Wait, what? It’s over? But we were just getting started! On December 12th, 2020, Finn, Eamon, and I packed the last of our belongings and boarded a 60 hour flight bound for home. Erin and Atlas departed 30 days before, and we were all excited to make the family whole again. And with that long flight to Paris and then New York and Atlanta and finally Huntsville, our fantastic African chapter, one that added so much richness and vibrancy to our lives, came to a close. Within the first couple of weeks of our arrival, Covid numbers in the United States would spike to their highest point to date, a madman would bomb downtown Nashville, and a bunch of idiots pumped up on Monster Energy drinks and delusions of grandeur would storm the Capitol. Quite the welcome home party. Jennifer Egan in her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, calls it what it is. “Structural dissatisfaction” she says is when you return “to circumstances that once pleased you after having experienced a more thrilling or opulent way of life, only to find that you can no longer tolerate them.” Or as Eamon asked it, “What do we do instead of safaris now?”
Recently I’ve found a few more hours in the day, and I’ve been using those to write about travel and to think about the closure that the life during the pandemic couldn’t afford. This post is an attempt to reflect on one of the previously undocumented highlights of our African adventures. Also in the works is a full recap of the seven days I recently spent biking across Bhutan. I’m glad to be back writing and reading again. I’ve missed y’all.
Life on Mars
Sossusvlei, NAMIBIA – Seaming fresh 4×4 tracks across the Western Kalahari and the Eastern Namib Deserts with good friend, former colleague, and fellow Gen Xer Paul Beavers in our seemingly indestructible five speed Isuzu pickup truck will forever be one of the great adventures of my lifetime. Located northwest of South Africa, the country is the third least densely populated country in the world (coming in behind Greenland and Mongolia). Over the last few years I’ve felt a growing attraction to these types of places. I’d much prefer a trip to St. Helena over one to St. Croix. Some of you probably understand.
We took an early morning flight from Cape Town to the South Atlantic port of Walvis Bay, Namibia where we quickly gathered the necessary provisions (bottled water, a couple of sandwiches each, and a real folding paper map!) before pointing the wheels down the dusty C14 road for the eight hour drive to Solitaire. The air-con was weak, the speakers sucked, but we had an undiminished 80’s playlist and thousands of miles of undulating and ever-shifting single lane dirt roads to choose from.
I read somewhere that some of songs on U2’s The Joshua Tree album grew out of Bono’s humanitarian experiences in Ethiopia and Egypt. Maybe it is because they were born out of the eastern Sahara and the droughts in sub-Saharan Africa, that songs like Where the Streets Have No Name feels entirely at home in the desert. The lines on the map had a letter denoting the type/condition of the road (A and B are the paved four and two lane highways, C is usually single lane graded dirt, and D is for the farm roads and lesser traveled/local travel routes) followed by a number (they start at one and increase the further north you go). The land we covered had no signage at all with the exception of the sticker adorned Tropic of Capricorn. There’s certainly something eternal in that song that captures the timelessness of landscape like that. We joked more than once that we were road tripping on Tatooine. Few trees, far fewer people and the horizon expanding limitless in all directions.
Just outside of Sossusvlei National Park we spent the night in a castle-like desert oasis. It was here at Le Mirage Hotel where I booked a combination indoor/outdoor room that allow guests the option to sleep on top of a turret and under the prodigious tranquility of the empyreal desert sky. Unless you’ve done it, you can’t imagine it, and I’m sorry that I could never find the words to adequately describe it. Suffice it to say, I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire life, and I probably never will again. As the sun faded over the dunes, I was treated to the history of the galaxy playing out above. Over there was the Southern Cross and light that had left from from nearest stars as Newton was writing his Principia. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, a cosmic scar pulled across a sea of black. Who could sleep? Shooting stars and satellites. I rarely sleep in the open air anymore, let alone under a blanket of comforting darkness. And to think no matter where you are on this planet, that above us at every moment there exists this field light so dense with stars trapped in time. Each night those pinpricks there twinkling above us are transmissions providing near constant messages through the darkness if we’d only look up to receive them. It seemed a waste to not greet each voyager traveling from some far flung solar parent in a more deserving fashion. Starlight that had covered time and distances of such magnitude that I could never understand (not really anyway) deserved better. I slept with my contact lenses in that night trying to take it all in, to welcome the light of so many yesterdays. “The universe is constantly visiting us,” writes poet Etel Adnan, “while waiting for us to reverse that itinerary.”
Last image of the night sky is from Le Mirage Hotel’s Instagram page.
Side-note: International Dark Sky Reserves are my favorite kind of national parks and Namibia’s is an absolute treasure. And like any treasure, it’s value lies in it’s being rare and obscure and removed from the ordinary. Check out these 18 sites that have earned and maintain I.D.A.’s standards for darkness. They are all on my list of places to find and experience. The world can often feel like a dark place these days, but somehow I think a helpful response (on a personal level anyway) might just be in creating more time and space for this other type of darkness.
Just after sunrise, Paul and I went out exploring the dunes around Sossusvlei. While “Big Daddy” was intimidatingly immense (325m/1066 ft), Dune 45 (170m/560ft) seemed manageable enough for us to climb before the sun became relentless. I felt nothing but gratitude as I clawed my way to the top of that five million year old dune with the sand shifting under my feet. It would be a recurring emotion on this trip. The ceaselessness of the desert connects you to time in a way that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The light changes, but even in it’s cycle of day and night it’s never ending. Even the wind seemed constant. Before the sun was too high, we climbed back into the truck and turned east on the C19.
On a stretch break somewhere between Sesriem and another speck on the map named Mariental, I climbed up onto the roof of the truck looked over the dervishes and onto a place where nothing existed and nothing most likely would ever exist. The land was a barren rocky slab baking in heat of the midday sun. Even geologic time even seemed to have abandoned this place. You might think what a depressing place to stop. A spot so brutalized by the elements that it’s own existence seemed meaningless, a wasted land devoid of any significance to life. I immediately fell in love with it.
Take notice of what light does – to everything.”Tess Guinery, The Moonflower Monologues
Let me explain it another way. The previous night I went for a run from the castle before dinner. After 20 minutes of running west across the pan, I slowed to a stop before turning back. A bead of sweat dropped at my feet and disappeared into that red earth. Crouching down, I collected few rough rocks no larger than the size of my fist and placed them around one foot then the other. I stepped back to admire my work. Two size 11 ellipses just touching to form a figure eight. A primitive attempt at graffiti? Maybe. Or rather I think it was less of an artistic expression and more of an existential one. Someone was here once. I was here once.
Just the other day I watched my son rummage his feet down into the sand at the beach, and I thought about those outlines in the desert. They are still there, I’m certain of it. And when I think about them next they will be there too. In fact, I’m fairly confident they will still be there in a hundred years, and perhaps even a millennia or more, possibly even long after everything else I ever touch has disappeared. Would you think of that? For all the energy and commotion and exigence of my life, my most lasting direct result here might be those rocks, a hastily arranged into the same symbol we use to signify the infinite moving through the universe at God’s pace under those gorgeous everlasting stars. It makes me smile to think about the absurdity of it.
Standing on the roof of that truck under that noon sun dreaming about the adventures that lay ahead of us in central Namibia I was overcome with the augustness of it all. There are moments when I wonder out loud whose life this is. It often doesn’t feel like mine. How can you feel simultaneously liberated and domesticated by your experiences on this planet?
“This is our secret world, filled with the unreachable.”Yang Mu, Fourteen Sonnets
If you ever have the chance, Namibia and all its lonely haunting beauty will always be waiting for you.
Be good and keep in touch.