|Leopard tortoise (Stigmochelys pardalis); Kaokoveld, Namibia; December 2015.|
Quivis greets us in the morning, and he's just as talkative and just as self-absorbed as last night, but he's so friendly about it that it's hard to break away and finish packing up camp. I ask a question about South African politics and he's all-too-eager to share his two or twenty or two hundred cents, and it's not long before he's speaking rather frankly about his distaste for Jacob Zuma and the whole ANC party in a thick colonial accent. Please don't say something racist; please don't say something racist, I think to myself as he speaks, but sure enough he does, or just about, and we suddenly realize how late it's gotten and how quickly we have to be back in Cape Town.
We continue on the N7 back the way we came, and I find I've learned quite a bit about driving in this past month. I've gone days without stalling out and weeks without any real car trouble, and I maneuver us up and down and around the mountains of western South Africa without anxiety, without commotion, and most importantly, without stalling out halfway along that mountain pass that so tried us on our way north. We pass baboons having a sit-down in the middle of the road, and a little further up we have a sit-down on the side of the road, a little picnic of peanut butter sandwiches and seltzer and whatever scraps of food remain in our trunk. We ensure everything is stowed away in our packs, complete a final sweep of the truck, and just a few hours later, pass the keys to our rental agent on the outskirts of Cape Town.
It's cool in Cape Town, chilly even, with a hurried breeze and some fluffy clouds and the smell of sea not far off. We take a cab to the city center and meet our Airbnb host, who shows us up to a cozy little flat that'll be ours for the next four nights. It's simple, but certainly roomier than the tent we've just parted with, and from the tenth-floor window we have marvelous views of the clouds spilling down Table Mountain like an airy waterfall. We unpack our things and we shower and we rest and, later on, we head out for a delicious Ethiopian dinner before calling it an early night.
After five thousand miles inside a noisy, rumbling, squelching box, it feels wonderful to enjoy Africa by simpler means. We leave our flat the next morning on foot, and it's quiet and calm and clean. We rent bicycles and little touches of joy tingle up my spine as I push off the ground and begin to spin—it feels so long since I've last been on a bike. We roll toward Cape Town's waterfront and pass idly by its beaches and boardwalks, and it feels not unlike southern California in its pleasantry. Nor its hills. Our route rises into a posh neighborhood and we push hard against the pedals, following the gentle curve of the road and the coast and the valley west of Signal Hill. We're flanked by South African cyclists in their kit jerseys and aero helmets on their Saturday morning sprints, and soon the climb crests and the road dips and we're flying down the other side with the sea to our right and the mountains to our left and the salty breeze in our faces.
We make it to Camp's Bay, a little south of the city, before stopping for lunch. We sit on the beach and rest before a difficult ride back, this one routing to the pass between Signal Hill and Table Mountain—steep, trafficked, and windy the whole way. We make it back, eventually, and we return the bikes and a little later head out for dinner with a friend of Lauren's from high school studying in Cape Town, her mother, and her partner. It's a late, lovely evening of jazz, wine, and conversation.
The next day, Robben Island. The infamous island on which Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned for decades under apartheid, I expect the place to be a bit of a tourist trap, but Lauren would like to go and it promises a nice ferry ride on Cape Town shores and there's certainly a lot to appreciate there, so I agree.
We pay a hefty admission and wait in a long line and board a packed ferry and set sail for the horizon, some seven kilometers south. Seals jump out of the water and the view behind us is breathtaking: blue skies, turquoise waters, and a majestic Table Mountain perched high above the small city whence we came. It's a rocky ride, but we're up on deck and the fresh air helps some, and thirty or forty minutes later we dock at Robben Island and I'm feeling just the slightest bit queasy from the waves.
The first thing one sees upon disembarking at the anti-apartheid monument is the toilet, a humble white building with a door on the left side and a door on the right side and a sign over each, the former reading "female only" and the latter reading "male only," and it's a curious sight. It's certainly not unusual, sadly, but it does conjure up all-too-familiar imagery of the "blacks only" and "coloureds only" and "whites only" signs above bathrooms on this very island not too long ago. Sure, South African apartheid may be a thing of the past (if only in a de jure sense), but here and back on the mainland and just about everywhere else, we still cling to separate-but-equal wherever we can. In a world with unisex phone booths and unisex buses and unisex elevators and unisex doctor's offices, it's a shame we can't agree that we're mature enough for unisex toilet stalls too—if not for the much-needed protection and convenience of our trans and genderqueer communities, then at least for the practicality of shorter lines and space savings.
But alas, here I am staring at hypocrisy, and the crowds wander by unphased. They're heading to the buses, a series of large coaches just a few hundred meters away, and Lauren and I follow the orders over the PA system to walk toward them as well. We assume they're shuttles, perhaps bringing us closer to the island infrastructure, but once we board one and the doors close we learn that we're mistaken: these are tour buses, and they're the only way to see the island.
I groan. Robben Island is but five square kilometers, and if I'm going to travel it at all I'd like for it to be the way its inhabitants did: on foot, not crammed into an air-conditioned coach with a tour guide reciting well-worn trivia and quips from up front. But here we are, and the guide speaks, and she tells us we'll be stopping at a few points of interest along the way—not to learn about or appreciate or admire or ponder—but "to take pictures."
And take pictures they do. The crowds around me heave to the right as we pass the mosque and heave to the left as we pass the barracks, and they press up against the bus's narrow windows and click away without discernment. A grown man in a fedora screws his camera onto a rod and holds the selfie stick out into the aisle to take photographs of himself on a bus, and I lean my head against Lauren and shut my eyes.
We get off the bus a few times for just a few minutes each, never long enough to read any markings or exhibits, just enough to take snapshots, review them, and climb back onboard. Eventually we're dropped at the prison and turned over to a former inmate at Robben Island, and this gets a little more interesting. He talks about his time there and the daily routine, and he talks about the prison's closing and the prison's history, and we huddle around him in one of the prison's larger dorms and listen intently—all of us except the grown man with the hat and the selfie stick, who's off in the corner snapping photographs of himself.
The tour concludes with a walk past Mandela's former cell, and though it's identical to the thirty or forty other cells on the block housing prisoners who suffered just as badly, the throng congeals at just the one: more flashing cameras, more meaningless archiving and documenting. We're returned to the dock, and it has been about two hours, and I'm thankful to leave the active desecration of this poor place.
We climb back onboard a newer boat and speed off into choppy waters. We're below deck this time, and it's bumpy, and dozens of us quickly grow seasick, groaning in unison as the ferry hits a particularly large or sidelong wave. It's a faster boat, at least, and I'm thankful that we'll get back to shore more quickly. I stare out the window at our wake, and in just twenty short minutes we're pulling up to land: slowing, docking, tying up. I head out to the deck to have a look.
Ahead of me, those same segregated bathrooms on the very same dock from which we've left. There's a murmur of confusion amongst the passengers, and after a good deal of prompting, one of the ferry men admits that some passengers were "forgotten" back on Robben Island. Though there are ferries coming and going every half-hour, each boat coming from the mainland is—unwisely but profitably—packed to the absolute legal maximum number of passengers, meaning that a stranded visitor can't just hop on the next boat back, but that the crew they come in with must be the crew they leave with, no exceptions. The forgotten passengers board (oddly, there are at least twenty or thirty of them), and once more we take off into the rough cape waters, this time for a proper thirty minutes back to land. We're nearly sick upon arrival.
I didn't care for Robben Island—don't care for much of Cape Town, honestly, with its Cecil Rhodes statues and simmering racism bubbling up at every corner—but Table Mountain I adore. All weekend we've rounded its curves and rested in its shadow, and my one hope in town is to hike to its plateau before leaving South Africa. Alas, it's not in the cards. It's been nothing but wind since arriving in Cape Town—not the gentle baybreeze type, but the thirty-mile-per-hour katabatic type—and though it can't do more than knock over a chalkboard or kick up some dust down at sea level, it's enough to blow someone clean off the plateau up at higher elevations. Warnings are issued and the Table Mountain cable car is closed, and instead of a blustery nature hike for our last day in Cape Town, we opt for a blustery walk to the east side instead. We stroll toward Woodstock, a neat neighborhood with exceptional street art and cascading murals hidden around every corner, and back toward the Company's Gardens, and we read and we talk and we grab sushi for dinner, and a little later on we pack our things and clean the flat and get ready for a long, long flight home.
Then early the next morning, off we go.
|Spitzkoppe, Namibia; December 2015.|
|Blue Wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus); Etosha National Park, Namibia; January 2016.|
After a few days milling about the Etosha waterholes, we begin our journey back to Cape Town. We leave at sunrise—the big, beautiful, fiery-orb-climbing-up-the-savanna kind of sunrise we've come to love—and drive for hours on a nice sealed road, making it to Windhoek, Namibia's capital, a little after noon. It's not much, Windhoek, but it's still the largest grouping of people anywhere in the country—perhaps a few hundred thousand filling in the gaps between the wide asphalt streets and the tall dusty buildings, all of it devoid of any real charm. There are lots of cars and not much grass and it's difficult to find any sort of center to the city, but that's all okay: we don't plan to stay long.
What Windhoek lacks in splendor it makes up for in tire service stations. For the first time in weeks, we find a shop that carries our tire size, and we swap out the pitiful, dusty blowout we've been carrying along since Aus for a brand new Dunlop. While the crew gets to work—it's free parking, so I encourage them to take their time—we head down the street for lunch, the first fresh food we've had since arriving in Etosha a week prior. We order fruit juices and avocado toast and veggies, later look around the nearby craft stalls, and while Lauren picks up a few things, I wander off in search a place to print some passport photos.
The appointment at the embassy to replace my stolen passport is tomorrow morning—that's why we're in Windhoek, after all—and I need those little two-by-two photographs urgently. I've been unable to find a photo booth or accommodating post office in all of northern Namibia, but here in the capital I'm hopeful I'll have better luck. I ask a few folks on the street and they point me in the direction of a large shopping mall; I enter the mall, and I'm pointed to a tiny glass room with some DHL signage inside.
There's a Kodak machine, which is promising, and a woman behind the counter—doubly so—but also five or six or seven other customers cramming into the tight space, all clambering and clamoring over each other to have something sent, laminated, printed, faxed. I wait patiently and am gradually pushed forward by the small crowd, and eventually I ask if the woman if they print passport photographs and she says yes, and relief washes over.
It's quickly replaced by less pleasant emotions: impatience, mostly. The Kodak machine has, by now, been commandeered by a teenage girl with a large cell phone and a small, pouting face, and she's uploading about a hundred photos over Bluetooth, and this takes a while. As I watch them upload, I come to realize that these aren't just photos—they're those dreaded selfies everyone's been taking—and the next hour of my life washes away to the tick-tick-ticking of three-by-five self-portraits dropping from the Kodak printer into a collection tray, each photo immediately snatched up by its owner and examined closely and vainly.
An hour later, my time finally comes. The woman behind the counter pulls out a camera and snaps a few shots of me in front of a white wall, and I'm hardly smiling at this point, but I take one look and say they're good to print, twitching eye and all, and she prints them and she cuts them and she puts them in a little baggie and hands them to me, and I pay and rush out of the small glass room as quickly as possible. Embassy, I'm ready for you.
I pick up the car and pick up Lauren and we drive over to the closest thing to a campsite in Windhoek's noisy streets, the gated parking lot of a backpackers' hostel. We park, pop our tent, and play some cards, and when the winds pick up and the cards start flying, we walk up to another mall (all of Windhoek seems to be malls and the roads that lead to them), grab dinner, consider seeing a movie but don't find anything that interests us, and take a cab back to the hostel.
It's noisier than when we last left it. There's a pool around back—no more than ten meters from our cozy tent—and the pool is surrounded by raucous groups of travelers drinking and smoking and shouting at each other over the electropop blaring from the sound system. I don't blame them—after all, it's a hostel and it's only about 10PM and the dorm rooms, where everyone else will sleep, are certainly farther and soundproofier than our tent, But it is quite loud. My head hits the pillow and, though I feel like I'm sleeping in the middle of a nightclub, I have no trouble dozing off in just a few minutes. Lauren isn't so lucky, and tosses and turns and eventually gives up, and finally the music ceases a few hours later and we're left to sleep in peace—with the exception of a few boisterous, late-night drunkards returning to the hostel in the wee hours of the morning—in our cozy little tent.
We wake early and leave the hostel and drive across town to the American embassy. I slide my driver's license underneath the glass of the security booth as the only identification I have, and it's enough to get us in to the small, DMV-esque waiting room on the other side. I'm called to the front and chat with a friendly bureaucrat behind the counter, and she passes a few forms for me to fill out, and when I bring them back, asks for my photographs. I slide the baggie over.
She picks them up, examines them, frowns. "Uh oh," she says, "these aren't the right size!" I take a look and she's right—of course she's right—they're not even square, let alone large enough to meet the two-by-two specifications. I explain I had totally asked for passport photographs, and she sympathetically informs me that I had to specify United States passport photographs—most African countries use smaller, narrower dimensions. The hour spent in the little glass hell the day before was all for nothing. She accepts my forms and slips me a business card to a nearby photo shop where I can get some proper photographs taken. Lauren and I wander out of the embassy and find the hidden shop and fifteen minutes later we're back with a different baggie of different photographs, four glossy little mugshots sized to the perfect dimensions.
She takes them and the $130 in cash that a replacement passport will cost, and tells us that Wednesday is visa day, meaning that she won't get to the passport until the afternoon. Apparently granting visas to the States is a higher priority than getting stranded Americans back to the States, and it's a minor inconvenience because we were planning to flee Windhoek right after the appointment, but in the grand scheme of things it isn't any great tragedy. We agree to return to the embassy at four and head out into Windhoek's sweltering streets yet again.
There's a little boy in green pants and a red bowtie with a great nest of tousled golden hair inked into my left forearm, a simple illustration of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's 1943 The Little Prince. It's a children's-book-actually-for-adults that you've maybe read in high school, a beautiful story about a little prince that leaves his tiny asteroid home and travels the solar system only to find it's been overrun by grown-ups who have long since forgotten the secret and simplicity of youth. It's one of my favorite works—hence the tattoo, I suppose—and a few years back I'd heard rumors of a new film adaptation of the story. The rumors were true and the film was made but its American release has been stalled by distribution disagreements and other grown-up matters of consequence, but not so in Africa: indeed, it was screening at the theater we'd chance by the night before, but we'd missed the last showing for the day.
So with a morning and afternoon to spend in Windhoek, we take off for the cool shade of the dark cinema, buying our tickets and choosing seats in the otherwise empty theater. The film starts and the film plays and the film ends, and it's a lovely homage to the book—about as good as one can expect. "Growing old isn't the problem," the Aviator famously says toward the film's end, "it's forgetting," and I'm reminded of all the grey suits and the sullen faces back home, the businessmen and the vain men and the kings and the lamplighters, who have forgotten what it is to be young, to prize adventure over stability and money over memories, who aspire to be grown-ups, to be respected in polite society, to sell their soul to the highest-bidding employer and call it a good deal. I shudder at the thought.
I'd always hoped I wouldn't forget, but I went ahead and had the little prince permanently painted onto my skin just to be sure: ever looking up in curiosity, wonder, maybe a little judgment. And here we are, on the other side of the world on a Wednesday morning, and I don't think he'd be all too disappointed.
"Grown-ups are quite certainly extraordinary," the little prince says, and I can't help but agree as we walk back over to the embassy to pick up my replacement stickerbook. I'm handed the little booklet on which meaningless stickers will be stuck and stamps will be stamped, and in truth it looks like a terrible fabrication of the official document—misaligned pages, distorted photos, missing seals and fraying lamination and crooked headings—but is the real thing any less silly? Besides, it's not intended to be a proper replacement anyway. It only contains about four pages, just enough to get me home, so once returning to DC I'll need to apply for another passport and go through the whole charade one more time.
Whatever. For now, we're free to leave; it's late and we have just a few days to make it back to Cape Town, a journey that took us weeks on the way up. We stop at a petrol pump and I rush inside to buy some water and when I return to the vehicle a moment later, it's pouring without a dark cloud in the sky. You can't really call it a sunshower because it's nothing of the sort; it's a sunstorm, a veritable downpour soaking the unsuspecting passerby on the street. I hop into the car and we take off, and just as quickly as it started it stops again.
We're left with crisp air and blue skies and lush shrubs drinking in the raindrops as we exit Windhoek, and within a few kilometers the flat city gives way to heaving green mountains and cleaved chasms and road signs warning us to watch for warthogs, for kudu, for springbok. We drive for hours on straight, tarred lines, ever bearing down upon an ominous anvil of a raincloud in the distance. We hit winds and, not long after, quick spurts of that pouring rain from earlier, and there's lightning and a touch of thunder and the impending night of a sun's retreat, and after sixteen straight days of wonderful camping, Lauren and I reluctantly agree to seek a sturdier roof for the night.
It's slim pickings here in central Namibia, with just a few lovely—but fully occupied—bed-and-breakfasts in several hundred kilometers. Night falls, and it's lonely on the unlit B1. I flick off our headlights for the slightest of moments and we're enveloped in darkness so absolute that I can't see the steering wheel in front of me. I'm eager to be off the road. Nighttime in Namibia is when most traffic fatalities occur, what with the drunk drivers and the nocturnal wildlife and the long-haul truckers hurtling by on more than their fair share of the road. But it's not until we reach Keetmanshoop around 10PM that we finally find an available roof, and though it's not much (not even our first choice in town, with a mattress hardly wider than our tent's), we find sleep easily.
It's a sad morning when we wake: our very last in Namibia. After blissful weeks wandering about beautiful country, we're just hours from the southern border now, and we don't know how many years or decades it might be before we find ourselves back in this terrific corner of the world. It's an adventure we don't want to end, but Cape Town and the wider world beckon to us, and we're finally close enough to hear the calling.
We drive for hours: past Fish River Canyon, across the border, into South Africa and down past Spingbok and farther south still, and we make camp a little before sunset in a cozy—and otherwise empty—campsite managed by a friendly older couple from the other end of the cape. We say hello to the wife and are shown around the compound by the husband, and as we walk he talks about the campground and he talks about his family and he talks about his town and he talks about his life and he talks about a lot of things without ever asking us much of anything—and in the rare chance one of us does get a word in, he pauses, tilts his head to pardon the interruption, and continues on wherever he was headed.
The air grows cool and I make some excuse about having to go on and pitch our tent, which I guess isn't so much an excuse as the truth, and we bid our vain host goodnight, make our very last truck-side meal, and take our very last sleep in our truck-top tent under these big African skies.
|Plains Zebra (Equus quagga); Etosha National Park, Namibia; January 2016.|
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.
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.