Is there life in the desert? Before Namibia, the very word desert conjured up images of wastelands, a world of emptiness scorched into never-ending death and smothered in sand. (It also triggered a paranoid rush to the dictionary: Desert. Dessert. Bah!)
So, with competing thoughts of torched land and crème brulée, I reached the eastern edge of the Namib Desert, a 55 million year old expanse of burning amber dunes.
Covering 32 000 square metres, the Namib Desert resembles a blood-red ocean of waves from the air. On and on and on they stretch, reaching north to the Skeleton Coast and southwest to the Forbidden Territories.
Yet there are dunes within dunes and a whole kaleidoscope of deserts within the Namib Naukluft Park. There are golden-brown dunes and earthy dunes, breadcrumbed dunes with scratchy balls of bleached quill grass. There are stretches of dry mud and even landscape that would look at home in a Vegas gangster film.
At ground level, the two million year old Sesriem Canyon sinks into the earth with a creamy, crumbly crust – and then of course there’s Sossusvlei.
While Namib means “open space,” an apt phrase that describes the whole country, Sossusvlei means something else: “Dead Valley.”
So said our local guide, although I’ve heard others call it “The Point of No Return.” An ominous translation, either way.
As recently as 1000 years ago, water flowed, or at least trickled, through the depression at Sossusvlei. As the temperature rose, the valley beds dried out, forming a natural clay jigsaw that became the playground of photographers’ dreams.
“The trees have died,” says Chester, our local guide. “But without water, they cannot rot.”
The trees in question have bolt upright trunks with stubby branches coloured a dark chocolate brown – Cadbury trees on the milky surface of the valley. In the distance, oryx stare at us, tilting their spiral horns in disbelief at our trespass through this natural graveyard.
While the trees may be dead, there’s still plenty of life scurrying across the sand (and I’m not just talking about the tourists on Dune 45.)
Etched into the surface of the desert are signature tracks from oryx and springbok, squiggles from snakes and scratches from ostriches. A whitebait spider waits, camouflaged with the stone, while birds with orange eyes swoop to steal unguarded food.
By night, jackals howl and scratch outside the tent, crunching the bleached grass as they saunter past, while just before sunrise, engines roar and rage as their wheels get stuck in the sand.
The Namib Desert is a visual indulgence but an audio nightmare. Its temperatures blister the skin by day and freeze the soul by night.
“It is a beautiful place,” says our bush pilot. “But no-one stays for long.”
There’s plenty of life in this desert – but it’s still no place for humans.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com