Go on and brush your shoulders off
It’s 5AM. It’s still dark outside. We’re following Roger’s van out to Sossusvlei – he’s bringing a bunch of German tourists to the dunes, but we’d rather take our own car, the Sloop John B. Allison did listen to Roger’s instructions but she’s now sleeping in the back of the car, so I ride shotgun, on guard for monkeys crossing the road, the way I’d look out for deer at home. I’m staying awake by singing Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off My Shoulders”. I eat the breakfast that the guys at the lodge packed us, consisting mostly of biltong. I wonder if it’s actually true about what they say about processed meat. Maybe they’re all wrong, and it’s actually extremely good for you.
following roger to sossusvlei
I’m trying to adjust to equatorial hours in Namibia, where the sun comes up at 6AM and then goes down at 7PM. No stores are open after 7PM, and you’re not really supposed to be driving in the dark either, which means you’ve got to squeeze in everything you want to do between 6AM to 7PM. To make things worse, it’s really too hot during the middle of the day to do anything, especially in the desert, and that’s why we’re racing to get to Sossusvlei in the dark at 5:30AM before the sun rises, so we can get to the park when the gates open (they only give out a limited number of permits to get into the park – because Namibia hates tourists), and climb some dunes before it gets too unbearably hot.
The sun makes an appearance just as we pull into the park. This is about the same time that animals come out, because they too want to avoid the midday sun and annoying tourists. We see ostriches and springbok grazing at the side of the roads. Watching these animals that I’ve only seen in picture books and Wikipedia takes on an added surreal effect with Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb playing in the background. Listening to the Dark Side of the Moon while trekking through the desert, by the way, is something every Floyd fan should try sometime.
We finally reach the end of the gravel road, which dumps into a hot chaotic land of sand. To get to the best parts of the Sossusvlei region, you need a truck with four-wheel drive, as the sand roads are completely inaccessible to normal cars – which to me is more evidence that Namibia only wants hardcore tourists, and not a lot of it. I argue a bit with a driver but finally we arrange to get a ride on the back of the next truck making its way to the dunes. It is the bumpiest ride I have ever been on.
Namibia only wants hard-core tourists, not the wimpy kinds that drive rear-wheel drive sedans named Sloop John B by girls
And suddenly we’ve arrived at Deadvlei, a completely dry desert pan that is so devoid of any condensation that there are skeletons of trees five hundred years old, still sitting there, unable to decompose. When you first see it, you think that maybe it’s a frozen lake, because that’s the colour of the ground, but then you realize that this is ridiculous in the desert. Deadvlei is overlooked by the Big Daddy, a sand dune so enormous (320 metres high) that people frequently mistake it for a mountain. Remembering the exhilarating thrill I got the last time I climbed Grouse Mountain, I eagerly set forth to conquer Big Daddy.
What I learned quickly was that climbing a sand dune is not the same as climbing Canadian mountains. For one thing, my sneakers filled up quickly with sand, which I suppose should not have been all that unexpected on a sand dune, but it became incredibly uncomfortable, and it made my feet feel as heavy as lead. It’s a lot harder to walk on sand too, because the ground has a lot of give – way too much give – and it’s easy to slip. More importantly, however, and this happens every time I try to climb a mountain, it’s always about halfway up that I suddenly remember my crippling fear of heights. “Oh darn,” I think to myself as I look down over the ledge, “Mountains are high.” I try to comfort myself with the knowledge that sand is soft, so if I fall off the ledge I’ll just be rolling down through sand, but my fears are not quelled by the thought of a) the thorny plants at the bottom of the dune to break my fall and b) that scene from Lawrence of Arabia where the kid drowns in quicksand.
I convince myself to keep going though, mainly by not looking up or down, just ahead on the set of footprints ahead of me. My reasoning is that somebody walked this route ahead of me, hours ago, and if they were able to do it, well, so could I. Soon enough Eliza and Allison grow tired and they decide to sit down on a ledge with a magnificent view of how far you could fall down. I want to climb the rest of Big Daddy though, so they tell me to go on without them.
taking a break and dumping all the sand from our shoes
So after a quick dump-all-the-sand-from-my-sneakers break, I press on. I’m so busy concentrating on the foot prints on the sand ahead of me that I don’t notice that I’ve reached the steepest part of the dune. Until the footprints suddenly stop. What? Where did my trusty invisible guide go? How could footprints just suddenly stop? And then I see marks down the side of the dune, and realize that whoever had gone ahead of me and decided to quit at this point and just slid/rolled down the dune. Comforting. I shake my fist at the invisible coward. I continue to climb, creating my own path up the dune. It’s like going on a stairmaster at the gym, I tell myself, except my personal trainer is dumping sand into my sneakers with every step.
just don't look down...
Soon enough I have to make a judgment call though. It’s getting close to eleven o clock and the sun keeps climbing up the sky. I know the hottest part of the day is coming soon, and I only have two bottles of water with me. There’s nobody around (although Allison and Eliza can still watch me from the distance), and once I reach the peak, I’ve still got to make my whole way down, which I know is going to be a different challenge in a place where it’s so easy to lose your footing. I look up and realize that I’ve reached the last plateau before the peak…but as the sweat pours down my back, I make the decision it’s just too risky. Time to turn back and head back to the base.
Eliza can see me if I fall...right?
Big Daddy, I’m going to conquer you another day.
Descending, of course is its own challenge. Shall I re-enact that scene from The Princess Bride and go tumbling down, head over heels, whilst calling out “As….you…wish”? In the end I decide to go the way of Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums, running down the side of the mountain, maybe without the nudity, but definitely with the yodeling. At the bottom, I throw my scarf over my head like Lawrence of Arabia and cut through the Deadvlei back to the place where the truck had dropped us off. I pass by Roger and the group of middle-aged Germans he’s leading, and we wave.
Miraculously, I’ve beaten the girls back to base. I lie down under a camelthorn tree and fall asleep, waiting for them to return.
sleeping under the camelthorn tree
The Sossusvlei pan itself seems almost like an afterthought when you’ve finished looking at all the bigness of Big Daddy and the deadness of the Deadvlei. Sossusvlei is much more alive, forming a sort of desert lake with lots of living trees and birds cooling down in the water. Off in the distance, a german family all sporting mohawks hairdos are splashing in the water, but it looks too muddy for our comfort. After a nice stroll around the water, we decide it’s time to head back – if only we can find a truck to shuttle us back through the sand roads. Four shuttle drivers had not shown up to work today, according to one German man, because they had gotten paid yesterday. We wait.
By the time we’ve gotten back to our car and headed out of the park, we’ve reached the long part of the afternoon and we can sense the sun is starting to think about heading down. We’ve got to try to make it home before sundown, because everybody warns us not to drive at night. I convince Allison to take a shortcut, so everything that’s about to happen is my fault (DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT AN ADMISSION OF LIABILITY –lawyer’s note).
We first notice that even though it’s not the rainy season, puddles have begun to form on the normally dry riverbeds that cut across our road. You see, because the roads flood for only part of the year, they don’t bother building bridges to go over the river bed. I guess you’re just expected to deal with the fact that your road goes into a river, somehow. But we haven’t come across anything so far, so I feel like it’s safe to make a joke about how screwed we’d be with our little rear wheel drive Sloop John B if we actually came across a river.
And then we come across a river. I may have sworn under my breath. I strap on my sandals, roll up my pants, and jump out of the car, wading into the water to judge it is shallow enough for the car to make it across. The river splashes around my calves. My initial thought is no, the car can’t make it across. Parts of it is rather deep, and the shallow parts are soft and muddy, a disastrous recipe for getting Sloop John B stuck. And then I think, the sun is going to set in two hours, it’s been one hour since we last passed a car, and the last building of any sort that we’ve seen was about thirty kilometers back.
Namibia doesn't believe in building bridges over troubled waters. That would only attract wimpy tourists. Hard-core tourists drive on roads that go through rivers.
“Yeah, it’s totally fine,” I lie to Allison, who is nervously gripping the steering wheel. “We’ll make it across, no problem.” The entire time I’m entertaining visions of that scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy where he tries to push his jeep across the river and ends up accidentally throwing his lady passenger into the mud. I start praying to my own God.
So Allison shifts gears and starts ploughing the car through the river, as I’m stretching my arms, completely ready to have to push the car out of the mud and/or run thirty kilometers. Miraculously though, the car makes it through to the other side of the river. I give a loud whoop and Eliza and I jump back into the car, feeling exhilarated, like we can conquer anything.
“Yes!” I say. “I am so glad that is over.”
And then we come across another river. I swear out loud again.
After a while this road trip starts to feel like a video game, with each level growing progressively more difficult and bizarre. We establish a routine, which involves spotting the flooded road, me swearing, Eliza and I jumping out and going for a quick wade to judge the depth of the river, and then motioning Allison to drive through. I’m trying desperately to figure out how much my knowledge of off-roading, limited almost entirely to driving through snow or riding on an ATV, would apply to flooded African river beds. The sun is descending quickly, and we are still hours away from reaching the highway, or basically any place where there is a sign of human life.
At one point where we think it’s finally over, Allison curses again and slams on the brakes. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says incredulously, and we examine the next level of this video game. Not only are there two river streams ahead of us, but just past that there are about fifteen cows with huge horns, all hanging out on the roads, looking quite determined about staying in place.
"we don't want to mooooooove."
Well, we follow the routine and get through the water – twice. Now, to deal with the cows.
Normally back at home I wouldn’t be terribly nervous about the cows. Most of the time near my home we only deal with the mama cows and the occasionally calves. They’re docile and dumb, at their worst. Here, however, looking at all the horns and the angry bovine glares, it seems like there are bulls in the midst of this cow crowd, and I’ve heard Rob’s dad tell me enough stories about life on the Prince Edward Island farms to know that bulls can be a bit more moody, and less responsive to you politely asking them to get out of your car’s way. Gee, those horns look big.
We drive slow, navigating our way through and around each cow, as they continue to send us pissed off looks. As we drive, I start thinking for some reason about Cows Ice Cream from Prince Edward Island and how those cartoon cows make it seem like cows are totally friendly animals. What bullcaca. By the time we clear the cows and speed furiously down the road away from cow country, I’ve convinced myself that I’ll never find cows cute, ever.
Hard-core tourists treat life like a video game
Dark has fallen by the time we hit Reheboth, which now seems like a thriving metropolis compared to the bizarre video game land of nothingness we’ve just spent the last five hours in. There are all sorts of hitch hikers on the side of the road, and cars are passing us obnoxiously all the time, but we’re just glad to be back in civilization, without having to push the Sloop John B out of the mud.
When we get home, Dean is really happy to see his favourite girls in Namibia again, and he asks us if we're going to make him something to eat.