55 million years have passed, but the world’s oldest desert is still home to massive sand dunes, roaming wildlife and clusters of dead trees.
By Abigail King | Originally published in WildJunket Magazine February/March 2012
F or 55 million years, particles of sand, in shades of blood red, caramelized orange and exhausted, jaded rust have sifted one over the other in this part of the world.
I stand clasping a few of them, gasping for breath.
I’m in the middle of the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world. It’s the desert whose very name means wide open space and whose sands and scorched shadows almost define the country it lives in.
Namibia. The land of wide open space.
Climbing Dune 45
The reality is that I’m nowhere near the middle of the Namib Desert, an expanse whose boundaries stretch for over 32,000 meters from the Forbidden Territories in the south to the Skeleton Coast in the north.
I’m at – and on – the edge, huffing and puffing, slipping and sliding, stumbling and generally bumbling around as I try to climb Dune 45, the most accessible dune in the Namib Naukluft National Park.
Accessible, of course, is a relative term. Almost insulting as I think about it now, my lungs straining at the seams, my capillaries compressing every blood cell in the quest for more oxygen.
Dune walking, like moon walking, is harder than it looks and we’re racing against the sun to reach the top first.
It doesn’t seem like a fair contest.
The sun has been practicing for more than 55 million years, whereas I only arrived last night. The sun didn’t need to rescue the 4×4 from spinning ruts in the sand, nor negotiate with officials over paperwork at the entrance to the park. It didn’t need to feel old as it scrambled past students who giggled their way to the top.
On second thoughts, after 4.6 billion years, perhaps the sun does feel old. The Namib Desert must look like a cheeky little upstart, while the travelers who scramble across the sand must resemble tumbling toddlers at a kindergarten recess.
Dune 45 may be popular, but elsewhere the desert is empty. Empty of humans, at least.
Standing proud on the horizon, an oryx silhouettes itself against the violet sky. We leave Dune 45 and move closer, the colors growing more and more intense as the sun reasserts its authority over the day. Four or five oryxes stand beneath their leader – ears twitching, bodies still, faces turned towards us.
Against the red sands, their black and white patterned faces and spiraled-yet-straight antlers look more striking than usual.
I reach for my camera.
In a flash of hooves and a low rumbling of dust, they’re gone, on to the safety and shadow of the next rippling dune.
Flying Over the Desert
From the air, it’s easier to track oryxes – and even to pick out ostriches and springboks as they gallop along the horizon. A flight from Sossusvlei Lodge reveals choppy crimson waves beneath a cloud of smoky red haze. Yet there’s more to the Namib Desert than that. Hidden behind the “accessible” dunes, there are sandy golden patches with unexplained circles drawn into the sand. There are scrublands, canyons and breadcrumbed dunes with scratchy balls of bleached quill grass.
And, most captivating of all, there’s Sossusvlei.
About the Author:
Abigail King is an experienced journalist and photographer who works with both print and online media. She has circled the globe twice, camped in the snows of Kilimanjaro and Patagonia and tracked down tigers, turtles and panda bears. She’s then had a hot shower and embraced the city life of New York, Rio, Paris and Tokyo. Read about her travels on Inside the Travel Lab.
If you enjoyed this preview, you can read the full article in WildJunket Magazine Feb/Mar 2012.