Sections of this article appeared in Senior Traveller Magazine - 'Desert dunes a hot spot for adventure'

‘LES  DUNES’   A journey in Namibia - by Vivien Achia

     To see the sunrise over the dunes at Sossusvlei we stay at the Sesriem campground, where the gates are locked at sunset, and opened at dawn. This morning we must be first to the gates. The drive to the dunes is long and dusty; if we’re not first to leave, we’ll be eating dust and sand from other vehicles all the way to Sossusvlei.

      We gather like conspirators in the dark. It’s hard to be quiet, but we try not to wake the other campers. A small flame heats water for coffee. We whisper to each other. In torchlight we pull on jackets against the cold, and the beams flash across the low mounds of our tents. In silence we file to the shower block. Jacques and Michelle have come from Paris to Namibia to see the dunes; they whisper in French, ‘Les dunes’, repeating it like a spell. We have come together for the ‘Kokerboom Safari’, with Dorothy from Vancouver, George and I from Melbourne, and Neil McLeod, our guide. Neil grew to love Namibia during his years there in the South African army. When Namibia achieved independence in March 1990, Neil took Namibian citizenship and became a tour guide.

     Silently we climb into the van. The engine noise seems shatteringly loud in the soft African morning, but we have secured the coveted position at the gates.

     We wait eagerly to leave. The sky begins to lighten, and we must climb a dune before dawn to see the glorious colours and shadows move across them ahead of the sun. The gates open. We surge forward. A long line of headlights follows in our wake, barely visible through clouds of sand.

    The Namib dunes, the highest in the world, are composed of multicoloured quartz crystals. In shapes described as ‘parabolic’, ‘coppice’, ‘transverse’, ‘barchan’, ‘crescentic’, ‘star’ and ‘linear’, they form a vast sea, shifting constantly, sculpted by the wind. To see them, we have travelled thousands of kilometres, but this morning they are finally within reach. Here the colours and forms of the desert define a country that is 97 percent arid, yet supports a surprising diversity of plants and animals.

     Arriving at our destination we park, and still in darkness, set off on foot. We are alone here, ours the only vehicle. With unerring skill Neil leads us towards one of the lower dunes, seemingly not far away, but distances are deceptive in this fluid landscape of long sweeping curves with no vertical markers.

    Some of these dunes are over 300 metres high but we are naively confident.

   ‘That’s a small one isn’t it? Should we try something higher?’

     Neil smiles and doesn’t answer. We walk and walk. Finally the sand rises under our feet, and we start to climb.

    Climbing in sand is twice as hard as running in sand. Your feet keep sinking, you slide backwards with each step, you don’t get any higher, and the sun is about to rise over the horizon. What looks like a small dune seems impossible to scale. Frantically we drag ourselves up on hands and knees, reaching the crest just in time.

     The magic begins.

     In silent awe we watch a scene straight from creation; first man sees the first light. A vista without human footprints is revealed, in dunes stretching to infinity. The darkness sweeps back revealing peaks and valleys in glorious reds and blacks, shadowed in deepest purple, under a duck-egg blue morning sky. As the sun gathers radiance and strength, the colours cycle through reds, ochres, and yellows. We remember our cameras, and, turning in unsteady circles, try to capture the morning.

     The texture of the sand is pleasing to our feet and legs, fine and silky, red and soft. Now we have time to revel in it, and play like children, sliding and falling. From this immensity of sand a blue spider pops out at our feet, and gamely confronts us.

     We walk over a rise and catch our breath. Ahead the shifting sand has uncovered what looks like the ruins of an ancient city, stones in squares and circles on a flat base. As we come closer we see that this is an illusion, a rocky outcrop, blasted and ground away over millennia by wind and sand.       

     Several hours later, exhausted from climbing in the heat, we wend our way back to the van to return to camp.

     We have driven hard for days to reach ‘Les dunes’, moving fast with the windows open. Jacques and Michelle have chosen to sit in the back seat, the worst spot for wind. A seasoned traveller, Jacques wraps himself like the invisible man to keep the sand from his lungs. Only his eyes can be seen in a white mound of what looks like bandages. Regularly a strangled shout is heard from behind us, the cue to pick up our cameras, ‘Neil, photo, photo!’

     Neil brakes and we slide in the gravel, the heavy trailer jack-knifing. We don’t wear seatbelts and there are some tense moments on the rougher roads. Speaking several local languages as well as Afrikaans, Neil arranges everything en-route with seeming ease, keeping in touch with other guides about current conditions and the movement of game. Before becoming a guide he worked with a geologist, and he stops frequently to point out geological features and show us brilliant rocks and gemstones, and we fill in the names of scores of birds in the bird books we keep handy. It is possible to hire a vehicle and drive yourself around Namibia, but we learn much that we would otherwise have missed, from his intimate knowledge of all aspects of the country he loves; we feel safe, we eat wonderful meals, and his sense of humour makes us happy.

     The van has no cooling. When I say to some locals, ‘Namibia is wonderful, but it’s too hot for me,’ they laugh and reply that it’s too hot for them also. Dizzy with heat, bloated by fluid retention, my face red and dripping, my hair stringy and rough from the hot wind, I give up all attempts to look presentable. I hope my companions will continue to tolerate the sweating apparition in front of them; we travel stripped down to our basic humanity.

     This safari is hard. Our sleeping mats are thin, and with my soft, overfed body I twist and turn on the rocky ground during the night. Michelle and I communicate in simple Italian, and the word, ‘duro,’ (hard), is heard often. Despite all this we are exhilarated.

     This campsite, like most we visit, has a spreading tree for shelter, low circular stone walls defining our area, and is a comfortable distance from other campers. Fortunately for all of us, each camp also has a store with cold beer, some basic necessities and a shower block with water.

     Namibia is plagued by drought, so we shower quickly and guiltily. At one camp a man brings his children, on a cart pulled by mules, to fill plastic containers with precious water. We pass small shacks with no trees, no running water and no electricity, baking under the sun. As in Australia, the talk is of water, the lack of it, and the likelihood of rain.

     Sesriem has a small swimming pool enclosed by an iron fence. Desperate for relief from the heat, we eye it greedily. The water is bright green, but a handful of campers swim with us. Later we’re told that sometimes Kudu drown in the pool if the gate is left open, which explains the colour of the water. We check our skin for rashes and worry about infection, but all is well. 

     Today, as on most other days, we eat a hearty lunch, then spend the afternoon in the shade writing postcards, and talking, despite the fact that Jacques and Michelle don’t speak English. We laugh a lot, mime, and play with Italian phrases.

     Towards sundown we set off for the dunes again. This time the climb is even harder. Knowing what glories await us we struggle upwards, bogged and backsliding, wasting precious time. Canny Neil McCloud has a backpack full of cold beer and cheese, and this is sufficient incentive for us to conquer the last slope.

     Once again we are awed into silence. As the light dims the colours and shadows over the dunes soften into violets and greys, and the whole vista gradually sinks from sight.

     Tonight Neil cooks beef stroganoff in a three-legged cast iron pot, his ‘Soweto microwave,’ over a campfire.  The food is surprisingly good. We take turns to cook and at one camp I make sauce for pasta with spicy German sausages. As usual we drink a six-pack of beer each to replenish our vital fluids, and after the meal finish off with duty-free brandy.

     The following morning we reluctantly prepare to leave. We know we have been privileged to witness something primeval, a daily occurrence in Sossuvlei, but for us a once in a lifetime experience.