As anyone who has felt its warm glow or harsh sting knows, love comes in many forms. Especially when you are out on the open road. It creeps up when you scarcely expect it, startling you into bliss and then fleeing in the same moment.
New tastes and new smells and new sensations, assaulting your every molecule.
That’s what traveling really is, though, right? It’s an assault on your whole being. Pushing fresh air and dirty city streets and salt water into every pore, every cut, every possible opening. But more importantly, it’s loving that assault.
It’s loving the unknown. It’s loving the onslaught of confusion that bombards you as you deplane/disembark/throw yourself from an overcrowded moving mini van. And it’s accepting, embracing, and loving the emotional trials that come along with this assault.
You can know you will love an entirely new food the moment it wafts to your nostrils, just like you can love an ice-cold glass of water that sits and sweats with you, as you sit and sweat, sitting and sweating together. You discover a new type of love when you travel. It is pure and it is simple.
But then, suddenly, your new found love has been eaten or has warmed to room temperature. And there you are, alone and loveless again.
I have eluded to my loves, lost and found. So this seems like a good time to share a few of them.
Allow me to introduce Humphrey.
I encountered many forms of love during my trip, from deep friendships to fanatical food fascinations, I felt it all. But, throughout every step and misstep there was always and only one simple constant.
Humphrey and I met not long before I left. It was a new love. We were still figuring each other out. He was exceedingly patient and I was a bit abusive, I admit. I pushed him around, sat on him, put my feet on him, stuffed him in the luggage hold, abandoned him during the day, and even made him carry my dirty laundry. But still, he stayed by my side.
Humphrey was my rock. I put him through a lot early on, but he was always a gentleman, always resting gently, reassuringly on my shoulders. There was just one small problem. He didn’t have a name. How could I be traveling around the world with a nameless companion?
And then Namibia happened.
Yes, Humphrey and Namibia are forever intertwined in my travel love affair. Humphrey, Namibia, and me.
I would imagine that if someone offered you a chance to go anywhere in the world on a whim, Namibia probably wouldn’t pop to mind first. Right?
How many people do you know who put Namibia as their be all, end all, must go, top of the bucket list destination?
Not many I bet.
Yea, me neither.
But that’s just because I have, you know, been there, done that.
Not too long ago though, Namibia was just a twinkle in my eye. Just a far off journey to get me through another day at work. Just a BBC nature documentary clip that I, for some inexplicable reason, HAD to see in person.
I mean it. I JUST. HAD. TO. SEE. IT.
It popped on the TV one lazy Saturday afternoon, probably as I lolled on my couch recovering from a marathon training run with Cheetos and pickles and chocolate milk. Channel surfing and there it was.
Red sand for days.
Trees as old as time.
Mysterious skeletons hidden in mist.
Maybe it was just so vastly different from anything I had ever seen. Maybe it seemed like the closest I would ever come to going to space. To Mars. To the red planet. Whatever it was, I was instantly drawn to a country I had barely heard of before. And with little delay, Namibia rapidly hopped, skipped, and jumped to the top of my list. So naturally, when I began planning this year abroad, Namibia was the center of it all.
And then suddenly, there I was. Perched atop a giant, rumbling, off-roading truck, tossing to and fro as Humphrey and I traversed miles and miles of unpaved road.
I had big plans for this trip. Big writing plans. Big reading plans. Big plans to expand my mind beyond the little 9-5 box it had been crammed into for several years. To break free and regrow some of the creative connections that might have shriveled away on one of those days I didn’t see the sunlight from inside the 3.5 walls of my cubical.
Great, I thought to myself as I packed, 2 months driving around Africa. What better time to really work some new pathways into my quickly atrophying brain?
After the first hour of overland road tripping, I realized that my BIG plans needed to change. Books bounced, pens scrawled, photos blurred, and heads lolled. It quickly dawned on me that for the next 3 weeks it was just me and the expanse of Namibia’s (and then Botswana’s and then Zambia’s) ancient trees and towering dunes and impossibly red sand.
Try it. Try sitting still and looking out a window at the (astoundingly beautiful) scenery flying by.
For 10 hours.
I had spent so much time outside myself at work that being inside myself for that long felt foreign. I felt like a stranger. At first. And then little by little and then more quickly, I got to know myself again. Haltingly and then all at once and then with a few steps backwards. Thats how those things go, though, right?
And in these journeys, Humphrey finally became Humphrey.
It might have been one of the particularly hot days when the truck, lacking in AC as it was, stormed with a whirlwind of hot air and dust blowing through the open windows. Who are we kidding, that was most days. I swear, I am still getting Namibian dust out of my hair. On those days, my mind was always a little wibbly wobbly from dehydration and the special sort of crazy that comes from staring out at nothingness.
I was mentally working through the transformation of house and home to backpack and backpack and conflicting feelings of doubt and excitement. I have always been relatively malleable but sitting there, as my teeth rattled out of my head, I realized that for the foreseeable future, it was just me and my trusty pack.
Now that doesn’t sound quite right. Every good inanimate object deserves a name, right?
It’s a Gregory pack so naturally in these conditions my brain whirled from Gregory to Gregory Peck to Humphrey Bogart to Casablanca and long lost lands to handsome men calling me kid. And then it was settled. Humphrey. Believe me, all of those connections made a lot of sense in my heat haze.
And so the love of my life, my rock, my constant, my Humphrey, was born. Born on the beautiful backroads of Namibia nearly 4 years ago.
Now that we have gotten that little love story out of the way, lets get back to Namibia.
Just go. Really. Do it.
Have you gone yet?
Ok, so, I was irrationally excited about Namibia before I left and I was not in the smallest, least, tiniest bit disappointed. In fact, I was overwhelmed with how far every minute exceeded my expectations.
The Namib Desest and Sossusvlei are home to some of the tallest and oldest dunes in the world with sand that is just so darn red. You can (read, should) climb the dunes for sunrise. It is a nature light show at its finest. If you are athletic don’t be fooled, it is not just a little sand dune. But the mighty climb (and it is mighty) repays you ten fold as you crest the peak into darkness.
Headlamps shine like stars in the night as other eager visitors await the coming magic. Slowly, tips of the surrounding dunes alight, growing flames spread down their sides until, in what seems like no time, the desert floor is bathed in an African sun that will reach 100-degree temps in a few short hours. But for that moment, enjoy the cool post-dawn air as you stumble and slide and roll your way down into the valley of red.
From this sunrise, make your way 60 kilometers down the road to a place that I can only describe as alien, other-worldly, extraterrestrial.
Deadvlei, meaning “dead marsh,” is a salt pan created over time as a nearby river flooded, formed pools, then dried in a drought. After this area dried it was naturally sectioned off from the river by shifting sand dunes but the landscape was forever changed. The sudden introduction of water allowed acacia trees to pop up quickly but in the subsequent drying of land, the trees died off. Due to the conditions of the area, many of the trees still stand, an estimated 600-700 years after their death. They are not petrified but continue to stand because they are so dry that they will not rot.
I share that literal description because I am, quite uncommonly, at a loss for words.
It was truly astonishing in every sense of the word.
You climb a slightly smaller, slightly less red dune to reach Deadvlei. I vividly recall cresting the dune and looking down upon this graveyards of tree skeletons, almost unable to take in what lay in front of me.
This is where nature beats Hollywood, every day of the week. And friends, we should treat our environment right so it continues to beat Hollywood, every other day for the generations to come.
I wanted to see the dunes. I wanted to see the trees. I wanted to feel the desert heat. And I did, oh I did, but I got so much more than dunes and trees and heat.
There is Fish River Canyon, the largest canyon in Africa.
There is Spitzkopp, a 120+ million year old granitic rock outcropping that reaches roughly 1,784 meters above sea level.
There is Swakopmund, a little German town perched between the Namib desert and the Atlantic ocean. This post lacks cultural observations because I, admittedly, focused on the nature and the beauty and the alien landscape that sets Namibia apart. That being said Namibia was a German colony through the end of WWI, at which point it came under South African rule until it finally gained independence in 1990. As you can imagine, German cafés at a beach town in Africa doesn’t quite compute.
There is the Skeleton Coast, a stretch of land north of Swakopmund that is, in essence, where the Namib desert meets the Atlantic Ocean. Due to cold ocean currents, a thick fog that rarely shifts has settled over the region resulting in countless shipwrecks and subsequently thousands of boat “skeletons” that liter the coast.
And then there is Etosha. Lions and elephants and giraffes, oh my! Home to more salt pans and some pretty big game, Etosha is an excellent National Park to see some of your coveted African animals with fewer tourists than the more common National Parks, such as the Serengeti and Kruger.
Warming up yet?
After many many days of temperatures above 100 degrees and dry heat that leaves your nose crusted with blood and your mouth constantly cottony, the humid reprieve of Botswana will be welcome. Or so you think. Find out yourself, same time next week…