“Maybe we should have come earlier,” I say quietly, eyeballing the blazing saffron mountain of sand from beneath the peak of my hat with a small sense of terror. The sun bounces sharply off the dune’s bleached crests, a goshawk dances high overhead. Everything else is still. Soundless.
We are in the desert region of Sossusvlei, a blanched white salt and clay pan nestled in middle of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and surrounded by a rolling ocean of sand dunes – each of them a different colour in a vivid paintbox of rusts, caramels, pinks and terracottas. Sossusvlei’s dunes are probably the most photographed (and visited) part of Namibia, and they are an impressive sight – created by abrasive winds which have, over millions of years, carried the deep red sand inland from the coast. The end result is an oddly beautiful, almost lunar landscape, pockmarked with petrified trees, parched, angular bushes and ghost-white vleis (the region’s eerie dried-up lakes).
It’s mid afternoon, the sun is high enough to cast no shadows and it is hot. Stiflingly hot. “We’ll be fine,” says my boyfriend, Rob. “We brought the water.” He gestures ahead with the two-litre bottle as if it were some sort of wizard’s staff. I feel a pearl of sweat inch slowly down between my shoulder blades.
Most people climb ‘Big Daddy’, an imposing 325-metre-high dune (one of the tallest in the world), at sunrise when the light is spectacular and the temperature is still relatively cool. Unfortunately we are not most people, and we certainly do not have most people’s good foresight, so we start our climb at around 2pm when the sun is at its most ferocious, its rays barbed like fishing hooks.
We’re wearing only socks on our feet – having been told that boots will only weigh us down as they fill up with sand – and I can’t help but feel faintly ridiculous as we begin our trudging ascent up the first of the dune’s two main peaks. Immediately I am struck by how difficult it is even to put one foot in front of the other. It’s impossible to walk normally; with each step upwards my foot disappears into a cave of sand and I have to tug it out behind me; repeating the process over and over again and gaining embarrassingly little ground. “This is ridiculous,” I huff, noticing the wheeze that’s starting to rise in my chest like the crackle of wrapping paper. I decide to try some of the tactics I’d read about before our trip. I try tiny pigeon steps to dislodge as little sand as possible. I try stamping my feet to compact the grains beneath me. I even try placing my feet in Rob’s paddle-board footprints that snake in front of me. The results are hit and miss. Occasionally, I get the balance right, and find myself sidestepping, delicate and bird-like for a short while along a rim of sand. Mostly, however, I blunder along calf-deep, swaying from side to side like a collapsible wooden thumb puppet.
Eventually we reach the top of the first crest and are treated to the surreal landscape of Deadvlei below – a blanched white pan filled with the dark fossils of camelthorn trees – its ancient and haphazard river lines meandering across the bleached pan like thread veins.
We use the opportunity to take a drink. When climbing Big Daddy, especially in the thick heat, water is a precious entity and must be protected as such. So when my boyfriend, balancing precariously astride a peak of sand, takes a sip of water and allows the lid to be spirited away by the wind, I emit the sort of antagonised grunt you’d expect from a harangued hippopotamus. We both stand gawping down the side of the dune until it settles some hundred metres below us. “I’m going after it,” he announces eventually, trudging purposefully down the steep incline and grasping the lid. His route back up, however, is not so straightforward. He is forced to shuffle and worm his way painstakingly up the sand on his hands and knees, for a good twenty minutes, before finally emerging at the top of the crest like a triumphant Psammead. I take the bottle. We continue.
At this height, the vertigo is kicking in. The wind whips around us malevolently and the sun bakes our parched skin. We’re not alone up here though. As we climb, lizards pass with a cursory glance, eagles scream overhead, sand spiders skitter across our path and then drill themselves downwards to protect themselves from the sandy gusts of air, which sting and bite at our legs.
At an altitude of approximately 200-metres we meet an English gentleman wearing a Hawaiian-print bucket hat. “It’s a delicate balancing act”, he calls through a shower of sand. “Left to certain death, or right to certain death.” Hyperbole, of course, but too many wrong moves and you will be sausage-rolling downwards for what I can only presume is eternity.
The only way is up (and up…)
We’re over an hour in to the climb and my calfs are searing. I have toe cramp, my ankles are threatening to throw in the towel and I have varying and unsavoury degrees of chafage (under the arms, between the thighs, anywhere that has a seam…). But we’re nearing the top and it is deliciously close. However, up here, any semblance of a path we might have had before has disappeared, pummelled into submission by the harsh wind. Instead, the dune juts sharply into a vertical travelator of sand. Every step I make disappears cruelly into a trough of sand, which then folds in on itself to cover my foot entirely. After heaving it out, the next exhausting task is to keep ahead of the avalanche of sand that falls away from each footprint, threatening to spill me down the side of this sandy mountain. It’s a further gruelling thirty minutes up the soft-yet-unyielding peak – tantalisingly close to our summit – and I’m forced to splay my arms wide, Man-On-Wire-style, as my thighs tremble with the effort of remaining upright.
After what feels like hours, we arrive at our finish point: a vertiginous 1,066ft above sea level. I can’t help but emit a wheezing gasp at the view. For as far as the eye reaches, craggy sand dunes thunder into the distance, casting a myriad of colours across the shocking blue sky – greys, silvers, browns, reds. The tiny forms of oryx and ostriches pebble the vast desert that stretches around us, the scratchy silhouettes of blackened trees grasping upwards like witchy hands.
Of course, what comes up, must come down, and the gleaming reward for climbing Big Daddy comes in the form of being able to hurtle euphorically down the side of the dune. Without hesitation, I launch myself off the side, hoping that gravity will side with me and root my feet to the ground rather that tempt my head towards it. The landscape passes in a fawn-coloured blur, as I sprint, fall and plunder my way down the side of the mammoth dune. It doesn’t stop. I run for what must be about five minutes, a long time to be pretty much in free-fall, and with every step my lungs grow heavier, and my gleeful yelps a little more laboured. But I keep running, the wind rushing in my ears, the sand filling my socks until they’re flapping off the end of my toes. Eventually I finish on a slow, ecstatic plod down to the solid ground of Deadvlei, at the bottom of the dune, and raise my fists in victory.
As we wind away from Big Daddy, satisfied and spent – my feet aching, my dry tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth – I notice the same goshawk is still soaring overhead. Slowly, he floats down and lands nimbly on the dune, without disturbing a grain of sand. Easy for him, I think, before he takes flight again to survey this breathtaking landscape.