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Wednesday, 01 July 2020

Sossusvlei, Namibia

Written by Richard Taylor
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“If you want to get to Sesriem,” said Mr. Duplessis. “You have to hire a driver. Or find someone who’s going that way.”

The trouble with Namibia is that nobody lives in Namibia. Notwithstanding the Intercape line, which links southern Africa’s major cities there’s not enough public for public transit. The big bus had wheezed to a stop in Mariental at five in the morning, depositing me outside a Wimpy’s restaurant and adjacent gas pumps. For the past twenty hours, between naps, I’d been chatting with Mr. Duplessis, up from Cape Town to visit his daughter and in-laws. Sesriem was the jump off for the great dunes at Sossusvlei. As for people ‘going that way’, most had already left or been picked up by family.

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Then our Wimpy’s waitress flipped her cell phone and told her husband he had a client.

“He’ll be here in about twenty minutes with his jeep,” she told me.

Peter was a former tour guide. His wife packed him a chicken lunch and we were away. After two hours the road had devolved from pavement to gravel to soft earth and we swerved from side to side, avoiding the deeper spots.

“Great place to get stuck in,” I muttered.

“This road…it’s the way the tourists want it,” said Peter and I brooded over this tiresome demand for authenticity. It was the same crater-pocked Martian red landscape that I’d seen a week ago flying down from Frankfurt and the only signs of life were oryx, a handsome antelope with a wicked set of horns. When Peter slowed a bit so I could aim my camera, they flashed their rumps and fled.

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By eleven o’clock there was nothing to indicate the town of Sessriem but a sign, a campsite and a service station with a small café and grocery appendage. The rest was the Sossusvlei Lodge and the Namib Desert. The lodge had a room for one night only and it was off site; Tent 231 at the Quiver Camp, which didn’t sound promising but I boarded the 4 x 4 with some staffers heading the same way. They asked me the usual questions about kith and kin and country and pointed to some grazing antelope. They were not oryx.

“Wildebeest,” they told me.

“Okay. Gnus to me.”

Tent 231 turned out to be Cabin 231 with an A-frame roof of sticks. Sand and boulders and rocky hills surrounded us. Prime scorpion country I thought, making a mental note to tip out my shoes in the morning. I’d been zapped before.

“Are you having dinner at the lodge?” asked the driver.

“I guess so.”

“We’ll pick you up at six.”

At the reception desk, a signboard warned guests to steer clear of the oryx. They could be extremely dangerous. The board was signed, TALENI AFRICA.

“Who is this Taleni?” I asked Benny the desk clerk.

“It is the company,” he said. “They own the lodge and the park.”

“Taleni. Is that the owner?”

“It’s a word. In the Oshiwambo language it means to see.” He waved his hand about. “To observe.”

Outside the camp fencing, a quartet of wildebeest talenied me with suspicion, pawing the ground and snorting rudely. Beyond the wildebeest were more oryx.

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“The oryx are a proud animal,” said Benny. “The national animal of Namibia.”

The jeep arrived and I joined the lodge guests waiting for the seven o’clock dinner bell. About two hundred meters into the sand, a pair of oryx were sheltering under acacia trees and drinking at a small pool – another Taleni creation to bring them within binocular range. Closer to the lodge, the tree branches sagged under great circular nests, spun by weaver birds. These were of keen interest to the hotel cat, prowling hither and yon through the shifting sands, aping his larger cousins. From the upper branches came the piercing birdcall from jungle film soundtracks – the ‘oo oo oo oo oo’ cry. The next stanza, the expected ‘ah ah ah ah’ never came and I assumed the cat got him.

The flaming grills of the buffet featured a menu listing GAME MEATS, which included oryx, impala, zebra, blue wildebeest, eland and ostrich. I passed on the national symbol but took a slab of wildebeest, as they’d been rude to me, requested some impala, since my dad used to drive one, and finished with the ostrich. It all tasted like steak, even the ostrich.

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A large Canadian tour group was filing in line behind me.

“What’s this?” asked one of the women.

“Those are game meats,” I answered.

“Oh no,” she said, recoiling.

“There’s beef and chicken at the next grill. They’re used to being eaten.”

She gave me a stony glare and led her husband away.

In thirty minutes I was feeling full and decided it was a silly thing to stuff myself with impala and ostrich when I had to climb dunes in the morning.

After dinner, they drove me back to camp. An oryx burst out of the thorn bush and stared at us, lit up in the headlights. Then he vanished.

“We will pick you up at seven o’clock for breakfast,” said the driver.

“Okay. Thanks.”

I sat on the bed and thought about the long night and the dead silence and scorpions in my shoe. They didn’t call it Quiver Camp for nothing.

The next day I met Werner, our driver and guide, and boarded the elongated 4 x 4 jeep with a joint Italian-Commonwealth expedition: a retired couple from Bristol and two unrelated pairs from Milan, senior and junior. Werner doled out blankets for the chill of the desert dawn, wedged us into a long caravan of tour jeeps and exhaust fumes and steered through the park gate onto a two-lane blacktop that was nice and firm and inauthentic. The traffic thinned after twenty minutes and Werner stopped along the shoulder. A gorgeous sunrise turned the landscape a soft reddish-gold and we noted the tour balloons rising in the haze over the mountains.

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“They are with a different lodge,” said Werner.

He climbed out of the jeep, picked up a stick and started scratching facts and figures on the sand. The Namib Desert, he told us, stretched from South Africa to Angola, two thousand kilometers long, give or take a grain, but only a hundred and fifty wide.

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“Long and thin, like the Atacama in Chile,” said Werner. At that, it was Africa’s third largest desert, the dunes attaining their great size from winds blowing off Botswana’s Kalahari, depositing the iron-rich sand, which accounted for the red color.

“Can I have a volunteer please?” Werner asked, collecting some sand with a cloth.

The older Milanese stepped forward. Werner spread the sand over the man’s palm and waved a tiny magnet under his hand. The granules danced back and forth.

“You are the iron man,” said Werner. It was a rehearsed gag. We chuckled in a rehearsed way.

The first of the great dunes stretched magnificently to our left, about a half kilometer off the road, the ascending tour groups reduced to a staggered line of dots, like Klondike miners on guide ropes. Indeed with the clean lines and stark play of light and shadow, it was a scene from the higher latitudes; a Lawren Harris painting come to life – if Lawren Harris had painted sand.

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The paved road was done now and the red earth was soft and thick and marked with tire treads. We came to rest by a circle of trees, metal tables and trash bins where Werner unpacked the cooler, laying out a lovely picnic breakfast of bread and cheese and salami and tomato. I rose to throw my trash out and felt a sharp scrape. When I returned from the trash bin, the lady from Bristol was looking grave.

“You’re bleeding lad,” she said.

The group let out a gasp. Blood was welling out of three gashes along the calf. The edge of the metal bench had not been properly finished. Werner fetched his first aid kit from the jeep, wrapped up the gam to my drama queen delectation, then packed up the bandages and salami and we set our respective sun caps for Dune Forty-Five, known as Big Daddy.

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There was enough tread from previous climbers to make an ascent feasible but it required a bit of a duck walk and the grade was steep, leveling off from time to time. Werner would pick the flatter planes for water breaks and photo ops, while the man from Milan would cry “Aqaba!” and his wife would laugh and I mused how that T. E. Lawrence movie certainly got around.

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The views were stunning.

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“Oooh” cried the Milanese girl at the creepie-crawlie by her shoe.

“Sand beetle,” said Werner. That made sense. What else would they call it? Dune beetle suggested something with bulbous tires.

By the halfway point we were huffing and spent, so Werner let us bounce down the side of Big Daddy. There was no track this time and we sank to our calves with each step.

At the base of the dune was a great white expanse.

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“The color comes from deposits of potassium carbonate,” said professor Werner, resuming his chemistry lesson. Backstopped by sands of iron, dotted with bare spiky trees, the valley looked fearsome and dramatic, whatever carbonate it was and we squatted on its knobbled surface to pour the sand from our shoes.

“Could have descended barefoot,” I mumbled to Werner. “The sand isn’t hot.”

“The sun hasn’t reached this side of the dune yet,” he said. “And it cools very quickly in the night.”

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“By the way Werner,” I asked, pulling on my shoes again, “what’s the scorpion situation here?”

“No scorpions,” he said, sounding definite.

So tonight I could quiver a little less.

We snapped our final pix, collected ourselves for the drive back and the man from Bristol inquired about the leg.

“It’s not bad,” I said. I turned to the rest of the group. “No one can know about this. That I was attacked by a picnic table.”

I considered alternative plotlines: Disgruntled gnus? Deranged sand beetles? Oryx might do, with that nasty crown of skewers. Too noble looking though. Proud animal. National symbol and all that. Cast me in a bad light.

Maybe the hotel cat.


(c)Richard Taylor


Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020