First, let me apologize to my loyal readers for the long delay in getting this next installment of my blog published. Spotty Internet connectivity in South Africa, aggressive travel schedules and other technological issues all conspired to handicap my getting this blog updated. Your patience and understanding is greatly appreciated.
Now, where were we?
There are so many things to get excited about in the Great Namib Desert. Over five million years old, it’s the world’s oldest desert, even older than the Sahara, the Gobi or the Mojave. Whether it’s the massive red dunes, the sparse yet intriguing landscapes, or the brilliant night sky, there is always something to fascinate you.
My first night there, I was on my way back to my cabin after dinner when I paused and looked up at the southern hemisphere’s broad sky. The Milky Way was so dense, it looked like a massive cloud was obscuring my celestial view. Billions of stars. Incredible.
I looked at the eastern horizon and saw the glow of a light behind the mountains. Quite perplexed as to what might be giving off that kind of light, I quickly guessed that perhaps it was an industrial plant that was emitting that glow. But I didn’t remember seeing anything like that on my drive here. In fact, I was so far out in the middle of nowhere, there’s no way there would be any established industrial operation in these parts.
My quandary was soon solved as the light soon became the moon rising over the mountains. A few days after its full moon phase, it still gave off a lot of light.
I set out at dawn my first morning there so that I could begin my ascent up Big Daddy while the sand would still be cool. The later one waits, the more time the sun has to heat the dunes. Big Daddy is the second highest sand dune in the world (at 325 meters, or 1,066 feet), second only to Dune 7, which is outside Walvis Bay, Namibia. I drove by Dune 7 on my way here, but didn’t have a chance to ascend it given my long trip ahead of me that day.
On my hour’s drive out to Big Daddy, I saw zebra, ostrich and kudu along the way. In fact, I spooked a kudu near the road and he took off running in the same direction as I was driving. I slowed as he began to cross the roadway right in front of my car. Chalk up another accomplishment – how many people can say they’ve drag raced with a kudu? I let him win, though.
While in Swakopmund, a gentleman I met at that German restaurant / bar recommended that I hike to the top of Big Daddy in thick socks. He said he had done it and it worked out well because the socks allow you to get a better foot- (or toe-) hold when you step in the sand. With the thickness, you’re insulated from any heat the sand may give off. I decided to give it a try.
Big Daddy fulfills the boast conveyed through its name. It IS big. The morning I was there, others had gotten there before me and they were little teeny ants on the spine of this massive pile of sand.
I set out to summit the prominence as well.
Some other folks also had an up close and personal encounter with one of the local denizens (that’s another kudu there).
Because the sand is stacked at such a pitch, each step one takes along the route creates a lot of sandslide along each side of the path. That’s at least two feet of sand sliding down because the granules are stacked at such a steep pitch. It was cool to watch it tumble down with each step.
I’ve never done a video blog before, also known as a vlog. I made two while trekking up Big Daddy. Here’s the first:
About an hour-and-a-half later, I got to the top. Quite a nice view.
And my socks ended up getting me up there quite well.
The sand blows in from the beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. And because it is high in iron oxide, it has a very distinct reddish color.
After spending some time at the top, I decided to follow some others who decided to take a short cut down. Straight down. Along the north face of the dune, it was a steep, straight shot all the way down to the bleached-white pan that lies at the base of Big Daddy.
So I went for it.
What took 1.5 hours to get up took seven minutes to get down. Seriously. I was trucking. And I have gravity to thank for my speed.
The pan is a very old lake bed that has dried and hardened over the years. There was no water in this lake as of about 900 years ago.
On the far end of the lake are dead trees that once stood in the shallow waters of the lake. The trees are looooong gone, having died due to no water. But interestingly, they are still around because the environment is so dry, there was never enough moisture to rot the wood away. These stark, black trees (or the wood from their living days) have been around for 900 years.
And with the black wood (also there are some trees that are more gray), white pan, red sand and blue sky, I was able to take pictures that make me look like a photographic genius.
After my conquering of Big Daddy, I explored another phenomenon near the front gate of the national park – the Sesrium Canyon.
It’s a small gorge that has been cut away by water streams over the last few thousand years. Taking the trail down to the dormant river bed was a bit of a leap of faith for me, as someone I used to work for died in a canyon somewhat similar to the one in which I was now immersed.
Gordon Chapple was a very smart marketing guy for whom I worked while at Del Monte Foods in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And when he wasn’t trying to figure out how to move more cans of vegetables or fruits, he was out in the deep reaches of wilderness taking pictures with special, old cameras and then using unique printing techniques to give his work that kind of black & white & silver quality that one sees in Ansel Adams’ works.
A few years ago, he and his family were in a slot canyon in Utah when a flash flood came roaring through. They were not close enough to to an exit point to escape the instant deluge. It may be blue skies above when one decides to go down into one of these gorges, but a rainstorm over twenty miles away can generate enough water to speed down the slot canyons with no advance notice at all. Gordon and his family were suddenly engulfed in the water. He and his wife drowned, but their two kids survived.
With Gordon’s family’s experience in the back of my mind, I decided to descend into the canyon anyway. After all, Namibia and South Africa are in a very severe drought right now.
The canyon was very hot and dry, but in one end, I discovered some tremendously interesting rock formations, created by the collapsing of the canyon walls.
On my way out of the park, I came across the biggest bird’s nest I’ve ever seen. This nest is built by Sociable Weavers and they can weigh over 2,000 pounds.
These are fascinating birds, who actually have taskmasters in their midst. These supervisors monitor all of the residents and continually observe the building process. If a bird slacks off, the taskmasters get on their case about it. Only two other animals have this trait – the mole rat and humans.
According to the San Diego Zoo, the nests are so big, they play host to other bird species as well:
“The sociable weaver’s nest sees plenty of guests—a regular Kalahari Desert inn! The South African pygmy falcon Polihierax semitorquatus relies completely on the sociable weavers’ nest for its own home, often nesting side by side with the sociable weavers. The pied barbet, familiar chat, red-headed finch, ashy tit, and rosy-faced lovebird often find comfort in the cozy nesting chambers, too. Vultures, owls, and eagles will roost on the nests’ broad roof. Why are weavers willing to share the huge nest they worked so hard to make? More residents mean more eyes keeping a watch for danger. And the weavers often learn from the other birds where new sources of food can be found.”
My day of exploration completed, I headed back to the lodge for a well-deserved cold shower.