The place deserts occupy in the Western imagination has shifted over the years like the red, yellow and golden sands that fill these arid corners of the Earth. From harsh and barren places of exile and Biblical wandering to the romance of Lawrence of Arabia’s trek, bejeweled palaces of Rajasthan and billowing Bedouin tents, deserts change depending on who is telling the story. To the travel industry, they are the new tropical islands: promising an exotic triumvirate of dune trekking, luxury tented camps and camel safaris. Sarah Duff explores the world’s oldest desert to find out why we are drawn to places we would struggle to survive in.
A shooting star flitted across the dark bowl of the pre-dawn sky as I wormed my way deeper into the down sleeping bag on my camp bed, only a foot above the ice-cold sand dune. Surrounded by endless dunes and plains, I was sleeping out in the open in southern Africa’s great desert, with no roads, houses or people for miles. The sun began to tint the horizon like a slowly spreading watercolour spill and I felt more content and at peace than I had anywhere else I’d ever travelled to. The question that rang through my head was why?
The Namib Desert stretches thousands of kilometres across the Atlantic coastline of southwest Africa, spanning South Africa, Namibia and Angola, where it becomes the Moçâmedes Desert. Sand seas in hues of ochre, beige, terracotta ripple across the sparsely habited interior of Namibia giving way to grassy plains and mountains that turn purple at dusk. This vast wilderness, which is thought to be 50 million years old, is home to fascinatingly adapted plants and animals: lions who hunt seals, desert-adapted rhino and elephant, a herd of wild horses thought to have originally come from a 19th century shipwreck and Welwitschia, a plant that can live for millennia. Namibia’s namesake is its tourist brochure visual currency, its burnt-orange dunes and lone gemsbok in empty plains the stuff of computer wallpapers.
By no means one of the biggest deserts on the planet, the Namib covers one of the world’s least populated places: Namibia is home to 2.3 million people, or quarter the population of London, in a country four times the size of the United Kingdom. Driving along the length of the desert on straight gravel roads that shimmer in the heat of the day, you’re unlikely to see another car for hours. It’s not the kind of place where you’d like to run out of fuel. When you do pass the occasional farmhouse, there’s almost never sign of people – the scenes are as still as landscapes by the Old Masters. There are no giant cities creeping noisily along the edge of wilderness, as in Egypt. Namibia and its desert are singularly lonely.
Visitors come here for the world’s tallest dunes, near Sossusvlei, a short drive away from lodges and campsites on the perimeter of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which conserves a huge swathe of the desert. At sunrise and sunset camera-wielding desert explorers scramble up the 300-metre-high dunes and capture something of the untamed glory of thousands of kilometres of sand unfurling towards the horizon. Because it is beautiful. The Namib Desert is hauntingly, overwhelmingly, heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s an immemorial beauty of something that’s 1000 times older than human existence that remains unfettered, unfenced and for most of its 81 000 square kilometres, totally wild.
It was on my second trip to the Namib, hiking for three days and having existential pondering moments in my hot water bottle-warmed camp bed, that I began to wonder if there wasn’t something more to the allure of the desert other than its scenic value. There’s a feeling of utter stillness in the air, like the balanced quiet of a monastery. Why does being on the edge of the world feel calming instead of terrifying?
For Bruce Chatwin, it’s simple: “man was born in the desert, in Africa. By returning to the desert he rediscovers himself.” Chatwin’s most famous book The Songlines, is a half-fictionalised travelogue that is ostensibly about the invisible pathways of the Aboriginals that cut across the Australian continent, but it turns into a musing on the human urge to travel, with the desert as a backdrop. Chatwin sees man’s motivation to explore stemming from a nomadism developed by evolution in a harsh, arid climate. He recounts how travelling with the Beja tribe of Sudan’s Bayuda Desert inspired him to quit his job in the art world and travel “back to the dry places” of the world to live with nomads: “Rguibat, Quashgai, Taimanni, Turkomen, Bororo, Tuareg – people whose journeys, unlike my own, had neither beginning nor end.” All the time he became “more convinced that nomads had been the crankhandle of history”.
According to Chatwin, the allure of the desert has a history stretching back millions of years and explains why so many of us baulk at the restrictions of modern life: “If the desert were ‘home’; if our instincts were forged in the desert; to survive the rigours of the desert – then it is easier to understand why greener pastures pall on us; why possessions exhaust us.” Intertwined with evolution and nomadism, the desert for Chatwin becomes the holy grail of travel: the place we are programmed to seek out.
The philosopher Alain de Botton also interprets the significance of deserts on an equally elemental level. His theory has to do with the sublime, a concept which was introduced in AD200 but only rose to prominence in the 18th century. The sublime is the feeling of powerlessness that was aroused by being in places of extreme natural beauty: deserts, glaciers, mountains and canyons. Being confronted by these places commands awe and respect, rather than just aesthetic appreciation. In doing so, they communicate truths about the human condition. As de Botton puts it: sublime places teach us “that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will; that we must bow to necessities greater than ourselves.”
In The Art of Travel he journeys to the southern Sinai Desert, a place described by Bedouins as “El Tih” (the desert of the Wandering) “in order to be made to feel small.” Here he has his own sublime experience: “The southern Sinai at dawn. What then is this felling? It is generated by a valley created 400 million years ago, by a granite mountain 2300 metres high and by the erosion of millennia marked on the walls of a succession of steep canyons. Beside all three man seems merely dust postponed: the sublime as an encounter, pleasurable, intoxicating even, with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe.”
De Botton’s view is of deserts as consoling places, where we can confront an avoidable truth: that our lives are inconsequential and insignificant, tiny specks in the cosmos. This, he argues, has the effect of reducing anxiety about status and social hierarchy, for all human lives are as insignificant as one another.
Sublime landscapes also have the effect of inspiring spiritual feelings. In places that are too beautiful to describe without resorting to empty hyperbole, it’s easy to imagine that a being greater than us is behind their creation. Biblical figures, not least of all Jesus on his forty-day fast, spent a significant amount of time wandering the desert, exploring the depths of their psyches and the meaning of God.
In the Old Testament’s Book of Job, Job asks God why his life had been afflicted by tragedy, when he was a good man. God responds by pointing Job to the mighty power of nature and the unfathomable logic of the universe by alluding to sublime spaces. De Botton puts this into a secular perspective: “If the world is unfair or beyond our understanding, sublime places suggest it is not surprising things should be thus. We are the playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains… If we spend time in them, they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” On that chilly morning in the Namib, my feeling of contentment didn’t seem to arise from an acceptance of my own mortality, but I did feel inconsequential in a place that has its 50-million-year-old patterns of evolution, life and death written out in ever-shifting sand.
More than other epic landscapes such as craggy peaks, the desert as a philosophical space, a blank canvas on which to write one’s own psychological narrative only exists as such within the context of being a transitory tourist in a forbidding environment, cushioned against its threats (unless you’re Christ). As a tourist you’re safe in your air-conditioned car and your mini-bar-equipped lodge room. Other humans have not always had this insulation from the uncompromising wilderness.
The Namibian desert’s name has been taken from the Nàmá people, whose word has been translated as “an area where there is nothing”, “enormous” and “vast place”. These nomadic people, who lived for thousands of years in the southern Namib, before a brutal massacre at the hands of the colonising Germans wiped out half of the population, seemed not to fear the emptiness and scale of the desert. San people from the Namibian interior, on the other hand, called it “the land God created in anger” and Portuguese sailors once referred to the treacherous Skeleton Coast where the sands of the Namib meet the Atlantic Ocean as “the gates of hell”. These latter perceptions clearly stem from a very rational fear. For desert outsiders, more pressing issues than those of meaning was survival. There is no more forbidding place on Earth than this parched corner of the planet, where some only getting only a smattering of raindrops in a year – no more than a teaspoon of liquid.
Life hangs in the balance here. Hiking guides impress upon visitors the marvels of plant and fauna adaption – miraculous marks of evolutionary excellence. That most beautiful of all desert animals, the gemsbok, with its gently curving horns and graphic print face, sometimes stands on high dunes facing the sea just to get the softest kiss of mist from the Atlantic Ocean in the absence of water.
In the same way the Alain de Botton finds the uncaring blank face of the desert exerts an ataractic power, travel writer AA Gill observes how its ruthlessness is, instead, anxiety inducing. After a trip to the Kalahari Desert in Botswana he wrote, “The desert isn’t for everyone: for a creature with a memory and the ability to plan ahead, it can be a deeply worrying place. The desert is amoral. It doesn’t care: you’re as useful dead as you are alive. Your position at the top of the evolutionary tree, your money, your cultured good taste, your hopes and expectations mean nothing here; you’re just another roll of the dice, a stumble and a sting away from being a mass of skull minerals.”
The best illustration of this can be found at the southern end of the Namib on the edge of the tantalisingly-named Sperrgebiet (forbidden zone), a restricted diamond-mining area which extends to South Africa’s border. Kolmanskop was a busy little mining settlement of a few hundred people in the early twentieth century, but the discovery of bigger diamonds down the coast led to its inhabitants packing up and leaving the town to melt away into the sand. Half a century later, it feels as ancient as Pompeii. Roofs have crumbled and the desert has filled rooms to the ceiling with sand as wood is slowly eroded like a Surrealist painting. The bowling alley, paint faded, is eerily set up with pins as if abandoned in haste like the schoolrooms of Chernobyl, still strewn with books and toys. Kolmanskop stands as a ghostly and sobering reminder of what the desert can take back – and that human existence is a mere blip on the face of a sand-filled eternity, a blip that can disappear in less time than the lifespan of a desert elephant.
Desert inhabitants and travellers alike are split between two sides of perception of this dichotomous place that is at once too beautiful to capture in a photograph and terrifyingly brutal. It is anciently permanent whilst ever shifting with the wind; barren but full of life. Yet at the heart of everyone’s experience of the desert is a confrontation with the limits of human life. Like staring up at the vastness of the galaxy in an unpolluted night sky, desert travelling forces you to admit to powerlessness. Where else in the world does one feel so ultimately humbled? Certainly not next to the lounger-bedecked resort pool on a tropical island, and likely not on a Provencal cooking class in France.
Like Alain de Botton, I feel that travelling to deserts is the travel equivalent of therapy, with the this panacea for anxiety, stress and restlessness having long-lasting effects. Months after returning to the city from the Namib, the quietness of being on top of a dune looking out, hot days spent hiking through a landscape that hadn’t changed in millions of years, and icy nights watching the galaxy move like a sugar-encrusted bowl across the night sky, still have a hold over me. The meditative memory is not just, as Wordsworth (the poet of the sublime) put it, as a “landscape to a blind man’s eye” but more than that – “sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration.”
Namib Desert snapshot
Getting there: Air Namibia, British Airways, Kulula and South African Airways fly to Windhoek from Johannesburg and Cape Town. It’s an 800-kilometre-long drive from Cape Town to the Namibian border, and 1364 kilometres from Johannesburg.
Staying there: Wolwedans has five understatedly stylish camps, catering for the luxury market, in the private NamibRand Nature Reserve, bordered by sand dunes and the Nubib Mountains. Dune Camp is most affordable, while the Mountain View Suite, a stand-alone lodge for only two, with its own lounge, kitchen, outdoor bed for star gazing, is the most expensive. Each camp has a scenic setting, among boulders or on grassy plains, with rooms built to take advantage of the sweeping vistas.
Government-run Namibia Wildlife Resorts has Sossus Dune Lodge within the Namib-Naukluft National Park near to Sossusvlei and a tree-shaded campsite with a restaurant and shop at the entrance of Sesriem Canyon. Further east, near Solitaire, is the small, basic Naukluft Campsite, where you can do an eight-day hike.
TokTokkie Trails offers three-day guided hikes through the NamibRand Nature Reserve where your luggage is transported and you sleep in camps under the stars in warm beds and with hot meals prepared by a chef.
When to go: In summer (October to March) day temperatures can be higher than 40 degrees celsius. If you want to walk in the desert, plan to travel in winter instead (April to September) when days are pleasantly warm (nights can be below zero celcius).
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
The Old Testament: The Book of Job
Henno Martin, The Sheltering Desert