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The Namib: A Journey Through the World’s Oldest Desert

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The Namib: A Journey Through the World’s Oldest Desert

Experiencing the Flora, Fauna and Getting Lost in the Namib Desert

Sunset on the Hill Above Camp. Photo by Eric MollMy time in the Namib left me with an enduring fear of dehydration. Friends complain that I bring too much water on outings, that it’s not necessary to bring a bottle to walk a couple of miles. I cannot seem to shake the memory of a dry throat, the way the tongue swallows involuntarily at the thought of water, hoping to capture some moisture back from saliva, and how later, adrenaline pushes any feeling of thirst from the mind. One may think pragmatically about finding water or how to get water, but the mind recoils from any imagining of what it would actually feel like to have a drink. Otherwise, the lack of it would be too overwhelming. I was lucky to never experience the final stages, when the thirst is so great that a man can think of nothing else and begins to see water where there is only sand and rock and dust, and the lips crack and the tongue swells, and vision blurs, muscles spasm, and unconsciousness is followed shortly by death.

The Namib is the world’s oldest desert. The more famous Sahara goes through cycles of dryness and wetness every several thousand years or so, but the Namib has been dry for fifty-five million years. It is one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. Most of Namibia‘s two million citizens live in a narrow band of relative wetness in the north, where the Kunene River forms the border with Angola. Excepting Antarctica, only Mongolia has a lower population density.

I travelled through Namibia with a dozen other students and five professors in rented 4X4 trucks. Usually, we stayed in campsites run and owned by local people, but one night, we were forced to camp out on our own. We had driven all day without seeing any other people, or even any signs of people aside from a car frame full of bullet holes. I don’t mean to imply that Namibia is a violent or chaotic place. It is one of the safer and more accessible countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Its infrastructure and roads are comparable to South Africa’s but its population density is too low to produce the same degree of crime as in Johannesburg, for example. It’s more likely that the car was an old target for hunters than the remnant of violence.

A few hours after we passed the wreck, we stopped for the night on the side of the dirt road. Another student and I climbed a hill and got a good look around as the sun was setting. This was, at least, not the driest place we had been. A few days earlier we had visited a vast, rocky moonscape that receives no rain at all during some years. Only a few tiny plants, like Southwest Edelweiss (Helichrysum roseo-niveum), whose vividly pink and yellow flowers seem so out of place against the black rock, manage to survive by collecting mist from the sea on a soft coat of tiny white hairs. Our camp by the side of the dirt road was comparably verdant, with yellowed grasses and the occasional bush or stunted tree. Low, round hills dominated the landscape, and some ancient upheaval had twisted the sediment layers around so that they were vertical instead of horizontal. As a result, bands of hard black granite only a few feet thick ran in straight, uninterrupted lines from hill to hill.

Southwest Eidelweiss. Photo by Eric MollThe moon rose shortly after sunset, huge and gibbous. We made dinner and, lacking firewood, sat in a wide circle around a gas lantern. We had come to experience the Namib, to see the land and the species which are shaped by it: the small gnarled trees and fleshy green succulents, the skinks and snakes and geckos, the elephants, giraffes, antelope, and predatory cats, the spiders and termites, and the ever-present Tenebrionid beetle, whose dappled carapace collects the morning dew and channels it along tiny grooves to the beetle’s mouth. We had also come to meet its people and to judge for ourselves the merits of ecotourism, to investigate whether it might preserve the land and the dignity of its people or whether it is just a different sort of conquest, a way to incorporate more free peoples into our economy as servants and laborers.

Aside from tourism, Namibia’s economy is based on diamond and uranium mining, fishing, and agriculture. Nearly half of the Namibian people take no part in the so called “formal economy,” but live lives of moneyless subsistence. Most are herders keeping goats, cattle and maybe a small garden, and a few are fishers. There are very few true nomads left in Namibia. Boreholes and wells have depleted the groundwater to the point that it is hard to find water without using them, so the people must be sedentary. The Topnaar, for example, traditionally depended heavily on the fruit of the spiky Nara plant. Nara grows in the dunes, reaching higher and higher as the sand accumulates and buries the lower parts of the plant, and the roots grow so long that they play a part in holding the dune together. Falling water tables threaten the Nara plant, and young Topnaars are increasingly moving to the city to work in factories, as commercial fishermen or miners, or to live off tourists as waiters, bartenders, guides, maids, janitors, or sellers of trinkets.

Around the gas lamp, a discussion about the Save The Rhino Trust wildlife preserve we would visit the next day led to an argument between two herpetology professors about whether conservationists should appeal to public emotion at the expense of scientific objectivity, such as by devoting a disproportionate amount of resources to protect popular “umbrella species” such as rhinos, even though these species might be less vital to the overall health and biodiversity of a particular ecosystem than a species of grass, for example. Unable to get a word in, I grew bored and decided to slip away to take a look at the stars. No one noticed my departure.

I didn’t go far at first. A few hundred meters, perhaps. I climbed a low hill to get a better view of the stars. The moon dominated the sky but the luminous spray of the Milky Way was still visible.

I could see the tiny bright point of our lantern only a short way off. I waited as long as I figured it might take to dig a hole and relieve myself, which would be my excuse if anyone complained of my absence. Yet somehow, on the way back, it seemed that I had walked much further than on the way out. I did not know then that the lantern had been turned off. Fearing only a scolding for being out too long, I did not yell for someone to come find me. Instead I hurried back the way I’d come and a little to the right, expecting to come across the camp or the dirt road next to it at any moment. I walked fast, hoping to return before anyone noticed I had left.

When no camp appeared around each bend, no light and no voices, my concern about getting in trouble evaporated, leaving a huge, empty terror and the realization that everything looked the same and that I was lost in the trackless desert. I experienced about five or ten minutes of complete, undiluted panic. I ran, just in case camp might be around the next bend.

I forced myself to calm down, taking deep breaths and trying to remember where the moon had been when I left. It couldn’t have moved to a different part of the sky since then. I would just need to point myself in the opposite direction, and walk back. I did so, until I realized that I could have passed camp on the other side, and that the moon was no help except to illuminate the rocks around me and the faint outlines of distant hills. Where had that big mountain been when I watched the sunset earlier? Had there been any other landmarks? Finally I remembered the Southern Cross, which is easier to find than its northern hemisphere counterpart, Polaris. I felt a little better knowing my cardinal directions until I realized I still wasn’t sure which side of camp I was on.

My mind ran in tighter and tighter circles, building maps of the camp and the landscape and myself, mentally rotating, rearranging, then dashing them to pieces and starting over again with a new landmark, a new theory of how I had first gotten lost. I tried to reason some kind of solution for myself, climbing hills, straining my eyes at the silhouettes of distant mountains, trying to remember something that would point the way home. I wasn’t ready to stay in one place and wait for rescue, as one is supposed to upon getting irrevocably lost. I wasn’t even sure if anyone would notice my absence until morning, and how long would I last once the sun came up? I thought of The Sheltering Desert, the autobiographical account of two German geologists who fled Germany before the start of World War II to conduct research in the Namib and then had to disappear into the desert to avoid internment camps in Allied South Africa. They brought a radio and a jeep full of food, water and ammunition and managed to survive for two years before returning to civilization. I had hiking boots and a headlamp. No food. No water.

Ancient Canyons in Southwestern Nambia. Photo by Eric MollDespite its iconography of bleached skulls and ribcages, the desert is not terrifying because it is full of death. There is more death – more predation, more decay – during one day in a tropical rainforest than during a year in the desert. No, the desert is mostly neither dead nor alive, but inanimate, which is why it is so beautiful and frightening. Life blankets nearly every bit of the Earth’s surface, but it is tissue-paper thin in the Namib. There are places where the only greenery is a layer of photosynthetic scum living in microclimates on the underside of rocks which contain enough translucent quartz for sunlight to penetrate all the way through. By definition, soils are complex ecosystems full of microorganisms. In the desert, the biologically active part of the soil is called a cryptobiotic crust, and it is so thin and fragile that even stepping on it can cause damage which won’t repair itself for 250 years. One cannot help but feel gigantic in comparison, towering a hundred miles above the microscopic canopies below, colossal in size, colossal in complexity, colossal in perspective – and at the same time, small and scared, a speck in the vast insensate landscape. The lifeless rocks call to mind silent, staggering eternities. A billion sunrises and sunsets pass with no eyes to see the difference between night and day. No one hears the tree fall in the forest, because there is no tree, there is no forest, there is no mind. Mind is a fluke, a flash of lightning with dark on either side. It is enough to make a man wish for the Congo, for the Amazon, for the rainforests of Costa Rica, the great steaming Yunque of Puerto Rico. In the jungle, it is hard to find anything that is not alive. In terms of biomass, deserts produce an average of three grams of organic carbon per square meter per year. The same area of rainforest produces around two-thousand grams of carbon per year. The soils are thin there too, but only because the life above them is so thick and so hungry that organic matter has no time to accumulate before it is consumed, reincorporated into some living thing. Death is frequent but brief in the jungle. Here in the desert, it seemed to stretch on forever.

To be fair, the place was not entirely lifeless. There must have been insects (though I never saw any) because I found a large spider perched between rocks, its four pairs of eyes like jewels under the moon. This was also supposedly lion country, I learned later, but I suspect that they only stay there during the rainy season when there is game to be found. As far as I could tell, the only other vertebrates were the barking geckos, which I heard but never saw. They are named for the way the males dig small burrows and sit inside, proclaiming their territory with a distinctive “ngeh, ngeh, ngeh” sound that carries for miles. Once I realized how lost I was, I started climbing to the tops of hills and screaming as loud as I could. Breathless, I would listen for an answer. “ngeh, ngeh, ngeh,” came the only response, as if the hills were laughing.

I was wearing a bracelet woven from string in the Pan-African colors of green, yellow, and red, like the flags of Cameroon, The Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Mali. A month earlier, I had been in Paris, climbing a certain hill with a famous church on top. As I walked up the stairs, an African man grabbed my hand and started walking alongside me. Before I could even respond, he began weaving the bracelet onto my wrist. “A gift,” he said. “You make wish now, make wish again when it breaks.” My refusals weren’t forceful enough, and he dragged me up the hill while he wove the bracelet.

Another African man ran alongside us, shouting in the same accent, “You take it, you pay! You take it, you pay!”

“Don’t listen to him,” said the man holding my wrist, laughing, “he’s drunk!” They were clearly working together – now I couldn’t claim that I thought the bracelet was free. As the most popular tourist destination in the world, Paris is full of people with similar acts. I waited for the man to finish the bracelet, handed him a few coins, and climbed the rest of the hill.

I do not believe in the supernatural, mostly because the natural seems to be spectacular enough on its own. Listening to the laughter of the geckos, however, being rational and non-superstitious suddenly seemed like empty vanity. I ripped the bracelet off and wished for survival. I didn’t have any other ideas.

It was winter time, and the nights were long and the days short, but I knew how quickly the sun would desiccate me in the morning. After hours of searching, I finally realized that I could not hope to find camp. Cigarettes in Namibia were so cheap that I had taken up smoking again while I was there. I didn’t have any, and I even if I had, I wouldn’t have smoked any for fear of how they would dry my mouth, but I had taken to carrying a lighter with me at all times. I resolved to find the highest hill around and prepare a fire for the morning.

I reasoned that the light of a fire might be visible at night – but only if there weren’t too many hills between myself and the camp, and only if people were already looking for me. The vegetation was scarce and grew mostly between hills, not on top of them. I couldn’t risk exhausting myself climbing up and down to collect fuel, only to burn it all while everyone was asleep back at camp. I would have to wait till morning.

I found my hill at the edge of a dry river. There were even two small trees there. I could perhaps dig for water later, and their shade might save my life the next day. Beside one of them I found an old tin can, nearly rusted away to nothing. Even though it could have been years since someone left it there, or it could have been washed from hundreds of miles away during the rainy season, it was somehow incredibly heartening to see some evidence of other humans.

Having come to Namibia to learn how man might be kept from spoiling nature, it felt strange to be so cheered by a piece of litter. There is a lot of talk these days about our dependence on the machine, or the system, or whatever we decide to call it. A few people are making spirited attempts to extricate themselves entirely, and many more express a desire to at least achieve some self-sufficiency by keeping a garden or “getting off the grid.” Their goal is to mimic the elegance and independence of the edelweiss plant: condensing sustenance out of the air with solar panels, wind turbines, and greenhouses.

American students climb one of the massive coastal dunes near Walvis Bay, Namibia. Photo by Eric MollThe most dedicated and clever might find themselves capable of living for years without any industrial inputs of electricity, fuel or food, but the tools which make this possible are of course industrial in origin. The only people who live entirely apart from the machine are those few, hidden deep in primeval forests, who have never had contact with modern civilization. A few others, such as the Topnaar of the Sossuvlei Dunes or the Himba of northern Namibia, live traditional lifestyles, but the old ways fade faster with each new generation. For those of us raised without any tradition of living off the land, truly getting off the grid is humbling. Separated from not only the electrical grid but the roads as well, and from any of the implements which normally allow us to venture into the wild, such as tents, water containers, solar cells or hunting gear, we can no more survive than a foot could keep on walking after being severed from the leg. Seeing the rusted can made me hungry for the all the safety nets I had left behind. I looked across the landscape and imagined it paved over. I wanted someone to come and cover these dry hills with shopping malls and grocery stores and public drinking fountains.

The reverie quickly passed, and I set to work collecting fuel for the fire. I would work all night and make two huge piles, one to light shortly after sunrise, and another to light around breakfast time in case it took that long for someone to realize I was missing. It was hard to find any living plants – the dry yellow grasses would burn fine, but I needed smoke. I managed to find several bushes, which I pulled out of the ground whole.

With so little water, natural selection in the desert forces plants onto a violent evolutionary path, and they grow angry thorns. By the time I had built two piles nearly as tall as myself, my hands were scratched and bloody. I stopped to catch my breath and survey my work before climbing back down for another load. Then, from the top of my hill, I saw a tiny beacon in the distance. It was a few kilometers away at least, but it had to be from my camp. I learned later that my tent-mates noticed I was gone when they turned in for the night, and someone put the lantern on the same hill from which I had watched the sunset. I waved my headlamp in the air, wondering if it was bright enough to be seen that far off. I considered lighting the fire and waiting for someone to come to me, but what if it wasn’t my camp? If it was somehow another group of people, they might see a fire and not think to investigate.

Knowing that the beacon wouldn’t be visible once I climbed down from my hill, I took careful note of the stars and started walking. At times, the landscape was too rugged to keep in a straight line, but I did the best I could to compensate. Finally, I came to the dirt road on which we had driven.

I was nearing camp when I came across one of the professors who were out searching for me. He was very angry. He made sure I was unhurt and then fumed that he should send me home but instead he was placing me on academic probation. We were about a mile from camp. Walking back, I was too flooded with relief to listen to him. For the first time in hours, I felt the adrenaline drain from my tissues. I was suddenly aware of how fast my heart was beating, how thirsty I was. There was a liter and a half of cool, clear water waiting in my tent. I drank it all down.

I have never felt that kind of relief before or since, but it didn’t fully erase a newfound awareness of death. The Toltec believed that death walks behind a man — just behind and to the left — through his whole life. The thirst has not left me, nor has the palpability of that heartbeat-thin barrier. I am reminded of a ferrofluid, a sort of black and viscous magnetic mixture, under the influence of an electromagnet. Before the magnetic field is turned on, it looks like a pool of crude oil. Then little hills rise from the surface to match the shape of the magnetic field, which can be modulated to create a symphony of changing geometric forms. Once the field is turned off, gravity destroys those shapes and the liquid becomes calm and formlessly entropic once again. Life is pulled up out of the Earth in much the same way. Diverse forms and shapes are coaxed into being, sculpted and sustained, by the insistent pull of solar radiation, like trees reaching for the sun. Decay pulls in the other direction. I felt it out there in the Namib, trying to pull me apart and scatter me over the rocks. Sometimes, even back within the safety net, all I can feel is its terrible gravity.

Stepping off the map had been more than simply terrifying. I felt like I had experienced nature for the first time. Alone out there, there were no illusions of being separate or free from the forces of nature. It was engulfing and absolute.

The next day, we packed up and continued the trip, back on the tourist route. We visited the Save The Rhino Trust and later Etosha National Park, which is home to an incredible richness of large mammals but is also heavily developed. I saw a staggering array of wildlife at the park, but it felt like a zoo. Wealthy South Africans and Europeans rent luxury bungalows overlooking a man-made watering hole equipped with amphitheatre style seats and a protective wall. Local hospitality workers cheerfully serve the needs of tourists with cameras and gear that are worth more than what the average Namibian can expect to make in a year. Inequalities aside, ecotourism has been gentler than the mining industry, both to the land and the people, but it is changing the way people relate to the land. Even the formerly nomadic Himba are relying less on their herds. Instead they depend on tourists who want to purchase an “authentic” trinket or have their picture taken with a topless girl whose skin and hair are coated with the reddish otjize paste which is distinctive to Himba culture.

Traveling north to the Kunene River, we reentered civilization. We drove on paved roads lined with small one-room homes and businesses. Hitchhiking is common in this part of the country, and people are friendly. Even those who aren’t looking for a ride tend to wave and smile at passing cars. Sometimes gasoline was hard to find and had to be siphoned by hand, but we never ran out. We stopped at a famous German-style bakery in Otjiwarongo and checked our email in their internet cafe. We shopped at supermarkets once a week and slept in guarded campsites with fully stocked bars. Wilderness receded to the periphery of our experience. The veil was back in place.

Eric Moll is a Contributor to The Free George. Photos by Eric Moll

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

 

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