The fine red sand had begun to swirl in the still-simmering late afternoon air and a black backed jackal had padded over to our clearing to check out the new arrivals. Our lithe, eloquent Namibian guide Tinashe rounded us up near the circle of sturdy South African tents we had just raised around a gnarled, wind-blasted tree.
“There’s just enough time before sunset for a warm-up climb on a dune about four kilometers from here,” he announced from under his field hat. “So let’s load up.”
I glanced around our group, assembled nine hours earlier in cool morning air 350 kilometers or about 215 miles north in the capital Windhoek. A sandy-haired Czech YouTube star slung a hulking Canon over his shoulder, while a soft-spoken Tokyo commuter-train driver idled with two restless Japanese 20-somethings. Nearby a Brazilian IT expert waited along with a mid-30s Korean woman who taught English. Five young Germans, two guys and three women, most of them students, rounded out the group.
A global mix and for good reason – intrepid travelers found border gates slamming shut as coronavirus raced around the world in March. Namibia was still open, a refuge for adventure, though wary too: each of us had our temperatures checked and symptoms queried as we arrived at the international airport.
Within 30 minutes we were pushing our way up a sand pile the color of rust punctuated by spindly plants hanging on for dear life in this thirsty landscape. A vast basin fringed by mountains opened behind us as the low-angle sun bathed the panorama rose and orange.
After 15 minutes of slogging I was struggling, almost gasping for breath. The angle of ascent and looseness of the sand made the ankle-deep climb the ultimate aerobic workout.
“Are you OK?” Tinashe wondered as he sidled up to me. I paused, nodded, and hauled myself forward, upward toward my companions. And thinking: tomorrow you’re expecting me to climb one of the tallest dunes on the planet?
“So that was the warm-up,” I muttered while climbing aboard our Wild Dog Safaris vehicle after descending, drawing laughs from the 20-somethings. Even they were taken aback by the test climb. This terrain could jolt you.
About twice the size of California, yet with only 2.5 million people, Namibia is gloriously empty, mountainous and distant, fronting a 1,000-mile stretch of the fierce South Atlantic Ocean that includes the treacherous ship graveyard known as the Skeleton Coast.
The country is celebrating 30 years of independence this month, liberated in 1990 as the Cold War ended and apartheid collapsed in neighboring South Africa, which had held sway over “South West Africa” for 75 years.
Before that Germany had run a quixotic and brutal colony from the 1880s until the First World War. Kaiser Wilhelm’s army fought or massacred the indigenous Herero and Nama peoples for a decade before Germany scooped up diamonds and copper. In memory of the struggle, the gaunt, defiant face of Nama resistance leader Hendrik Witbooi appears on the Namibian 50-dollar note.
Yet today it’s the charming side of Germany on offer in the tidiness of Windhoek, with street signs like Beethovenstrasse, in colonial architecture straight from a Bavarian village, and beer brewed to centuries-old German standards.
By the time we returned to camp for dinner, night had fallen, so I strolled a short distance to check out the vivid stars for which Namibia is renowned. To the south is the Namib Rand area, Africa’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, where the outer arms of our galaxy are said to glow. Yet over our camp, disappointment: a full moon had arisen, washing out the Milky Way.
By 5:15 the next morning all of us were awake, stretching and gearing up for the day. My cheerful tent mate Alberto from Sao Paulo dusted red sand from his sleeping bag. Our first destination was 45 kilometers from the gate of Namib-Naukluft Park – hence, Dune 45. Moments before the gate opened at 6, Tinashe revved our boxy desert assault vehicle into a line of cars and buses. In 10 minutes he roared into the lead as thin light crept across the Namib Desert.
Sculpted red dunes began to appear on both sides of a broad gravel avenue, actually a dry riverbed leading to the great sand sea of Sossusvlei, a United Nations World Heritage Site. The geometry reminded me of early pyramids I had visited out in the Egyptian desert south of Cairo. Perhaps the pharaoh had admired Sahara dunes and told his stone masons: make me one of those.
Two dozen early risers already were trekking up the spine of Dune 45 when we pulled up. At 80 meters in height, the dune was short enough for us to reach the top before the sun burst over distant mountains to the east. With the energy of a new day, and slightly firmer sand than the wicked test dune, I ascended without a struggle. Alberto, Martin the YouTuber, Stephie from southern Germany, Kum Young Lee with her mellifluous English, and the others already had bounded up.
A pack of Russians jostled past to claim their position on the summit ridge. A hush spread over the dune. As the rays flared out, the sand pyramids on all sides turned crimson and purple. The full moon rode overhead.
Afterward we slalomed straight down the slope to the desert floor, where a grinning Tinashe and breakfast awaited us. “Are you dune alright?” Tinashe punned. As we filled plates and coffee mugs, late-arrivers ascended the red-orange wedge.
Seen from a satellite, the Namib Sand Sea is a vast, scalloped terrain leading to the Atlantic about 50 miles west. Iron-rich quartz erodes from mountains far to the east in present-day South Africa and flows down the Orange River out to sea. Eventually the current brings the red-orange sand to the ocean surface and blows it inland. This sand conveyor belt has run for millions of years – the dune field is older than our species.
As we ate, a graceful oryx appeared near the base of 45, its slim horns piercing the air like antennas. A plant eater adapted for these harsh conditions, the tough oryx is Nambia’s national symbol. The Namib runs up the entire coast, and as I had learned a few days earlier outside oceanfront Swakopmund, the desert is full of secret life.
Sidewinding adders lurk in small domes of sand covered by plants. Buried spiders cast out thin lures like fishing lines to snare unsuspecting insects. And colorful creatures burrow deep, sometimes “swimming” through the dunes to escape surface temperatures up to 50C or over 120F. Our guide leaped out of her vehicle after spotting what appeared to be scratches in the desert surface, and began digging furiously. From a tiny tunnel she pulled a nocturnal palmato gecko with translucent skin, shielding him from the sun.
With almost no rain, the plants and creatures here sip the ocean fog that rolls over the desert in the morning, an ecosystem unique on Earth. “The large number of endemic plants and animals are globally important examples of evolution and the resilience of life in extreme environments,” according to the UN.
After washing our breakfast plates and packing up, onward we rolled deeper into Sossusvlei, finally switching to a rugged, open-air vehicle to plow through miles of deep, soft sand to the base of Big Daddy.
While not quite the Everest of the desert (Dune 7 near the ocean is 18 percent taller), Big Daddy is Himalayan in stature, rising to the height of a 100-floor skyscraper – 325 meters, or almost 1,100 feet. Four times higher than Dune 45 and a hulking mass of sand too, wrapping around a bleached white clay pan known as Deadvlei. In the vlei, dead trees from a vanished marsh stand starkly against the orange backdrop, an image beloved by travel magazines.
I eyed one of our planet’s highest dunes anxiously, thinking I might not make it that far up. Drawing closer to the base, four segments came into view, the first a stern test to reach a more gentle, rising ridge, then two long, steep pitches to the summit. I wasn’t sure I could even see the summit, only ant figures crawling toward the sky.
Setting a boot into the slope, I followed Martin, Alberto, Stephie and the rest. The sand seemed even looser and deeper than our “warm-up” dune, and the slope stunned me. The way up seemed to rise 45 degrees, though it was really about 33, a dune’s “angle of repose.” My boots grew heavy with sand. Sweat wreathed my face, which glowed as red as the terrain. Only 20 minutes into the climb, I felt like I was done.
Gulping down water and pausing to regain my bearings, I eyed the less severe slope for the next 200 or 300 meters and set off. Drained at the end of that segment, I plopped into the sand, peering for several minutes at the white clay hundreds of feet below. Weary yet trying to recharge.
Rising, I encountered a chubby guy even more spent than me. “I won’t make it to the top today,” he confessed aloud to himself. “I haven’t been in the gym for two months.”
I looked over at the easy exit route, down into Deadvlei, and tilted my gaze toward the stretches rising toward the summit. Well, today I am going to make it, I told myself.
Steadily I gained altitude. A breeze refreshed me along the high ridge. Soon I saw a clump of faraway figures and pressed on. Cresting the summit of Big Daddy, my companions hooted and pumped their fists. “Sometimes the tortoise really does finish,” I observed with a laugh. Grins seized my Japanese friends. “Great job!” one shouted in English.
We sat in a row on the summit, taking in the stupendous waves of reddish sand rolling toward the horizon. Whatever threats the world beyond faced, here the ephemeral and the eternal seemed in happy tension.
There was one more thrill left on our agenda. The young Japanese free spirits went first, trailed by the older train driver. They raced down the 100-story slope, giggling like children, looping around each other and disappearing into dots far below. The rest of the world flew down, Europe, Asia and South America. Soon I followed, careening down the mother of all sand piles, tickled and trying to avoid tumbling face forward in the sand.
After crossing the clay pan, we eventually caught up with Tinashe, regaling him with our exploits. “Soo-pah!” he responded.
That night the full moon rose late. The Milky Way shimmered above our camp like a carpet of jewels.
Days later, arriving at Johannesburg airport to change planes, I spotted news from Namibia. The health minister that day had announced the first cases of coronavirus in the country – a Spanish couple who had flown in during the week. They went into immediate quarantine.
The world sucked us back in. From my boots, red sand tumbled out.