Early wake-up call this morning. As I walk into the chill of the desert night toward the pale light of the refectory tent, my sleep-addled brain tries to take stock. This is Day Two of my journey through Namibia. I am at the tiny Kulala Adventurers Camp, deep in the Namib, the legendary desert that gave the country its name. And I have a sand dune to scale by 7:00 am.
A Namib Dawn
It’s taken me years to get here, but I am finally about to see the sun rise over the highest dunes on the planet. The reality of the moment doesn’t fully sink in until we, my four fellow adventure travelers and I, are bumping along a sand trail that only our guide, Jimmy Limbo, can detect across the shadow landscape of the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve. The sky begins to glow with pre-dawn light and shortly thereafter we reach the private Wilderness Safaris entrance into the park. It’s precisely sunrise, the official opening time of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Although “our” gate follows the same schedule as the public Sesriem Gate, it has the huge advantage to be a good 25 kilometers closer to the dune field and not subject to any entrance formality delays. For almost one hour, we have the rare privilege to experience the intense silence and awesome grandeur of the oldest desert in the world in exquisite solitude.
Jimmy drives straight to the Elim Dune, the farthest inland dune, somewhat off the main track that leads from the Sesriem Gate to the heart of Sossusvlei. It is sprinkled with tufts of dry grass that help a bit with the climb. And it offers a unique view of the sun rising over the Naukluft Mountains and the sea of apricot dunes rippling to the horizon.
Beyond the Sunrise
As the sun begins to arch up, we get back on the road more traveled, the 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of asphalt maintained by the park from the Sesriem Gate to a central parking area in the heart of the dune field. There, self-drive tourists must park their car; only serious all-wheel-drive vehicles allowed beyond this point. Other visitors may either hike or use a shuttle to go to further into the dunes. Our “Wilderness Mobile,” an imposing custom designed all-terrain Land Cruiser, gets more than a few covetous glances as we go by.
Jimmy points out Dune 45, thus named for the sensible reason that it stands 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the entrance gate. Located fairly near the road, with an unusual S-shaped edge and a few picturesque trees lining its base, the 170 meter (560 foot) high dune is one of the most photographed in the park. And climbing is allowed, which also gives it supporting cast status in adventure travel anecdote throughout the world. We snap shots of the celebrity from every possible angle, but no taker for a climb among our lot.
Then we come to Big Daddy. At a height of 330 meters (1050 feet), it is the highest dune in the park and one the highest in the world. I do believe one of us does climb some or all of it. I am too busy dragging myself up a much less impressive incline to get to the Deadvlei (Afrikaan for Dead Lake) pan to take notice.
Once a small basin moist enough to allow camel thorn trees to grow, Deadvlei dried up some 900 years ago due to climate change and encroaching dunes. Today, in the relentless mid-morning sun, the vision of skeletal remains of dead trees rising from the cracked white clay floor against a backdrop of orange dunes looks like a colossal surrealist fresco.
Life in the Namib
I’ve come to Namibia for the scenery, not expecting to see much wildlife in such a barren land. Yet the regal Oryx, these desert antelopes with majestic sword-like horns that I had only come across once before in the Kalahari, are everywhere. In spite of the scorching midday heat, we see them repeatedly on our drive back across the Kulala Reserve. We also spot ostriches strutting nonchalantly across the sand, and the occasional springbok. We even get a glance at a silver-back jackal stealthily on the prowl.
After lunch at the camp, I spend the early hours of the afternoon on the shaded porch of my tent, taking in the stillness of the desert. Its endless vistas of rock and sand look like an overexposed photo in the harsh light of the overhead sun. Then, as it begins to dip down and the landscape regains its full power, Jimmy has one more treat in store for today, a sunset drive to the top of a nearby ridge. He muscles the truck expertly up a perilous rocky slope that I would find hard to handle even on foot, to the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view that redefines infinity. And where we sip our sundowner cocktail while dusk swallows up the horizon.
We enjoy a hearty braai, the traditional southern African barbecue, under the stars, accompanied by a chorus of barking geckos. Tomorrow, we head north toward the Atlantic Coast and Walvis Bay.
Good to Know
- A Dune Primer – The Great Dune Field around Sossusvlei is thought to have formed some five million years ago, when sand colored by iron oxide washed from the Orange River in the Kalahari to the sea. The Benguela Current drove the sand north, then northwest winds blew it back inland and began shaping the dunes. The quartz sand that made the Namib dunes shimmers in different colors; the more intense the shade of red, the older the dune. The wind constantly reshapes the dunes, depositing the sand on the windward side. It then slides down on the leeward side (the slip face), which is therefore the steeper side of the dune.
- Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades, recognized for its responsible tourism practices. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arranged my journey around Namibia.
- Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo-traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).