There’s nothing quite so engaging as a good mystery.
I was still in Swakopmund as I had become accustomed to the climate, restaurants and scenery, and even though adventures awaited me in the Kalahari, work needed doing, and fish and chips needed eating. I therefore continued my Deutsche-African Riviere stay into the weekend. I’m going to make some recommendations which I don’t always do in these dispatches, but Skeleton Beach Backpackers is one of the superior hostels I’ve lodged at, and Swakopmund Fat Bike Tours is a great way to connect with the environment, see the dunes, and get a good workout in. On 8:30 AM on a Thursday morning, I had the bike tour all to myself, with just me and a local Namibian/German fellow who was my tour guide. We went leisurely along and I got to learn all about the dune ecology and where the best birding spots are. I love giant sand dunes and deserts so much. Their savagery, the resourcefulness of the animals, the exposure they force you to endure – they make you like a nerve ending. There’s something about being in a place that’s trying to kill you that’s ultra-special to be in – a real privilege.
Asking my guide, Hanjo, if he ever took his bike and went on his own into the dunes, he responded that he preferred to go hiking so that he can closely inspect the dunes for the animals which he and his father, an avid nature fanatic who runs the Living Desert Tours also in town, so enjoy pursuing. He reminded me that I don’t need permission from anyone to go wandering into the desert, and so that’s exactly what I did. I left the following morning quarter to nine, and reached the dunes via following Strand Street until the edge of town. From there I turned Southeast and passed the Swakop River delta where salt water ponds played host to a thriving colony of lesser and greater flamingos – the first time ever I’ve glimpsed the birds in the wild. Tamarisk, a coniferous (I think) tree species that thrives in loose sand grew all along the path out of town and into the big yellow nothing. Immediately, one of my favorite aspect of adventuring began to close around my waking mind – the sense when one’s circumstances in place and time began to blur. Was I walking through the mountains of orange sand on the desert world of Arakkis in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune? Is this what life felt like for so many hundreds of years for the Touareg in the Sahara, the Bedouin of the Empty Quarter, or the Tartars in the Gobi? Was I in the year 2019, or in 1300, crossing the deserts of Central Asia in Marco Polo’s day? It’s these fanciful thoughts I revel in while exploring the dusty corners of the earth.
Somewhere towards the top of the list of things that leave a lasting impact upon the traveler’s conscience are the mysteries one encounters while exploring dusty trails and shaded hamlets. They change you little by little if you let them mount up. Whether big ones or small, the engrossing thing about being in other countries is that so often the mysteries you find are never solved but rather linger on as fragments of an almost always incomplete picture in your mind, inspiring curiosity and nostalgia at each recollection.
The hours blended together out on the sands – merging to form an unrecognizable time-table as mere representations of the sun’s position and intensity in the wine-dark sky. I walked along a path of wooden posts linked with rope so dry and wind stricken it felt like steel cable in some parts, and petrified wood in others. Why was it there? My only guess was that it represented the boundary marker of where the map ended in a Bethesda-style adventure video game. Carrying on, I summited dune after dune as I walked to the end of this particular dune patch and stared into the utter desolation between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, the next closest coastal town, before turning back westward and moving towards the ocean. Terns began to dive bomb me; squawking menacingly as I entered their nesting area. Eventually I came upon yet another mystery I shall never solve – further increasing the mystique and sense of wonderment that covered me like a wedding veil. In the relatively firm sand patches between dunes lay large piles of bones – probably from game animals by the shapes of the skulls. The bones were white as snow, but so crumbly and brittle that one could hardly tell a horn from a hoof. Why were they there? Who can say? You could count large representative bones like skulls, pelvices, and jawbones and come up with tallies of 4 to 5 animals per pile, as if sacrificed on their little raised mounds of sand for a ceremony, or butchered for a feast, all by some secretive tribe of desert-dwelling pagans.
One of the things I and so many others like to do when traveling is try and corner a place, activity, or moment in time, that we can experience as close to by ourselves as possible. The hole in the wall restaurant in Rome, the secret grove in Yosemite, the most adorable B&B in Connemara, the quiet mountain town in Morocco, these are the kinds of places that make you feel your foreignness all the way down in your bones. In these moments I always think, “what if I’m the only American to ever see this place?” And in a very few magical moments, “what if I’m the first human to ever see this place?” Among the belt-measuring and shop talking between seasoned travelers that I love to partake in so much, often the one who possesses more of these moments gets to take a greater share of the conversation; as Derrick, whom I met in Windhoek, succeeded in doing when explaining his multiple trips out into the borderlands between Angola, Namibia, and Botswana looking for the illusive San Bushmen – hunter gatherers who still flee into the wilds at the sight of an unfamiliar face.
In this way, sometimes when the traveler puts in considerable effort to find a special remote place only to discover it covered in fresh boot tracks, the ability to arrest one’s spirit from falling into disappointment is not there in that moment. But I would suggest that when seeking solitude, when trying to find a little slice of the world that’s silent and empty, or possessing of that certain “gemutlichkeit” that makes the quaint town quaint, the lovely valley lovely, or the arduous journey worth the sweat, one should not worry about who has been there before, but rather continue to go until the boot tracks end… and then keep going.