Monday, July 21, 2014

Painted Desert

Note:  in an effort to let the natural appearance of the desert be displayed, I decided to not edit or enhance any of the following photos (except for 3 photos I took with my iphone that I brought the color up to match my nicer camera).  In other words, the desert actually looks like this in person!

Several years ago, I saw a photo that absolutely floored me.

 A photographer from National Geographic captured a collection of dark brownish leafless trees set against a bright orange backdrop and a soft purplish-blue rock floor, but It was so cartoon like in it's color and contrast that I thought it must be a hoax.  There's no way a place like this actually exists...  but if it does, I vowed that I would go to see it person some day.  After some research, I discovered that the photo was taken at sunrise in Namibia inside the Sossusvlei region of the Namib desert where some of the tallest sand dunes in world reside.  

Earlier this month, I found myself with a week off from teaching responsibilities and a mere two hour flight away from the place I had been dreaming of visiting.

My friend Bryan, who is here working for an NGO in Durban, just moved here a couple months ago and was looking to join me on my next holiday exploration.  I suggested we go to Namibia for a week.  Our interaction went something like this: 

Bryan: "What's in Namibia?"  
Mike: "The most beautiful desert you've ever seen"
Bryan: "You want to go to the desert?"
Mike:  "Correct"
Bryan: "For a week?"
Mike: "Yes"

...Some time later

Bryan: "I'm in"

Grace, another ETA from my program, took a little less convincing to join us into the desert because she was already planning a trip to the coast of Namibia.  Bryan and I flew into Windhoek (which is pretty much the only real city in the country) and met up with Grace before embarking on the long trip to Sossusvlei. 

 There wasn't a whole lot to see in Windhoek but I did meet some really interesting and friendly people and also learned a lot about the history of the country.  I won't bore you with details, but I learned a bit about how Namibia(known in the past as South West Africa), which was also under apartheid oppression, gained freedom around the same time as South Africa.  The people put their collective foot down against the oppression and engendered a legitimate armed military struggle against the government.  

Namibia is the least densely populated country in all of Africa and the drive to Sossusvlei from Windhoek was long, desolate, and almost exclusively on gravel roads.  The road seemed to go on eons and it was compounded by the fact that the poor quality of the roads restricted safe driving speeds to a veritible crawl.

If it wasn't for a lone road sign in the midst of vast nothingness we wouldn't have realized that we actually crossed the Tropic of Capricorn along the way!

And at one point we passed by a small settlement and found a man wandering the road and playing a worn old guitar as he strolled along.  

After a tiring day of driving, 

we set up camp for the night with still a hundred or so kilometers to go to our destination.  We were lucky to have an unusually warm night for winter in the desert.  We were unlucky that the warm weather also encouraged a large number of very large insects to hang out at our campsite.  

We rose about an hour before dawn the next morning to try to make it to the dunes by sunrise. 

 As the morning clouds lifted, we could spot the colossal dunes in the distance.

Photography does well at capturing the picturesqueness of the environment, 

but fails to properly present the sheer magnitude of the dunes.  These things were Massive!

We climbed up to the top of "Big Daddy" which is one of the tallest dunes in the area.  

Climbing these dunes is incredibly taxing.  

Each step brings you only a few inches closer to the top because your feet sink so far into the sand.  But those with endurance/stubbornness to make it to the top are rewarded with an other-worldly view.

The best part is sprinting back down to the bottom.  The consistency and depth of the sand allows you to literally run full speed down the 45 degree decent!

After a few hours of journeying, we discovered that the sands aren't as barren as we first suspected.  They are actually teeming with wildlife. 

It's not uncommon to spot Jackals on the dunes

But the real sight to take in is the Deadvlei salt pan which lies adjacent to "Big Daddy".  

The ground is covered in a naturally occurring salt-rock pattern that resembles a cobblestone walkway

And it goes on for hundreds of meters!

At the furthest edge of the pan you will find an ominous gathering of bare camel thorn trees.

Every photo taken of them ends up looking like a stock homescreen for Microsoft Windows.

A rare cloud filled day brought a nice texture to the photographs.

It's like Salvador Dali created a landscape and dropped it into southern Africa.

The dunes shift to a bright orange as the sun sets. Yes, they really are that colorful in person!

Sunrise at Deadvlei

But the most spectacular scene is witnessed just as the sun is rising to greet the east facing dunes while the trees remain in the shadow of the dunes facing west. 

 I returned early the next morning to try and recreate the photo that captured my imagination so many years ago.

The smooth lines created by the towering seas of sand and the vast openness of the patterned floor they surround give you the peculiar sense that you have left the world you know.  

While I reflected in the peaceful silence of the valley, I thanked God for the gift of seeing this remarkably surreal place with my own eyes.

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