Text by Ron Swilling
Photo by Paul van Schalkwyk
Text by Ron Swilling
Photo by Paul van Schalkwyk
T ravelling en-route to the desert and Damaraland, we left the tarred roads behind us. Many of Namibia’s roads are gravel, so that when travelling on them a thin layer of sand coats everything. Sunglasses collect a film of dust over the lenses and eyelashes acquire interesting desert shades. The gravel roads cause a variety of vehicle dramas, of which we sampled a flat tyre and broken window. The desert air, however, provides space and the clarity of vast open spaces, allowing reflection and giving perspective. I felt myself balancing out as life’s pressures blew out with the desert dust.
Our journey included a stop at the Petrified Forest geological site, where a local guide gave us a short tour. I walked with my First World companions, accustomed to walking the corridors of the Louvre, mesmerised as he pointed out the rocks, once trees that in a cataclysmic event 250 million years ago had fallen and floated down rivers long since dried up. Stranded on sandbanks, the cells of the wood were replaced by silica, thus becoming petrified. I watched them in this dry world of Earth colours as we walked past ancient welwitschia plants framed by pieces of petrified wood placed in heart shapes and fallen rock logs, amused and overjoyed by the beauty of this African simplicity.
Twyfelfontein, ‘doubtful spring’, once attracted herds of game from the surrounding plains, remembers its past in rock art. Engravings of animals and their spoor reveal old hunting grounds and geometric shapes, possible water sources. Whether spiritual ceremonies or outbursts of creativity, they are burnt sienna memories set against a blue afternoon sky. We left the stony past and headed off to desert-adapted elephant territory and the Aba Huab campsite in a dry riverbed. Our simple campsite’s shower block was entwined with a mopane tree, reeds and open sky, the taps emerging from the bark of the tree, all organic and earthy. The peace, magic and space of the place emanates from deep underground and the stars dance in unison.
In the morning light the Brandberg, Namibia’s highest mountain, loomed purple and blue against the yellow hills of the foreground, dotted with green life. The small town of Uis offers Namibia’s shining gems – amethyst, tourmaline and clear quartz crystal – little hearts of colour beating Earth memories. We turned westwards and crossed the gravel plains on our way to the Atlantic Ocean and the Skeleton Coast. A huge ominous mist bank heralded our proximity to the ocean. I breathed sand, dust-coated from head to toe. After stopping at Cape Cross seal colony, a huge gathering of seal mayhem, my dry hair absorbed the seal smell and its gritty consistency in a combination of Earth-Sea odours.
Namibia’s premier seaside resort, Swakopmund, with its strong German overtones, welcomed us to civilisation and two nights in a bed. Large African white pelicans sit on high poles and watch this African/German town surrounded by huge sand dunes. Here the tour offered the adventure-sport entusiast quad-bike trips into the desert, sand-boarding, micro-light flights, skydiving and many more twenty-first century extreme sports and activities. After two days of restaurants, shops and soft beds, we picked up our adventure-sport-enthusiast member from the local hospital, drove past Walvis Bay and across open grass savannah, to arrive in the immense red sand-dune desert of the Namib. We set up our tents in late afternoon light in our stone-circled campsite under camel-torn trees, cashew-shaped pods scattered like blessings underneath.
In the morning we headed off for a pre-dawn journey to watch sunrise from Dune 45. We arrived to see hordes of people trudging up a mountain of sand and joined the ant-like march upwards to the heavens. A cold wind blew red sand into my face as I walked one foot in front of the other up the steep sad monolith. Halfway up, the sun appeared and the dunes turned red. People stopped, photographed, watched and then tumbled down the sandy slopes.
Later in the day we walked the good red Earth to Sossusvlei and absorbed the many reds, oranges and greens. A short walk further, Deadvlei’s skeleton trees stood as witness to ancient water in the parched soil. Using a stick, our guide drew in the sand. This sand had travelled may miles, brought in by rivers and seas, another of Earth’s mysteries creating masterpieces of landscape sculpture.
After a walk in Sesriem Canyon, we sat and watched our last golden sunset over the mountains, enjoying the warmth of a large campfire. We realised that amidst the darkness, ignorance and negativity in the world, there is much beauty. The Earth had reminded us. My co-travellers, tired of camping and looking forward to returning to city luxuries, were making plans for their days ahead. I, however, didn’t want the journey to end. I wanted to keep this beauty around me, to let it grow and colour me golden inside, so that my life could shine from within. I wanted to keep on desert dreaming.
This was my healing. Life was charging those cells. I was once again part of that wonderful beating heart, camping, fires and camaraderie added to the strong African energy. I hoped to keep this glow as I travelled back towards the Cape on my twenty-hour bu journey home.
At the border the rain began, as if the weather was acknowledging the man-made boundaries. It continued all the way down the country, like a cloak of winter drawn over the land. Healed and hopeful, I passed snow-capped mountains, and felt the chilly winter winds welcome me back home.
This article was first published in the Flamingo October 2005 issue.
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