To the Extraordinary!
That’s where the best travel experiences can lead, miles away from your comfort zone. And who knows how the unexpectedly wonderful will challenge you? Under the right set of circumstances even a died-in-the-wool non-athlete (wimp!) whose best sport is reading may be compelled to take a physical challenge or two. But even situation-bolstered courage does not erase certain undisputable truths, truths that I found myself face-to-face with, while fading fast climbing Big Daddy, the highest trek-able dune in Sossusvlei. Fading fast that is, until the orex appeared …
Climbing in the desert?
If you plan to explore or climb a mountain in the desert start early! The best time is when the air still holds the last remnants of night chill, and the sun hasn’t yet turned desert into oven.
Those visitors who haven’t camped over night in Namib-Naukluft National Park where the Sossusvlei dunes are located, are allowed through its Sesrein Gate starting at sunrise.
We arrived with our group of nine travelers and two guides, half an hour early, joining a small line of already assembled 4x4s.
Once inside, the car park is about an hour’s drive through flat expanses of loose red sand, broken by wide pans of hard white clay, with undulating dunes on both sides rising higher and higher. I was surprised to see a few animals trying to graze on sparse patches of thin green stuff breaking up the sand and clay. A string of hot air balloons hung in the sky above them. We passed a couple of springbok, an ostrich or two and a couple of oryx. Not a lot of wildlife but certainly more than I’d expected; after awhile even these disappeared.
Next Stop Big Daddy.
We arrived at the appointed place where the Park’s open transport vehicle picked us up for the remaining ride to Big Daddy. Theoretically, you can drive yourself right to the starting point, but ever-shifting sands tend to obliterate the unpaved last part of the road, and frankly if you want to spend your time discovering Sossusvlei instead of digging your way out of it, you’re better off with the transport vehicles. We saw a few people who’d chosen otherwise and they didn’t look especially happy. Finally the vehicle stopped at a lone ancient looking tree. This was the place. We got out. The vehicle disappeared in cloud of dust.
The old tree spread its thick twisted branches over a single picnic table. We (with about 30 other travelers) were alone in the desert. We stood in its stillness, surrounded by an endless sea of sand interrupted on one side by a huge clay pan, and beyond it Big Daddy, his star shaped peak touching red against the sky. Only a few patches of heat dried grass and a short tree, worn by the sun and wind, broke our view. This was the moment of truth and each of us had to face it alone.
To Climb or Not to Climb?
That was the Question!
I’ve spent literally decades creatively excusing myself from situations that included anything requiring athletic ability and/or exposure to direct sun and heat for any reason over long periods of time. Note: For me climbing a mountain (sand or granite or otherwise) is super athletic and anything over a half-hour in the sun constitutes “a long period.” I'm a wimp.
Indisputable Fact #1
The red dunes at Sossusvlei are extraordinary!
Seven of us and both guides answered the dune’s call. We packed about a liter of water for each in a single (way too heavy) backpack and started off.
Indisputable Fact #2
The desert gets hot in the daytime - Very Hot ...
even in July, (the middle of Namibia’s winter.)
The trek from the tree to the start of the clay bed was about a 20-minute walk on flat sand. Around the halfway point Ray turned back. The remaining six of us walked on over the hard dried surface finally reaching Big Daddy’s base.
It’s a strange feeling climbing the ridgeline of a sand dune. My mind kept telling me that we should sink bodily into the loose grains never to be seen again. Or maybe the ridge would give way and we’d sand-surf on our posteriors down to the bottom, but our footsteps never sunk more than mid-calf, enough to make it challenging but not impossible, as though the dune itself wanted us to climb.
Indisputable Truth #3
The effect of the sun’s heat simultaneously radiating down and reflecting up from the sand will, over time, bake your brain right through your husband’s old boonie hat from his military days.
Ok, maybe there is no scientific fact specifically applicable to baked brains and old boonie hats, but somehow I thought that since he’d survived a number of precarious missions wearing this one, so would I. It was an overly optimistic hypothesis.
Indisputable Fact #4:
A sunbaked brain causes fallacious thinking.
Marc, one of our guides and the youngest member of our group, lead the way. Next in line was my husband, Les, the ex-military man, wearing a civilian hat, and carrying the backpack, followed by Gina, the youngest woman, close behind. Brian, our leader and most senior member, followed in the rear with Diane and myself.
We went up.
Les made sure we stayed hydrated (or, since he was carrying almost the entire water supply, maybe he was just trying to lighten his pack.)
Climbing the dunes at Sossusvlei is unforgettable; silent except for the sounds of the wind, the sloosh-slooshing of feet-on-sand and your own breath – when it comes. It is in constant danger of being stolen from exertion and the overwhelming feeling of being part of the massive dune as it rises into the sky.
A thousand feet or so is not necessarily a difficult hike even for the athletically challenged like me. But the sand makes for slow going, and after well over two hours the heat was taking a toll. I started to feel a little sick. So did Diane.
Indisputable fact #5:
On a 3+ hour hike in the desert (especially up hill and approaching mid-day) one liter of water is not enough.
We climbed a bit further and stopped for a break.
Even as Diane and I were starting to fade, Les, Mark and Gina had been enthusiastically discussing our close proximity to Deadvlei. They'd decided to reach the highest elevation on Big Daddy and then continue even further. Their idea was to follow a second ridge line heading down in a different direction to see the famous 800 year-old heat dried camelthorn trees. An inner struggle between my sun-melted common sense and travel-pumped sense of adventure raged. I’d love to see the Deadvlei but the heat’s effects were telling me to go back.
Diane and I said nothing. Brian too was silent; then he pointed, “Look” he said. There, silhouetted against the sky, stood a single oryx, on the very highest point of the dune directly to our right.
I don’t know where that oryx came from - we didn’t see him go up.
I can’t imagine why he scaled a mountain of naked sand, without a single blade of grass or twig to encourage him, but he had. Now he stood absolutely still under straight thin horns, 40 inches or more, scratching the sky. He looked out at something we didn’t see. And then he slowly turned.
The oryx stood absolutely still a moment longer, then, deliberately, moving neither quickly nor slowly; he zigzagged his way down the steep incline of the red dune-mountain.
Brian looked at Diane and me, “Let’s follow him down,” he said.
Les handed us the last of our water and left to catch up with Gina and Marc.
The oryx lead us down a side opposite of the one we’d gone up. I’m not sure the others noticed. I didn’t. We’d been in the sun a long time. We waited just a bit and then followed him.
Getting down off a sand mountain is a bit trickier than going up. Silently we kept pace in the oryx’ tracks. Not once did he look back at us or acknowledge us in any way.
We reached the bottom.
The oryx proceeded with the same constant gait across the solid floor of an ancient dried lake bed, it’s crust baked so hard that his hooves added nothing to its pattern of cracks and tracks
Finally, in the distance, we saw what the oryx had seen from the top of the mountain, with his eyes or intuition or memory: a single tree, an oasis with a few green tufts scattered on the ground around it. He walked ahead of us until he stood, in the only thin strip of shade for miles, beneath the tree's incongruously green leafy branches.
And there he stopped.
The three of us squatted down where we found ourselves, on the open flat, about 30 feet from the desert still life. We watched the oryx, motionless again, exactly as we had first seen him on top of the dune.
Somehow now, the heat didn’t seem so bad and thirst not nearly so urgent.
At last we left him under his tree and went on, trekking across the salt flat, eventually reaching back to our own ancient tree and the friends we’d left behind.