Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia – August 2015
One simply must climb Dune 45 to watch the sunrise. At least that’s what all the travel guides and websites proclaim. We, however, are stopping only for a quick photo. Our guide, Christof, explained that we will climb Big Daddy instead. Dune 45 is the easier one, the one for older or less athletic people. Sometimes there are a hundred people at the top, jostling each other. The view is not as awe-inspiring as that from Big Daddy. Like many must-dos, Dune 45 is overrated. The two women seated in front of me begin to swear. One in German, the other in English. I have secretly named them La Pourriture. The Rot. Since yesterday, when they joined this leg of the safari, their silent hostility has seeped into the group. They are disappointed in everything and are taking it out on the rest of us. Now harsh words are exchanged with some of the others. They are poisoning the good vibe.
As I watch the tiny people inching along the narrow crest of Dune 45, I contemplate whether I want to step in. I know I can diffuse it, at least a little. I know what to say. When we stop at the 4×4 shuttle to Big Daddy, I approach La Pourriture. Deep breath. I conjure up the language from my days as a travel agent. It’s upsetting to have a messed-up booking. However, the guide has no authority to deviate from his itinerary. There’s nothing you can do about it now, and your day will be ruined if you dwell on it. Try to have a good time, and definitely talk to your travel agent when you get home.
After a brief pause to process my words, they nod. Some of the tension dissipates.
The others compliment me on my diplomacy. I shrug. I did it with the indifference of crushing a nest of scorpions. I did it out of quiet gratitude for the most fascinating and diverse group of travelers, and the most endearing guide, I’ve ever met.
Big Daddy rises before us. The locals call it Crazy Dune. Because you’ve got to be crazy to climb it. It is a star dune, shaped by the winds. Several arms radiate downward from the pinnacle in different directions. From above, it looks like a star. The ascent is best done barefoot. For every three steps up, you slide back down one step or more. It is an exercise in perseverance.
The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world. The estimated age of these dunes is five million years. The Bushmen called this sea of sand The Land God Created in Anger. I step into the vanishing footprints of those who went before, pausing to sweep my eyes over this paradise of desolation. Sand the color of smoldering embers. Swirls of black magnetite dust. Deep red shimmer of shattered garnet. The artistry of anger.
Christof halts at the first crest. The others have fallen far behind. He tells me that I can continue on, if I want. There is only one path. Legs and lungs warmed up, the ascent becomes less arduous. I pause only to take a couple of photos. I do not look back.
Rage propelled me out into the world at age seventeen. I was going to show everyone that I wasn’t the loser they thought I was. I blazed a path around the planet and, over the many years, the rage gradually burned itself out, leaving behind the icy-hot cinders of contempt. Most of the sand has trickled out of the hourglass of my life. Not much enrages me anymore. I am disgusted that some humans feel the need to hunt endangered animals in order to replenish an abyss within. It irritates me when people say that I am a bad person, because I do not love humanity.
I once read a quote that stated that a person becomes a misanthrope, not because of a lack of empathy, but from having too much of it.
I get angry at those who say that no one should ever be angry about anything. The new religion is one of perpetual sunshine and rainbows. Its true believers rival Bible thumpers with their condescending and sanctimonious zeal. Anger, like every other so-called negative emotion, is part of existence. Anger motivates. Without it, we cannot evolve.
As I take the final step to the summit, a surge of emotion moves through me and then evaporates. I exchange smiles of exhilaration with the strangers who arrived before me. I sit and burrow my feet into the warm sand. The dunes undulate into the horizon like waves of molten lava. Vast Place of Nothingness is what the Nama call this land. This is what I feel now: a beautiful emptiness. In certain places that I have visited in the past, I have felt grateful euphoria. The it’s-okay-if-I-die-now feeling. But there was still the aching desire to see more of this glorious planet. This time is different. I don’t ever want to go anywhere else. Ever again.
After a long while, the others appear. One by one. Christof kneels beside me and collects grains of magnetite using a magnet hidden inside a piece of paper. Our group descends the slipface towards the beige pan of Deadvlei. I sink my feet in and savor the luxurious slide. Three British guys somersault, cartwheel, and bodysurf down. Christof materializes beside me. “It brings out the child in people,” he says with a smile.
The desiccated forest of Deadvlei looms ahead. Ancient trees frozen in time. Petrified wraiths. Josef reclines on the dune, reading the Psychology of Jung. Today is Kenza’s birthday. Melanie and Robert and Christof chat about facts. Isabelle wanders off on her own, accompanied by her camera. We coalesce, and then disperse again into our own daydreams. We are all specters in this collective hallucination. La Pourriture has disappeared. Sucked into their own vortex, surely.
I let my camera fall by my side. The light is too grainy and muted and I am too spaced out with wonder to focus. I never want to go anywhere else. Ever again.
*Minimal editing was done on these photos. The second to last has a little color manipulation of the sky, but otherwise the hues are real. The varied color of the dunes is due to the constantly changing light.