Desert Dunes

Trip Start Feb 24, 2005
1
14
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Trip End Jul 23, 2005


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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Years ago, flipping through one of my National Geographics, I became intrigued by the people and landscapes of Namibia. I remember ochre-covered bodies gleaming in the sun, desert dunes stretching endlessly on. It was this memory that led me, somewhat last-minute, to book a three-week overland tour of Namibia and Botswana, ending in Zimbabwe.

The group tour thing certainly has its benefits and drawbacks. We spend several hours a day, occasionally up to 9 or 10, locked up in a purpose-built truck. The windows are huge and conducive to sight-seeing, and there's a table for card-playing, but you can't escape the fact that you're on a big truck. But the truck allows us to cover distances that would be next to impossible on public transport, and it gets us into the hinterlands. The group is a little big--nineteen--but we all get on well. It's something of a model UN, with thirteen different nationalities represented, so the truck is a cultural experience in itself. I'm the only American, but so far I've only had to put on the boxing gloves a few times. Fourteen of us came in solo, which I think has helped the group gel.

Many of our campsites have been on rivers. We spent our first night tubing on the Olifants River. On our second day, some of us swam from the South African side of the Orange River and spent ten minutes as illegal immigrants in Namibia.

The highlight so far, without a doubt, has been Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia. We woke at 3:45am--accidentally, as it turns out, since we hadn't taken the time change into account. So we were grumbling a bit when we took our seats and lumbered down the road toward Dune 45. The sky was barely pink, and a long line of headlights trailed off behind us. Once there, we kicked off our shoes and started up the edge of the Dune. Despite our early start, we weren't certain of making it to the top before sunrise, so I started off at a run--Bad idea. Think of what it's like to run on the beach, then make it the finest sand you can imagine, then incline it to about 45 degrees. My calves lasted mere seconds. As the sky lightened gradually and the dunes came into sharp relief, a long line of us trudged up the dune.

The sand of the dunes is reddish, pinkish, orangish, depending on the ambient light. So when the sun shed its light further and further across the park, it appeared to be rising from the very earth itself, bursting from between our toes, seeping up from the powder-fine sand that somehow creates entire mountains. The razor-thin edge of the surrounding dunes separated brilliant sunrise from utter darkness. It was as close as I can imagine to being completely immersed in a glorious sunrise.

Coming back down, I leapt through the air, assured of a soft landing. Some people rolled down the dune face. The sunward side heated up quickly and beetles came out to run across the surface. After sunrise, we went on a guided hike with one of those people who, pardon the vulgarity, can tell you which way the wind was blowing when a given mouse pissed into it. Put more eloquently, he could tell an entire story from a few scratches in the sand. We learned about the ecology of the desert and the history of the San people (Bushmen). We visited Deadvlei, where trees that have been dead for six to nine-hundred years still stand guard in a patch of lime, unable to decompose in the arid environment. We were shocked to learn that until 1920, Bushmen were hunted as animals. We were even more shocked to learn that after 1920, one had to secure a permit before shooting a bushman. It seems to be the theme of my trip: Exhilerating experience coupled with devastating knowledge. And what do you do with it all?

Anyway, I closed my eyes on it and launched myself off one of the dunes. An untimely application of sunscreen meant that I was a head-to-toe sandmonster by the time I reached the bottom. Days later I was STILL picking sand out from God-knows-where.

It's been awesome, but the best is yet to come. Our first true wildlife experience will be Etosha National Park, just a couple of days away.
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