Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Dry Sea

Dawn on the 8th day of our honeymoon found us deeply asleep in a beachfront hotel in the centre of Swakopmund, a resort town surrounded on three sides by the vast emptiness of the desert on three sides, with the fourth side occupied by the even vaster blue of the South Atlantic ocean. By contrast with the land, the sea here is anything but empty, with a fish population that supports large populations of seal, dolphin and shark (which we know, because the ferocious heat of the wind from the desert chased us indoors in search of air conditioning - into the local acquarium).

Later in the afternoon, we ventured out to do some exploring. Our route into town had taken us through the flattest, most featureless landscape I've ever seen, an almost completely sterile environment. Today, we wanted proper "Laurence of Arabia" style desert. Based on a little advance research with Google Earth we drove south along the coast. Almost immediately, huge dunes rose us on our left - megatonne behemoths, silicon waves that ripple on a timeframe of centuries. We couldn't wait to get closer.

Quadding in the Namib

Easily done - we joined a quad bike excursion, and within a few minutes the coast had vanished, the familiar seashore exchanged for a surreal world composed entirely of endless dunes beneath a huge and perfect sky, unrelieved by so much as a single blade of grass or patch of lichen. Our own tracks are the only mark that life has left on this landscape - and that no more permanent than a boat's wake. Don't miss it.

Strangely enough, the nearest parallel I can think of this excursion was a snowmobile trip on a glacier in the south of Iceland - the same sense of a completely alien world of stark and almost geometric simplicity, devoid of life for more or less the same reasons (no stable surface, no standing liquid water). Even the feeling of arcing a quad bike across the face of a steep dune felt just like doing carving turns on a downhill ski run in a U-shaped valley above the treeline - the same sense of speed, power, and the proximity of disaster...

View from a microlight

Later, we left the ground altogether in the modest modest approximation to an aeroplane that I've ever ridden - a microlight. We circled the town, then arced over the mouth of the (dry, of course!) Swakop river, the dunes reddening as the sun sank into a blue, blue sea. By the way, the very glider heritage that make this such a precarious looking contraption also makes for the smoothest takeoffs and landings I've ever experienced in a fixed-wing aircraft. And view... no windows, no walls, floor or roof - just a seat, 800 feet above the strangest sea I've ever seen.

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