We wake and we pack. We drive north and we reach the border. We park our truck and we creep inside the dimly lit customs office. We hand over our passports and we're handed tickets to bring to the next building over. We're given forms and we fill them out. It's a dull, confusing process, and we end up exiting South Africa and entering Namibia without getting our passports stamped, so we have to turn around and repeat it all on the Namibian side. We declare nothing and we pay the road fee and with the loud ka-clunk of an official stamp, we're on our way. We fill up on fuel and we bear north.
Literally, it means land of nothing. And at a distance, it seems true. Our first several hours driving reveal little life: just brown washed-out mounds and grey washboard roads and dried little shrubs barely holding onto life. There are no red lights and few speed limits, and we kick up dust along the bumpy road following signs toward Ai-Ais—Fish River Canyon.
My shifting and stopping and starting has gotten a little smoother, and I round the curves of the canyon with confidence, bumps and hills and all. A faded sign marked Ai-Ais points us right, and I follow it down a road so potholed and broken that our music can't be heard over the rattle of the vehicle. It's only twelve kilometers, but it takes the better part of an hour, and it's not until we finally arrive at the entrance gate, fill out the entry form, and begin rolling in that Lauren catches the obscured sign to the left of the gate: "Welcome to Ai-Ais Fish River Canyon Spa."
We didn't come to Namibia to go to the spa. It turns out this road is a dead end, that we've come the wrong way, and that we're still at least an hour from the proper canyon overlook. Frustrated, I whip our truck around and steer us back over the wavy, winding road, another forty minutes bumping along whence we came.
Eventually we make it to the real Fish River Canyon, and it's beautiful and quiet and also blisteringly hot, and we gaze out at it for a little. It is a marvel, no doubt: the second largest canyon in the world. But when you've seen the planet's first largest canyon and hiked its depths, or when you've been to the Canyonlands and scrambled its mounds, a great big canyon—especially in this heat—can seem, frankly (and ungratefully, I know) a little unimpressive. Lauren feels similarly.
We aren't breath-taken, but I won't say we're disappointed either. We didn't come for the canyon; 'tis merely a detour (albeit an unexpectedly long one) on our journey ever northward. Eager to make good use of the daylight we have left, we scrap our plan to camp atop Fish River and get back in the vehicle and back on the road.
Literally, it means land of nothing, but if you look a little more closely, there's so much hidden in this vast landscape. Lizards and birds scamper and flutter across the road, butterflies and moths meander from bush to bush, and soon we come upon the real treasures: a brilliant oryx with great big piercing horns resting in the shade beneath a roadside tree, smaller chestnut-colored springbok racing through the sand as our truck rumbles by. The fences fall away and suddenly we're part of the plains around us: we see ostriches prancing and big birds of prey hovering, and they see us too, eyeing warily.
Dusk approaches and I want eagerly to be off the road, but it's desolate and remote and we haven't passed a campground in a hundred kilometers. I strain my eyes against the amber glare on the windshield and I drive slowly and I scan the horizon. Something moves on our left and I slam on the brakes and the truck slides forward on the gravel road, and I steer to keep us on the road and steer to keep us straight but also steer to keep us from hitting the gemsbok that has just darted onto the gravel, galloping a long diagonal right in front of us. I catch a glimpse of her family on the other side, and Lauren an I—perhaps the gemsbok, too—exhale deeply as the truck clears her back end without a collision.
A short while later we pull into Aus, my heart still pumping heavily from the close encounter. I eye the road attentively and tap the pedal timidly and we slowly turn into a marked campground, an unexpectedly delightful place with the feel of an oasis amidst hot, dry desert. We're greeted kindly at the reception desk and snag one of the last campsites and drive a few kilometers through the grounds into a gorgeous clearing with glorious sandstone formations towering all around us. Our site sits under a large tree with an absolutely massive birds' nest, and I listen to a million little tweets coming from its innards as we set up camp and unpack the tent. We cook, we eat, we sleep.
It has been a few years since I've seen a proper night sky: the kind with the billion stars and the Milky Way painted across it, the kind that leaves you spellbound and humbled and staring up at it for hours despite the cold, the exhaustion, the wild things biting at your arms. This summer, out west, it was nothing but weeks of cloudy nights, and in India, in Europe, you could barely see the sun, let alone the stars.
We arrive in Namibia days before a full moon, which means a beautiful, big white orb in the sky, but bright too—so bright it hurts to look directly at it. And also so bright that it very inconveniently lights up the night sky, obscuring the dimmer stars, the further planets, the distant streak of the galaxy.
I wake around what feels like 3AM, and wonder if the moon might be a little less imposing at this late hour. I quietly unzip the fly of the dark tent expecting to see a few more stars than I had at bed; instead I recoil at the brightness of proper daytime: a glaring sun, blinding white sands, and not more than twenty feet from the tent flap, a handful of wild ostriches and a small herd of wild horses just grazing about.
It isn't 3AM; it's after nine—the jetlag has kept us soundly asleep despite the ruckus outside. "Lauren: horses, ostriches!" I shout in incoherent disbelief, sliding down the ladder to get a closer look.
The ostriches are unfriendly, and retreat hastily with sour faces, but the horses tolerate our admiration from not-too-far-a-distance. We walk among them as they graze, photograph them from a meter away, and eventually head back toward the truck with sweat dripping from our brows. It's still morning, but already it's sweltering.
We commence our now-daily ritual of packing the tent, washing dishes, filling canteens, deciding what we'll keep handy and what'll get stowed away 'round back, and before we leave, we crack open the field guide to figure out just what that giant nest above our heads are home to. Sociable weavers, it turns out: tiny fragile birds that build great big community nests fit for the whole family. Later on in the day, we come upon trees so encumbered by nest that there's little tree left to see. Nature's treehouses, you might say.
Aus lies just an hour or so from the coastal town of Luderitz, Namibia's southernmost seaside settlement. There's actually tons of coastline south of it—hundreds and hundreds of kilometers—but it's all "owned" by NAMDEB, something of a subsidiary of the De Beers global diamond cartel. As a deplorable compromise of Namibia's all-too-recent independence from white South Africa, Namibia agreed to secure the diamond-rich sands of the southern coast for the at-will plundering of De Beers, permitting access to absolutely no one else. The result of this is a people robbed of their own land (an all-too-common motif of African nations, of course), but also a neatly-cut nugget of diamond on the fourth finger of every unquestioning Western woman with a spouse and a household income.
Whether by war, slavery, child labor, or outright crookery, all diamonds are blood diamonds—"conflict-free diamond" refers only to the inner conflict of the wearer, not the sourcing of the stone. NAMDEB signs along the route to Luderitz warn those thinking about a curious traipse through the diamond dunes that the diamonds are not theirs to take—that "diamond theft hurts us all." The sign doesn't bother to explain how, or whom "us" is (certainly not the Namibian people), or to tackle the tricky ethics of how a centuries-old gang of diamond thieves and racketeers can warn others against diamond theft.
I digress. The real gem of the region isn't diamond, anyway: it's the crisp, shining drive down the tarred road from Aus to Luderitz, a gorgeous descent into a desert valley of golden sand, smooth asphalt, and towering rock formations rivaling those of Arizona's Monument Valley. Past sand and sandstone alike we fly, music blaring and wheels rolling and air conditioner blasting to keep the cab comfortable. We come upon an old ruin about halfway to Luderitz and pull over to take a look: further inspection suggests it's a former train station, but there's not much left now besides brick walls and empty bottles and a decent set of rails—still operational, by the looks of it—wrapping around the horizon.
Further along, the sand grows a little looser. It piles high in roadside dunes and it spills onto the shoulder-less roadway and as the wind picks up, it takes to slithering across the tar like rainstreams. A second hand grabs the wheel to sturdy us against the wind and the soft sand, and we drive into growing sandstorm, the thick fog, unsure of the state Luderitz will be in upon our arrival.
Not much different, it turns out. Windy and sandy and startlingly German, we arrive in this odd little enclave of traditional churches and pastel houses and wide, empty streets by early afternoon. A sad vestige of Germany's short-lived but long-felt occupation of and imperial ambitions in Africa, Luderitz doesn't have much to offer, spare a few shuttered cafes and seafood joints. It does have a campground, though, right out on the water at the tip of its only peninsula. We drive the remaining kilometer or two, are told to pick any site we'd like, and choose one with brilliant views of the choppy Atlantic Ocean. We step out of the truck and are blasted with sand.
I may be understating the speed of this wind or the coarseness of this sand, or both. After changing into pants and sneakers for better leg protection, and donning a pair of sunglasses for eye protection, we start in toward the town for a meal. I turn my head to the side a few steps in and the wind rips the sunglasses right off my face, sends them hurtling down the rocky pathway with me chasing frantically after them.
After securing them back to my face and vowing not to glance aside again, we continue south against the terribly strong northbound wind. At a few points it stings so bad we're forced to turn around and just wait it out: slow steps backwards, hands covering faces. Off the peninsula things are a tad better, but not by much; we turn into the first restaurant we come across, order some disappointing food, and ponder how to burn the many hours until we can climb into our tent for an attempt to find sleep between the howling gusts.
Lauren has an idea, a lovely, simple, obvious one: why not go back to Aus? Aus, land of the ostrich wake-up call and the horse-accompanied breakfast; Aus of the picturesque vistas and nice shady tables and totally-affordable camping rates. Aus, an unavoidable return on our northward journey anyway—with only one road in and out of Luderitz, the way in is the way out: Aus.
And so, with the wind at our backs and the sand at our feet and our shadows growing ever longer in front of us, we head back east.