Sossusvlei hasn't been kind to us. From the moment we set our sights on it, we'd been told to keep away: by zipper problems, by wrong turns, by sandbars and by flat tires and by a sticky gearbox that wrecked our car and totaled my digestive system. I'm not superstitious (I find it bad luck to believe in that sort of thing), but I find these dunes cursed nonetheless, and I worry what they have in store next.
Thankfully, a redeeming moment.
We grab another shuttle to another set of dunes and wander out onto another shimmering white pan. We spot a gemsbok shading beneath a tree and I sit on a rock to watch it rest while Lauren continues onward. She spots a second gemsbok under a second tree a bit further on and waves me over, and together we watch the silvery oryx flick its tail and turn in circles and watch us back.
I notice it smacking its long, strong horns against the branches above its head. I wonder what it's doing, and then I look above my head and catch sight of small bunches of green rubbery crescents, like little seedy plantains, hiding amongst the leaves. I pull the branch down toward me and yank a handful of these seed pods off the tree.
Slowly (and carefully at Lauren's urging), I toss a pod in a high underhand arc toward the gemsbok. It lands a meter from his feet and he takes a step back. He eyes it, eyes me, eyes us, and then approaches it warily. He recognizes it, scoops it up into his mouth, and chews it loudly.
I throw another, a little closer this time. The gemsbok moves forward and takes the pod. Another, and closer still. I throw what I have and the gemsbok and I are now just ten feet apart. I'm on my knees and close enough to make out the finer details of the gemsbok's magnificent features: the dark eyes, the ridges on his horns, the striations of color in his shaded fur. It's a marvelous moment, and suddenly all the tragedy of coming here to the dunes, settled and unsettled still, becomes worth it.
Dry and hot and indescribably arid, sure, but there's more life here in the desert. We climb another massive dune and find little iridescent beetles scampering about, small sand lizards that dive deep into the sand as our shadows cast them in darkness. Even in the most inhospitable of environments, creatures have found a way to survive and thrive.
But at the moment, we're not two of them. Our water rations are running low and the sun is shining hard on our red faces, and as nice as it would be to stay in the dunes and forget the troubles of the truck just down the road, that must be dealt with too. We descend the dune in leaps and bounds down its steepest face, a weightless sprint back to the pan, and then it's but a short hike and a quick wait for the shuttle before we're bumping back along the sandy road.
On the return, we pass another pair stuck in the sand, and it makes me feel just a tiny touch of schadenfreude that we're not the only ones in need of rescue that morning. Our driver pulls them out and turns the shuttle over to his co-pilot, a German staffer who has been brought along to have a look at our vehicle. He's no mechanic, but he's been driving stick for decades and has picked up a little along the way.
Or so he says. He gets in the driver's seat and starts our truck and pulls us back onto the tar with me riding shotgun and Lauren up ahead in the shuttle, and as he revs the engine he slams his fist hard into the gearbox in an angry, futile attempt to unwedge the stuck stick. Over and over he hits it, with that famed German tenderness, and finally he gives up with a huffy sigh. "Listen," he says to me. "You drive it back very slow. Very slow, no more than forty kilometers an hour."
Fair enough. Pushing two hitched axles along a tar road isn't great, but I'm told speed is the real enemy here, and a nice, slow return to camp (and the mechanic set up there) won't worsen matters all too greatly. I thank him and head toward the shuttle to find Lauren, where she's talking to the other staffer, the one who got us out of the sand to begin with. He's telling her something different: that the truck shouldn't move, that we should leave it here, that we should arrange to get a ride the sixty kilometers back to camp, then grab the mechanic, then somehow drive get the sixty kilometers back out here with him, then (presumably after he looks at it with his wrench and toolbox and determines it needs a more thorough diagnostic), somehow tow or drive the car back to his shop anyway.
I fail to see the wisdom in this plan. Somehow this truck will need to return to camp, and someone will have to drive it, and sure, it can be done nice and slow, and besides, if the tar road is the problem, then we can just drive it on the shoulder, a nice wide line of packed dirt paralleling the road most of the way back.
Lauren's not convinced, and I don't entirely blame her, what with the three men now mansplaining truck mechanics in her ear, and me having been sorely misguided in my early-morning rationalization of the smoke and fumes that started this whole mess. I head back to the truck to have another look. Methodically, I turn the key and start the engine, slowly pressing in the clutch and releasing the brake. I then push just a little bit into the gearbox before pulling the stick upward, and just like that, the stick shifts smoothly out into rear-wheel-drive. I feel like King Arthur pulling Excalibur from hard stone, and it feels wonderful.
I rush over to tell Lauren the good news. Two of the men are still going on about insurance-this and differential-that, and even after hearing that the truck is back on one axle, they urge the sit-in-the-desert-all-day-and-wait-for-salvation option. Easy for them to say, with a working set of wheels.
Lauren and I walk back to the vehicle and I show her the gearbox. She's not entirely convinced, but reckons that the drive-to-the-mechanic plan is now a little more appealing, and so I pull the compressor back out and start putting air back into those deflated tires.
As I work, a large humming Land Rover pulls alongside and a friendly face pokes out of the front window. "Need any help?" he asks.
Lauren and I explain what happened and he smiles and listens and cringes when we get up to the driving-on-tar part, and then I explain how we're now back in two-wheel-drive, and everything feels good, but that I don't really know what I'm doing and that it'd be so wonderful, and so, so appreciated, if he wouldn't mind taking a quick look.
Graciously he obliges. He switches from one driver's seat to the next and takes our truck a little ways up the road, then spins it around and comes back our way. He hops out, squats down to check the undercarriage, and stands back up to tell us, in a thick, warm Australian accent, that it seems okay to take on the road.
He clarifies a few murky details, too. He explains just why driving all-wheel-drive on a tarred road is bad, that bit earlier about the stress and the tension and the release. He explains that the differential could have been badly damaged, but it didn't look like it was; by the looks of things, all that pressure just caused some differential oil to leak out and fry on the hot axles. Hence the smell, hence the smoke.
He can't say how much repair the differential will need, but he confirms that the front axle is, indeed, totally and fully disengaged: that the truck may not be capable of shifting back into all-wheel mode, but that it should drive just fine with the rear wheels.
We thank the couple profusely, take a little more of their time to chat about where they're coming from and we're they're going, and let them continue on their way. Meanwhile, we get back into the still-smelly-but-a-little-less-smelly cab, start the engine, and follow them east toward camp.
Sixty kilometers later, everything feels fine, and we pull the truck into the petrol station and ask for the mechanic. A short man named Heinrich comes on over, and he doesn't speak much English, so we translate through the petrol attendant and determine that Heinrich needs to let the engine cool for a few hours before having a proper look.
We leave him the keys and head over to a shady common area for some shandies and chips. We play a little cards and read and I try to write just a bit, and in an hour or two we wander over to the station and find that our truck is ready to go.
He hasn't done much, this Heinrich. He's poured some more differential oil into the differential, or wherever differential oil goes, to replace that which leaked out and steamed up and made us sick. He thinks the seal is still intact and no permanent damage is done, and that's good to hear. We also learn that this happens all the time, this driving-on-tar-roads-and-damaging-something thing, and also that our model of 4x4 is notorious for sticky gearboxes. So there wasn't anything we did to get it stuck in the first place, and attempting to drive it in four-wheel-drive was an ignorant but common mistake, and by the time things started smoking and we realized something was wrong, the oil was already dripping like honey onto the hot front axle. It doesn't necessarily excuse the arrogance, but all this does make me feel a little better.
Heinrich, by proxy of the petrol attendant, does recommend taking it to a better outfitted mechanic with a lift or a pit, to someone who can really get up under there and make sure everything is as it should be. We promise to do so, and as soon as we're returned the keys we bolt from those cursed dunes, leaving nothing but dust and tire marks and perhaps a few lasting goblets of black oil in our wake.
In its normal two-wheel-drive mode, the car is indeed driving beautifully. We cross lovely terrain and descend into curvy, rocky canyons, and I enjoy the task of downshifting and upshifting to get over the steeper hills. It's all ridged cliffs and sandstone domes in this part of Namibia, parts unknown between Sossusvlei and Walvis Bay. We refill at a petrol station in Solitaire and join the main road coming up from Aus, and with that our desert dune detour concludes, and I feel great in thinking the bad luck behind us.
We drive through the sleepy town of Walvis Bay in search of a campsite, find none, and high-tail it thirty kilometers up the road to the larger city (still tiny by American standards) of Swakopmund. Swakopmund was the German answer to Britain's Walvis Bay, and as such both towns seem distinctly misplaced along the wild Namibian coast: the architecture, the people, the ambience, none of it quite belongs. People describe these towns as "charming," and I find them anything but. We snag a spot in a crowded campsite on the edge of Swakopmund for over forty dollars a night, robbery for what we're offered, and go for an uninspiring walk along the wide, boring streets. In a country famous for its friendliness, no one in this dull city smiles. We enter a restaurant and wait five minutes to noticed and another ten to be seated and another fifteen to place an order and another forty to receive our weak, flavorless food, and then we head back to camp, exhausted after almost twenty hours awake, for a sound slumber by the salty sea.
I think the dunes are done with us, but they have one last trick up their sandy sleeve. The next morning, casually searching about for my passport, I realize that it's not where I remember leaving it, and after a searching a little-less-casually the places that I don't remember leaving it, I realize that it's not in the truck.
A flashback: yesterday, Solitaire, getting gas just a little north of Sossusvlei, before rejoining the main road. Lauren is using the toilet and I'm in the driver's seat with the door open and window down, passport sitting right in that all-too-conspicuous slot in the door. I'm adjusting the settings of a little dongle that plugs into the top of my phone and turns it into a tiny radio tower that allows us to play phone audio through the car's radio. While the attendant pumps diesel into the back of the truck, another man, unidentified and ununiformed, approaches the vehicle and asks what that little thing on my phone is. I explain it to him and, toying with the radio, demonstrate how it works, and he's interested at first and interested still and suddenly not interested, and wanders off as soon as the demonstration wraps.
In life and in travel, I pride myself on trust: the ability to be free from fear and free from suspicion, to accept risk for the reward it brings. In recent years I've accepted unsolicited offers for late-night lodging from former felons, accepted unsolicited offers for late night motorcycle rides from complete strangers in Asia, and slept on enough bus benches, train station floors, and city parks to frighten those kind enough to care. And I've been fortunate to never trust the wrong person, the wrong place, the wrong situation. Until now.
My mind searches desperately for other possibilities, but I'm sure and I'm annoyed and I feel foolish. I'm in a faraway country without my documents and while I have no fondness for documents of any sort and would just as well not have them, I recognize that they're needed and needed soon: to cross the border back to South Africa, to get on a plane back to the States, and just a few weeks from then, to head across the Atlantic yet again for a little jaunt through Morocco. I can't imagine a stolen passport yielding too great a value to anyone else (though perhaps I'm ignorant of black market fare), but I immediately recognize the hassle it will cause me: calls to the consulate, delays, forms and forms and more forms, several hundred dollars in replacement fees, untold inconvenience to Lauren, who's been smart enough to tuck her passport away a little more carefully.
And sure, there's the sentimentality too: the visas to China and Turkey and India and Nepal glued within the pages, the thirty or forty or fifty border stamps recording my comings and going better than I can. I'm no stamp collector, but I'll grant the beauty in well-worn travel documents, and my passport was nothing if not well-worn.
We tear apart the truckbed once more but it's pointless: my little blue book is three hundred kilometers away. We search our papers for the consulate and find one in Windhoek, one of the final stops on our Namibian journey, and also find that it's closed today, closed most days in fact, and there's not much we can do at the moment.
Instead, we search the streets of Swakopmund for a mechanic, find not a single one open on Sunday, and settle for lunch and a grocery run instead. It has been a stressful few days, and Lauren and I slowly untie the knots of tension bound to ball up in any high-stress travel environment. Compounding the stress is a stark difference in our feelings toward the city: I loathe it, and she kind of likes it, and I can tolerate it on a calmer day, but I'm tense and annoyed and in desperate need of wide, open spaces. We compromise: we walk around for a bit, duck into a few shops, and then drive just a short way north toward Spitzkoppe, and finally I feel free from the wreck and the ruin our drive to and from the dunes caused.
Spitzkoppe is something different altogether. We see it long before we arrive, a great sharp hunk of granite hundreds of meters high. It pokes at the sky, by this hour a brilliant sampling of lavender and orange, and we bump along Namibian backroads to the campsite at its base. Along the way we pass small, quiet villages, houses and shelters of old tin and drapes, goats grazing and little boys waving from the roadside and rocks piling up all around us.
They call this place Damaraland, and it's beautiful. Outside the main tourist drag, Damaraland feels like a different Namibia altogether: it's hard to say quieter, because all of Namibia is quiet, but perhaps gentler, simpler, all-around lovelier. The landscape grows wavy and we race up its crests, and we slow for low-flying birds and lumbering cows and a small pack of mules milling back in the middle of the road.
The mules spill out onto the sides, some heading left and some heading right, and just as I begin to ease off the clutch we notice one of them just isn't moving quiet right: it's shuffling, tiny little steps on its front hooves. We look closer and see a cord of twine wrapped around them, not six inches between the two legs, and watch the mule scamper away with fright in its eyes.
I don't really think out my next steps. I throw the car into park and rush out the door and walk gingerly over to the mule and its family. "It's okay," I coo, "we just want to help." The mule doesn't speak English, and instead does his best to flee, but it's hard to flee when your feet are shackled together and he looks close to tripping over himself in his haste.
I try following him slowly, demonstrating that I'm not a threat, and he stops running but also doesn't come near, scampering when necessary to keep at least a few meters between us. I rush back to the cab and ask Lauren to grab bread and a knife, which is certainly not a good idea but seems like the only idea at the moment. She opens the trunk and hands me a few slices and a small serrated blade, and I dash off toward the mule, glancing over timidly by his partner and calf.
I can't say I've ever chased an animal with a knife before; this was, indeed, a first for me. It feels surprisingly primal, too, racing in circles under a thick African sky with a target and a blade and a mission, and I don't blame the mule for doing his best to dash away. He kicks up his front legs and kicks back his hind legs and half-stumbles, half-gallops away, and I run by his side trying not to hurt him or hurt myself. His family looks on in terror and I'm all too aware of the ridiculousness of it all, and I feel ridiculous and I also feel like I've failed already, like nothing I do won't end badly.
I can drive away and hurt my conscience; I can give up and let this four-legged animal live a two-legged half-life. I can give it my all and get kicked in the face with a rear hoof, or trip and fall face- or arm- or chest-first onto my knife. I can continue chasing the mule aimlessly and just invoke more terror, or I can dive at it, do my best to knock it down, and probably injure us both in the process. And even if I do succeed, grab hold of the mule and cut the twine, there's they very real possibility that this mule was tied up for a reason, that it's the "property" of some nearby family and I'm robbing their livestock in the process of emancipating a life. It's complicated and tricky and most certainly a lose-lose-lose-lose-lose, and I think this all over as I continue to chase the mule in circles.
We both run into a thornbush and he gets stuck, and I unprick myself and round the front of it and kneel just a meter from his trembling face. The knife sits in my hand, and we both eye it, but I know I can't get nearer without him lunging forward or back and digging those thorns in deeper in the process, and reluctantly I drop the knife. "I just want to help," I plead, but I know that I can't set him free for reasons cultural and physical but mainly practical, and instead I settle for helping him out of the thorny branches in which he's tangled. He backs up, and so do I.
Lauren waits not far from the car with terror in her eyes too, and from her vantage point, I'm sure I gave her a fright. She's worried something could have happened to me, and I do my best to reassure her that I'm still alive and well, and we climb back into the car and, albeit a little defeated, leave the mules and the countryside in peace or violence or whatever it chooses to be.
Nothing cements a place more fondly in the memory than arriving at sunset, when the land is golden and the sky is like well-stained wood and everything around you is twilit in gentle shades of blue. This is how we pull into the Spitzkoppe rest camp, driving into unforgettable sunset toward the mountain itself. The campsite is enormous and hidden and nothing short of paradise. We set up camp and cook up a meal and by the time it's ready, a thick layer of cloud has blanketed the night sky.
I know nighttime clouds as orange, because that's what city life presents me: ghastly orange clusters of smog and rain that reflect the unnatural hues of illumination beneath, all those sodium streetlights and automobile headlights and great big towering buildings of lights, lights, and more lights, all trapped up there under the clouds and reflected back at us like our tribute to the heavens has been returned to sender.
But here, in the Namibe Desert, there is no light to reflect. And so we're enveloped in total darkness, the kind reserved for walk-in closets and subterranean basements, and I flick off our headlamps and Lauren and I can't see each other, our hands, anything around us: it's black as night when black-as-night actually meant it.
The winds howl all night. There's still a gentle breeze when we wake, and it cools us as we start out to climb the Spitzkoppe at our doorstep. We don't have ambitions of making it up to the steep tip, for we don't even bring water, but we decide to see how far our legs and arms will take us, and we hike and we scramble our way up its rocky side.
Lauren decides to stop about middway and I head a little further up, to a pass with marvelous views over the other side. I admire the quirky wildlife up there: little quiver trees, spotted lizards, decaying fronds from a wetter time, and on the way down I collect a few scratches and a sprained wrist in the scramble. By the time we return to camp, it's already hot, so we change and head the few kilometers over to the reception desk in the comfort of our car.
I call the consulate on a borrowed phone and get instructions for replacing a lost passport: I need to make an appointment, and fill out forms, and get photographs, and bring these forms and these photographs to that appointment in WIndhoek the following week. Reassured, we spend the rest of the day resting in the shade, swinging in hammocks, playing cards as cows graze around us.
We spend another night in Spitzkoppe, a rare and cherished rest day, and sleep soundly amidst the chatter of rock hyrax and the ever-present wind. The next morning we continue on to the northern coast, stopping off in the little town of Henties Bay to scratch off a whole list of errands. We file a police report for the stolen passport (requisite for the replacement), drop the truck at a mechanic (who doesn't really have time to look at it but says it's probably okay), try to replace our second spare tire (they don't carry the size), find a coffee shop with wi-fi to make the consulate appointment, fill up on cash and fuel and pancakes, and get a permit granting us access to the Skeleton Coast, Namibia's untouched northern coastline.
We then drive north, another fifty or sixty kilometers or so to Cape Cross, home to one of Africa's largest seal colonies. The Cape Cross seal population hovers around a hundred thousand, and upon arrival we see (and smell) several thousand on the beach in front of us. It's utter chaos on the otherwise undeveloped coast: not the chaos of people, tourists, any of that, but the cacophonous chaos of the barking and howling and wailing and roaring of a great big crowed of seals clamoring over each other all the way to the water.
There's a row of planks forming a little boardwalk for us, with railings just narrow enough to keep the seals and humans from getting too close, but it's a failing attempt, really: there are seals in the parking lot and seals in the shade beneath the planks, and there's a lone bull up ahead on the boardwalk itself, seemingly wondering how he got there. It's late December, and so the cape fur seals have just given birth, and this in no small way compounds the chaos. In addition to the usual roaring and fighting and chest-beating amongst the aggressive bulls, the colony conjures up the unsettling image of worried parents right after an attack or natural disaster: mothers searching for their children amidst of sea of others, little kids running about yelling mommy, where are you?
And this isn't far from the truth. We stop to watch a mother seal call out to her baby, and we witness several shiny, big-eyed cubs waddle over for comfort and warmth and, most importantly, milk. The mother smells the helpless seals and, in turn, barks each away: go find your own mother. She wails again.
The lost boys and girls of Cape Cross wander the shore frantically pleading for milk, and not all find it. There's carnage here on the sunny sands, whole litters of cub carcasses just littering the coastline, nauseous decaying mounds of fur and blubber and the purpled guts inside.
But beauty, too: the beautiful eyes of better-cared-for cubs almost nipping at our heels, poking their faces up at us with curiosity and intrigue, if only for a moment. The adult seals pay us no mind, for they have more pressing matters to worry about: those not searching for their cubs or actively nursing are off to the choppy waters to hunt for fish, or otherwise they're slapping each other around to settle some beef over one stepping on another's fin or head or child.
The smell that envelops us is of uncertain origin. Perhaps it's the decomposing cubs, or maybe it's all the fish before and after digestion, or quite possibly it's just the slimy seals themselves in their splendid salty, sandy mess. Wherever it's coming from, it's the kind of smell you don't really get used to with prolonged exposure, and so we retreat to the car, and from there to airier areas, before our stomachs turn too much.
Cape Cross sits at the base of the Skeleton Coast Park, and our plan was to venture north into its wild, remote expanses, but Grace, the woman who granted us our coastal permit back in Henties Bay, tells us it's not all it's cracked up to be. Wild, sure, and remote, definitely, but not particularly exciting or dramatic. We'd get a taste of it from Henties Bay to Cape Cross, she promises, and anything north is just more of the same: flat land to the right, white sand to the left, and unchanging waters just beyond that. If you want real scenery, real adventure, she tells us, head inland.
We're skeptical, and eager to explore the quiet coast, but we can't argue that there's tons to see in northern Damaraland, and further from the shore, the fabled Kaokoveld beckons. We'll have to pass through them anyway on our path to Etosha, not too many days from now, so rather than pile on the miles we opt to take it a little slower: we skip the coast, turn away from the sliding sun, and make for the bush.
It's a decision not easily regretted. Our cloudy afternoon brings us past some of the best scenery I've seen to date: not just here in Namibia, but across all my travels. The landscape here is foreign to me, like nothing I've seen before, brilliant red earth and lush green forest and silvery trees growing defiantly from great heaps of sandstone. There are plateaus and ridges and canyons and mountains and watch-for-wild-giraffes-and-elephants signs, and the road channels a roller coaster in its ups and downs, the kind where you reach the top and all you see is sky up ahead.
It whips around, too, and at first we're heading east and north but then we're spun west, and by this point the enormous sun is simmering like a boiling yolk over the clay pan in front of us. The light casts a blinding glare on the windshield and we pull into the next campsite we can find, a quiet affair flanked by immense piles of brick-red boulders, like Joshua Tree painted red. We set up camp and cook dinner and climb into the tent early.
Off in the distance, a thundering bellow. It's followed thereafter by a deep, rumbling laugh: not a human laugh, but the laugh a villainous creature might make. In fact, it's the exact laugh Bowser (Mario's, not Muriel) makes, and it's uncanny in the resemblance. We wonder aloud what it could be. Warthog, perhaps; it's the kind of throaty thunder you might expect from a pig-demon, but neither of us has ever actually heard the nocturnal calls of a warthog, so it's a shot in the dark. Meanwhile the unidentified creature shoots off in the dark another round of violent bellows, and I drift to sleep with images of the Beast of the Southern WIld stampeding through my mind.