even in broad daylight. And I absolutely loved it!  I couldn’t however, imagine this place at night with a full moon illuminating the white cracked crust, setting it aglow, the moon beams casting long gnarled shadows of the bent trees on the dead white ground. Baboons perched atop the ridges of the sand dunes all around, howling to one another before they began to all rush down the dunes trailing the red dust on the white surface as they swung themselves up on the creaking dead branches, their black hair glowing silver in the moonlight… Whoa. Shivers.

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Anyway… We wondered through the strange scene taking pictures from all angles. It was such a surreal sight. The only reason the trees had not entirely decayed in these 900 years was because it was so vastly dry here, nothing was able break down in the feverish heat of the arid desert.

This morning was shaping up to be unforgettable. I knew this was going to be one of those days that remains vivd in my memory for a long time to come. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from Deadvlei, the sun was just too powerful and we had already been ravaged by him long enough. I knew I needed to be exceptionally careful under the African sun with my pitifully fair skin, skin that hadn’t seen much sun for the last five months! And so we began the 1.5km hike back to the White Wildebeest and found that this was the hardest part of the whole trek yet! We were exhausted, out of water, the temperature had climaxed, and we had no exciting challenge of reaching a summit to motivate us. The only thing that did keep us going was the promise of AC – the heat was utterly unbearable.  Slowly onwards over small hills of soft sand we trudged, our feet sinking easily and not wanting to rise without great difficulty. At last we reached our sanctuary. I nearly hugged the Wildebeest, but she was too hot to touch. In we tumbled and cranked the AC and pounded water from our five litre jug. It was only 930am…what a day already! We had made the right choice to tackle Sossusvlei in the early morning – this place is just too hot to do anything past 9am. It’s a scorching no mans land a mere two hours after the sun rises. Which is why we cranked Downtown, our theme song, and cruised back to camp to relax pool side. We beat the crowds and snagged two chairs under the small shade structure. The water was deliciously cold and took away the heat of the day still lingering on my skin.

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Let me just talk about the heat in Namibia for a minute to help you understand, you know, in case I haven’t mentioned it yet.

It’s atrocious. It’s unforgiving. It’s downright debilitating. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, and trust me, I have experienced some serious heat. I’ve been in the dry heat of  Arizona and Drumheller. I’ve been in the humid heat of a hot prairie summer with a humidex of 45C. I’ve been in the blistering tropical sun of Jamaica where it hit 38C each day. I’ve been in the dry, soul sucking heat of the west coast of Costa Rica of 40C where all you could do was crawl for shade and pray for evening – where the entire festival cries out in joy when the only cloud in six days momentarily blots out the sun for 30 seconds.

But this?  This was something altogether different… It was at least 43 degrees. Obviously there is no humidity, it’s dry as long dead bones.  It felt like the complete opposite of humidity. The air was so hot and dry that I swear each time it licked my skin I could feel it sucking the moisture from my dermis and when that was all gone, it surely went deeper and sucked the moisture from my mouth and eyes right down to my very cells. The hot wind blasted you with fiery air so it felt like you were in a car with the heat turned on full blast. It was beyond wretched.

After the pool I went straight for the shade of the large camel thorn tree in our campsite. I was still in my bikini – the thought of putting anything more on was unimaginable. I draped my soaking wet scarf over top of me and sat in my now wet chair in the shade. I would only have a couple of minutes of relief like this. The hot wind blew against the cool wet fabric and created a sort of air conditioning for my body. It was great for my shoulders but my face was on fire still. The heat felt like it was melting my brain, but I had just enough capacity left to think of something ingenious: I created a tent out of my scarf: I tucked my legs under me in the chair, threw the scarf over my head and shoulders and the back of the chair, and moaned in relief as my little air conditioning system cooled me. Momentarily. Seven minutes later the scarf was bone dry. The hot wind was like having a giant blow dryer on the hottest setting blasting down on you constantly. And so I spent the next four hours, every seven minutes, wetting my scarf and crawling beneath my little tent, constantly mumbling, half incoherently, half delusional, ‘Oh god, it’s so hot. What is this hell?’

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Photo credit to Rug for capturing this shot – trying to get it from every angle!

I would dunk my whole head under the tap at our camp site each time I rewet my scarf, but it dried just as fast. It was like some kind of cruel torture. I could hardly breath, the air was so hot and dry it burned my throat and lungs. It was almost – ALMOST as crazy to me that people actually lived here, as it was that people live in my home, Yellowknife, where it hits the very opposite temperatures in winter, the frigid and unimaginable -45C.

When he sun finally began to set around 630pm, then and only then could I stop my ritual soakings. My skin remained charged and fevered with the brutal heat of the day for hours more and I struggled to fall asleep at 10pm as the air was still heavy with the heat, but a couple of hours more and it had cooled considerably.  The strangeness of the desert: blisteringly hot in the days and surprisingly cool overnight.

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We made it to the top of Big Daddy!

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Photo credit: Rug

Day 8: Thursday November 26, 2015

5am came too soon as it will, but it was easy to crawl out of the tent and get moving because this morning I was embarking on my first helicopter ride! I’ve dreamt about riding  in a helicopter my whole life (literally, I’ve had loads of dreams about flying -piloting!- choppers!) and now I had the most amazing opportunity to take my first heli ride over the brilliant red sand dunes in the Namib desert. And the best part? They take the doors off! I swaddled myself in several layers of clothing as the dark morning was cold and the ride would be chilly with the doors off (were those scorching hours of agonizing heat only a mere 12 hours earlier?!). We met our pilot, Günther, a lovely blonde, rosy cheeked fellow with a strong South African accent.  We hopped in the open back of a jeep cruiser and drove out to the helicopter pad just a few minutes away. The cold morning air numbed my cheeks as it brushed past my face and whipped my hair into a knotted tangle. We walked over to the chopper and he led us through all the safety preparations and procedures.

Rug got seated and I hopped in next to him. Our chariot was called Raven II. I don’t know if I want to know what happened to Raven I so I will just pretend it was simply retired after many long years of reliable and exceptional service. But ravens are my spirit animal, and so I took this as a great omen.  We strapped our belts and donned our headsets while Günther warmed up the engine, the propeller spinning, the heavy swoop of the blades as they whirred past, muted slightly by our headsets. After clearing with traffic control, Günther turned back towards us.

“You guys ready?”.

I half shouted “YES!”, bouncing in my seat, unable to contain my excitement in the least.

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He released the clutch and pushed the throttle and the chopper lifted smoothly from the pad into the air. Günther immediately thrust us forward and banked hard to the left, eliciting a delighted squeal of excitement from me. We tore across the desert plain, barely above it and then up, up, up we went quickly gaining altitude as we sped forward. Günther dipped the chopper left and then right, smoothly and quickly with the ease of a maneuver that’s been practiced thousands of times. I was elated! This was so much more incredible than I thought it could be already and we were only in the air for a minute so far! As we climbed, we had spectacular views of the misty looking morning, which turns out wasn’t mist at all but dust, hanging low and heavy and obscuring the air, creating an ethereal vista.The just rising sun shone its rays through the veil of dust, shrouding the maroon mountains, lending a mystic air to them.  The sky was seeping tangerine, mauve and pink ribbons of light stretching across the horizon. A lone hot air balloon sat deceptively still miles away, a black teardrop in the distant sky. We cruised over the Sesriem canyon and headed straight for the red desert and dunes. The small mounds of sand grew larger and larger with each second as we got deeper and deeper into Sossusvlei.

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The deep ripples, scars left by the wind, carved into the soft dunes and our shadow cut across them as the sun appeared above the mountains in the east. We sped towards a rising dune, looking as though we would hit it and skimmed just over its edge only to see the backside of the dune fall away dramatically leaving us gasping and clapping. Günther maneuvered us nimbly over and around the dunes and then out over to a stretch of flat plains that was covered with strange circles. The grass tufts would only grow in large sphere shapes like a fairy circle. He pulled down low and I would have sworn we were going to touch the ground. We flew terribly fast over the ground, mere feet above it for a distance, making my heart race- it was incredible! Soon enough we spotted oryx and ostrich on the open plain and banked to get a closer look. As we approached they craned their necks to the strange thumping whir of the blades and some began to gallop and jump away leaving little clouds of dust kicked up by their hooves. The ostrich merely looked our way and remained perfectly still. I felt like I was on the BBC film crew! I couldn’t believe this was real life! My life is so effing awesome!!!! It was the fastest half hour of my life, I just didn’t want it to end. It was such an unforgettable experience- how can I ever go on another helicopter ride again? How can anything top that?! Not that I wont try, of course!

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The fairy circles of the Namib – growing up to 15 meters wide!

Günther landed us flawlessly and I think my reaction to the flight gave him a little pride and joy in what he does. He sure made one seriously happy Canadian! I was in a daze as we cruised back to camp in the jeep. It all happened so fast and was so overwhelmingly stimulating. I felt almost as though I had just dreamt it all. My whole body was buzzing and humming, my mind racing, reliving it all. We used the high we were running on, the huge energy burst, to pack up camp and have a quick breakfast so we could hit the road early before the sun got too hot. Which would be any minute, since you know, it just rose!

We were on our way to Swakopmiund, about a four hour journey. On the way we made the obligatory stop at Solitaire. Solitaire is a tiny village of about 92, as the sign so proudly boasts! (up from 52 at its humble beginnings!). The sandy stop in the desert is sprinkled with rusting antique cars, some half buried in the sand that has crept up on them with the winds over the years. A gas station, a guest house and a bakery are all that are visible from the road and make up the majority of the town. We heard about their apple strudel and so of course had to try it. The bakery had so many tempting options but we stuck with what rumour said was the best and each got a monstrous piece of strudel and a rooibos tea. It was indeed delicious! Though next time I would request it warmed up and perhaps a scoop of ice cream on top! We filled our bellies and the White Wildebeest and hit the road again leaving Solitaire in our dust.

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One of many old beached (er, deserted) cars in Solitaire

We made great time, even going through the high accident zone of Gaub pass, a frightening stretch of gravel road through a canyon pass that is nothing but dangerously steep, hard curves and blind corners.  We were staying at a B&B in Swakopmund because there aren’t really campgrounds here, it’s a coastal town but it’s quite literally in the desert, the dunes creeping up on the towns backside edges. It was a nice little break after a week of sleeping in the tent to have a big beautiful room, two big beds, and even a claw foot tub – swoon! There was a delicious self serve breakfast included at the Alternative Space, the name of our awesome little guesthouse, and a sign on the door as we entered warned that this space is for friends and hippies only! The entire compound was filled with beautiful art, all of the human body, usually naked, usually erotic in a very tasteful and artistic way. There were surely at least 30 photographs of our host, some nude some half nude, absolutely beautiful, staggered throughout the place. 

We spent the afternoon walking around town checking out some of the shops and getting some supplies. Around 430 we headed back and got on the internet after no access for nearly four days to reconnect and do some work and research for out next leg of the trip. I at last found an opportunity to throw down my mat and get a glorious session of yoga in, and oh how terribly I needed it! I felt brand new after and then drew myself a wonderfully warm bubble bath. I forgot to mention – being on the coast- Swakopmund is far cooler than the rest of the country! It was around 18C on the cloudy days which is what we had while there. Otherwise I definitely wouldn’t have been able to to yoga or have a bath! Feeling refreshed and relaxed, we hit the beds hard and early for a glorious sleep.

xoxo

Britt

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P.S. Stay tuned for part four, coming soon!

2 thoughts on “An African Diary, Part III: Sossuvlei

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