Visiting Sossusvlei: a Conservation Trip through the Namib Desert
Published by The Atlantic on October 4, 2011. To read the original article, click here. For the first time in three weeks I am alone, driving from Windhoek toward the Namib Desert beneath a ubiquitous blue sky, its presence above the savannah creating the illusion of a flat, wide Earth. Traffic quiets as the landscape shifts, from dramatic rock piles that converge incongruously to the Naukluft Mountains, a sort of highway toward the dunes.
This journey marks my first visit to the palatial sand dunes of Sossusvlei. When I arrive, the sun has just begun to dip below the horizon, so I drop my bags at my cabin and race toward an apparent mirage of red and orange peaks, aglow in the late afternoon light.
Too distant to touch but definitely not a trick of the eye, the panorama begins to immediately restore me. No people anywhere. No music or television or honking car horns. Just the Namib Desert, said to be the oldest on Earth, having maintained at least semi-arid conditions for anywhere between 55 and 80 million years. Namib means "vast place," a designation that aptly describes Namibia, the 34th largest country in the world and second least-densely populated.
The perception of raw aridity is belied by a surprising amount of life: insects and lizards, the colorful opportunists. A lone acacia tree provides solace to sociable weavers, small birds who have built a number of large, interconnecting nests within its branches. I sit upon a flattened stone and admire the array of colors created by the receding sun. Aim, click, sigh. My camera won't capture them. Is this a gift or a curse? There's something to be said for the mental image no one else can see.
More snapshots are gathered the following day, when I start early at Dune 45, the most photographed in the world. I kick off my shoes and run toward the base, eager to beat other tourists who have begun to arrive by the busload. Climbing appears easy, but soft, ever-shifting sand makes for an awkward ascent: I'm forced to pause frequently, swirling my bare feet in the sand as it spirals around me, constantly restructuring the ground beneath.
I see fog suspended at dune peaks, button beetles, and birds. From Dune 45 I proceed to Big Daddy, the highest dune in the world, and then it's on to the salt and clay pan of Sossusvlei. I end at Deadvlei. It's here that white and orange are joined by sinister tones provided by the dead acacia trees, blackened by the scorching sun.
The sun eventually fades once more, awakening life in the desert. Hungry jackals approach the Desert Camp before slinking into the thick of night where they skirt fellow scavengers and cry for one another. Finally, morning dawns, bringing with it a chorus of birds. So many birds, whose calls seem to scream, "This is Africa!"