There was a little confusion about what time we were to fly out of Windhoek, so we got to the local airport early. No one was there except the car rental agent, so we waited with our driver for someone to appear. In fact, a very nice young man walked in and greeted us and told us he was our pilot. When he started going through his paperwork, however, none of the names even remotely matched ours. It turns out he was flying another couple to a different lodge. So we waited a little while longer. Then another very nice young man walked through the door, and he was our actual pilot. After he’d gotten us situated in his very nice six-seater bush plane, he soberly went through all the emergency switches and gear, gave us a map of the area we would fly over, gave us some water, and flew the plane to the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge airstrip.
It is a stark land. The Namib Desert stretches along 1000 miles of Namibian coast and is thought to be the driest desert in the world. It is also the oldest, as it could be 80 million years old. I kept thinking about Peru and how the Nasca Lines are etched into a similarly dry and ancient desert, also located on an ocean coast. There is the faintest shrub visible, which seems enough to sustain oryx, a large type of antelope. We also saw zebra (a subspecies with a shadow grey stripe) and springbok. Mostly, it is rock and red, red sand.
After tea time, we met our guide, Ronnie, and went for a drive. He pointed out these mysterious “fairy circles,” distinctly round areas of six to twenty feet diameter where any vegetation stops growing. Science has yet to prove what is happening to create these circles, but theories range from termite activity to fungus, which usually does grow in circles. Ronnie also pointed out a formation of granite boulders which is known locally as “little Stonehenge.” Apparently, it’s quite a romantic spot as a young man planned to propose there to his girlfriend that evening. Of course, his father wanted to be there, as well, so the boy’s parents were secretly brought out there before the young couple and then sprang out of hiding with camera flashing when the girl said, “Yes!” At least, we thought that’s what was happening when we, in fact, did see lights flashing on our way back to the lodge.
Our destination was a small sand dune of the reddest sand. Ronnie set out a little bar on the cowcatcher of the Land Rover and we toasted the Namib Desert. Tomorrow, weather and wind permitting, we would sail across the desert at sunrise in a hot air balloon. But that night, Ronnie gave us the news that the clocks would be set ahead an hour because Namibian daylight savings was beginning. Not a worry for us, because we were still on Zambian time which is always an hour ahead of Namibia.
After dinner, we visited “Uncle Doug,” an Oregonian who comes to the lodge for several months a year to operate the telescope in the observatory. Doug is in his 60’s and takes tourists on astronomical tours to see eclipses and other celestial phenomena. He told us there will be a total eclipse of the sun on the Oregon coast in September 2017. We made a note of that. Using the telescope, he focussed on Saturn, and with the naked eye he pointed out Scorpio and the Southern Cross. He showed us how the native Africans look at the pointer stars and the Southern Cross and the shadows between the Milky Way clouds and very clearly see a giraffe. He was upside down, but we definitely saw a giraffe looking right at us. The Namib Desert has the darkest night sky in Africa, the moon would not rise for hours this night, and the sky was unimpeded by cloud or atmosphere.