Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
To the uninitiated, Namibia sounds impossibly distant. Where is it anyway? The President of the United States recently called it “Nambia.” And I doubt everyone realized right away that he’d made a gaff.
But actually, as Lonely Planet puts it, Namibia is “Africa for beginners.” A German colony until it was taken over by British South Africa in 1915, and not actually independent from South Africa until 1990, Namibia often feels like a misplaced corner of Germany with its Lutheran churches and streets with names like Bahnhofstrasse and Luderitzstrasse, and especially in its relative orderliness.
This Germanic orderliness, I learned on a trip to Sossusvlei, extends to Namibia’s wilderness areas.
In Windhoek, Namibia’s clean but provincial capital with its low-key government buildings and usually sun-drenched streets, I signed up with a tour operator called Blue Crane to go out there. The fact about Namibian attractions is that campsites and accommodations get booked up well in advance, which limits options for last-minute travelers like myself to signing up to tours.
And it was a long drive to the Namib Desert, from which the country derives its name. It was not until 4pm that we arrived at our campsite in Sesriem. And here I had my first impression of the surprising luxury of Namibian campsites. An ablutions block, functional and clean, stood a stone’s throw away from our assigned campsite, number 32 under a tree, where an electrical outlet allowed not only our guides to operate machinery but us to charge our phones.
A couple hundred meters away was a small swimming pool, although admittedly the endlessly blowing desert sands made it less than pristine. Most surprising of all was the restaurant-bar-shop that stood near the gate selling drinks and souvenirs for very reasonable prices. There was wifi to be had — at a cost, sure, but it was astonishing that any of it was available. I later learned that NWR or Namibian Wildlife Resorts, which operated these sites in all of Namibia’s natural attractions, held to similar standards in the famous Etosha National Park as well.
At 5:30 we drove out to Elim Dune, 5 kilometers away, to watch the sunset. The climb up the sand dune made me wish I focused more on cardio in my workouts. And as much as everyone said they’d stop once they reached the top, with every top there came another just out of reach. We settled on someplace reasonable and watched the fireball descend over sand and dry weeds.
The next morning we got up before dawn and drove out to the famous Dune 45 to watch the sunrise. This time it was clear where we ought to stop: The climb up the dune was a straight line up that flattened out into a ridge beyond which no immediate summit stood higher. And the timing was perfect. The sun rose over the transcendent emptiness that was the desert the color of rust. Each of us stopped, many of us sat down on the ridge, and all of us watched in silence as the sun climbed. To say anything, to make a noise, would have been blasphemy.
After breakfast at the foot of the dune, we drove to Sossusvlei proper. “Big Daddy,” the tallest sand dune in the area, four times taller than Dune 45, stood imposing over to the left from where we stood. I had no intention to climb it, and neither did anyone else of my group. We walked out to the plain of petrified trees instead, the remains of plant life once possible when long ago a river ran through this place.
But this was the desert. And by late morning it was too hot to go anywhere. We returned to the campsite and whiled away the afternoon with beer and wifi until it was cool enough to make a short excursion to Sesriem Canyon. “You can hike all the way out to the main road,” our guide said. “It’ll take a couple of hours. And then I’ll have to drive out there to get you.” We declined the offer.
When night came, the Milky Way revealed itself above us. It so happened that Sunny, one of my fellow travelers and a Chinese student studying in the U.K., was terribly into constellations. And it so happens that I am a big nerd. It also so happened that Andre from Brazil was interested in listening to us talk about astronomy, astrophysics, and the ancient Chinese legend about the stars Vega and Altair being star-crossed lovers peering at each other across the Milky Way (that will be a story for another day).
When morning came again, it was time once more for a long drive, this time to return to Windhoek.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."