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april 7th, 2004 -> sand lover II: namibia

We drove for hours through a monotonous, scorching desert landscape. It was the most desolate place I had ever seen – the Gobi Desert seemed like Palm Springs in comparison. I fell asleep for an hour and woke up to the same view. Paul was pushing the van to its limit; I prayed it would hold up under the stress and heat. When we suddenly found ourself at a paved T-junction, with Swakopmund to the left and Cape Cross to the right, we all rejoiced. We turned towards Cape Cross. Along the way we passed hundreds of beer-bottle cairns. Tire tracks criss-crossed the desert beside the highway. Drunken off-roading is obviously a popular pastime in Namibia.

Cape Cross is famous for its enormous colony of seals. Ornery, barking females and their pups covered a huge stretch of rocky shoreline. Hundreds played in the waves and cavorted on the shore. The whole place reeked – a noisome combination of seal effluvia and the rotting carcasses of pups inadvertently crushed. We stuffed tissue paper up our noses, but within twenty minutes we were all beginning to feel nauseous. We hurried back to the van and drove back to Swakopmund.

Swakopmund looked as if the Germans had just left. New, brightly painted German-esque shops lined old Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse (street). Even the new shopping center sported a ‘German’ look. The whole place looked like the Germany section of Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center. In several stores, I saw photos of what I took to be the local German Club – a group of moustached Teutonic faces wearing feathered caps and lederholsen. Antique stores sold prints of colonial-era promotional posters urging Germans to emigrate to Deutsche Sudwestafrika.

The dunes of the northern Namib Desert limited Swakopmund’s southern expansion. A beautiful highway extended south from the city, a ribbon of asphalt stretched precariously between the dunes and the sea. A rogue wave could easily swamp the low-lying highway, if the dunes didn’t entomb it first. We rented quad bikes (ATVs) and roared into the dunes. Soon we were enveloped in a tricolor landscape of blue sky, red dunes, and brown shadows. We sped up sand slopes and careered down, caught air off sand moguls, and skidded down steep inclines. It was a blast. At the end of our time, we wanted to head right back out, but we had a flight to catch.

I really wanted to see the dunes from the air. Nori and I had found a good tour with a reasonable price. We managed to convince Sjoerd, Marcelo and Gabriela to join us. We soared over the red dunes and along the coast, past ribbon shoals and guano islands. Unfortunately, the pilot executed many sharp turns, and Gabriela couldn’t find the sick bag in time. Our camera bag will always remind us of Brazil. As we descended into Swakopmund, we saw the three tiers of housing: 1) large, gated compounds near the water for the rich, 2) small, simple one-story boxes for middle-incomes, and 3) a South African-style township for the poor, separated from the rest of Swakopmund by a wide swath of desert.

I didn’t bring enough water. It was the hottest part of the day. We had already struggled up one dune to catch the sunrise over the Namib Desert. But this was Crazy Dune, a red sand mountain that towered over Dead Vlei – a surreal pan of cracked, white earth punctured by twisted black snags. I was climbing with Sjoerd and Jeff, the two gung-ho Nederlanders. We started off taking 100 steps followed by a brief rest. As the pitch increased, we dropped to 50 steps between rests. The final ascent took 15 sets of 20 painful steps. Dehydrated, exhausted, but elated, we reached the top and beheld a panorama of gigantic orange-red dunes. To the south, a craggy grey mountain lay half-buried in red sand.

There was little time to enjoy the view – we were late already – so we bounded down the incredibly steep face of the dune towards Dead Vlei. With each step, the compressed sand made a sound like a tuba blast. When we reached the bottom – just five minutes later – we shook the sand out of our shoes and walked towards the eerie black trees at the far side of the of the pan. It was one of the most-photographed landscapes in Namibia, but its otherworldliness had a powerful effect on us all.