The lodge we had checked into the night before was called Le Mirage.
We couldn't see it any other way, lost as it was in the vastness of Namibian Sossus and in time, in the outlandish eccentricity of a North African castle or medieval ksar, all rounded, made of cylindrical towers grouped in an almost outer circumference.
We shared the cobbled and fortified interior with an international, upscale and well-heeled community of Namibian explorers, one of them a birthday boy. So we went back to watching the ceremonial that is so frequent in Namibia and southern Africa, of employees singing happy birthday and dancing to the sound of drums in the dining room.
Just as it came out of nowhere, the celebration quickly dissipated. Despite five courses being planned, we shortened the repast as much as possible.
We had a lot of office work to take care of for the coming days and, to help the party, the massive walls of those almost dungeons barred the Wi-Fi signal from room 24 that we had been given. We resolved what we could from the imbroglio.
Ecstatic from traveling along the dusty and slippery roads of Namibia, we fell asleep sooner than we expected. We still haven't recovered from that as we should have.
At 4:30 am, the alarm clocks sounded like a horror movie. Half an hour later, we were making an effort to have breakfast with our eyes open.
At five in the morning, still dazed, we set out to discover Sossusvlei.
Sossusvlei's Early Bird Discovery
We were just over 20km from Sesriem, the main town in the area.
Entry point to the vast domain of its great vleis, the terms used by colonists Afrikaners these parts to define the swamps formed when the temporary water of the rivers spreads through the deserts, in this case, that of Namib.
Where we walked, we were about the middle of the latitude it occupies. We never got close to Sesriem.
We leave Namibian road C27 pointing west. In the vicinity of a certain Kulala Desert Lodge, the sandy path we were following lined up with the furrow dug in the desert by a certain Tsauchab River. Without us having any notion then, Tsauchab has a leading role in almost all the scenarios that we would unveil.
From time to time, rare rainy days in the distant Naukluft Mountains, about 150km to the northeast, revive the river.
They renew soil erosion and compaction of the sands at the bottom of Namibe.
Thus, they excavate, deeper and more defined, the sort of alluvial arrowhead, clearly visible from the air or in a satellite image.
In the company of the withered stream of the Tsauchab, under the suspicious eyes of the oryx residents, the jeep passes by the air balloons that almost splash the clear skies of these confines.
Between oryx and balloons, we enter the muddy valley of the Sossusvlei, between the imposing dunes that delimit it to the north and south.
And the Sandy Conquest of the Reputable Dune 45
We stopped at the base of Dune 45. For an obvious reason.
Located at kilometer 45 of the road that leads Sesriem to Sossusvlei, this dune rises 170 meters high, a geological monster formed by sand that is around five million years old.
It is estimated that that of the Orange River, blown from the Kalahari Desert to the near marine shore of Namib. We began the climb to the top, slowly, slowly, not even the slippery sand of its curved crest would allow anything else.
First, with the sun wanting to peek from the Namibian east.
Soon, we and the top of the dunes are orange by the first rays of the day, especially the dunes, made of sand saturated with iron and, therefore, already ocher in themselves, more ferrous inland than close to the ocean.
The more we ascended, the more abysmal the orange ergs revealed by the surrounding dawn.
And the acacia trees at the bases were even smaller at that time of year, laden with their moon-shaped pods, one of the elephants' favorite foods.
As the sun rose above the horizon and the dunes, it erased the patches of shadow on the unlit slopes.
When that magical contrast faded too much, we returned to the starting point, ready to resume the whitish guiding line of the Tsauchab.
We head west, at a certain point, already on the trail of salty clay left by the unexpected torrents, on our way to the threshold where it disappears into the endless sands of Namibe.
Dead Vlei's Dead End and Dying Valley
Some of the dunes form veritable lakes of salt cooked over and over again by the tropical sun.
One of the most famous, the Dead Vlei, rises at the base of Big Daddy, the highest dune in Sossusvlei, at 325 meters, still below the highest in Namibia, Dune 7, at 383 meters.
We pass below the Big Daddy northern threshold. On the opposite side of its crest, we come across the most exuberant of Sossusvlei's clay basins, the Dead Vlei, translatable as swamp or dead marsh.
Even if we now find it too dry to house large plant life, this was not always the case.
What makes Dead Vlei a special setting is the profusion of acacia skeletons, rigid and branching testimonies of whimsical shapes of times when plentiful rains – probably upstream from the river – and a significant flow from the Tsauchab would have granted another fertility.
Namibe proves to be, however, a desert in permanent movement and mutation.
The dynamics of the sands is fueled by the conflict between the prevailing south-southwest wind which, cooled by the icy waters of the Benguela Current, generates the dense fog that surrounds the edge of the desert and constitutes its main source of humidity.
The great rival of this south wind is known as berg, it comes from the Kalahari Desert and, accordingly, is dry, a real furnace, by the way.
The conflict between these two winds and their derivations shapes the orientation and shape of the Namibe and Sossusvlei dunes.
It may have happened that, in this battle, between 500 and 900 years ago, changes in the Big Daddy dune and neighboring dunes blocked the intermittent flow (it happens every 5 to 10 years) of the Tsauchab into the Dead Vlei.
Devoid of the water that irrigated them, the almost millenary acacias perished.
Their trunks and main branches resist. They form surreal monuments to the biological adventure and misadventure that took place there.
As improbable as it may seem, the Atlantic is less than 50km from the dead end valley of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.
Even so, not even in the biggest floods that have ever occurred, products of meteorological aberrations, did the Tsauchab reach the ocean as a true flow.
At the funneled end of Sossusvlei, with Big Daddy and its allies in front of it, the river surrenders to the immensity of the sands, allowing itself to disappear.
Passing through the River Aperture of the Sesriem Strait
are rare the rivers that never reach the sea.
Africa has some.
Another, the permanent one and permanently supplied by the rains of the Angolan Huambo, spreads out in a verdant and prolific swamp further into the interior of Africa. This is the Okavango (Cubango).
The sun rises on its way to its zenith. Back in the car, we discover that we have a puncture, luckily one of the very slow ones. We reverse path.
We have time to cross the Sesriem Gorge that the Tsauchab crosses just before entering Sossusvlei, after leaving the Naukluft Mountains behind for good.
At certain points, the gorge is a mere two meters wide, a tightness that we felt was completely out of tune with the inhospitable immensity that we had been traveling for days.
Rare as it is, the narrowness of Sesriem still has the power to preserve a shadowy reservoir of water.
It is, therefore, an almost obligatory meeting point for Namibe fauna, oryx and fang goats, ostriches, jackals, hyenas and many others.
The Remote Germanic Genesis of PN Namibe-Naukluft
If we go back to the beginning of the XNUMXth century, to the colonial era of South West Africa, we find that, even without real intentions of animal protection and preservation, it was the Germans who laid the foundation for the current National Park Namibe-Naukluft, considered the largest national park in Africa and the fourth largest in the world.
In 1907, they established three large Game Reserves. The Namibe-Naukluft region was included in the third. But the German hunting rights in their colony were lost with the defeat of the German Empire and allies in the 1st World War.
In 1915, the South African administration of the former German colony validated the previously established Game Reserves.
Since then, there have been successive changes.
Almost all in the direction of increasing the area of the NP Namibe-Naukluft and, for quite some time now, instead of promoting hunting, as is still the case in other nearby regions, to protect their animals.
A forced pit stop
Let's return to the current reality in which we found ourselves. The hole that tormented us gets worse.
In such a way that forced us to head immediately to Sesriem, the village located 4km from the gorge.
Merely a refueling point for vehicles and people arriving on their way to Sossusvlei or on their way to less popular but equally extraordinary places in Namibia, Lüderitz, Kolmanskop, Aus.
Like Sesriem, among the few settlements that, for one reason or another, dared to challenge the harshness of the desert.
We stopped at the service station. One of the shift workers washes our windshields and side windows. In good time.
In addition to sand, Namibe is made of dust that, when lodged, makes a point of resisting.
We certify for the long trip to Lüderitz.
After which the second employee, the one who had taken over the repairs, gives us the news: “You're in luck. It was a small nail.
It didn't make a big dent and I can only patch it from the inside.
That way they avoid that hassle of the company of rent-a-car want to make you pay for a new tire.”
Appreciate. We rewarded the attention he deserved.
Kulala Desert Lodge's Starry Eco-Refuge
With the car operational and the mid-afternoon brazier settling in, we took refuge in that night's lodge, the Kulala we had passed at dawn.
The Kulala Desert Lodge proved to be another of several eco-lodges built in wood, stone and other materials from the area, with minimal resources but a creativity the size of Namibe, welcoming and inspiring to match.
We regain the sleep we lost weeks ago.
Even dinnertime warranted a difficult awakening. With the night set, we went up to the lodge's bedded terrace.
There we dedicated ourselves to contemplating and photographing the hyperstarry firmament, with its stars and planets, we dare say that some of them, less extraterrestrial like the Sossusvlei that surrounded us.