It's Christmas Eve, and we're pulled over on the side of the road somewhere shy of Aus. We step out of the car and climb down into the sand and stare out at the field ahead of us, at the thirty or forty or fifty or so wild horses grazing the golden grass.
It's one of those German vestiges I mentioned, these wild horses. They aren't native to the area, so the Germans brought them in to use as beasts of burden (because, apparently, enslaving an entire people wasn't enough). When Germany's hold on Southwest Africa crumbled some hundred years ago, the horses were abandoned, and for a century they've managed to survive in a climate they're not built for, though no one's quite sure how they've managed.
We don't know their secrets either, but we admire their beauty. They tolerate our presence, or at least find it a manageable cost for the good grass. Another car pulls over and a selfie stick juts out the window and the moment reaches its evident conclusion, and we bid the horses farewell and get back in our vehicle.
It's still hot even at sundown, so after snagging the last campsite back in Aus we take a cool dip in the small pool at the campground. I try to write a little, but already my thoughts are swirling and muddling in just these short days, and it comes out hurried and scattered and I'm a little dismayed. But maybe, I think, it's fitting for our trip thus far: a little hurried, a little scattered, a few disappointing stops and abrupt changes of plan, and lots of rushing, lots of driving. I look forward to our eventual slowdown.
The north country is where our sights lie, and once there we aim to take it slow, no more than a few hours of driving (and through the heat, anyway) each afternoon. But the north is still far, and there's little in between, so for now it's all long stretches of open road. It's taxing, but I remind myself that it is Namibia, and it's nothing but beautiful, shifting, uninterrupted country to slog through.
Christmas morning comes, without ostriches. We begin breaking down camp and I climb atop the truck to collapse our tent and zip the cover, and in a moment of impatience I pull too quickly and a tuft of rain fly gets caught in the zipper. It becomes an ordeal, and dish soap and lighters and tools get pulled into the operation to no avail, and eventually I just yank the cover up hard enough to nearly toss me off the truck when the zipper springs free. I zip, more carefully this time, and we get back on the road.
Perhaps it is a bad omen, but we ignore it. We consult our map and draw a long winding route about five hours north, to the great red dunes of Sossusvlei. The fifty-million-year-old dunes are Namibia's shining icon: its Eiffel, its Liberty, its Petra or Sequoia or Niagara. One of the country's two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the dunes are packed with superlative: world's largest, world's oldest, world's purest, world's tallest. Naturally built off the erosion of Namibia's plentiful rust-red sandstone, the dunes at Sossusvlei are visible, like the Rockies, from hours and hours away, and with the help of our campground receptionist we chart a scenic route to their front door.
It starts out scenic enough. Marvelous, really: a wide, dusty road through fiery countryside. We pass a few cars but otherwise don't see anyone for hours, and this, we learn, is the norm on most of Namibia's public roads. We pass a not-so-well-marked turnoff and realize it's a turnoff we need to take, and I make a wide u-turn in the middle of the road that's maybe not quite wide enough, and we end up stalling out with rear wheels atop a little pocket of loose sand.
I start the car again and fail to get us moving. The back wheels are caught and we're stuck mid-turn right in the middle of the road, wheels spinning, engine stalling. I grow frustrated.
But wait: our truck has four-wheel drive. We expected this; indeed, that's why we got the bulky old truck in the first place. Calmly, I push the second stick into 4L, shift the first stick into first, give it a little gas, and pull up off the clutch. The truck easily climbs up out of the sand, we complete the turn, and we're back on the road just moments later. I unhitch the axles, ignore this second omen, and onward we go.
Some land is fenced and some is not, and a few hours later we come upon the former, but with a small herd of oryx on the outside (our side) of the fence. They start with a fright at the sound of our rumbling engine and begin galloping away from us right up alongside the fence, but the fence runs parallel to the road and our vehicle easily outpaces their best efforts and it's a quiet joy to watch them propel themselves forward as a pack, a little stampede just for us.
We're enjoying it, but we doubt they are, so we pull ahead before terrorizing them too much and continue on. A few dozen kilometers north we pass oryx not so cautious, or more fairly, drivers not so attentive, in the form of lifeless, stiff carcasses on the side of the road. Seeing a dead gemsbok is a little like seeing a dead unicorn (between the majestic form, the flicking tail, and the long straight horns, they don't look all that different), and I feel a pang in my chest at each we pass.
Our wheels continue spinning. We've been driving for hours with still hours to go, and we're hot and the sun is hot and the white gravel of the bumpy road is hot, and the black rubber of our tires burn with the friction of the ground and the glow of the sun and the heat of the day, and the air inside them slowly expands.
We approach a turn and I begin to slow. A large safari-type truck jostles toward us. I wave, and the couple inside begin to wave back, but just as we pass each other their faces contort and their waves become some other gesture: a stop, a slow down, but it's too late: they see it before we feel it.
Outside our truck, our rear right wheel gives out, the building pressure inside becoming too much for its well-worn walls. We're suddenly destabilized, leaning right hard, and I do what I can to pull the truck to the left side and slow without losing control of the three wheels we still have. The truck grinds to a lopsided halt and I pop the driver's side door open and take a look. "We have a flat," I tell Lauren.
For hours we've driven without seeing a soul, and somehow we've managed a flat right at our first true intersection of the day, a sleepy stopping point with a half-dozen men and boys resting in the shade underneath an old tree. Them, and the couple too; they spin into reverse and ask us if we need help and I thank them but wave them along: after all, we have two spares.
Truth be told, I've never actually changed a car tire, but it's an easy task that I know I can manage. I pull out the jack and begin lifting the back corner of the vehicle, while Lauren gets to work pulling the spare off the boot. We don't get far, however, before the friendly men and boys under the tree reach us and ask if we're in need of assistance. Again, I say that we've got a handle on it, but they insist, and finally I yield and let them swap out the wheels, and I take the old wheel, which is now nothing more than a rim and the frayed sidewalls of a once-proud tire, and affix it pitifully to the back. Five minutes later, we're good to go. We give the men some cash and juice for their help and continue a little more slowly on our way, being sure to give the tires a little rest in this heat every now and again.
What use is a bad omen where there are zebras? We spot them from afar and pull out our binoculars to get a closer look. They share the shade of a faraway tree with a few gemsbok, and they all glare at us as though we've invited ourselves to their family dinner. We push ahead blindly and make it to the Sossusvlei campsite, separated from the dunes by a sixty-kilometer tarred road by late afternoon, and at sunset we drive part of the way out on that road and park along the smaller dunes and walk out onto the flat baked sand. An enormous full moon casts an eerie glow on the sandy mounds and the barren trees and on the eyes of the springbok watching us from a few hundred meters away, and at dark we get back in the car and head back the way we came toward camp.
They say Sossusvlei at sunrise is a thing to behold. There's no camping in the dunes, so getting there by sunrise means getting to the start of the road by the time the gates open at 5AM and driving toward them, with no stops, as fast as safely possible. I'm indifferent to this venture: it's an early rise and a rushed journey, and prone to stress and failure and disappointment. And besides, I still have that night in Colorado a few years back, wild camping amongst the Great Sand Dunes, hidden in the depression between great towering piles of sand as the sun paints pretty colors on their waking grains. I have that, and with that I'm content.
But we decide to do it anyway, to do this Sossusvlei-at-sunrise thing, and it's not like we'd be doing much else except sleeping. We wake at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM, still sanding down that jetlag, and we rush to get ready and get in the truck and make it to the gate. On the way, Lauren needs to stop at the bathroom, and I begin to bank left toward the ablutions, but then she says we don't really need to stop, and I bank right, and then I say it's totally not a problem, and bank left, and somewhere in this banking left and right I bank straight, straight into a little triangular bank of sand. The car stalls loudly in the quiet of early morning.
It doesn't really necessitate four-wheel-drive, this tiny patch of sand, but it takes just a moment to switch in and pull out. I drop Lauren at the toilet, stay in the truck, and push the stick back into two-wheel.
Or try to. It won't budge, this second stick. I push a little harder and it doesn't give, and I restart the car and try it all again, and still nothing.
Lauren exits the bathroom and it's already 4:58, give or take, so we opt to figure it out later and rush on over to the tar road leading to the dunes. The gates are still closed, with a convoy of four or five cars ahead of us, other early birds off to get the worm. I stop behind them to figure out this stuck stick, but the gate opens the moment we stop and so we're off again, roaring forward in the dark night.
We're thirty kilometers in when it starts to smell. Barely, at first: just that familiar exhaust odor, maybe a little stronger than usual. Lauren and I look at each other nervously, and I suppose that it's just the extra fuel we're burning in four-wheel-drive, that's all. A little later, when the sickening smell of sulphur fills the cab, I rationalize that too: our last fill-up wasn't the low-sulphur, fifty-parts-per-million diesel we'd been using our whole trip, but the five-hundred parts-per-million kind. Ten times the sulphur, ten times the smell. It makes sense in my ever-arrogant mind.
Forty or fifty kilometers in, Lauren suggests we pull over and ask for help. I don't disagree about pulling over. But I'm a little more cynical when it comes to the asking-for-help part. Midday, sure, some kind soul might spare a little time to pop the hood and have a look. But at 5AM, cars hurtling forward with sleepy drivers so eager to see dune dawn that they've woken at 4AM to make it happen, I don't reckon any gallant knights will be coming to our rescue soon. Either we stop and sit until the sands become too hot for those who made it to enjoy, or we turn back, drive more, miss the whole thing, and try again another day. Or, option three, we keep at it, hope it's just a lot of high-sulphur fuel being burned, and see if we can't get a second, more qualified opinion once everyone's had their fun at the dunes.
Begrudgingly, Lauren accepts option three, and we crack the windows and try hard not too breathe and just a little while later hit the sixty-kilometer mark, when the tar road all-too-suddenly becomes sand and we fly right into it and get all-too-promptly stuck. We stall, the engine shuts off, and steam rises out from the hood vent. Oops.
These dunes just don't want any part of us. I hop out and look back and other cars are starting to arrive, some driving in and steering right around us without so much as a hello, and others stopping up on the tar to deflate their tires for better handling in loose sand. Oh right, that.
As Lauren and the car both fume, I pull out the air compressor and begin frantically lowering the tire pressure. I get through about two of them before a staff member driving a beastly four-wheel-drive shuttle sidles up next to us, hops out, and to the amusement of his dozen or so passengers, climbs into the driver's seat of our vehicle to deftly (and embarrassingly effortlessly) navigate us right out of the sandpit. He walks back to us and his shuttle and returns the keys to my hand. He says he'll be back in ten minutes, right after he drops his passengers off, and not to drive the vehicle. "Of course," I say, "I never meant to drive it into the sand."
"No," he corrects me. "Not good to drive. Leaking oil." He points to the ground, and our eyes follow a long black trail from us to the still-steaming truck. My heart sinks.
Now, if you know trucks, you've likely spotted the problem long ago. I don't know trucks, and so I learn the problem through a series of eye-rolls and head-shakes and stern lessons from the more learned among us out on the dunes: you never, ever drive on a tarred road in four-wheel-drive.
Of course, I know already that there's no sense in doing so. What I learn is that it's not just pointless, but actually bad for the car: that without the give of gravel or sand, those two axles are going to be pushing with slightly different force, and without a loose ground to absorb that tension, the stress on one of those axles will continue to build to the point of rupture. In other words, it's very, very bad.
I feel a little foolish, or maybe a lot foolish, but there's not much we can do now. The shuttle driver returns and suggests we worry about it later, that dunes are a-waiting and it's only going to get hotter in the coming hours. So we grab our stuff, leave our stinking, steaming, hopelessly-stuck-in-four-wheel-drive vehicle in the shade, and hop in the open-air shuttle for a quick, bumpy ride into the sand.
My insides are all tied up in knots, and Lauren's too, but it's easy to forget about our troubles in this eerie, Martian landscape. Smooth and pristine and glowing red and violet and orange in the early morning light, the great dunes of Sossusvlei surround us and engulf us and enamor us. We disembark the shuttle and walk across the salted earth, and we hike up the thin faltering ridge of a nameless, ever-changing mountain of sand.
There's a beauty in the paradoxical permanence of sand dunes at scale. On the one hand, they are some of our hardiest landscapes, for they are difficult to damage and quick to repair and often undesirable to exploit or develop. They are what's left when the world dries up, and these dunes at Sossusvlei, spanning hundreds of kilometers for fifty million years, will likely stand just as tall and proud fifty million from now. We can control much, but we cannot control the wind, and as eagerly as we build roads into sand it will cover those roads; as fervently as we sweep them clean it will cover them again. It's a landscape that that won't change for us, a landscape that won't change for anything.
On the other hand, dunes are always changing. Elevations are never but approximate, and even our steadfast lines of latitude and longitude fail to account for mountains that move, for dunes that crawl across the earth, that migrate, that ebb and flow with the winds and the breezes. The footsteps we leave in the sand may be gone tomorrow, or they may last a thousand years. The same lies true for the very dune we climb.
We climb this dune slowly. It's hard work, scaling sand. The ground gives with each step, so the strides are short, and it's steep and it's already heating up, and by the time we're at the top we're sweating and out of breath. We sit and rest. Beneath us lies Dead Vlei, a peculiar and foreboding salt pan scattered with leafless trees. The hidden valley, like several in the area, was once a wet, shady oasis, but the climate grew drier and the air grew hotter and the trees died of thirst, some eight hundred years ago. But they didn't die like normal trees, with all that rotting and decomposing and returning to the earth and all, because decomposition requires moisture, and the dry desert just had none to spare. Consequently, the trees baked, like an herb in a dehydrator, and now centuries later, dead as they may be, they still stand tall and proud and waiting, as a maple in winter.
We run down the dune like cosmonauts in some altered gravity, and we walk among the preserved trees quietly. It's peaceful out on the pan, but inside my body things are rumbling. Ever since that foul, odorous drive along the tar, I've been literally sick to my stomach, the sulphurous fumes leaving it all wretched and twisted. I haven't said much, but the jog down the duneside left things all bubbly, and I need a latrine immediately. But, we're in the desert.
I turn toward the road and begin walking slowly, breathing heavy, stopping and starting as Lauren follows attentively behind. There had been a few walls of reeds patched together at the edge of the road, I'd remembered, and I don't know what it is or why it is there but I know that I needs it to be a latrine. Along the way I eye the bushes and search for small, sheltered depressions, a last-ditch plan B if it comes to that, and all the while the tourists of Sossusvlei bustle about me, blissfully unaware of the nauseous war deep in my bowels.
Heat, sweat, footsteps, thorns hidden away in the sand. The roadway shimmers like a mirage, and with it the outline of a humble three-walled outhouse. I dash toward it at an octogenarian's pace, crippled by pain, and discover with a sacred glee that there is indeed a toilet inside, one of the foulest in my years, but that doesn't matter now. It's a hole in the ground and that's all one needs.