“Tim, I give you permission to drive up to 100 km/ph. If anyone stops you, they’ll see you’re with the big boss of the park.” We were on what must be the nicest tar road in Namibia. In front of us, the heat warped the perspective of the road. On either side, flat yellow ground stretched to tumbled of squat brown bouldery mountains. And in the backseat behind us sat an African man named Memba—an unexpected passenger as we headed into the orange dunes of Sossusvlei (saw-sues-flay).
Many tourists commit to waking up at 5 am to be at the Sesriem gates for sunrise (or as close to it as they can manage) at the dunes. That means solo cars, small groups, and the dreaded 20-people strong tour buses. We opted to enjoy a more languid morning, enjoying coffee and a breakfast in the empty greatroom before leisurely checking out and making the drive down to Sesriem. In Sesriem, we sat through the hottest noon hours, drinking water and napping, before heading out to the Fortuner. And that’s when we met Memba.
He had approached us as we were readying the car, carrying what appeared to be a fan made out of yellowed plastic. “Are you heading to Sossusvlei?” he asked. He wore a ranger’s uniform consisting of a dark green shirt with assorted pins and tags, dark khaki shorts, high socks, and hiking boots. “May I hitch with you? My car is broken out in the dunes.” Taking in a hitchhiker seemed to go against any book or blog you read about Africa; maybe it his uniform, or his wide, gap-toothed smile that made us look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and say, “Of course.”
Memba settled into the middle of our backseat, dropping the plastic fan and two wrenches onto the floor. We pulled out of the sand lot in front of the permit office and were waved through the entrance gate onto a smooth tar road. We’d take it for 60 km into the dunes, and then the road would switch to sand, Memba explained. He would show us how to drive on the sand, he added. “Lots of tourists get stuck or lost there.”
Our eyes were peeled for the red-orange sand dunes that made up this UNESCO Heritage site, but it seemed almost impossible that they existed in the same landscape in which we were now in. When they did appear, they looked like the painted backdrop to an old-timey Hollywood movie, pale and sherbety. From the backseat, Memba pointed out passing points of interest.
“Tim, can you see those circles there—“ pointing to odd, concentric rings in the sand as we hurtled past. There were many laid down, like the imprint of dropped hula hoops. “We call them “Fairy Circles.” He explained that no one knew what they were or how they were made there in the sand for many years. Scientists came in and analyzed the environment and found out that they were made by termites, which ate their way in circular patterns under the earth, causing the rings.
“Memba,” I asked, “How did the dunes get here?” He gave a small hoot of laughter, asked for some water, and then told us. They were brought up by the East Winds grain by grain over thousands of years—blown up the coast from the Orange River to settle here.
“But what keeps them from moving further?” In the taxi from Swakopmund to Walvis Bay, our driver had shown us some palm trees that were buried up to their tops in sand—caused by the wind shifting the dunes. In answer, Memba pointed to a low dune ahead of us. It was shaded on the side with black patches, not unlike the growth of mildew on a wall. “That’s iron oxide.” He said. Unlike the yellow dunes in the rest of Namibia, the Sossusvlei dunes contain iron oxide, a heavy compound (?) which effectively weighs them down. The surface of them will still lift and shift, but the dunes themselves are here to stay.
We asked why some dunes are numbered; Memba had already pointed out Dune 1, and the main tourist destination in Sossusvlei is Dune 45. “How many dunes are there?” Memba laughed; “My friend,’ he said. “Too many to count or climb.” The dunes that had numbers were labeled for their distance along the 60 km from Sesriem to Sossusvlei, Dune 45 being at the 45 km mark.
But isn’t this all Sossusvlei? Technically, no. Sossusvlei, Memba said, as we approached kilometer 60, means “Dead-End Marsh”—vlei means marsh. It was the end of the ancient river that used to flow here but has long since dried out. It’s one particular spot within the whole region. At the end of this explanation, Memba gestured to indicate that we stop at the parking lot ahead. This is where normal 2×4 cars have to pull of park—the sand route ahead is only for 4x4s, and typically best attempted with a guide driver (there are shuttles for a fee) or a lot of practice driving on sand. “That’s my friend there. Gabrielle, call him over.” Uhhh…I tentatively rolled down my window. “Call him over! His name is Samuel.”
“Hi Samuel, can you come here, please?” I tried, awkwardly.
“Tell him to get into the car,” Memba instructed from the backseat. I wondered if his window wasn’t working.
“Uhh…can you please come with us?”
As Samuel walked around the car, Memba cackled with laughter. “Now he is wondering why this strange lady knows his name and why he should come with her.” Aha, a prankster.
Samuel turned out to be a mechanic. Memba indicated just a little bit further until we reached his car. With some trepidation, our Fortuner ventured off the tar road and into the unsteady sand pit in front of us. The Fortuner’s wheels slipped in the dunes, and we careened wildly from side to side, like a bowling ball down a bumpered lane. “Tim, drive faster!” Memba barked from the back seat, suddenly on high alert. We hurtled forward like a runaway rollercoaster car. So fast, in fact, that we missed Memba’s truck. As we tried to reverse, the Fortuner’s wheels grinded against nothing. We were stuck. Tim tried for a few moments, with Memba guiding, and then Memba suddenly offered to take the wheel.
With Memba driving, we were quickly out of the sand pit and back at his truck. We dropped Samuel out, and then, as Memba put it, to say thank you for the ride, he showed us the last few hot spots and how to drive on the sand. With his practiced hands on the wheel, we bumped merrily to the end of the park. “There is Big Daddy,” he said, pointing at a massive dune. “The tallest dune in the world.” Next to it is the Instagram-famous Deadvlei, which Memba advised us to return to around 4:00 in the afternoon. Finally, Sossusvlei, which he toured us quickly around, and then into a road of sand, “Where tourists can’t go without getting stuck.” It felt like riding the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. Memba looked at my face and hooted again. “Gabrielle! Don’t worry! Be happy!”
We dropped Memba back at his truck, where Samuel was already at work on the engine. (Memba shared a particularly gruesome tale of an overly curious cat and the broken engine fan that’s best not repeated). Seemingly impossible in the Golden Age of Selfies, we didn’t snap a picture together. But you can hear his laugh-filled voice in the video here, and read his tips for driving on sand here—a must-read if you are considering driving yourself through the bright dunes to Sossusvlei.
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