At play in the fields of the Lord
Text and photos by Ron Swilling
A whole new vocabulary – words to describe supreme beauty – is needed for the colours of the Namib-Naukluft Park.
Fields of short yellow grass from summers past hint green and flow into rich ripe apricot sand; purple mountains loom in the distance of an otherwise extensive undisturbed landscape. A gemsbok runs through the scene, kicking up orange dust. When a fair distance, he stops and looks back, and the world freezes. Dune larks zigzag low in their jerky flight and herds of Hartmann zebra gallop off and disappear over the horizon. Tufts of coarse grass are so white they appear blue, and the pale blue fields are streaked with orange sand. A few clouds dot an immense blue sky, hovering over the infinite landscape with a freedom and lightness that pulls you up like a kite let loose, momentarily taking your breath away.
All this before we enter the red-earth rhapsody of the dune field.
The three-day journey began in Solitaire, south-western Namibia, soon entering the Namib-Naukluft Park. The park is the traditional home of the Topnaar people, believed to be the descendants of the oldest population group in Namibia. The Topnaars, or ≠Aonin people in their traditional Nama language, hold concession rights. They have a joint venture with a private company to operate tours through the park – providing a ticket into wonderland.
The only requirement is a 4×4 low-range vehicle. Easily hired by self-drivers travelling through the country, these vehicles are capable and suitably equipped to traverse the Namib sand. The oldest desert in the world has had millions of years to perfect its interpretation of sublime beauty and its sands fall into soft sensual spirals and sand peaks. The lead and rear operator vehicles guide you through the landscape, quickly pulling a vehicle from the soft sand if necessary without any fuss, as you traverse from the pre-Namib with its grassy plains and the beginning of a dune-belt to the green of the Kuiseb riverbed and into the vast dune sea.
The first leg of the journey follows an old oxcart track, the trade route of early pioneers. It stops at Maduab, once the campsite of a German contractor, where the Kuiseb riverbed snakes through the depths, surrounded by powerful dark mountains, and leads to Oeswater at Homeb, an early source of water and fresh meat. In the old days, the Topnaars traded goats and goat milk with the oxwagons passing by.
After a night of camping under large camel-thorn trees adjacent to the sandy riverbed, the route on the second day veers off the oxcart route and into the desert, heading to Sandwich Harbour, an ancient port once inviting sailing ships and trade, and north to the town of Walvis Bay.
Entering the dune field, the group halts the guide, who is giving a dune talk, teaching the principles of dune driving. He then leads the way, giving the ‘all clear’ once his vehicle has descended the steep slipfaces, making it safe for the next vehicle to follow in his tracks. Radio contact connects the group and he is able to communicate about the terrain as he approaches it, as well as listen to wisecracks from the drivers as they negotiate the sand mountains, testing and improving their four-wheel driving skills.
The dictionary for the colours of sublime beauty is needed once again as the vegetation disappears and the colours of sand play in the sunlight, transforming with the progress of the day. Apricot dunes become caramel and a light toffee colour. For a time I can think only of colours of food and I feast on an earth delicacy, a huge chocolate mousse of magnificent land.
Tok-tokkie beetles run across the sand, escaping from the larger armoured bodies as we travel into dips and crests. Namib golden moles leave lines of passage and shovel-nosed lizards move in double speed through time.
Elements merge, so that sand and sea appear to intermingle in metaphors, and we become desert ships sailing over earthly waves of apricot sand that flow all the way to the horizon. The large curvaceous shapes are miniaturised into wind designs that decorate the sand sea like ripples in water. We motor up tidal waves of sand, and I can’t help gasping every time we crest, before descending into the sandy depths.
At our lunch stop we see a mist rising in the west and nearing it we realise it is a sandstorm blurring the crisp boundaries of the dunes. I feel like I am in big seas as the wind blows from all sides. I stash my camera in my waterproof bag and stop the runaway train of my water imagery as I begin to feel the tugging of seasickness and contemplate my lack of life jacket. Our tracks disappear moments after they are made, our vehicles the only white dots in a brown windy world. Marius is not concerned. With GPS, long-distance antennae, satellite phone and incredible skill, calm as a stagnant pool, he chooses routes through the dunes, riding them like a surfer on a good wave.
We camp near to the sea and build fires next to a barricade that shelters us from the raging wind. Small sandplovers fly against the gale, although it buffets the sturdy Land Cruiser in huge gusts, and we have to marvel at the brilliance of the natural world. The stillness of the desert is deceptive. It is constantly changing and moving and all who think they can conquer its vastness are humbled in such weather. The stars glow as if the wind has reached up to them and blown them clean.
The wind drops in the night and we awake to a sparkling world. Rows of pink flamingos line the deep-blue water, dolphins swim past, the sun catching their silvery fins. The tawny colour of the dunes blends into the blueness of the sea and sky, all shining in the morning brilliance of the sun. Their striking sensual shapes are accentuated, sand patterns becoming larger swirls of sand, designed by a creative god or a god out to play. As we descend dunes, they roar in a low moaning voice, greeting us, as if conversing from the depths of the earth. The guides’ child-like spirit emerges and we rollercoaster ride a massive dune and laugh.
Too soon, this memorable journey nears the border, exiting the Namib-Naukluft Park. Before the colour dictionary closes, garnet and magnetite layers lie like frosting on sand designs, in magenta and black. As we beach-drive up to civilisation, seals leap in the water nearby and large flocks of terns fly up and circle. Our sandy procession stops to unlock the hubs as we near tarred roads and leave behind a world of supreme beauty.
Flamingo March 2010