The Desert, for me, is a vast, barren land where the extremes of nature are found. As the wind blows, one can quickly be lost in wilderness wanderings, hopefully to emerge with new insights and dreams.
One of the largest Namibian dune areas is called Sossusvlei. It is characterized by enormous sand dunes of vivid pink-to-orange color, an indication of a high concentration of oxidized iron in the sand. The oldest dunes are more intensely reddish and are among the highest in the world, most above 200 meters. The tallest, about 380 meters high, is nicknamed Big Daddy. Although the dune area is a major tourist attraction, its vastness leaves you feeling alone in a formidable land – that is, until you reach “Big Daddy” and “Great Mama” with their international hordes of youth and hikers making their way up the steep sand mountains.
Sossusvlei is actually a salt and clay pan surrounded by hundreds of connected sand dunes in the southern part of the Namib Desert. “Vlei” is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”. This area was once a drainage basin for the Tsauchab River.
When we helicoptered over this wilderness, the notion of being lost and wandering in the desert for 40 years became plausible. Drop me down there and I would, shy of divine intervention, never find my way out!
The highest and more stable dunes are partially covered with vegetation, watered not only by underground rivers that occasionally flood the pans, but also by the daily morning fog that enters the desert from the Atlantic Ocean. When dry, these pans with their high concentration of salt look almost white in color. The dunes, however, when bathed in the golden light at the edges of day and night, turn bright orange with the shadowed side turning nearly jet black.
Animal and insect life in the Sossusvlei area is relatively abundant. It is mostly comprised of small creatures that can survive with little water, including a number of arthropods, small reptiles and petite mammals such as rodents or jackals; bigger animals include oryxes, springboks and ostriches. Strangely, “fog beetles” have developed a technique for collecting water from early morning fogs through the bumps in their back.
At the base of “Big Daddy” and “Great Mama” one finds Deadvlei, a white clay pan that used to be an oasis hosting several varieties of acacia trees. Centuries ago, when the climate changed and drought hit the area, sand dunes encroached on the pan, blocking the river that watered the oasis. The trees died, leaving the white salty floor of the pan punctuated by the blackened, dead acacia trees.
The remaining skeletons of the trees, which are believed to have died between 1340- 1430 CE, are now black because the intense light and heat of the sun has scorched them. Strangely enough, these blackened trees are not petrified, for the wood is so dry it does not decompose. The white pan, the blackened trees, and the intense orange of the surrounding dunes create a particularly fascinating and surrealistic landscape that appears in innumerable pictures and has been used as a setting for films and videos.
Eager to add these recognizable shots to our stock portfolios, we hiked in before sunrise to see the first light illuminate the dunes, but the whole area was socked in with heavy fog. We had no idea that there were even sand dunes surrounding the eerie waterless lake. The mist was mystical, but eventually it gave way to the sun that was by then already fairly high in the sky. Not only were there huge dunes surrounding us, but dozens of people hiking on their berms!
I saw no burning bush but still felt the presence of the Divine One, whispering with the blowing red sands, “I shall be who I shall be.” The Namib Desert has been dancing for over 43 million years, and, although we didn’t do our desert wandering for 40 years or even 40 days, my 40 hours in that environment was still, for me, a vision-filled healing quest from which I emerged into a “promised land.” Don’t skip over your desert journeys, they eventually bring great blessings!