Leaving the salty, cool breeze blowing from the sea of Swakopmund, we loaded ourselves back into the overland truck and donned santa hats – never has a garment felt more inappropriate! But it was the beginning of December and we were feeling festive. Ish. At 42 degrees the air was thick and intense, like we had been popped inside an oven and left to crisp.
As we headed into deep, dry Namibian desert, hopping over the Tropic of Capricorn on our way, the heat was relentless. In an attempt to cool our boiling blood we soaked sarongs, draping them soothingly over our skin, but they were dry as a bone within minutes. Even sheltering in the shade felt like facing a furnace head-on and the rare gust of wind swept stinging sand everywhere. Hair, ears, eyes and our al fresco camp dinner were the main victims of the sandy grains that night.
Hundreds of miles from any WiFi or mobile signal, here we were in the middle of the globe. Rural, vast, rugged and unforgiving, this was Earth as it would have been thousands of years ago. Certain plants and animals had learnt to thrive here but without any rain for two years, the landscape was scorched and barren. Nomadic bushmen tribes were amongst the few humans who had braved inhabiting such a climate, cleverly burying ostrich eggs filled with water in locations along their route and heartbreakingly, leaving behind the weakest of their clan, be it elderly, sick or even children. According to our guide, women who were forced to leave their youngsters behind, would sit close to the fire at night so fellow tribesmen could not tell if it was smoke or sadness that filled their eyes with tears.
Our purpose here was to make sunrise at the non-mystically-named ‘Dune 45’. We set alarms for 4.20am and with the moon still bright in the sky, filed quietly onto the overland truck with socked-up feet in preparation for climbing the sand. The number naming system of the most photographed dune in the world does little to capture its startling beauty. ‘Red Humped Sand Monster’ or ‘Fiery beast’ translated into a flurry of tongue clucks from the Namibian click language would seem to me more fitting.
At first, we ran at full over-excited pelt up the dune. Then, assessing the wheezing and burning pain in our chests, slowed to a breathy plod. The views, as we climbed, were outrageous. Mars-like. Miles of desert and slinky two-tone dunes peaked and curved like perfect cresting orange waves. Perfectly sliced by the sun into two halves, one side of each dune glowed in the first morning rays, the other, a cool dark shadow of its brighter self.
On the pyramid-like pinnacle of the dune, our feet sunk into the steep sloping sides, a heavy mountain silence hung in the air. No sooner had the sun risen, the skies blazed cobalt blue as if some unknown being had boosted the colour contrast to ‘vibrant’ on some worldly editing software.
With the climbing heat, we descended, running down the dune, our legs unable to carry us as fast as our brains wished to go. If the definition of a dog’s happiness is sticking its head out of the window of a moving car, I’m willing to say this simple downhill joy is the human equivalent.