Sesriem Canyon; Dawn at Dune 45; In which I learn to survive in the desert from a real, live Bushman... sort of

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Sesriem Canyon. I didn’t know anything except that it existed, and I only knew that from our itinerary. It had been stinking hot all day, though, and I was happy to be off the truck no matter where we were. The campsite where we were staying was out in the middle of scrub desert, and after setting up our tents under the only trees areound, we all dragged ourselves back onto the truck for the spine-rattling 5km drive to the canyon.

Whatever it was I’d expected, Sesriem Canyon wasn’t it. It’s a big, twisting chasm eroded by a river out of the floor of the desert. You’d think I’d enjoy it - I love rocks and all their various shapes and colours, and we’ve had very good luck with rocks lately - but I just didn’t like it. It’s funny, isn’t it? The spirit of a place can feel so different from one to the other. Maybe the heat or the diffuse white light affected my judgement, but it seemed like something in the appearance of the rock looked… ugly, dead and mean-spirited. Compare that feeling to the ones inspired by the rocks at Spitzkoppe - they seemed happy, comfortable and welcoming. I’m not really even sure how to classify the rocks at Sesriem - some sort of sedimentary conglomerate, I think. They looked like a huge batch of cement had been mixed up with whatever loose stones were lying around, poured down and had a canyon dug out of the resulting mess. I was happy to take the long, windy walk back to the campground.

The next morning was much better. We were all up stupidly early for the drive to Dune 45, so-called not because of some arcane dune-numbering or cataloging system as I’d originally thought, but rather because it lies 45km from the campground. The idea was to watch sunrise from the top of the dune. When we arrived there Sheryl and I reckoned there was no way we’d make it in time - the sky was bright pink to the east. The dune itself was a beautiful pristine yellow-gold, unmarked by any footsteps, right at the edge of the desert. It was bare on its windswpt western side, but a drift of scrubby yellow grass had washed up the sheltered east. I’d jokingly challenged Casper to a run up the dune a few days ago but I’d never had any intention of following through. I remember climbing a huge dune in the Sahara in Morocco a few months ago, and I remembered just how difficult it is to run up them. Dune 45 is maybe half or a third the height of that nameless Saharan drift, if my memory isn’t exaggerating, but it’s still 120m high in its own right - quite high enough to take our breath away. We took the hard way up, along the crest of the dune rather than up one side. The wind was strong and the air full of sand. My lungs were on fire from the dust. Halfway up I remembered I had a bandanna in my bag and tied it around my face cowboy-style - it helped, but it still took ages for my chest to calm down. Our efforts paid off, though - we reached the top in plenty of time for a good sunrise. Down was a lot more fun that up, of course. We ran right down the side of the dune like maniacs - all you have to do is kick your feet forward and it’s like you’re walking straight down a wall.

Later in the morning we had a tour of the desert scheduled - a Bushman tour, we were told. I was a bit puzzled, since we’d already been to see a Bushman village a week and a half earlier. Imagine my surprise when we were greeted, not by a Bushman, but by a man named Bushman (”Boesman”). He was an odd man, but very informative. He took us out in the desert and taught us all kinds of things about how to survive there - how to find water-rich plants; how to eat lizards (raw) and which ones to eat (the slow ones without the pink tails); how to climb dunes the easy way (up the leeward side); and how not to get lost (the tips of the dunes lean one direction with the summer wind and the opposite with the winter wind). I can’t remember half of everything he said, he was constantly spouting desert lore.

The Namib Desert is a fascinating place. The rains last came there four years ago, and before that ten years. It’s the driest place in the world - less than 10mm of rain a year, most years. By far the most interesting part for me was the place they call Deadvlei. A vlei is a “place where water gathers”. The name Sossusvlei, for example, derives from a phrase which meant “The place where water gathers where people vanish into the sand”. Deadvlei is just that - a dead water place. Nine hundred years ago the sands blocked the intermittent river from reaching the sea, and the little fertile ground on the far side dried up, leaving a wasteland of cracked tan mud and dead black trees. Truly a haunting and beautiful place, and I could have spent all day there - the half-hour we were given passed in the blink of an eye.

On the way back, the guide talked a lot about his namesakes, the real Bushmen. According to him, the true Bushman people were hunted to extinction in the last century - the real, yellow-skinned San survive now only in their brown-skinned descendants, who are all, not to put too fine a point upon it, halfbreeds. Shockingly, nauseatingly, I found out that it had been as recently as 1927 permits were issued for hunting Bushmen - considered animals, they became the victims of an unsung genocide. Our guide told us that it was common to take Bushman skins or heads as hunting trophies, or to kill entire families except one young boy who would be kept as a pet. The greatest villains in this, though by no means the only ones, were the Germans and the Dutch. One is tempted to ascribe this to the genocidal viciousness of the former and the slave-trading history of the latter, but they only took the prize by the numbers - every nationality present in Africa at that time carries a share of the blame. I mentioned in a previous dispatch, after visiting the Cape Cross seal colony, that seals are so stupid and self-destructive that I had thoughts of speeding along the process of natural selection and letting some less stupid species fill their ecological niche - I’m beginning to feel that way about the human species, too.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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