That’s how our day begun: hundreds of Springboks, dozens of giraffes and oryx. We had embarked, the two of us, plus Vital, on what was to become our own booze fueled Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas trip.
First we needed to observe the tradition and drink a bottle of ginger spirit, to avoid a flat tyre. At the next village joint, where we stopped to stock on the lucky-charm drink and beer, a regular Monday was at play: people were chatting and liquid-dancing to the blasting jukebox, pool was being played with a golf ball, nickels were being dropped in the poker machine.
Then we were out of the map. The end of the road was only the beginning of the journey. We were driving across the unpeopled, formless, oldest desert in the world, the pro-Namib. The vacancy, the remoteness, the sheer implausibility of the place was astonishing. Wisps of dry shrubs covered the earth with a scabby pattern of circular, barren patches, like enigmatic landing spots of some past flying saucers. The average diameter of these patches: 5–8 m!
These are the so-called ‘fairy rings’ of Namibia, one of the most enigmatic phenomena in the desert regions of southern Africa. To date, the bioassays conducted in soil samples collected from these sites failed to support any proposed explanation for this patterning (localized radioactivity, termite activity, growth inhibitors released by dead Euphorbia damarana plants etc). But the relative permanence of fairy rings in the pro-Namib desert is believed to be critically linked to the optimal functioning of the ecosystem. The fairy rings may be some sort of adaptive response to extreme arid conditions, facilitating capture, storage and recycling of limited resources.
But this was not the only strange feature of the landscape. Chunky trees rose swollen with water. Crumbling rock scattered. Winds honed lava outcrops. And in this world of the Oz, a lonely telephone, to give a call to the gods.
This is not officially a wildlife reserve, national park or protected area. But locals know: the place is teeming with wild desert lions and desert elephants, and many other animals.
To go deeper into the wild, we had to descend into the dry river bed. The sandy bottom was full of elephant poop and eventually we spotted some foot prints. Everything was so quiet, and we were cruising at almost zero speed, trying to make as little noise as possible. 15 meters high acacia trees shaded the river bed so vast that we were unable to see the banks, our lilliputian vehicle lost, dwarfed, nullified. Then the bull appeared, and suddenly the astonishing scale of the landscape made sense.
He allowed us to watch, and it was so quiet that we could hear him chewing on bark. Desert elephants don’t need to drink every day and their tusks are smaller, due to the scarcity of nutrients in their environment. But this guy was an impressive size and we were hoping to see him again later, as we would set up camp downstream, into the river bed. Looking for a spot to pitch our tents we met more surreal creatures: slender giraffes, Oryx, ostriches, guinea fowls…
Giraffe footprint: guess the walking direction!
We enjoyed more red wine with our braai, then it was time to have some rest. Lying under our mosquito nets, we saw everything, we heard everything. The sky was white with stars, jackals and birds were calling their mates, the river was silent, smelling of heat and sand. It was one of the most relaxing places we ever slept in and we woke up when it was still dark, when the bull from earlier passed by our camp, snacking on more bark. We were humbled by the respect wild animals had for us, keeping the right distance from our camp, allowing us in their home for one surreal night. And we don’t think we were under influence there, it is that simple. We live together, we share, we survive.
Of course, the sunrise was just as psychedelic, a white haze filling up the valley, deserts flower delicately scenting the dry, fresh air.
Tea was brewed, sandwiches were fixed, tents were packed, careful to remove all traces of our ephemeral campsite. The sun was obliterating smell and vision, air too hot already. Jackals, antelopes, ostriches, baboons were going about their business.
Going back we took a different way through the river bed, wondering at the huge exposed roots of the trees, unsuccessfully trying to picture the river flooded with water. Some fresh elephant poop and recent footprints appeared: two babies with some adults maybe. Incredulously, we followed them along, and here they were, a bunch of elephant mammas with the little ones, taking a lovely sand bath!
With all the antelopes swarming the land, that had to be a predator’s heaven. Soon we met the proof: fresh lion foot prints, lots of them, cubs with adults. We tracked them for a while, thrilled, but of course the lions remained elusive, minding their own business in the perfectly matching colors of the veld.
Urma unor pui de leu
Lion foot print
Laba de leu adult si palma Anei
Adult lion paw next to Ana’s hand
As we drove on, the sandy bottom started oozing water, brittle desert plants giving way to a marshy field of tall grass, where another bull was enjoying his beauty mud bath.
Exiting the river bed back into the veld, our party of three was still as boozed as the day before, but more quiet, nostalgic, really. Our awesome escape was coming to a close.
On our way back we stopped again for the mandatory ginger liquor, but some beers later, 80 kilometers before home, we remembered one must not drink and drive. So we parked at the pass lodge, which belongs to a friend of Vitals, to collect our composure with the aid of several double gin and tonic. The lodge was built in an environmentally friendly way in a pristine conservancy, on the rim of the ancient Gondwana split, among 132 million years old volcanic mountains. But the night was young, the view was stunning, and our generous hosts proposed dinner and bungalows perching on the edge of the canyon. So we stayed. Tempering the pampering with two bottles of red.
In our so-called Western world, we live far from the wild. We work hard to maintain the boundaries. Some even believe that we have become a species disconnected from the natural mechanisms of life. But in a place like this, one cannot help but wonder, “how could I possibly want more, something else?” Just open the eye into the world, and see.