Dead Vlei (Dead Valley) is locates in the Sossussvlei National Park. “Vlei” is a bottom of a dried-out lake. The harsh climate of this place is a natural means of conservation of acacia trees which died a few centuries ago. The volume of rainfall in the area is very low, as it is even less than 5 mm per year on the coast, to 85 mm deeper inland. Morning mist (which stretches for even up to 50 kilometres) is the only source of water for the local fauna and flora, as the cold Benguela Current which surrounds the Atlantic beaches cools down the air from above the ocean and prevents forming of clouds.

We were rather surprised to hear ­“no problem”. Ms Dorota virtually darts through the first car park, where most of the drivers leave their vehicles to continue their journey in open Land Rovers or Toyotas. At the end of the hard-surfaced road, we pass a “4×4 only” sign. We do not even manage to breathe in order to express our doubts before our guide decides it will be all right unless we stop.

We accept it as a principle, but try not to think what will happen if we get stuck, which is quite probable, especially in the light of the fact that after a while we find ourselves surrounded by a sea of sand. For the short time we spend in the car together, we are not really certain about Ms Dorota’s racing, or rather off-road, skills.

We are travelling in a Toyota Rav 4 driven by a friend – a delicate woman who works in the Namibian equivalent of the Polish Senate. Always with a smile on her face, she is ready to answer all our questions. She does not pay attention to road signs, always drives through the crossroads with a stop sign and a “4” under it without stopping and says, “Well, I was first, huh?”. Our car does not look like a typical off-road vehicle, although it does have a small “4×4” button at its gear stick. Actually, we can’t shake off the impression that it is a pimped-up SUV. Well, hopefully we will not end up like that German couple who died of starvation in the mountains in the north a few years before. There are plenty of tourists around here, they will help us, for sure.

If we are talking about Namibia and the chance to meet other people on your way, other travellers whose journey accounts I have read are just right when they say, “that was a very busy road, some 50 cars per day, and it was the busiest Namibian road we have seen.” Namibia is 2.5 times larger than Poland, but it is inhabited by only two million people, which means that the population density is 2 per square kilometre (in Poland, it is 124 per km). Only Greenland, the Falkland Islands and Mongolia have fewer people per unit of area.

The Sossusvlei Park which we visit is not as deserted as the Skeleton Coast or the mountains in the northern part of the country. In case of any trouble, we will survive with a little help of other people passing by, and we will not lose more than a lot of time and opportunity for good photos. And it was photographs which is most important to me – this place attracts photographers from all around the world. The largest dunes in the world, incredible colours, resulting from the high content of iron on the sand, fantastic shapes, and the mysterious valley of death hidden between these picturesque slopes.

We virtually sail between deep sandy ruts and small dunes of sand blown by the wind. The engine is droning and we are thrown from side to side a little, but the wheels keep on turning for the 6-kilometre distance. When we reach the second car park, no one believes that we have really made it there. Now, we have reached our destination, Dead Vlei  the heart of the park. Oh well, we are almost there, actually, it is 2 kilometres more on foot.

Apart from us, only a small group of people who are already returning from the valley is in sight some few hundred kilometres in front of us. They were faster, they woke up earlier, had a quick breakfast (or not), and all that to be ahead of us! They have probably got hungry already, which is why they are on their way back, but they have surely managed to take better photos and left nothing for me. We hurry up a little. The dawn has already started, we are a bit late because we have dawdled a little by one of the dunes, and thus dropped out of the car rally in which we participated since we left the camp. Now, we start to race with time again, to make the most of the sunlight, which is the basis for good photographs. We look back to check if there are no more competitors who might want to outstrip us.

After three weeks, we get accustomed to looking at the watch and the sun. We almost get paranoid and constantly feel we are delayed, that it is too late and they will not let us into the campsite. Every day, just before 6 p.m., the sun sets in the blink of an eye, and total darkness wraps everything around.

Despite the hurry, we watch the moon-like landscape of emptiness, dust and sand which – carried by a really strong wind – blurs the shapes, the line of the horizon and, worse, blocks out the sunlight.

We finally reach the end of the valley. The bright-coloured bottom of the lake which dried out hundreds of years ago is surrounded with huge dunes. In the centre, dead remnants of acacias look like trees from a horror film. We quickly assess the situation – a few tourists strolling among the trees, wind blowing, the sun seems to be covered with clouds. We go down, I take several photos. I am not happy with the result, so I decide to change the perspective. I put on a new lens, which is quite difficult, given the circumstances. We walk around a bit more, but I already know that I will have to come back in the afternoon to capture the sunset against the three-hundred-meter-high dunes.

I was right, the system of two photo trips which I practiced in the Etosha National Park proved useful again. Out of the two excursions, only the one in the afternoon is satisfying. After some time, I am starting to wonder whether the morning race is worth it at all. Morning photographs do not reflect the charm and beauty of orange and red dunes.

There is one funny situation, when some tourists stop at dune no. 45. They set up their tripods and wait for the dawn, trembling in cold air. The blurry morning light slowly reveals the dune to us, there are even soft shades. Yet, it turns out that not all members of the group are genuine photo enthusiasts. Intoxicated with the wild African freedom (or maybe it is because he feels so cold), one of the Spaniards leaves the group in terror as he runs up the mountain. He leaves “ugly” footprints which survive even the strong wind and will be visible for the rest of that day, bereaving the dune of its virginity and leaving the photographers in disappointment. We watch him playing in the sand – running up, waving his hands – as if he was a little boy, and smile. We envy him and all those who are able to find such joy in small things, let their hair down totally when on holidays. Poles are not really good at it, and they are either tense and think about everything but rest, or they lose control and their frivolous behaviour is rather shameful, not funny. Yet, we are not so bad, as it turns out that we are the only ones who smile. After some five minutes, when the poor fellow is running down to join us, others loudly express their disapproval and look at him as if he just desecrated a temple. One of the Japanese even wants to start a lynch, and at some point a general fight seems really viable. I do not care, as I am not a professional, it is my month-long holiday. I can only guess what the Japanese guy feels, considering the fact that he has flown half of the world and waited so long to see this inimitable sunset over the Namib desert.

The country of Namibia is named after this oldest desert in the world. Its highest dunes are even 900 metres above sea level. The desert stretches along 1300 kilometres of the Atlantic coast, it is 160 kilometres wide. Its history dates back to 120-170 million years ago. Its unusual feature is the humidity which reaches 80 percent, to even 100 percent in the coastal part (in the case of other deserts, it is 15-30 percent). It is estimated that there are 300 foggy days at the Skeleton Coast, which is an equivalent of 150 mm of rainfall.

This time, we are not afraid of the six-kilometre section of the desert. I go there with my brother only. There are not many people, we leave the camp alone, and the first car park is empty, with rows of cars waiting for tourists of the next day. We reach the valley, it is a great moment to take photos, with incredible light. Unfortunately, each tree is tightly surrounded by a group of people, about forty tourists, mainly teenagers. Well, it is an organised trip, so we just have to wait. Finally, we win, they leave us all alone. I could focus on photographs, and my brother decides to climb the highest peak in the area. Very quickly, he finds out that African distances are not what he has expected. Suddenly I find myself standing in the shadow and I realise that we have lost the sense of time – only the tops of dunes reflect the light, the valley is shaded, and I watch my brother running down the gigantic bright orange mountain of sand. It has taken him almost an hour to climb and return, and we have no chance to reach the camp before closing. We are late, 6.20 is almost night here. Luckily, the guard lives nearby.


Photos © Antoni Kwiatkowski


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