April 2011: Waning Gibbous
I am running east across Gobabeb’s plain, like I do, my back to the vivid colors of late afternoon. Low angled light highlights the curves of the dunes that line half of my horizon. They say there are more grains in the Namib sand sea than stars in the universe. Each one is a slave to the wind, but me, I choose to roll with the breeze.
When I reach the top of a slight rise I startle hundreds of larks out of the grass. My thoughts are as clear as the air the birds glide in and almost as empty.
A low bank of thunderheads profiles the eastern horizon. Materializing midday, rolling in from beyond, the clouds usually halt miles away over the invisible range of mountains beneath the curvature of the earth. The high bits glow pink and red and a thousand other colors now. Barely perceptible crepuscular rays streak the blue of the upper atmosphere, I think.
By the time I turn left the air has made its nightly shift from warm to cool. The distant thunderheads become colorless as the sun, opposite, falls deeper beneath the dunes’ crests. Simultaneously, a western cloud bank turn lipstick magenta and orange kiss. Soon the sky loses reality and becomes a matte oil painting, two dimensional and desaturated.
Lost in the run, I miss the unveiling of space. By the time I notice the Southern Cross its endpoints are only four of a dozen pricks of light in the dark blue sky. They are joined by the pointers, Alpha and Beta Centauri. At 4.4 light years away the former is the closest star. I am, and feel, very alone.
Turning toward home, I move under the banner of the milky way, against the cold wind. I stop briefly to tie my shoes and the staccato chirps of barking geckos speckle the silence. Their love sonnets are like hundreds of old hinges creaking in perfect disunion. Running again, I lose them to the air rushing past my ears.
Soon it’s very dark and I’m blind, comforted only by experience and repetition; I know there isn’t much to trip on. Although my purview can be measured in hundreds of square kilometers, the only light comes from the stars. By the time I make out the dark outline of the water tower, there is a faint glow below the eastern horizon. Moonrise is coming.
As I stretch out on my porch, sucking down water, the eastern sky is replaced with a sepia toned orb, supersaturated through the orange filter of the lower atmosphere. Before long the landscape is bathed in a blue glow, only a slightly dimmer version of the recently departed day.
March 2011: EIA
The Namib gravel plain is oppressively geological. Stones, boulders, sand, flakes, conglomerates, crusts, and crystals all lay naked under the sun. It is Mother Earth, stripped down to her flesh, dried to her bones. During the day the soil bakes to blistering temperatures. Night is cold. In some places the yellow tinge of uranium coats the surface like old sweat stains. Dry washes spread over the featurelessness like wrinkles in a taught cloth. Outcrops of schist and granite stand as isolated mountains, the rest of their bodies resting in subterranean space-time. Their profiles above empty horizons hint at vast dimensions, but scale is difficult to grasp.
We are camping on the edge of this nowhere, just south of the Swakop River. One of thirteen ephemeral waterways cutting through the desert, a narrow forest lines both banks. The trees invade the desert from the thornveld of southern Africa’s high plateau, giants of life in a bioscape of grass, shrubs, and lichens. Monolithic domes of granite form a narrow canyonland between the river and the plain. Standing testament to the split of the Gondwanan supercontinent 160 million years ago, only the tips of the igneous blooms are visible. In the rock-cracking chill of night they exfoliate skin, layer by layer.
Beyond, Langer Heinrichberg punches up above the plain like a clenched fist from the underworld. The mountain culminates in a flattened set of knuckled peaks and encloses a basin blanketed in tall blond grass. Descending towards an opening in the rock lips of the canyonland, networks of recently dried washes converge at our, very private, campsite. Nearby, a bright blue port-a-potty stands upon a cement platform. It isn’t the first short-sighted act of humanity in this restricted wilderness and it won’t be the last.
Out of sight on the other side of the mountain there is another canyon, and this one grows larger by 200,000 tons every month. The mine extracts uranium from the earth, requiring millions of cubic meters of aquiferial freshwater to leach it out from the rocks. While this project is the brainchild of an Australian conglomerate, many more international companies wait for profit calculations to become more agreeable. Almost all of the northern Namib-Naukluft Park has been divvied up into exclusive prospecting ‘concessions,’ all of which are off-limit to the public.
The ecologists I have come with are contributing an Environmental Impact Assessemtn (EIA) that will describe what will be lost by the proposed expansion of the mine to this side of the mountain. Much like a physical before the start of rugby season, an EIA is a formality that all reputable mining franchises now carry out. It is thought that knowing exactly what is being destroyed might help restoration efforts once the mine expires. In short, it’s a prerequisite to ethical destruction.
Every transect we walk, every slice of this land we scour, reveals evidence of animal life. While private, dispersed, cryptic, and often nocturnal, their dramas are evident. Compressed gravel reveals the paths of mountain zebra commuting from the grass of the plain to mountain pools. Ostrich dung and springbok spoor texture the land. Burrows are everwhere. One wandering ascetic, the only ground living species of chameleon, is annoyed by our approach: it darkens, puffs, and finally opens the interior of its mouth in a brilliant flash of yellow. A disturbed aardwolf sprints for the far side of a ridge. Pairs of Namaqua sandgrouse explode out of plain view. Departing for distant nests, they call out in quick bubbling succession, “Kelkiewyn! Kelkiewyn! Kelkiewyn! Kelkiewyn!” Translated as cask of wine, the Afrikaans name for this bird belies their sobering existence, carrying water up to 40 kms away to thirsty chicks.
There is a lot we pay little attention to. Such is life. Some species sprouting here may be doing so for the first time in years, lured out of their seed-bank by the recent rain. Leave the endemic vegetation for qualified professionals. Insects? They are too small to worry about.
The world I am in is a ‘protected’ landscape, condemned. Lower in elevation than most of the plain, the basin and canyonland is hidden from the access road to the mine and restricted to the public. Biologists walk transects and write reports, but who loves this desert? Who has been allowed to? Where is the Namibian Edward Abbey or Annie Dillard? My misplaced worldview is confused. I’m out of context. If the Namib is a state of mind, it has been interrupted.
On the last day I discover a pool on one of the massive granite domes abutting the basin. While clean, the water takes up a golden green from its algal lining. Refracted light dapples around the shaded margins. It smells exactly the way magic desert water should. Lying down to face the water, I dip my hand into the cold and send rippling shadows everywhere. Hundreds of tadpoles flicker. I jump in waste deep and catch a handful. Frogs?
It takes me an hour, but I eventually find what I’m looking for. 15 hanging pools up the rock cascade, it sits alone under the shade of a cracked boulder. Small and tremendously cryptic, its skin replicates the fractal patterns of the quartz, mica, and feldspar it sits upon. The eggs they produce can survive in suspended animation for years, awaiting rain. Thunder and lightning flash in the distance. The deep darkness on the eastern horizon would have given me warning had I been paying attention. Perhaps the rising humidity cued the frog out of hiding. I leave the animal to its business and rejoin the team back at the 4x4’s.
When the first droplets fall on camp, the energy of the cloudburst becomes contagious. Shedding our clothes to shower, a box of red wine emerges from within a tent. We toast to our hard work and glorious surrounds. Rain! We begin to pontificate, euphorically naked: “If the storm keeps up the wash will flow past us into the Swakop!” Rain! Another toast... As the cloudburst evolves into a genuine thunderstorm, we elect to take responsible action number one and move the truck to higher ground. The last thing we want is to be shipwrecked in the desert.
Seconds after starting the truck’s engine, a sludgy stream of murk runs past the cement platform that elevates our camp above the wash. Almost immediately, the second and third invasions of water network their way around the western side of the platform. Within minutes, the narrow eastern channel has widened to 20 meters, is moving at breakneck speed, and hosts standing waves taller than me.
There is a reason they call them flash floods. We frantically begin evacuating camp.
As we shuttle the tents and equipment across the much wider (and shallower) western channel, cascades of water pour down of the surrounding cliffs, as if the rocks themselves are releasing water into the maelstrom. While far less intense than the eastern braid, rocks and thorny sticks pummel our feet and shins as we shuffle through the thick water. Under the darkened sky and pelting rain the water resembles liquid cement.
From the safety of high ground the blue port a-potty we left behind is precariously exposed to the rising flood. Totally maladapted to this environment, it needs help. We bravely traverse back through the gauntlet: “Once more unto the breach!” Along with a partner, I lift out the sewage bowl from the undercarriage. Within, floating crap bounces in an ultramarine bath of chemicals. A few others hoist the hollow blue shelter over their heads and begin marching. Immediately justifying the sacrifices of our rescue mission, the water begins to stream violently over the cement platform before we depart.
We spend the evening huddled around a smokey fire, trying to shield ourselves from the persistent rain and cold wind from within a tarp lean-to. Damning the stupidity of the campsite design and location, bloody, soaked to the bone, and reveling life, we drink directly from the box of wine (our cups the only victims of the flood).
In the morning, the water is gone. The 4x4 track is washed away, so we navigate via now familiar landmarks and leave the site forever.
May 2011: The River
Sometimes I float down the Kuiseb. The water compels my body forward, gently bumping me against the hard-packed sand and silt on the bottom. At just over half a meter deep I can swim, if I want.
Calmer now than the desperate fury of mid summer, the flow has lightened. It will dry up after the highlands go thirsty for rain, but for now the water is here and coming and going all the time. The rush is audible all the way from the still of my stoop. At night it accompanied by silent flashes of lightning.
By extending my arms, or arching my back upwards and holding my breath, I can adjust my speed. Pulling up and planting my bottom, I root myself against the current. The water kerplonks past my partially submerged earlobes. In time, my particulate base is eroded out from under me, grain by grain. I go with it.
Slowly revolving my hand from my wrist, I play the vagaries of water resistance. My hand disappears in the chocolate cloudiness. Weeks from now, when the flow becomes clear of sediments, orange plumes will be revealed in the water. Lifted by turbulence, the sand is carried in brief jumps and saltations, flood by flood, to the Atlantic, whence it came 5 million years ago.
I am here, now, in the water. The temperature is perfect. I feel there is no one here, in this river, in this desert, but me.