Namibia — the desert of my dreams

Namibia is the desert of my dreams. I love the milky sand dunes, watercolor sunsets, and the type of wide open spaces that make you feel really, really small.

We climbed massive rock formations at Spitzkoppe, ran our fingers over engravings at Twyfelfotein that have been carbon-dated to 6,000 years ago, and danced in endless salt pans in Etosha that begged to host a Burning Man festival.

We scaled Sesrim Canyon in sandals and took in a spectacular view overlooking Fish River Canyon, the deepest canyon in Africa.

Just around the peak of midday heat, we trekked through the desert to find Dead Vlei, a 900-year-old petrified forest nestled in valley of massive amber sand dunes. One of the trees resembled a tree from my childhood front yard. I wanted so badly to climb it, but could already see the headlines, “American traveler breaks 1,000 year old branch” so I admired from a distance.

We saw one of the most epic sunsets in Namibia from the top of Dune 45, a 120 meter sand dune. The 30 minute ascent in shifting sand strangled my thighs and gave me a real respect for camels. By the time I reached the top, I was a sand creature — with sand up and in my every nook and cranny. But making a sand chair and watching the colors of the sunset drip down the dunes was magical. And sliding down the dune afterward was all part of the fun.

Throughout Namibia, we set up camp near watering holes, which is how I finally saw two big rhinos up close.

One night, we took our sleeping bags down to a watering hole to watch zebras. A ranger told us to be careful if we saw any oryx because they will attack if you approach them head-on.

Later that night when I peered up and saw two oryx, with their twin three-foot daggers gleaming in the moonlight, I held my breath and lowered back down onto my pillow. We slept outside that night with the oryx, the snakes, the scorpions and a magnificent starry sky.

Another night, an incredible thunderstorm rolled through. I sat in my tent waiting for the rain to burst open the seams as thunder quaked the earth and lightning shattered the sky.

My favorite Namibia memories were in Swakopmund, a small city on the coast surrounded by a desert of giant sand dunes. Swakopmund and Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, were remarkably western. The grocery stores and downtown areas could have been Australia. But on a walking tour, I was reminded that for every beautiful tourist hotel there are thousands of locals living in small ramshackle huts on the outskirts of town.

On day one in Swakopmund, a group from my trip was gearing up to skydive. I went in the Alps after college and I loved it, but I saw it as a once in a lifetime experience — a bucket-list item — and I had checked the box. So when they asked me to go, I said “no”. The morning of, I still wasn’t going. At 10am when we went to the booking office, I didn’t sign up. Then around noon, a thought struck me, “I could be jumping out of a plane today”. So at 2 o’clock, I went.

I barely had time to reach the “this is really stupid” stage of the skydive thought process before I was up in the plane ready to jump. At that point, you just surrender to the adrenaline cocktail and go. I landed high & buzzing from free fall and made the obligatory “I’m alive” call to my parents.

That night, we saw the pilot and the tandem skydivers at the local club smashed and still wearing their parachutes. Fortunately, I didn’t see these shenanigans until after I had trusted them with my life.

The next morning, we hit the dunes for Sandboarding. People say Sandboarding is like snowboarding without the snow. Same boots, same board, same amount of time spent on your ass when you’re learning. I think a more apt comparison would be snowboarding without the chairlift. The way down is amazing, but very quickly you find yourself at the bottom of a massive dune having to hike up with your boots, helmet and board in the heat of the desert.

We also tried sand sledding. One guy stood at the bottom with a speed gun, making it instantly competitive. I zoomed down head first at 71kmph. When I tried to go faster, I spun off, mouth full of sand.

We also explored the dunes on quad bikes (4 wheelers /ATVs depending on your English). Quad biking is one of my favorite ways to explore the wilderness in a new place. I loved opening up the throttle and doing “roller coasters” over the dunes. And I couldn’t get over how amazing the scenery was — enormous milky dunes stretching as far as I could see.

But if the Namibian landscape is fascinating, the people native to this land are even more so.

Herero women are meant to resemble cows. In the heat of the desert, they wear long, floral dresses with puffy shoulders reminiscent of 80s prom-wear and hats that jut out to the sides like horns. Like cows, they are supposed to move slowly and speak softly.

The beautiful women of the Himba tribe have a heavily beaded, boobs-out, National Geographic look. Somehow the men get away with basketball shorts.

I was most taken by the description of the Bushmen. They were small, tribal people with thick, yellow skin good for hunting in the African sun. And they were masters of nature. One of the first lessons their children learned was how to recognize their mother by her footprints.

The Bushmen got their name from the way they hid in bushes — often even disguising themselves as bushes — to sneak up on their prey. I like to imagine the skeptical zebra thinking “was that bush there a minute ago?”

Bushmen could go days and days without food and then eat more than 10 kilos of meat at once. The small, tattered photos I saw showed stretched, dangling stomach skin. They are spoken of here almost as if they were an entirely different race. In fact, they were legally considered animals until the 1950s and were hunted as game.

From what I understand, there are still Bushmen in Namibia today, but not in their original form. They were misunderstood, brutalized, and almost driven to extinction. What remained of them blended and bred with other tribes and much of their culture has been lost or stamped out.

It’s crazy to think that people like these actually exist, and in such a harsh climate.

But Namibia has given me a newfound admiration for the desert, beyond all the Burning Man potential.

I’ve learned that the desert can be beautiful and vast and varied and very much alive.