“When one of us says, “Look, there’s nothing out there,” what we are really saying is, “I cannot see.” ~ Terry Tempest Williams. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert.
“What is there to do around here?”
Mari, at Tsauchab, told me that she gets that question a lot. This particular time I believe she was talking to a woman from South Africa. She relayed the story to me.
“I told her, ‘go to Sossusvlei.’ Well. She came back that evening so frustrated – ‘there’s nothing but sand out there! All I did was get sand in my shoes!’” Mari chuckled at the memory. “Johan overheard and came in at that point. ‘I think,’ he told her, ‘that perhaps you should go home.’”
I suppose one could look at Sossusvlei as nothing but sand. In my eyes, that’s the appeal. We drove around for a few hours last time we were here and I fell in love with it. Many people recommend the morning light for photographs, but we were there in the golden hour before dusk and I couldn’t have been happier. It was extraordinary – miles, and miles, and miles of sweeping sand, the cut and color as precise as if they had been sculpted by an artist. It was love at first sight.
I hadn’t expected to go back this time, but our Tsauchab camp was only about 100km away, an easy drive. We were there in the middle of the day this time and, even with the glaring sun, it was magical. We had the place pretty much to ourselves. Stopping first at “Breakfast Dune” – so named because we ate breakfast at its foot in 2015 – I felt, finally, like I was letting go and relaxing. Something about this landscape in particular is profoundly soothing to me. I think it has something to do with the fact that it looks fixed but isn’t, the fact that it is always changing and remaking itself, the fact that any scars that are out there are wiped away by the wind. It reminds me of the ocean and, in some ways, it is indeed the inverse of the ocean – great waves of sand. The way the light plays on the dunes is instantly calming for me, and the fact that it is always changing ever so slightly keeps my restless mind focused.
The Namib Desert is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, desert in the world. It is a mix of hard pans and sweeping sand dunes in all directions. Good old Wikpedia says that it means “dead end marsh,” from the Nama word sossus (no return) and the Afrikaans word vlei (marsh). For someone drawn to deserts, it is perfection.
The feeling of being back was one of recognition rather than remembrance. I couldn’t have described to you where Breakfast Dune is, or how to get there, but as soon as I was back I knew it. “Ah, there you are.”
I had a minute or so all by myself in profound silence at the legendary Dune 45. I hobbled over to it in the heat and the wind while Steve waited in the truck. I figured, rationally, I think, that if I tweaked my ankle in such a sacred place it would be worth the trouble. I stood at the bottom of it, watched the sand whip off the peak, and bent down to run my hands through the hot sand at its base. They came up covered with fine grains. From the distance the dune looks red, but the specks on my hands were salmon, pink, peach, white, and black. It was a beautiful little mosaic of sand.
I found my favorite dune and photographed it again – the same shot that I took two years ago. We drove through the deep sand to Sossusvlei pan and had a quick supper in the shade of a tree. Steve went on to climb the dune ahead of us while I sat and wrote and painted a bit. He came back with shoes full of sand and reports of a sea of dunes as far as the eye could see. We made immediate vows to come back as soon as possible when I’m able to climb.
On the way back – too early but ruled by the gatekeepers back at the entrance – we ran into a couple who were stuck in the deep sand. I mean stuck, stuck. Steve asked if they needed help, took one look at the back wheels up to the axle in sand, and said, “I’ll winch you out.”
The couple – a man from the UK and a woman from Russia who connected on Couchsurfing and were sharing a car through Namibia – stood aside while Steve got to play with the winch. He was thrilled. I mean thrilled, thrilled. The guys at Hi-Range Safari City asked him to review the winch as part of the loan of the truck and it was the one piece of equipment he figured we wouldn’t have any need for. He was wrong. I’m fairly certain that he was the happiest I’ve seen him on this trip. I told the woman from Russia that Steve would probably divorce me and marry the truck if he could. She thought I was joking. Little does she know.
Our friend Tobin has always said that Steve is the closet thing to a polymath he’s ever met. He would have loved seeing Steve teach the guy how to lower his air pressure to the proper amount, winch a car out of the sand, and then turn to the woman and tell her that he was pleased to meet her – in Russian.
It was a great, great day – one of the best we had on this trip. The light was just about perfect as we left. These photos, taken by both of us, are only a small fraction of the damage I could have done if we had been able to stay. This place is holy to me.