Climbing to the top of one of the tallest sand dunes in the world is not a task for the faint of heart. It takes over two hours of walking up the largest pile of sand you’ve probably ever seen. Each step forward means a half a step backward as your feet sink into the soft, fine Namibian sand. As we sat atop “Big Daddy”, one of the tallest sand dunes in the Sossusvlei National Park, I pondered the forces it took to create such gentle giants. Millions of years of erosion led to the creation of unfathomable amounts of sand that spent centuries traveling across the Namib Desert until they finally formed the ever-shifting sand dunes.
The Dead Vlei is the pan at the base of Big Daddy that has not had water for many, many years and as such now contains only the memory of flowing water in its rocky floor and the skeletons of trees that were 750 years or more in the making. The camel thorn trees, technically called acacia trees, look much different here in their deceased, branchless state than they do in areas with water where their leaves grow amply and their thorns become as long as one’s finger. The result though is a dark barren tree that contrasts deeply with both the red sand dunes behind and the light grey clay beneath.
The animals that thrive in this environment are difficult to see in the vast stretches of red desert sand. Along my trail I was able to spot the tracks to several species including mice, snakes, lizards, and oryx. I also had the privilege of spotting a lizard skittering gracefully along the dune on my way down from the summit. The tak taki beetle has adapted to this environment in such a way where it will stand on its front legs with its back end in the air so that the moisture that comes in on the morning breeze will collect into a single drop that will then slide down the beetle’s body and into its mouth. The moisture in that morning breeze has traveled about 150 kilometers as the crow flies from the coast of Namibia to get to these dunes that otherwise experience minimal moisture in the winter months.
Being in a place where not all that many people of the world have visited makes any trip feel more special and unique. Where I found fault with the human race as I have countless times before was in the occasional cigarette butt I found lying in the middle of the Dead Vlei. Human inconsideration really knows no bounds, even in the oldest desert in the world. The fact that humans can alter our environment so easily and in such negative ways was highlighted by the stark contrast between the archaic sands of time and the week-old cigarette butt sitting in the middle of it all. Of course I picked up every cigarette butt I saw, but that won’t stop the next smoker from dropping their poor choice on the floor of the world. In some way it made me revere the dunes even more for inherently standing up to the destructive forces of the world for such a long time. As each step is made up the ridge of the dune the wind blows sand back into the depression, filling the dent the human footstep has left. Not all landscapes have this relentlessly renewing ability, and it is really one to admire as it has allowed the dunes to remain as they always have been, despite their daily visitors.
For anyone who has yet to see anything like these dunes, you should seriously consider taking a trip during your lifetime. The soft sound of the sand blowing around in the breeze is captivating and calming all at once. The luxurious feel of the soft sand beneath your toes is unmatched by any beach sand. Then of course there is the view once you reach the summit. The view from the top of the world is one that can’t be beat. It is also a view that a picture just does not do justice to, but that did not stop me from trying to capture as much beauty as I could. Until we meet again, farewell to the sands of time.