Sossuvlai

South to the red dunes of Sossuvlai.

Sossuvlai is a combination of a Khoekhoe Nama word, Sossu, and a Afrikaans word, Vlai. They both mean the same thing; where the water collects. The English equivalent would be pan, as in Etosha Pan. When the Germans arrived, they asked the Herero what the place was called, and they said Sossu, hence they coined Sossuvlai. So, really it could be Sossusossu, or Vlaivlai, depending which side of the language fence you sit on.

Our driver of our touring 4-wheel drive vehicle for the next three days was Gabriel. As a married Herero man, by custom he was obliged to always wear a hat and carry a walking stick. His stick, thin and a metre in length was made from gewia, a hardwood, and it had the feel of a stick that had been constantly in hand for seven years, smoothed with the oils of Gabriel’s palms.

Gabriel’s tribal name was Veruanaije, which was also his father and grandfather’s name. If he has a son, the name will continue to be passed on. It literally translates to a question. When the Germans fought and decimated the Herero back in 1904, older women in the villages were told the Germans fought with guns and horses. Veruanaije translates to their reply: ‘What do the Herero men fight with?’

Our small group had only two other travellers, Tjabel, an effusive Dutch fellow in his fifties known as TJ, and Corinna, an 18-year old Londoner taking a break from volunteer teaching in the north of Namibia.

We left Swakup and headed inland to travel around the Namib sands and head down their eastern border. Initially the road was made of salt, kept intact by the regular moisture provided by the coastal fogs. Once away from the coast, the gravel and the corrugations took over.click tab to read further

The flat landscape, suffused with salt, was the faintest yellow. Mirage lines hovered on the horizon, and heat and glare reflected off the pale flat rock strewn terrain and the still paler road. Salt lines fenestrated the dirty brown and black hills on the horizon; giant mounds of tiramisu. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn and then an ancient dry river bed, marked only by the line of deep rooted trees.

The road passed down and through a deep gorge that was not visible until you were almost on top of it, splitting the quartz and mica schist walls in dramatic angled fashions over the dry shaded river bed below. In World War II, Namibian based Germans were obliged to return to the fatherland to fight. Two young geologists hid out in the gorge for two years during the war, living off game and water scratched from the river bed before finally being caught and imprisoned. It was a good place to hide from the world.

Sam did his schoolwork in the truck and then read more Harry Potter. I was so glad he was finally reading. Now he had started it seemed like there was no stopping him.

After the gorge, the landscape continued to change. Tufts of yellow desert grasses appeared on undulating planes that lay before towers of red rock. Occasional zebra, ostrich or oryx were spied grazing near the road. We approached large mountains, appearing in the distance at first as faint blue ridge lines before looming large and ominous beside the road, which cannoned straight between them like a cathedral aisle. Cliffs, mesas, spires. Most lines were vertical or horizontal, with little between. Arizona? Wadi Rum? Mars?

We reached our desert campsite at sunset, delayed by a flat tyre on the gravel. Sam was happy the ‘tents’ had power, en suite bathrooms and, incredibly, Wi-Fi (well, sort of). This was soft camping.

Benison would like this; there was somewhere to plug in her hair dryer.

As we walked to the communal area from our accommodation, I thought about an earlier conversation between Sam and Gabriel.

‘Are there lions here?’

‘No, but there are leopards. There are three big cats you need to be careful of Sam, lions, cheetahs and leopards. You know, when you come across any of these you need to know what to do. If you see a lion, you should look him in the eye and slowly walk backwards, and you should be ok. If you see a cheetah, if you make a lot of noise and rush towards it they will usually run away.’

Sam was looking worried.

‘But with a leopard, you are in big trouble. They are very aggressive and very strong and if they decide to attack you, you will be killed. You run up a tree, they climb after you. You go across a creek or river, they can follow you.’

‘No, you will not die!’

‘I am afraid you will, Sam.’

‘No! Not die! I will get away.’

I piped up.‘Don’t worry Sam, we won’t come across a leopard.’

Walking up the dirt track in the dark, I noticed there was no fence. Hmm.

Over dinner we chatted and Sam had more opportunity to try new foods. Two tonight: Pup, a cornmeal mash, with curry sauce no less, and also cucumber. I also encouraged him to talk to these relative strangers and practice conversation. We discovered Corinna’s classes she taught children with the following Anglicised names:

Precious

Big Boy

Silence (well, he’d be easy to teach)

Marvellous

Surprise

Treasure

Rejoice (twice)

Promise

Given and Gift (twins, with a younger sister Bienvenue)

Trust

Angel (a boy)

and my favourite, Brangelina (one would assume a girl).

The morning alarms went off at 430am, and we were ready, breakfasted and at the nearby park gates before dawn. The cliff and rock’s forms slowly emerged from the mauve dust in the low light while we waited. Sam had never been up before dawn previously, well not in his conscious memory anyway. The gates opened at dawn to let the line of tourist vehicles and  4WDs into the park.

The red dunes started to appear around the sandy road, increasing in stature as though working towards the dramatic final act. A hot air balloon hovered above as the sun gained sway above the horizon. The valley arced right and then the main dune range was revealed; the dramatic final act.

Three hundred metre high ancient monsters of colour, tone and line. Colour; where the angled sun hit was that of a reddened apricot, the shadow a base of gray, with hints of ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson. Tone; there was only two, a ‘two’ (highlight) and an ‘eight’ (shadow). Line; between sky and highlight, highlight and shadow, shadow and sky. Organic, serpentine. Smooth arcs would suddenly wobble like the graphic artist had lost control of his stylo before regaining again to another arc. Line cut so fine and so finite; a 0.1 nib, or a Stanley knife.

Out of the vehicle, we ventured over the sands to a small pan (or vossu, or vlai) long cut off from water by encircling dunes. Camel-thorn trees, germinating nine hundred years earlier, but dying six hundred years ago in the dry flat clay, stood forlorn but proud, their limbs and branches reaching for the sky like men dying of thirst under the red sandy amphitheatre surrounding the pan. An arboreal Pompeii, created not by super heated ash but super dry conditions. Human footprints were visible in the cracked clay from the last time the pan was wet, six centuries ago.

The temperature soared as we tramped up a dune ridgeline. Gabriel had warned us to not ascend in bare feet as the sand can get very hot very quickly by the mid morn.  Sam couldn’t make it all the way to the top, but that was ok, it was pretty tough going in the soft sand.  The return journey, bouncing on foot down the steep face, sinking ankle deep with each footstep, was terrific fun. We plonked onto the pan at the base and emptied a kilogram of warm red sand from each shoe.

It had been a great day.