I hadn’t heard such a silence as far back as I could remember, so thunderous that the pressure of it weighed upon my ears with the same tonnage as I imagine a scuba diver must feel diving at the bottom of a deep dark sea. It hurt my head.
Three of us sat alone in the basement of Dead Vlei in the Namib Desert as night began to fall. We sat in a circle beneath sky-high dunes passing around one bottle of Windhoek lager that we’d quietly carried in with our pack. We weren’t really supposed to be there, and we almost certainly weren’t supposed to be there drinking beer. Laying back and staring directly into the sky, our bodies stretched outward, flat on the ground, our landscape forming the shape of a turbine. And then came fiercely, an overwhelming blanket of silence. It was so powerful and still and quiet that I could hear everything intensely — the sound of a small beetle ratcheting against the bare sandstone somewhere near my head, of geckos burrowing far beneath the earth, and of the very rare sound of my breath — actually, it was not my breath but the function of my lungs that I heard — rising up towards the moon and settling back into my flattened body, like a clock in a Dalí painting melting into the landscape.
Smack in the middle of my very loud life, I found a moment of silence that was deafening.
The cloud cover began to swallow our cosmic light bulb, the moon, and the shadows disappeared as did the light from the ground. It was time to find our way back to the car parked about 20 kilometers away. Into the dark night we stumbled, fumbling across loose sand searching in a dark pack for one headlamp to light the way for three. It didn’t take long to address a fact that we all knew: humans actually see better in the dark as soon as their eyes adjust, then we ditched the flashlight and walked on. Up and over and down dunes that changed course without warning, we were on alert for predators that each had a different level of interest in humans: scorpions, violent albeit non-venomous; hyenas that don’t hunt humans but “make them rather uncomfortable,” says our guide; and the black mamba — a very unlikely encounter but by far the most dangerous predator of humans in all of Africa, as its trifecta of venom ensures certain death within about 15 minutes. Darwinian theory flooded my mind as we wandered.
We returned at sunrise to photograph the dunes. The starscape backdrop we’d hoped for would never come, but we were elated to be virtually alone in the basement once again, save one other early morning photographer setting up his tripod a hundred feet away. As the morning light rose, so did the beauty of Dead Vlei.
A Photographer’s Dream Place
The basin is the remnant landscape of a long-dried ancient lake, still peppered with dead trees that lived over a thousand years ago. It is the kind of place that any photographer would be mad to not stay in until the batteries are dead, the memory cards are full — until the sky goes black. The trees are so precisely whittled and shaped by the winds of time that with each step the landscape, shadows and light changes entirely in every passing second.
The arrival of bright sun came, and with it, so did the first batch of hikers audibly hoofing over the ridge and down the dunes toward us. Their arrival was much like the arrival of darkness the night before, a curfew urging us gone. We followed our own tracks out that we had made the night before, then sped off to Dune 45. When we got there, we were we again, alone as three.
Our guide led the way to the top where it was deafening again, where all there was to hear was the wind rising up over the savanna, with her unmistakable song steadily blowing unto us; our scarves and shirts and hair and thoughts being carried off with her and scattered across the great valleys below. We walked on for a while before taking our last turn — the best turn of all — to run down 100 kilometers of perfectly soft, warm sand. It felt like a moonwalk, floating and falling though that sand. And up over the dune came the thunderous roar of our laughter, echoing, and then silence… and like the world’s oldest desert, the Namib, it seemed to go on forever.