After what can only be described as one of the most memorable breakfasts of our lives, we were ready to head over to Sesriem and the dunes at Sosussvlei. A quick ride back to Hobas was needed to close out our account and stock up on some drinks before hitting the road. The lady at Hobas, Anna, was kind enough to book our stay at Sesriem Rest Camp, which is the camp on the inside of the park, and as such we had to reach by 1800hrs. We tracked back towards the main road close to Keetmanshoop, then turned west towards Goageb where the plan was to fill fuel and drive north. Coming off the gravel road, the terrain quickly became mountainous with the tar road snaking around the curves of the hills and valleys. As we entered the town of Goageb, it became more and more obvious that this town was no longer inhabited, and almost certainly had no fuel. After a quick look at the fuel gauge, some primary-school calculations and just the right amount of finger-crossing later, we were somewhat confident that we would make it to the next town and kept on going.
The next town over was the village of Bethanie, a quaint little town straight out of a history book. The town straddled the main road we were driving on, there was a grocery store/petrol station/cafe combination shopping mall that worked out just right for our needs. The pump was…outdated. It took about 45 minutes to fill up the double-tank of our parched car. This put a slight dent in our drive time calculation, but there wasn’t much we could do, fuel availability is a bit of a concern here since there are only small villages, scarcely scattered around a vast uninhabited area. Once we left Bethanie behind, the terrain changed again to plains with mountains standing guard on the horizon. Occasionally a farmhouse would peek out with their water-pump windmills and fences that bordered the road. As we got closer to Helmeringhausen there was an uptick in the number of these curious boulder-heap mounds. We’re still unsure as to what these are or how they come about, but they resembled piles of rocks – like one would usually see in a construction zone that recently finished digging the foundation. It seemed like the canyon we had visited in the morning had been excavated, leaving behind rubble piles, but we were a little too far away for that to be the case…and this particular type of mountain continued to follow us down the road for some time.
After Helmeringhausen, we continued northwards on the dirt roads, trying to make up for the lost time at the hand-pump fuel station. We finally entered the Namibrand Nature Reserve, just as the sun pulled out a palette to start painting the sky for his imminent exit. Almost immediately we came upon several oryxes (oryxese, oryxi, oryxess or just oryx – we’re not sure what the plural is and none of the options sounded quite right. However, in Arfikaans they are called Gemsbok, which seems to have a much easier plural). We were once again in the same conundrum regarding night-driving, with the additional problem of having to reach camp by 1800hrs before the gate closed, and didn’t have enough time to appreciate the oryx. We barreled down the dirt road towards Sesriem, finally reaching the gate a quarter-past-the-deadline. The guard had a few choice words for us, but then checked the reservation and graciously allowed us in since we “were lucky our name was on the list”. We found our campsite, a quite little place with a felled tree, and setup camp. It had been a long day so a quiet meal later we were in bed.
It was 0500hrs and we were up, the gate opened at 0530hrs giving the people inside the camp a full hour’s headstart as compared to those plebs on the outside. Due to what seems like a loop-hole, and how national park timings work in Namibia, staying at Sesriem Camp is the only way to catch sunrise and sunset at the dunes. I’m guessing this “competitive” advantage has something to do with the premium prices they charge for the privilege. There were a surprising number of vehicles ready to hit the road at that hour, and we got in line behind them. Dune 45 is the farthest dune one can reach before sunrise, so that is where we were headed. Most of the drive happened in the dark, but as we got closer to the dune the sky began lightening a few shades and we saw the contrast in scenery immediately. The rocky mountains of just a few kilometers east were completely replaced by hills of sand.
We got to the base of Dune 45 and parked the car. We started climbing up the centerline of the dune, apparently the easiest part of the dune to climb up, however we immediately realized that the level of fitness necessary to actually achieve the summit, was not something we possessed (Shweta came halfway and nestled into the sand to watch the sunrise, admitting defeat but happy to have a good view). The climb was difficult to say the least, every step up was simultaneously at least a half step back down, and the soft sand made a stable foothold impossible. This paired with cold, dry, and strong winds did not help at all. We learnt quickly that stepping in an already-established footprint made theclimb, though ever so slightly, easier. As we continued the, seemingly Sisyphean ascent, we noticed a small area, around two-thirds of the way up, which was flat and made for a nice nook in the side of the dune. We decided to sit and watch the sunrise and rest our over-exerted feet. The lightening sky had dramatic effects on the colors of the dunes, turning the sunlit sides from dark brown to orange while leaving the shadows intact. The sun rose over the rocky mountains on the far side of the plain we had driven over to get to the dune. There were a few wispy clouds in the sky in the cool early morning that added some drama to the clear sky.
As the sun inched higher, Shweta and I decided to slide down the side of the dune – it looked like a lot of fun and seemed to require a lot less effort. The first part of that assumption turned out to be true, it was an absolute blast, but the second part not so much since we didn’t actually have boards for sand-boarding. As we slid down the side of the dune, we heard these ominous low rumblings which seemingly came from underneath the dune itself. This was quite baffling, as it almost made it seem as though the dune was hollow with some heavy machinery being operated within its core. We stopped to try to feel the vibrations, they lasted a few seconds and went away. Confused, we continued sliding down to find that the vibrations returned and there was a strong correlation between our sliding and the dune’s humming. This phenomenon is known as singing sands, and we only found out about it later when we were trying to figure out what it was that was causing the reverberations. Back at the base of the dune, we had to take some time to empty our shoes, and socks, and pockets, and hoodies, and ears, of sand. After losing about 2 kgs each, we walked towards the car through a field strewn with blue stones with intricate patterns carved in them. The patterns looked like those newspaper puzzles where you have to find the way from one end to another through a maze. There were a few lonesome trees scattered around, the ones capable of finding water in the arid earth. The next stop was a couple of kilometers further west at Sossusvlei.
We got in the car, tried to minimize how much sand we were smuggling between dunes, and continued our drive through the desert. The area we drove through was composed entirely of sinusoidal two-toned dune crests. The sands painted light oranges and shadowy browns inside the clean lines created by the creases, and the sky touched the peaks with a smooth and unbroken brush-strokes of blue and white. Occasionally the crests would gently slope downwards and touch the ground, while in other places they would branch off and create forks in the sand. We admired this view as we reached the rest area, a few kilometers away from Sossusvlei. We took a short break to relieve ourselves and some tire-pressure, as the next five or so kilometers were going to be driven in soft sand.
With 4WD engaged, we set off from the rest area. Almost immediately, the mix of hard sand and asphalt was replaced by loose beige sand with long, narrow, gullies that had been ploughed in by tires of all the vehicles that had passed. A zen garden created by high-revving 4×4 rakes. There was a good bit of sideways movement here, the treads struggled to grasp sand and the steering wheel decided that this was a good moment to become sentient. We slid our way through the trails in between dunes and made it to a small parking area.
There were quite a few vehicles parked already, but there weren’t too many people visible. We saw a group high up on a ridge heading towards what is known as the Big Daddy Dune, and a few others were walking towards us. The sign said Deadvlei, but there wasn’t any discernible path so we asked the group which way to Deadvlei. They pointed in a general direction – there was no way to know since all we saw was sand – and we started our trudge. As we walked, we started seeing a lot of footsteps that had been left behind, but still not enough people to account for them. The walk towards Deadvlei was mostly through sand punctuated by clay-pans. The winds had shaped the rocks into miniature cliffs with layers crumbling away, and the ground had intricate designs. We tried to stick to the pans as much as possible since the solid ground made for easier walking, however, eventually we did have to climb a smallish mound of the orange powdery sand. The view from the top of this mound helped us forget the pain in our feet instantly – spread out below us was Deadvlei.
Deadvlei is a clay-pan surrounded by towering dunes. The area used to have water and vegetation, but drought and dune-encroachment cut off the water supply. The trees died off due to a lack of water, but they still stand tall, as though frozen in time. The clay-pan shines white amid the towering orange and red dunes, the trees are black and grey while the bright blue sky offers a perfect counterbalance. The visual contrasts of these vivid colors are simply stunning, but so are the disparate textures. The woody splintering trunks, the cobble-stoned clay, the smooth sky and the pillowy sands. This truly is an astonishing place, with so little to look at but so much to see.
Here is also where we found all those missing people, but as the sun crept up, the people trickled away. Shweta and I were completely enamored by this place, we ended up spending a good two hours here, and though that doesn’t sound like much, with the blazing sun, we were getting quite parched. As we started getting low on water, we began our slow walk back. There was another little pan off to the side that we saw, and on our little detour we did catch glimpses of a sand-lizard. What that little guy survives on, we don’t know, but the only other sign of life here (other than the ubiquitous Homo Sapiens) was butterflies, and so many of them!
That evening we went to Elim Dune for the sunset. This dune is the closest to the camp and is one of the older dunes. The sand is redder and there is a lot more vegetation growing in the area. We walked about half-way up the dune and settled down to watch the sun put on a show. It started off by turning the mountains in the east to a bright yellow-orange, and finished up by turning the clouds pink. In between those two ends it had shadows dancing on the plains below. A quick drive back and we had our campfire going with some steak and potatoes on the heat. The next day’s plan were the Dunes of Sossusvlei and onwards to the coast.
We were back on the same road at the same time, but drove right past Dune 45, past the rest area, through the sand and all the way over to the parking lot for Sossusvlei. We were fresh, and in much better condition than yesterday, and so we started climbing up the dune. We plodded our way up the dune, stopping occasionally to take in the view of dunes intermingling into continuous ripples of sand with hillocks and gullies in interlaced crescents. The wind created wavy ripples in the sand, erased old footprints and re-honed the edge of the crest. We sat on the top for a little while, and one of the striking things we realized was how much of a temperature difference there is between the sand on the sunny side and that in the shadow. This sand is much softer than that found at a beach, and along the edge of the dune, if you look closely, you can see the wind blowing the sand away to its next destination. At the top of the dune was an intersection of three ridges, one that we climbed up on, another one going further up to the Big Mama Dune, and the third one falling off towards the clay pan below. After spending some time on the Dune, we decided to walk down the ridge towards the pan. At the bottom, we once again completed the remove-sand-from-shoe ritual and walked across the pan towards the parking area.
We had a long drive ahead of us, going north west towards the coast to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. People had started trickling back into the emptiness here, and soon the footprints would return, at least a few of them will be ours, for a moment.