June 23, 2019 — Yesterday, we left the camp for our next stop. Festus drove us two hours over those rough desert roads to the same airstrip we’d flown in to. We arrived 40 minutes early so we had time to spend with our new friend. We sat in the same shelter where we’d had our first lunch together three days earlier, and talked.
Festus told us how he found his way when guiding people through through the bush. I thought maybe he’d memorized the features, the trees and rocks and hills and such, like Mark Twain memorized the Mississippi River. He said no, those things change, but the desert is surrounded by mountains and he looked for the relative position of the peaks to figure out where he is. I was reminded of how I found my way around by car when we lived in Boston; the Prudential and Hancock skyscrapers towered over the skyline and were visible miles around. I looked for those two towers and their positions relative to each other and that gave me a first approximation of my position and whether I was moving in the right direction.
The airstrip was just a cleared stretch of flat ground with a few sheds at one end of it, where we sat. The only other people were a young Himba man, wearing Western clothes, who worked as a sort of attendant, along with two of his buddies, keeping him company. I was reminded of a rural gas station in upstate New York that I visited for two minutes to get driving directions one night years ago when I got lost on the way to visit a friend. I thought at the time that I blew through that town in less the five minutes but those three friends had probably been at that gas station for years.
In addition to the three Himba men, the only other denizens of the airstrip were two emaciated, medium-sized dogs who walked slowly through. They didn’t belong to anyone; they were just passing. They came to the door of the restroom and watched with sad eyes while I did my business in there. I am usually leery of off-leash dogs but pair looked so sad I just wanted to give them a bath, take them home, feed them a nice supper of boiled chicken and rice, and then curl up on the couch and watch TV together. One of the Himba men attempted to chase the dogs off by throwing pebbles and shouting at them. The dogs looked like they had been ready to move on anyway. Three more dogs, equally skinny, forlorn and slow moving, came through a few minutes later.
We had a surprisingly moving goodbye with Festus, considering we’d only been together three days. Festus gave me a warm triple handclasp with both hands and looked me in the eye, a traditional greeting he’d taught us. I’m afraid I rushed it; Julie pointed out to me later that I’m just not an emotionally demonstrative person, other than with her. I’m working on that. I hope Festus will remember our conversations and my sincere respect and affection for him, and that he will forget my hurried goodbye.
And we got on the small plane to our next stop, which was actually two flights, one more than an hour to Swakopmund, a small city founded by Germans for mining and other industry, and then we switched planes while the first refueled, to go more than another hour to our current destination, Sossusvlei. Our planes on both legs were Cessna C210s, with two passenger seats for me and Julie, the only passengers, and a couple more seats temporarily removed for our luggage.
I’m getting to quite like small planes. The ride is more interesting, even if it is more likely to be scary sometimes. You chat with the pilot. They give the safety and orientation talk personally and always include the same joke: They show us the airsickness bag and tell us if we use it we should not return it; instead, keep it “as a souvenir” of the airline. For our our first leg, to Soussesvlei, I did the joke before the pilot did. He was chagrined; I’d stepped on his laugh line!
During our brief layover in Swakopmund, the airline parked us inside a small waiting room in a hangar. It was a bit of a transition after our time in the bush, a proper modern waiting room with a sign with the WiFi password. This was my first access to good WiFi in a week and I slurped up email and reviewed it on the plane. I had left an out-of-office message that said I would be out all June and NOT reading email, even when I get back, so anyone who needs anything should email my colleagues or message me again in early July. I am adhering to the spirit of that message; I only plan to read a few messages when I return. The only reason I’m even checking email is to see if anything cataclysmic or wonderful happens. So far there’s been neither, just work and my friends and family rolling on without me. Similarly, I glance at news headlines every few days and am surprised by how inconsequential it all is.
On the leg from Swakopmond to Soussevlei, we had a scenic flight, and the pilot pointed out landmarks from the air, including salt processing fields, two shipwrecks, one of which is now deep inland as the desert advances over the century since that disaster, and the dunes of Soussuslei.
Sossusvlei is a big, dry hot desert. Every time I say someplace in Africa is pretty dry and hot and desolate, we go someplace even more dry and hot and desolate. Geology is Sossusvlei’s big draw, including miles and miles of sand dunes, stretching up to hundreds of feed tall. Like our two previous destinations, Soussusvlei is blistering hot by day, even now, in African winter, though it gets cold at night. It can get up to 50 degrees C in summer.