There I was, finally. Drenched in sweat, gasping for breath, weak-kneed from 2 punishing hours, but finally at the top of the dune. So I promptly did what I know all intrepid climbers do on reaching a summit. I knelt down reverently, looked up at the sky, bent over and...threw up.
Then I flopped down, too exhausted even to take a drink from my bottle, on top of the highest dune I found at Sossusvlei in Namibia. If I had scoffed at being told that climbing a pile of sand was hard work, I now knew better.
As piles of sand go, Sossusvlei’s dunes are among the world’s highest. They curve gracefully but sharply, to as high as 400m. Foolishly, I had climbed without first scouting around. Thus what I had chosen was the hardest possible route: straight up the steeper side, and then along a ridge that by the end was near vertical. I swear it didn’t look so hard from below.
Windswept: (from top) The dunes of Sossusvlei curve gracefully into the horizon; a luxury camp at the Etosha National Park; and ‘Freedom Murals’ on Windhoek’s walls celebrate the country’s independence. Photographs: Dilip D’Souza and Lili Rosboch / Bloomberg
So...there on top, done with the retching, I looked around. Carefully, because a fierce wind blew continuously, assaulting me with a barrage of fine sand. Dozens of dunes all around, each as gracefully curved and shaped. As the late afternoon sunlight played on them, they glowed orange, red, yellow, even purple. Like some giant’s sprawling palette.
Jan, my travelling buddy, was a short way along the ridge from me, smoking as he watched the sun. We had started the climb together. But he had reached the summit a good half-hour before me. Smoking destroys your stamina, I thought, but Jan here didn’t even seem to have broken a sweat chugging up the dune. “Youth!” I muttered grumpily.
After a while, we looked for a way down. The most direct was along the ridge that stretched away and down from the peak, nearly all the way to where we could see our little VW parked. Why hadn’t we come up this way? I was asking myself that as I started striding down the ridge, but a sudden and different thought nearly felled me. On anything but a sand dune, I would have been in fear for my life. For on either side of this knife-edge, the dune sloped steeply down for hundreds of feet.
There had been a similar heart-in-the-mouth experience the day before. This was at Sesriem Canyon, the nearest campsite to Sossusvlei. Not quite the Grand Canyon, it is still a couple of hundred feet deep. But at the top, just yards from our tent, the canyon is only 3ft or 4ft across at its widest point. In several places, only a few inches. Of course, it was safe to step across, but I couldn’t avoid a flash of fear as I did, aware of the chasm below me. Must be one of the more unnerving natural formations on the planet, this canyon.
Speaking of fear. One balmy full-moon night at a waterhole...
The waterhole was in Etosha, the great national park for which Namibia is famous. We’re talking picture-book African scenes: herds of wildebeest, clumps of zebra, giraffes munching elegantly at leaves, elephants watching you balefully as they stomp through the bushes. That’s Etosha, and it has dozens of waterholes where animals gather to drink. One is at Okaukuejo, one of three rest camps in the park. Conveniently for lazy tourists who prefer their African scenes spoon-fed, it is floodlit and ringed with benches. Spoon-fed describes me to a D, so I grabbed a bench early that evening.
As evening turned into floodlit night, animals began appearing. First a few springbok, the small elegant antelopes. Then a couple of lionesses. Later, a family of jittery giraffes the lionesses kept chasing away. Suddenly, a massive rhino trundled up, scattering the smaller beasts. Having made his presence felt, he stood there for an hour. Maybe it took him that long to decide whether he really was thirsty. Then he began drinking.
Only minutes later came a loud trumpeting from the trees beyond the hole. Friend rhino stopped drinking and looked up in obvious alarm. An enormous elephant barrelled into view, trunk raised high to herald his arrival. The rhino, suddenly not so massive, turned and fled as fast as his stubby legs could carry him. That boy was frightened, no doubt about it.
Also See Trip Planner / Namibia (PDF)
Namibia became independent in March 1990, after years of bitter warfare. But the years under South African apartheid left their mark. Windhoek, the capital, is a bustling little town with tree-lined streets, gardens and sidewalk cafés. Naturally, it was once populated mostly by whites, and that’s taking time to change. But on its outskirts is its own Soweto, the township of Katutura: a sprawling, dusty slum. Even post-independence, Katutura is largely black. In a depressing legacy of the war, I found many people, largely black, on crutches.
Even so, freedom is definitely still in the air. The national museum, housed in an old fort on a hill in Windhoek, is filled with memorabilia from the early heady days of independence: T-shirts and buttons of the political parties that fought the first elections, insignia from the UN observer teams who monitored them, a poster announcing Ziggy Marley’s Independence Concert.
That spirit of freedom is nowhere more evident than on several “Freedom Murals” in the city. Long walls on which people have painted their emotions about independence, these are a colourful riot of joyous, thankful slogans and sketches. “Thank you, UN”, and “Africa is coming South”, and even an Indian tricolour somewhere, acknowledging India’s support to the struggle for self-rule.
On my last Windhoek morning, I stood before one for a long time, musing about this desert country’s Indian connection. It takes in, of all things, a seal colony: Cape Cross, on Namibia’s windswept Atlantic coast. As Jan and I parked, I was conscious of an odd smell and a cacophony of barks. Just beyond a low wall, tens of thousands of sleek, fat seals lay on the beach. Barking in gentle alarm, they scrambled a little further when they saw me, but otherwise were not particularly wary. A unique vista, yes, but why is this spot called Cape Cross? Ah, now there’s a story.
In 1485, Diego Cao, a Portuguese sailor, came ashore here. Portuguese seamen had a tradition of erecting wood or limestone crosses wherever they landed. Not for religious reasons, but as landmarks for passing ships. Cao’s cross here was a signpost for his compatriots who plied the sea lanes that hugged the African continent. It told them that at least one Portuguese adventurer had safely reached this far south.
Those adventurers had been pushing south for years, beyond several points on Africa’s western coast—Cape Bojador, the present-day Liberian coast, Guinea, Angola, Cape Cross—all searching for the point where the African coast would turn decisively east, indicating, almost certainly, the sea route to the East.
In 1497, another adventurer sailed past Cao’s cross, struggled around Africa’s southern tip and set his sails to ride the winds north and east. In Malindi, in present-day Kenya, he found an Arab pilot to guide him across the Indian Ocean. On 20 May 1498, after 12,000 miles and 316 days at sea, Vasco da Gama touched land near Calicut (now Kozhikode).
The link to India is not just the Indian tricolour on a Windhoek Freedom Mural. It was also intangibly here, where the smelly seals bark.