Out of Africa
Kirstin Innes goes desert trekking in Namibia, and gets the feeling that she isn’t in Kansas any more.
(Picture: © Anne Pinniger)
‘Tropic of Capricorn’. It’s just there, written clearly on a road sign in the middle of nowhere. Dirty yellow sand in the air, the track ahead glittering with fool’s gold as though it had been chucked away. The landscape had changed hugely in the four hours since the truck picked us up from a functional little backpackers’ hostel in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. We’d driven through scrubby, bushy farmland punctuated by the occasional baboon or family in a donkey cart; red rocky mountains with huge swathes of quartz cutting into the cliffside, craning our necks at distant shapes we were assured were mountain zebras. Now there’s this dry yellow dust, blue hills on the horizon - if there are trees, they’re bending under the strain of what look like the corpses of huge Muppets: the immense township nests of the social weaver bird. Another three hours before we reach Sossusvlei, a salt pan in the Namib Desert, our eventual destination, and we’re standing exactly on the Tropic of Capricorn. I’ve never felt quite so far from home.
We’re packed into a customised truck which is all window, holds twelve of us very neatly, and is stuffed with secret compartments for food, tents and tables. It’s an organised tour, something I’ve always been suspicious of in the past, but this doesn’t feel like a tour party as such - it’s a well-known stop on the African backpacker network, nine of our group of 12 are under 30 and a laid-back, easy rapport builds quickly. As the desert slowly takes over the road and everything gets sandier, it’s a surreal shock to pull up at the aptly-named Solitaire (a petrol station-cum-German bakery-cum-desert outpost) and face off with a busload of Afrikaaner tourists. Rusting tin signs and clean toilets; an airstrip, the only one for hundreds of miles. The shop sells cold drinks, applestrudel and jewellery, and we keep to ourselves, ignoring the other bus party because we’d got used to thinking of ourselves as the only people in the landscape. It’s not too far from here to our campsite, and suddenly we’re completely enclosed by desert.
Previously, I’d understood ‘sand dunes’ as the tufty, pale humps you got changed behind on the beach as a child. These are slightly different: huge masses of brick-red sand, rising into precise, knife-edge ridges up to 380m off the ground. We were bussed hastily out to Allen Dune, where Raymond and Lombard, our guides, pointed us up a hill and abandoned us to the sunset.
Walking in sand is very, very difficult. It pulls heavily at your ankles and it’s too soft to get a proper grip. You flail. You stagger. You look like a drunk. Over every peak, just where you thought you’d stop, there’s another hill. We chased the sunset for around half an hour, the ‘sundowner’ beers we’d opened optimistically at the foot of the first dune spilling stickily through fists, finally getting high enough up for a perspective across what seemed to be the whole desert. The sun ploughed down, greedily blazing orange through the cloudless sky, bouncing off the Naukluft mountains way over on the other side of the desert and turning them a neon-bright magenta. Watching it even made our by then flat, shoogled, hand-warmed beers taste good. As we were completely away from any kind of electrical interference, the skies were packed out with stars, and because we were in the Southern Hemisphere, they looked very different to the stars we are used to. It makes you realise how very far you’ve travelled.
After a night under canvas we were herded, blearily, into the truck at 5am, driven through the desert in the half-light and deposited at the foot of the famously huge Dune 45 to see the sun rise again. More sand to climb. This time we were beginning to work out a rhythm to it all, treading down hard on the densely-packed spine of the ridge, walking in convoy, like a line of grunting ants. The desert appeared slowly, hazily below us, as though someone was switching the lights on. Out there, everything seemed to pivot around the sun, in fact, whether we were watching it come up or go down, or protecting ourselves from it, or hiding under it, or stretching out and enjoying it.
At the bottom of the hill, our guides had prepared bacon and eggs to fuel us for our longest trek yet, right into the heart of the desert to find a 1000-year-old fossilised lake. The landscape changed again as we trekked, scrubby bushes sprouting from nowhere, everyone weighed down with just enough water to last 6km. Suddenly, with a minimum of climbing on our part, we had reached the top of a massive dune, with an almost sheer drop to the dry river bed, maybe 100m below. ‘Down you go!’ said Lombard, grinning. Coming down sand dunes is great, though, somewhere between surfing and skiing. The trick is to plant your legs in at particular angles and then let the sand carry you down, scooshing around your feet, steering from your hips. Someone comments that this must be what walking on water feels like.
Finally, as close to noon as we could stand it, we crested another dune to find the dead lake - Death Vlei - nothing but white chalky residue, stuck through with ancient, fossilised trees (stark black). The ghosts of a lake and trees. It felt like being in an extra-dimensional cave painting - nothing else there but brick-red sand and very blue sky, only four colours - almost as though the sun has burnt away anything extraneous. Nobody talked; even pulling off your shoes to let the sand out felt crass and vaguely sacrilegious. It’s very easy to imagine all life starting out from here.
After our exertions, we’re conveyed back to the campsite for a quiet afternoon and a brief excursion to a deep canyon etched into the rock. Although the site is basic, it does come with cold showers and, incongruously, a tiny swimming pool, which we spend the early evening basking in, cooling off. Watching the sun come down once more is different again on solid ground - one of those wide, flat African skies with only dehydrated trees on the horizon. We discover that red wine tastes great when drunk from tin mugs, and eat hunks of meat charred on the fire, also known as braai.
The next day, we’re more subdued on the long drive back to civilisation. The group has gelled and made the truck our own, sprawled out, swapping magazines and offering sweets around. At one point, we’re raced along the road by a solitary springbok. Coming back to built-up areas and being shuttled to the airport for a flight back to Cape Town doesn’t feel quite right; after even a couple of nights in the desert it’s very difficult to sleep with a roof over your head.
Namibia has been an independent country since 1990. The official languages are English, German and Afrikaans. Despite being a predominately dry country, it is also rich in minerals, and as such has a fairly healthy economy. The Namib Desert is in the south-west of Namibia, 450km outside the capital of Windhoek, and at 80 million years old is considered to be one of the oldest deserts in the world. There is no malaria risk in the desert; however, consult your GP a fortnight before travelling if you intend to move around the country. The currency is the Namibian dollar, which is tied to the South African Rand.
Getting there and around
Air Namibia flies weekly from Windhoek to Heathrow, or daily to Cape Town and Johannesburg in South Africa. Globespan have recently opened a budget direct route between Manchester and Cape Town. Many travellers in Namibia are backpackers on part of a wider tour of Southern Africa - take a look at www.coastingafrica.com for the definitive backpacker’s guide.
Touring in the desert
The Wild Dog and Crazy Kudu tour company offer all-inclusive budget safaris: three, six, and ten day tours of the Namib Desert and the Etosha Nature reserve. A three day tour of the Namib Desert costs 2000 Namibian dollars (approximately £140). See www.wilddog-safaris.com for more details.