The lodge itself was a pleasant surprise - an off-grid eco resort made up of dozens of individual huts connected by an elevated wooden pathway, in what made me think of those famous resorts in the Maldives, just without water.
We arrived with only a couple of hours of daylight to spare, just enough time to take a short sunset hike to the rim of the canyon a few yards beyond the lodge, indulge in some fine South African vino with dinner, and settle in for some trippy stargazing.
Here - in this remote corner of a remote country, the night sky was the kind of apparition you can't accept as real even as you're watching it with your own two eyes. We sat on our porch for hours, listening to the animals taking turns at a nearby water hole, and just staring... staring with our heads thrown back.
The next day we had at leisure, so, as the cold night melted into a hot, dusty day, we - assuming our most convincing rugged outdoorsmen personas - set our to explore the park, its varied landscapes of canyons, mountains, and giant sand dunes. It is a vast and lonely place, the distances and scales of things create disorienting optical illusions out of the landscape, playing tricks on weary eyes.
|The circles covering the side of the dune are called "fairy circles" and they don't have an official explanation. No seriously - I actually looked it up. There are hypotheses about what causes them, but no official accepted theory.|
|It takes a lot longer than expected to reach anything. You could say, "let's go walk up to that tree over there, and half an hour later it's still a mile away. Everything just messes with your sense of scale.|
|Close up view of a fairy circle. They too are larger than they look: those tracks through the middle are ours.|
In the late afternoon we explored Sesriem Canyon, a tall and narrow gorge that served as a river bed for millions of years. Though no river runs through it anymore, it holds rain water year-round in its nooks and crevices. It's a magnificently sculpted place. In some parts you have to crawl using every limb, through narrow and undulating holes in the stone...
Then all at once it opens up wide and even. It is a truly wild and beautiful spot.
After a day exploring on our own, it was time to join a tour to Namib Naukluft's most famous attraction: Soussusvlei. After Kolmanskop, Soussousvlei - or, more specifically Deadvlei - was the next big bucket list item on my itinerary. I'm going to stop throwing so many foreign unpronounceable words out in a row, I promise.
This tour is only available to people staying in the park proper, because it begins with a 4am wake up call. Picture this: there is an anonymous pounding on your cabin door as you awake in pitch darkness, long after the generators are turned off for the night, and long before the sun is due to make an appearance on the horizon. You hear the other tour goers waking up in the cabins around you and lights flicking on as people begin to get ready. As it turns out, your particular cabin's lights took a sick day. You have 20 minutes until rendez-vous at reception, and it is DARK up in this joint. Stevie Wonder in a cave dark. Zero lumens dark. Good luck finding a flashlight dark. As you claw around helplessly for a cell phone, a flashlight, please-god-any-kind-of-light-source in an unfamiliar room, you think to yourself that this adventure is off to a fun start! Also our toilet didn't work, but!... as we sped towards the main building, sleepy, grumpy, and late, a huge white owl landed on the railing of the walkway we were running on, just a few steps ahead of me. Completely silent and easily a foot tall, it appraised us coolly with its giant yellow orbs as we stood frozen in our tracks, before flying off. These are the kinds of moments in which Namibia took my breath away.
But back to the trip. The place we were heading to is called Soussusvlei. Soussusvlei is a sea of sand - a stormy red sea with waves frozen hundreds of feet high. The highest sand dunes in the world, the foothills of the Namib desert - the oldest desert in the world.
The bus ride took about half an hour, and it was still pitch-dark when we parked. By the time we approached the dunes on foot, the faintest trace of purple had spread in the east, and as we started our trek uphill along the long sharp spine of the dune, a washed out gray light began to spread. It was cold and silent, and the air was still...
There are moments that happen on my travels - and only on my travels - when a span of several minutes is scored into my brain, transferred from impression to long term memory bank as if by a synesthesia-powered screen print. The minutes in Soussusvlei just before the sun rose - and the few minutes after - is one such event, an experience I will remember forever in rich detail.
Once the sun appeared, the flat gray light dissolved into a tapestry of warm hues. The sand under our feet - fine as talcum powder - sparkled in shades of orange, gold, and red, while the dunes in the distance lit up in purple, lilac and magenta hues.
It unfolded before our eyes - every moment different, every one more beautiful than the last. I remember not being able to speak, not wanting to, really, but feeling instead an immense sense of wonder and gratitude for this moment, and being able to participate in it.
It was hard to tear myself away from the sunrise, but eventually I made my way down the side of the sand mountain to the valley below, the dead valley, or Deadvlei. Eons ago a river flowed through these parts, and watered a valley full of of Acacia trees. When the desert moved in and the river dried up, the trees died. Thousands of years later their gnarled and twisted forms still stand, surrounded by tall red sentinels. And when the light from the morning sun falls just so...
|with some humans for scale|
|The shadow line moving like a razor blade across that packed white floor.|
And, as if the whole experience wasn't already amazing enough, our guides treated us to an amazing breakfast at the foot of the dunes. It was one of those days I wish I could re-live a time or two.
After that, it was time to bid adieu to this marvel of nature's engineering, and get back on the road, for more adventure lay ahead. Next stop - Bullsport.