Five thirty a.m. The first glow of warmth was just starting to color the sky above the dunes. The truck pulled up to a nondescript dune in the middle of the predawn desert and we were instructed to run if we wanted to see sunrise from the top. It felt like running through butter. For every step I took, I sank back into the soft sand another half step. Whenever I thought I had reached the top, I looked up and saw I still had further to go. It seemed to never end. My body was still waking up, the dry desert air was burning my lungs, and my head was fuzzy from an unquenched, coffee addiction. The sky was slowly but constantly changing from purples and blues to warmer yellows and oranges, and we were still trudging onward and upward. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we reached the top of the most photographed dune in the world: Dune 45 of the Sossusvlei Desert.
My companions and I collapsed onto the sand, catching our breath, and watched the sunrise. All around us were dunes of equal or greater size, star-shaped because of winds coming from all directions of Namibia. We sat there, in various Christmas costumes because of the approaching holiday, coughing from the dry, breathless climb, feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, as the suns rays reached out, shyly finding the dark corners of the desert. The dunes brightened. The early morning light reflected the orange from the iron oxide in the sand, giving an almost Martian appearance. I was absolutely enchanted!
After what seemed like a sensible amount of time to watch the Earth get brighter, we tumbled down the dune, with our noses and bellies intent on finding breakfast. Down was much easier than up. Not only is it more fun to let gravity take you where you need to go, but the subtler beauty of the Sossusvlei Desert was easier to appreciate with the light: the dead trees, scrubby vegetation, and the occasional lizard. It was Christmas Eve and we had a long drive ahead of us, over 600 kilometers, before we reached our campsite for the night at the Ais-Ais Hot Springs. We didn’t have the luxury of a leisurely breakfast, so we ate quickly, and hit the dirt road going south.
It was a long, dusty day of driving. Many of us covered our faces with scarves to avoid breathing in sand and dust, which covered all of our belongings. The one downside to spending so much time in the desert: sand gets everywhere, and there’s no point in washing it off. It’ll just come back.
Late in the afternoon, we made a brief stop at Fish River Canyon, the second largest in the world, after the Grand Canyon in Arizona. By this point, most of us were ready to get off the truck and into a campsite to get on with celebrating Christmas Eve. It was hard to appreciate such a wonder when I was so eager to be somewhere else. There was a lesson there to be learned, in mindfulness. Being impatient won’t change anything, but it can make you miss some worthwhile experiences, especially while traveling.
Back on the truck, we had another hour to drive to our campsite. I could feel the collective mood taking a nosedive. It was Christmas Eve, it was already dark outside, we hadn’t reached our campsite, and we still had dinner to cook. People were cranky, myself included, so we strung up some Christmas lights, turned up some festive music, and broke out the wine. Our location was out of our control, but we did have a choice in what we could do about it.
From Fish River Canyon, it actually didn’t take long to reach Ais-Ais, or maybe it didn’t feel that way because by the time we got there, our mood had improved. The sun had set, the temperature had dropped to a more comfortable level, and the cooking crew set about making an Indian-style curry for dinner. The rest of us suited up and jumped into the hot springs. It was certainly the most unusual Christmas Eve I’ve experienced, but by no means lacking any festivity. True, I didn’t spend the holiday at home with my family, though the desert didn’t leave me disappointed.
Namibia… this is a land whose coastline has more seals than people in the interior. It’s a place with minimal light pollution, showing you so many stars at night that it’s difficult to identify constellations. I have spent few happier days than my time in the Namibian desert. There’s something about the emptiness and purity of a desert in the world’s most sparsely populated country that leaves you feeling refreshed, uncluttered, and open hearted. To call it pretty would be, at the very least, lazy. It’s a full sensory experience. The palette of colors, the dry smell of desert life, the feel of smooth sand on your skin, and the intangible peacefulness it leaves you with. Do your soul a favor, go camping in the desert.