As a spectacular dawn broke over the vast red desert plain I was making my way back from the bathrooms, toothbrush in hand and keeping a sharp eye out for snakes and scorpions. We were at our campsite near Sesriem for two nights meaning we could take a break that morning from packing up our tents but we still had to hit the road early as we had a couple of hikes ahead of us and wanted to finish them before we got caught in the searing heat.
The sunrise was still putting on a wonderful show as our truck sped off toward Sossusvlei and before long we were to see the first of the incredible dunes this region is famous for. These giant red piles of sand seemed to have sharp edges as steep slopes were lit warmly by the rising sun that cast the rest of the dune into dark shadow. This valley of dunes spread out before us as did a long sweeping road that ran through them, dotted here and there with campervans, 4×4’s and the odd Oryx. We spotted hot air balloons peacefully floating past, adding to the incredible spectacle laid out before us.
Over thousands of years sand washed up by waves on the nearby Atlantic coastline has gradually blown inland. The region between the coastline and the dunes is flat allowing the sand to blow freely to the interior, yet just on the other side of this area is a mountain range with a weather system that stops the sands progress, causing it to pile up over time and eventually creating these huge dunes.
We were heading for Dune 45, so named because it sits about 45km along the road from Sesriem. It isn’t the largest dune in the area with that accolade belonging to the aptly named Big Daddy dune, a whopping 325m high versus our relatively small one at just 175m. However the deep fine sand along with the altitude made Dune 45 seem plenty big enough as we climbed it. Anyone who has tried to walk in deep sand on flat ground knows that it takes twice as much effort and when you attempt to do the same on a steep gradient such as the one we faced it is incredibly hard going. You need to take two steps forward to cover the distance of maybe half a step and all whilst giving your calf muscles an intense workout. Luckily the sun was still low and it was fairly chilly so other than a bit of calf burn and some general huffing and puffing it was definitely doable, but even the fittest people had to take regular breaks which was a smart thing to do considering the views on offer that only improved the higher we got.
In one direction it looked like I imagine Mars would. I’d not long read The Martian and seen the movie, both of which had captivated me so I spent a bit of time trying to imagine what it would be like to find yourself stranded alone on Mars, something that isn’t hard to visualize in a place like this. In another direction I thought it looked like lunar landscape and whatever the similarities might be to other parts of our galaxy, it definitely didn’t resemble anything I’d seen anywhere else on our planet.
I was about a third of the way up when I glanced back to notice one of my tripmates seemed to be struggling so I climbed back down to help her out, half hoping that she would decide she wanted to go back to the truck. That wasn’t to be the case and I soon found myself retracing those hard-won steps back up the dune, eventually reaching a beautiful narrow ridge about two-thirds of the way to the top where she decided she’d had enough so after a few photos we began to make our way down again. So whilst I didn’t actually get to the top I’m pretty sure I took as many steps as I would have needed to get there. Well that’s the story I’m sticking to anyway.
Dune 45 is the most popular for tourists and one of the only ones in the area you’ll see people climbing. The sandy ridges where shadow meets light are actually as sharp as they look in the photos. The sides drop steeply down giving the impression that you could fall right off and whilst that is possible the soft sand would break your fall in a second, bringing you to a cushioned halt and forcing you to either crawl back up or perhaps decide to run all the way to the bottom as many people were doing. I’d had fun doing that many times on the big dunes in White Sands, New Mexico and after making a complete fool of myself I’d wind up with sand in my mouth, nose, ears and clothes so I opted to give it a miss in Namibia to walk back down the ridge instead.
It wasn’t easy finding a way past the other tourists on these sharp unstable ridges. Most people were polite and friendly, stepping aside for people coming the other way as soon as they could and exchanging a few jokes about how climbing sand dunes is way harder than it looks. But it was here that we first encountered a group of Italian tourists that were to create trouble for the rest of the day, specifically one member of their group who was loud and generally obnoxious. He reminded me of descriptions I’ve heard of Napoleon so that’s how I’ll be referring to him here even though he wasn’t French. Members of this group would rudely push past others, sometimes nearly toppling people over the edge. I stood by to let some of them past and instead of a nod of thanks they looked at me like I was a germ on a piece of dirt on their shoe before stomping off up the dune like they’d claimed it for themselves and the rest of us plebs were trespassing on their domain.
The day was already starting to heat up as we finished the hike and boarded the truck to make for Deadvlei, a white clay pan of trees that died around 700 years ago. Due to the extreme dryness they have never decayed so that now they make an incredible spectacle on the landscape with their dark forms being contrasted on the white sandy pan surrounded by red sand dunes. Getting to the trees involves driving to the end of the road where you have to use a shuttle service provided by the national park. These are jeeps that can seat about 10 people and ferry visitors on a fun bumpy ride over the sand to the start of the hike. From there you must walk across the thorn filled sand and over a few small yet steep dunes to the clay pan where you view the trees. We managed to find jeeps fairly easily and were soon setting off on the short hike.
Now I feel that I need to digress a little to cover a skin problem I have as that will hopefully explain why I was often unable to partake in activities throughout my travels. At some point in my twenties I developed a kind of sun allergy, I don’t actually know the name of it but the upshot is that if my skin gets too much exposure to the sun under certain conditions I break out in hundreds of tiny blisters on my forearms. Each one feels like a tiny needle is being repeatedly stabbed into my skin and whilst slathering myself in factor 50 sunblock can delay the effects, sometimes it just isn’t enough and it can even get me through all but the thickest clothing. Once I experience an outbreak it is very painful and the only way to get rid of it is to stay out of the sun completely which isn’t generally possible when you are traveling and can very nearly ruin a trip, so I try hard not to get an outbreak in the first place.
When I discover I have to do an activity that offers no shade I get a little nervous but this time I didn’t want to miss out so I’d been layering on a high protection sunscreen since I woke up and attempted to cover my arms with clothing that would still keep me cool in the heat. The long story short is that I made it almost to the dead trees but soon realised there wasn’t any shade at all and my skin was giving me the prickly early-warning signs that it wasn’t happy. The temperature was getting hotter and hotter so I decided to turn around and trudged back to the staging area alone where I planned to find some shade to wait for everyone else. Whilst this walk was flatter than the dunes it was significantly harder. Once again we were having to walk in deep fine sand which takes its toll but this time we had an incredibly harsh sun to contend with. The rays reflecting off the sand along with the altitude and lack of a breeze made the going extremely tough.
I eventually got back and knew I was close to overheating so found shade under one of the few trees to begin sipping water. This was a busy attraction full of the same people we’d been hiking Dune 45 with and as I slowly cooled down I began to watch tourist after tourist slog back over the sand to take refuge under the tree that was becoming more and more crowded. I think I heard the phrase ‘Oh my god its hot’ in about 20 different languages. I saw people who were clearly fitness junkies panting and pouring bottles of water over themselves like someone who’d just finished a marathon as opposed to a 20-minute walk over some sand. I looked around to see people trying to squeeze under a few other small trees and I was reminded of sheep sheltering from the rain. I saw Italian Napoleon return to his group gesticulating angrily at the sun and at the poor condition of the rudimentary bush toilets that whilst unpleasant to use were actually pretty cute.
Eventually the rest of my group arrived and we made our way back to the shuttle pick-up point. Whilst these few hundred tourists had arrived separately so that there wasn’t too much pressure on the shuttle service on the way in, they all seemed to return at the same time which created a bottleneck. Only a few jeeps were making the 15-minute round trip back to the parking lot and in the meantime some people found shelter under even smaller trees whilst others just had to tough it out in the sun that was only getting more intense as the morning wore on.
Nobody official was organising the shuttles, they’d simply turn up and load the nearest passengers so that we were forced to figure out our own priority system which appeared to be working well. From standing around the trees we generally knew which groups had assembled first and the jeeps were loading in that order with reasonable success. It wasn’t ideal but there was nothing to be done so the majority of us just accepted the situation and waited. Except for the Italians we’d encountered on Dune 45 who were waiting near us along with a Dutch tour group. As a jeep pulled up we moved forward to climb on as we were next in line followed by the Dutch, but suddenly a wave of Italians led by Napoleon made a rush for the jeep, yelling angrily and pushing people away to climb up and take seats for themselves. Napoleon was guarding the jeep from non-Italians, pacing back and forth whilst gesturing wildly and hurling insults at anyone who tried to get by.
Somehow in the middle of this a Dutch woman had got into the front seat of the jeep. Her husband wanted to join her so tried to climb in but Napoleon led an Italian charge to see him off and before we knew it water bottles were being swung and the husband had to make a hasty retreat back to the Dutch line from which profanities were being exchanged with the Italians who had by now secured the target for themselves, apart from the lone Dutch wife who appeared rattled yet stoic behind enemy lines.
Napoleon had been too busy swinging water bottles to secure his own seat so as the terrified driver began to pull off he jumped onto the rear bumper and clung on to the roll bars, intending to ride through the bumpy sand all the way back to the parking lot like that which would never had worked but we all half-hoped the driver would let him try so that we could see him face-flat in the sand. The Dutch shrieked in anger and disgust whilst the Italians in the jeep tried to look nonchalant yet stylish, and soon the driver realised what was happening so braked hard causing Napoleon to lose his grip somewhat and eventually leap off only to stomp around with lots more yelling and wild gestures.
By now a few of the Italians had found both a sense of shame and a spare seat in the jeep so they yelled to the Dutch husband ‘There is a seat for you so you can go with your wife. Get in!’ and whilst Napoleon looked at his countrymen in disgust the Dutch were yelling ‘No! We are scared of you! You are awful people! We’d rather stay here in the sun!’. Meanwhile our group and the other tourists just stood there experiencing a mixture of awe and disgust at the spectacle we were witnessing. Our tour leader was clearly worried we were going to get assaulted by a water bottle so urged us to stay back and wait. Eventually Italian Napoleon clambered up the side and trampled over his countrymen to take the spare seat before the jeep set off to an international chorus of boos, hisses and fist-shaking. We shared our spaces with the Dutch and eventually made it back to the parking lot where we just about kissed our driver because we were so happy to see him.
I try hard to live my life without any regrets and have been largely successful, but I will always sorely regret that I didn’t have the presence of mind to video that incident. I have no doubt it would have gone viral to give millions of people the twisted pleasure of watching Italy and the Netherlands battle it out in the desert with water bottles. We were to spot the Italian group many times over the next week or so and it always filled us with dread. I last spotted Italian Napoleon by the swimming pool at a campsite in Etosha National Park. He and his friends were strutting around angrily yet stylishly in teeny tiny Speedo’s, a sight I also regret not getting on film.
After a few hours rest back at our campsite where it was impossible to escape the heat, we made our way to the small yet impressive Sesriem Canyon. It is only about 30-metres deep and therefore fairly easy to walk into but I was done with hiking and my fellow tourists that day, so I stayed at the top with a few other nice quiet people to crack open a Windhoek beer and just enjoy the silence.