Beauty in desolation.
When you see a documentary on the Namib desert, it emphasizes how life flourishes even in the forbidding landscape of the oldest desert on earth, three hundred million years strong. When you are there and in the neighboring desert regions, you notice the sporadic desert shrubs and plants, and if you look closely enough a few bugs, but they appear as occasional notes within the operatic majesty of the withering landforms with their textures and colors themselves. I am well-aware of the current condition, technologically enabled, of being able to see beauty in what for millennia must have inspired fear and thoughts of enervation and death, which must have precluded feelings and thoughts of beauty, let alone of the sublime, a word which is not hyperbolic to convey what it is to stand before the dunes and behold.
Sossusvlei, as the region is called. We drove past dunes.
We gazed upon them. We walked past and around them. We climbed them. We (Gideon and Sarah) stood astride them and surveyed the dominion. Gideon lay on them. He even, unsuccessfully, tried to roll down them, only to discover that they enveloped and captured his body as they had his imagination and soul.
The dunes are massively high, some more than three-hundred meters. Their forms are beautiful, bordering on the perfect. Yet their color and texture occupy pride of place: The velvety burnt orange at any distance — far, medium, or close-up looking down at your bare feet while climbing.
The unimaginably fine grained, soft, and flowing look and feel to the sand with those same benuded feet and with cupped and finger-sifting hands. The multi-modal sensation that you are walking and sinking a cushiony bit with every step in a place like no other on earth.
Driving from Sesriem, the barely-a-settlement at the entrance to the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park (more than five times larger than Yellowstone), on the lone road through the dunescape, we marveled at the sand giants, pyramidical and conical, on both sides, stopping at Dune 40 for two hours of beholding, climbing, and contemplating, the three principal activities that compose experiencing this special landscape. I reached my vertiginous limit about a third of the way up to the first (high) crest.
Sarah went on past the second crest. And Gideon, proud seventeen-year-old champ that he is, made it to the highest point, the fourth crest. After retrieving our footwear (left at the dune’s base, communing with the shoes and sandals and flipflops of a range of nationalities),
reassembling at our SUV, driving further into the dunescape, taking a four-wheel drive sand-ferry for four kilometers, and trekking afoot twenty minutes deeper up into the dunes, we came upon the nearly sacralized desert landscape, foremost among desert moments in the world, of Deadvlei — to wander among, behold, and contemplate, and, in Sarah’s and my case, talk about the dune-flanked and framed magnificent salt pan
and poetically dead trees,
and anything, which was plenty, that the embodied mind of being there conjured up for the hour or so that we basked in this and our singularity, and in our commonality of sharing this place and our lives.
Gideon, as he has been doing ever more in his meditative orientation and personal journey, took and followed his own path, experiencing Deadvlei on his own, much of which by lying down on his back and, eyes closed, feeling the sun and the place unforgettably on and around him.
We found out about Sossusvlei’s extraordinary landscapes from “Wildest Africa” , a reasonably decent TV documentary series. The photography sold us all, especially Gideon, and for months we walked around the house discussing whether or not to visit what we came to call the DOOOOOoooNES of the NAMIB, in always-risible attempts to imitate Colin Salmon’s deep baritone voice, which his talent agency accurately describes as EPIC and COMMANDING.
Epic and commanding. Check.
Sossusvlei and Deadvlei’s landscapes you will never, ever forget. When we got there, I realized that I’d assumed, without knowing I’d assumed it, that the cinematography in the Namib Desert segment had been doctored, colorized, because no place could actually look that way.
But it does. When we arrived, I struggled with vocabulary, seeking to excavate the names of the oil paint tubes I used to order routinely from Pearl Paint: Yellow ochre. Red ochre. Dark yellow ochre. Burnt Umber.
That red-orange sand! On your toes it felt like velvet or silk — not in the slightest like the granular irritant you eagerly wash off your feet after a day at the beach. So sensuous. I could have washed my face in it. (Gideon did.)
The emptiness; the burnt umbers and ochres and greens and browns; the scorching heat, the dessication beyond what you thought imaginable on earth; all these contribute to the feeling that you can only arrive here once; and having come, you can never leave, or rather, more accurately, this place will never leave you. The stark artistry of the forms makes of every moment, a painting,
though one of the surprising things was that those incised lines, up close, were not always so precisely linear at all,
especially after humans had got there. But still, the sand’s shifting patterns were mesmerizing. That the winds and sands could be counted upon to eventually restore order, to make patterns out of the chaos of human intervention, was deeply comforting.
Indeed, patterns were everywhere.
And in Deadvlei, the figure-ground relationships!
One could teach a whole seminar on vertical reach and horizon lines, or on fields of color and lines of figures, using only material from a single afternoon spent in this place.
Then again, you could just go, experience it, and be enriched.