Sand, Stars and the Space In-between

Have you ever seen one of those cliché coming of age movies? You know, the ones where a mellow song comes on just as the protagonist is staring out of the car window questioning life pensively? Well, much of my three-week bus trip from Zambia to Cape Town was a constant priceless movie moment. The wild, African roadside was the setting, and I was the stargazing traveller.

Days after days of watching country-sized game parks fly by the window, and observing giraffes gently grazing by the side of the road led me to fall head over heels in love with Africa. About a week into the trip, I entered Namibia – a golden, duney land of desert that is home to ‘Mad Max Fury Road’, and a sizeable segment of my heart.

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While preparing for the impending heat, we were warned about the necessity of hats and sunscreen, and most importantly, water. Lots and lots of water. Every two days or so, we would stop at a store and have to buy at least one five-litre water container each. Hydration was even more vital in the desert (three hours was the ballpark given to us for survival time without this precious liquid).

During the briefing at our campsite one night, our fellow travellers enquired as to how much shade there would be, the quality of hand-dug latrines, and tactical escape plans from encounters with deadly scorpions (eternally grateful for tent zippers). It was thrilling to say the least. Camping at its finest.

Now imagine that scene from Jaws where the townspeople are discussing their plans to deal with the shark, and the eerie but experienced bad guy from the back forewarns them of the tragedies that may ensue. It was like that as one of the Dutch girls in our trip spoke up to caution us about the desert.

“Some people lose themselves in the desert… They go insane… They just can’t take all that raw, open space, and it drives them to madness…”

If I’d had a mouthful, I would have gulped. It was terrifying.

But despite the warnings, the next leg of our trip proved to be the most exhilarating travel I’ve experienced yet. The endless hours of watching the glare bounce off uninhabited, illuminated, sun-scorched, red earth in every direction for as far as my eyes could see.

Key expectations from an African adventure:

  • Layers of sand on top of sweat on top of bug spray on top of sunscreen on top of more sweat.
  • Getting stage fright when trying to pee behind the truck when on the road.
  • Sunrise and sunset yoga in bikinis atop wildlife viewing towers while your washing dries in seconds from the intense dryness of the air.
  • Watching out for scorpions when you need to relieve yourself during the night
  • A canvas of stars so vivid and unaffected by light pollution that Van Gogh himself would surely trek to the desert with paintbrush and easel at the ready
  • Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn in upwards of 40 degree heat
  • Sunbathing on mattresses in the middle of the desert at sunset (with ample supply of ‘Savannah’ beer)
  • Learning how to make fire with natives
  • Trudging aimlessly (and slightly deliriously) across the desert with no guide, map or water supply, but merely the directional gesture of a local driver

 

It was somewhat frustrating on the drive to and from Spitzkoppe (that magical word still gives me chills). My tent buddy and I were unfortunately at the back of the bus as we drove along the very bumpy and long dirt road between the main road and the towering dunes. The frequent and painful lurches of the bus kept causing my earphones to dislodge themselves, disrupting my movie-moment-window-gazing bliss (and the stomach contents of one of the poor Germans). Once the pure-hearted had proved their worthiness by managing to endure the hour-long road hurdle, they would find themselves in the middle of the Namib desert, surrounded by Mad Max-style splendour like no other. It was surprising that I found such bewildering beauty in this place that was so bare and expansive. Hello insights! The peaks were surprisingly easy to climb, and we took full advantage of this by perching ourselves high above the sparse trees to behold a flawless sunset. Incomprehensible distance existed at every angle: our vision only hindered by the natural curvature of the planet.

 

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Cue epiphinal moment #846 from this trip. You know how people argue over whether it’s black with white stripes or white with black stripes? What we witnessed in the sky this particular night would no doubt be considered a white backdrop with fleeting moments of darkness, as the celestial glow that lit up the Sossusvlei as we sat (wide-eyed, stunned, and possibly being nibbled by scorpions) outshone every inch of empty night space. Stargazing in silent awe, we literally tilted our heads from side to side, trying to take in the sheer number of stars that was spread across 180 degrees of African sky.

 

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We continued to be exposed to this splendour long into the night where, in our sand-infested tents, our unobstructed stargazing blurred into existential questioning. Somewhere amidst all the sleepy “what is life” moments and shooting star anticipation, I fell into the most restful sleep in this magical, star-kissed land.

 

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Untouched and unforgettable
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