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The Sand and the Fury: The Day We Climbed Big Daddy Dune

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The sand was angry that day, my friends. Like me staring back at a root I just tripped over. And maybe “angry” isn’t even the right word, exactly. “Indifferent”, perhaps. Or “soft”, quite soft. And, eventually, “hot”.

This is a story about climbing 325-metre Big Daddy sand dune in Sossusvlei in Namibia. How it went, what we liked, things we saw, whose shoes filled up with more sand. It is an epic tale, one fraught with adversity. Minor adversities, but still, they add up. At its core, this is a story about the human spirit, how it perseveres, stands strong and ultimately can prevail even in the face of overwhelming challenges.

Sossusvlei sand dunes

Or maybe that’s overstating it a bit. I mean, we climbed a sand dune. It took about an hour. And lots of people do it everyday. But it WAS pretty hard. And I definitely wasn’t kidding about the sand-in-the-shoes thing.

So…

It all started around 5:30 am. We were perched ignominiously on the edge of the firepit at our campsite. I say “perched ignominiously” because that is exactly what Laynni said as we sat there, hunched over in the dark, scarfing down pre-boiled eggs, soft bananas and warm yogurt. She pronounced “ignominiously” wrong, but I still knew what she meant.

By 5:50 am we were sitting in our plain white truck, first in line at the national park barrier, ready and raring to go for when it opened at 6:00. Sunrise wasn’t until 7:00 but it was going to take at least 45 minutes to get to the trail, which didn’t leave much extra time. Pretty soon there was a whole line of 4WD vehicles lined up behind us and you could just tell they were really eager and impatient. I hoped they would open the gate soon because it was starting to feel like we were in the front row at a rush seating concert when the crowd decides they want to get closer even though there is a fence and you can’t really move any farther forward but the people behind, they don’t care, they just really want get a closer look at the singer’s body, I guess.

Soon, the park lady arrived and started to raise the barrier. I started the engine, began to creep forward… halt, halt! She didn’t actually say anything but I could tell from the look she gave us that she didn’t really want us driving right at her like that. So I decided to wait a few more seconds, just to be sure.

Trucks lined up in the dark

The road to Sossuvlei, Deadvlei and the dunes is a very nice, smooth, paved road. Which is very unusual in Namibia. The day before we drove for 4 and a half hours from Windhoek and 4 of those hours were on gravel. There was a bit of asphalt coming out of the city, then a short stretch of asphalt on the narrow hairpins of Spreetshoogte Pass, but with a name like that, who knows what was going on there.

Anyway, the road to the dunes is quite nice. They call it “the Chinese road”. Not because it goes to China, though. That’s completely the other direction, apparently. It’s because the Chinese built it. Just to be nice, probably. At least I didn’t see any toll booths or Chinese people selling fruit from roadside stands or anything like that.

Even though the road was very straight and smooth, the speed limit was only 60 km/hr. Which seemed low. I decided to go 80 because we had driven on it the night before and we didn’t see any police or radar, so I figured 80 was probably the magic number, especially first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t. By the time we arrived at the main parking lot, 60 kilometres from the park gate, I was tucked in behind some trucks going 110. I guess everyone was just as excited about all that sand as we were.

We got out of the truck and right away some Namibian guy started yelling at us. In a friendly way, not like we parked wrong or ran over his dog or something. He was all like, “Let’s go! Let’s go! See sunrise on Big Daddy!”. Which was a pretty big coincidence, we thought, because, as it turned out, that happened to be exactly what we had in mind.

Sossusvlei jeep shuttle

So we got up into his big jeep to ride the last 5 kilometres to the trail. The whole back was open and there were three rows of seats. I guess a lot of people around in Namibia like visiting sand. Some American girl showed up right behind us, climbing up the side of the jeep and kind of shimmying in through the bars. Laynni tried to tell her the door was on the other side but she didn’t care, said she came in through the window yesterday, too, so she knew it was allowed. Either way, she seemed to have a lot of experience climbing into jeeps through the bars, so we didn’t push it.

You are allowed to drive yourself if you want, but from there the road gets really rough and sandy and in some places it’s hard to even tell which part is the road and which part is just more sand. I guess China ran out of money or maybe they just got busy. That whole taking Nepal’s water thing seems like a real hassle, for example.

Still, lots of people still decide to drive all the way to the end themselves. But lots of people also get stuck. We thought about giving it a try ourselves because the shuttles cost $N180/$US10 per person and our rental truck was a 4×4, so we were technically 4×4 people, too, just like the shuttle driver. But maybe not the same kind of 4X4 people. Maybe we were just the kind of 4×4 people who get stuck right away and block the road and need one of the other shuttle drivers to get them unstuck. Because we saw a few of those and that made me kind of happy to be a shuttle guy instead.

After a few minutes the shuttle dropped us off on the road and the driver pointed at some dunes way off and to where the trail started up, about a kilometre away across some flat, dry mud pans. I don’t know if that’s what they are really called but they kind of looked like salt pans, but they were made of dried mud, not salt, so I thought, you know, maybe they’re mud pans.

Anyway, we started walking, us and the American girl and two more girls and some young guy with no backpack or anything, just a bottle of water in his hand. He was wearing Blundstones, too, which didn’t seemed like a bold choice, and he took his shirt off, like, right away, even though it was still mostly dark.

Woman walking across mud flat at sunrise

Once we got across the mud pan we let the others get ahead of us, then we peed next to some little shrubs, and then we started hiking up the side of the first sand dune. And, let me tell you, walking up sand dunes is really tiring and it takes a long time, a lot longer than it takes to walk across mud pans. We were behind the other people for the first 10 minutes or so but passed them at the first ridge. We didn’t really want to pass them, but they were all lying down and didn’t look too good, to be honest, so we figured it was best to just keep going. And I didn’t want to have to try CPR, because I’m really not too good at it and I was worried I would just make things worse. Like when I try to clean the microwave.

A Dutch girl warned us that it was going to be a lot harder being in front, because there are no tracks to use or anything, and we agreed, it was kind of why we were happy starting out behind. But sometimes you need to break your own trail. I saw that on a poster in a gas station once and I finally got it.

Walking up the ridge of a sand dune is really hard. Every time you step up you slide back a bit and it’s hard to keep your balance sometimes because one foot always slips more than the other, which sucks, and it’s hard to catch your breath, what with all the swearing and whatnot. It helps to look real close every time you put your foot down because some spots are a bit harder, from the wind and stuff, and some are just really soft, almost like water, or really thick shag carpet or something. And that kind of attention to detail takes time.

Man walking up the ridge of a sand dune

Me and Laynni took turns being in front so the person behind could use the front person’s footsteps for, like, leverage or whatever. Even with tracks, you still sink in and slide a bit and it’s still hard and that but, overall, it’s a little bit easier, all things considered.

Sunrise over sand dunes

So we did that for a long time, up 3 or 4 different dunes. It’s a bit tricky to tell where one dune ends and the next one starts because all the sand kind of looks the same. Either way, after about an hour we made it to the top, which was nice, because we didn’t really feel like climbing any more. We were happy to just sit down and look around because the sun was up now, so we could see all the different dunes. And looking around wasn’t nearly as tiring as climbing up.

Everywhere we looked there were more dunes. Some were pretty big, maybe not as big as Big Daddy, but bigger than a lot of things. Bigger than our truck, for sure, bigger than most houses, I’d say, and much bigger than the pool by the place we stayed in Cape Town. But smaller than the Rockies, or even most clouds. Still, they all had cool curved ridges and were fun colours, what with the sunrise and all. And that was the important part, I guess.

Perfect ridge of a sand dune

The other 4 people arrived a few minutes after us and were excited, too, cheering and celebrating and smoking cigarettes in a really desperate sort of way. We all rested for a while and then started taking photos. We took photos of the other dunes. And the sunrise. Then we took photos of them. Then they took photos of us. Then we all took photos of Deadvlei. That’s the dried-up lake down at the bottom full of super-old dead trees.

Couple sitting on the ridge of Big Daddy sand dune at sunrise

The Dutch girl told us she was really surprised and happy and proud that it only took an hour to get to the top because she’s a lazy person, she said, and likes to smoke, so she was quite impressed, all in all. And because she had talked to some guy who said it took him nearly 2 hours. And he wasn’t just some guy, like chunky and out of shape or whatever, no, he was actually very fit and sporty. And attractive, too, she said. So if he had been really fast she wouldn’t have been surprised at all. But she was very impressed with us, so I guess we didn’t seem as fit or sporty. Maybe as attractive, I don’t think that was the main criteria so it’s hard to say.

Woman taking photo of a group posing on top of a sand dune

Going down the sand dunes was a lot faster. You could take bigger steps and when you slid farther down that was actually good because that was the whole point, right? Going down. We didn’t get out of breath anymore and we laughed a lot because, hey, this shit was easy.

Man walking down the ridge of a sand dune in Sossuvlei Namibia

It only took us about 10 minutes to get to Deadvlei at the bottom, where it was really flat and dry and hot. We stopped and sat down for a minute to dump the sand out of our shoes. There was a LOT of sand in my shoes, and I said as much to Laynni, thinking it might impress her. I said, hey, watch how much sand comes out of my shoe. But she WASN’T impressed. Because, apparently, there was even MORE sand her shoe, she pointed out. “See?” she said, when she dumped her shoe upside down and a bunch of sand poured out, more than had come out of my shoe. She seemed proud, even though she said she wasn’t.

Mud pans of Deadvlei Namibia

After we put our shoes back on, we walked across the flat, white, dried mud until we got to all the old, dead trees. We don’t usually go out of our way to see dead trees but these weren’t just old, they were special, too. Some people said they were 600 years old and other people said they were probably more like 1,000 years old. Older than us, for sure. And because it is so dry in Deadvlei, they don’t rot like most dead trees do. You carry a banana around in a backpack for, like, half an hour and it completely falls apart, yet these dead trees are still standing after a thousand years. Makes you think.

They say it only rains once every ten years in Deadvlei and, sure enough, it didn’t rain all morning. Now that we were in the more popular part and it was light out and everything, there were a lot more people around. People that mostly wanted to just see the trees and take photos of the dunes and not actually climb all the way up them. Most of those people looked cleaner than us, too, although maybe not as smug.

Dead tree in mud flat with sand dunes behind

The scenery was amazing. The white ground, the red dunes, the black trees, that one green shrub. We wandered around for awhile, taking photos of the trees and the dunes. And the trees in FRONT of the dunes. And Laynni behind trees in front of dunes. And me under trees and in front of dunes. They were wild times.

Laynni even touched one of the trees. I said, I don’t think we’re supposed to touch the trees. We’re not allowed to CLIMB the trees, she replied, but I think touching is fine. But, I mean, is it NECESSARY to touch them, I asked. Not NECESSARY, no, but I barely touched it and sometimes I like touching stuff, she said. Fair enough, I said.

Woman peeking out from behind the dead trees of Deadvlei Namibia

When we decided we had enough photos we started to walk out over the little hill between Deadvlei and the parking lot. That was when we noticed that our legs were tired. Like, really tired, not just I’m bored of walking around the mall tired, or I took too long to tie my shoes and now it’s hard to get up kind of tired. Real tired, like the muscles weren’t happy and weren’t interested in helping us get back to the shuttle. But they did, just more slowly than usual. On the way, we passed a sign that said “Do Not Touch the Trees”. Too late now, I thought.

Woman walking out of the Deadvlei sand dunes

As soon as we got to the parking lot we found another shuttle guy ready to take us back to our truck. Like it was fate or something. On the way back we saw some trucks stuck in the sand. One had some friends helping put mats underneath and pushing and stuff. Another one was sitting there empty, like the people just gave up and decided to get another truck later. That made me even happier we didn’t try to drive because, you know, I didn’t pay for any of the extra insurance from the rental company, definitely not the kind lets you just leave a truck stuck in the sand in the desert.

Truck stuck in the sand

Also, in South Africa there is a popular song called “Skinny Jean”. It is by some rapper from Zimbabwe and a couple more rappers from South Africa and they pretty much just sing “skinny jean” over and over and sometimes tug at the crotch or ass of their jeans, which aren’t, like, crazy skinny, but are definitely pretty skinny. They do it in English for awhile, then in another language for awhile, then switch back to English. And so on. Anyway, that song got stuck in my head while we were in the hostel in Windhoek a few days earlier and on the way back from the dunes I noticed it was STILL stuck in my head. That’s a long time to have an African song about jeans stuck in your head, that’s all I’m saying.

Woman on the side of a tall sand dune

So, anyway, the dunes. Yeah, that was quite a day. Quite a day.

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