Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Between Sand and the Skeleton Coast

Halfway up dune seven, I asked my host something to break the silence. He didn't answer. I looked back and found he was sitting down about thirty feet below me. It was a hot day, and he wasn't twenty-three anymore. I'd been walking everywhere, but I didn't object to a break myself, so I paused, letting my feet sink in sand up to my ankles.

The dogs ran circles around us. Chester, the barrel-chested black lab mix, had the odd habit of staying right in front of me and then stopping, blocking my path, his legs half buried in sand, until I'd scratch his haunches. Bobby, the russet cocker spaniel, was always either coming up or going down. Up and down. I figured by the time us humans reached the top, he would have scaled the dune about five times.

Every step forward in the loose sand was another half step back, and would loosen up the sand up to shoulder level, just to bury your feet. I had instant shifting sand arch-supports within minutes. It was noticeably easier to climb where someone else had left tracks, only slightly compressing the sand.

At least I wasn't carrying a snowboard this time. The morning before, I'd gone sand boarding, after a five or six year hiatus from snowboarding. I relearned that I was way better at heel turns than toe turns, accidentally switching from goofy to regular stance twice, and then falling down. It was fun, but I found myself really missing chairlifts.

This time it was just us scaling the dune. The tracks I'd been using ended about twenty feet from the top. Swell. I slogged up, a step at a time, watching the sand at my eye level collapse with each foot placed directly below it. Then I hit the sharp ridge.

The setting sunlight left the side I'd been climbing in shadow and the other side bathed in yellow light. I clambered a foot over and sat down, reaching for my water. Chester hopped up and sat there, panting. Bobby leapt up and over to the other side, then ran all the way to the bottom on that side in about thirty seconds, leaving new tracks on the fresh sand. Then he turned around to look at us. I can't read minds, but I could pretty clearly get the 'now, what did I do that for?' from Bobby and the exasperated 'you idiot' from Chester, watching his companion slowly climb back up through the sand on the hot side.

The other bipedal member of the party joined us a couple minutes later. I handed him my water. He thanked me, but only took a sip.

"You climb that every day..." he panted "and you'll be... really fit."

We sat and watched the sun go down over the Namibian dunes in front of us. You could just see the reflection of the ocean in the distance.

"Last time I climbed this was..." he paused, "Thirty-nine... no, forty years ago."

Bobby made it back up at this point. I started snapping pictures.

"What was the story?" I asked.

"You ever heard of a forty-day party in the army?"


"It's a party you have forty days before your service ends. We call it the forty day party. It's a real drinking party. I woke up early the next morning when one of my friends shook me and said let's go board down dune seven. So we did."

From the dune-boarding instructor the day before, I knew that before seven years ago, dune boarding had meant going down headfirst on a dune, riding a waxed piece of thin wood like a sled. Some said you could hit 80 km/hr this way.

"I dragged my hung over body up this thing twelve times that day. Went over a rock and it left a mark. Still have it" He pointed to a white mark above his hip.

I grinned. "I bet there are a lot of guys with 39th day marks and scars." No comment. We'd both been distracted by Bobby deciding he wanted to go back to the bottom of the dune yet again. Poor dog was no longer running. He slowly and sadly walked back up, step by step.

We spotted a car in the distance, in the middle of the flat sands. Sure enough, it was stuck. The sun was about to set, and the driver would have a tough time getting back to town in the dark on foot. So we slid back down the cool side of the dune to where the car was parked, next to some palm trees that had been half buried by the sand drift, and drove out to the stranded car. After discussion in Afrikaans and some digging and tire deflation, we pulled them out before the sun set completely.

We headed back to Walvis Bay, the second biggest city in Namibia. Since the entire country has a total population of about two million, Walvis Bay still felt like a small roadside town to me, sandwiched between the desert and the Atlantic Ocean, the roadsides peppered with red and white triangular signs with a big exclamation point in the middle and the word "sand" underneath. I was still getting used to the country. Clearly more developed than its neighbors to the north, it used to be a part of South Africa, after it was wrested from Germany following the first world war. German city planning prevailed. Ninety degree angles, wide, long, empty streets. I still haven't seen a building taller than three or four stories in the entire country (though I haven't yet seen the capital).

The other thing that's taken some getting used to is meeting citizens of my own race. There are a small number of white Zambians and Zimbabwaens, but before that, anyone who saw me immediately assumed I was from Europe or the US, the distinction was a little hazy. At least two people I met seemed to think London was part of the US. But here, people occasionally come up to me and try to talk in Afrikaans or German. I still don't really look like a local, but I'm close enough to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Aside from the white people, the other group I've met here are of mixed race, the polite term for which here is still actually "colored." I'd been wondering why I hadn't seen more of this in so many former European colonies. In Latin America, the people took a lot of pride from their mixed race heritage. Namibia is the first place I've been in Africa with a significant mixed race population. I guess it shouldn't be that surprising. In a region where you can still ask most local people what tribe they belong to, interracial marriage must seem like a very big step. But not here.

After we got home from our climb, poor Chester just collapsed, panting. Bobby had some water and padded right along, looking for a little food and attention. We switched on the TV to a university rugby came between two Cape Town area schools. I noted out loud that almost all the players appeared to be white. Edith, my other host, said "well, they're from Cape Town." As if that explained everything. Maybe it does.

Where I come from, most people are scared to talk about race. Me included, I don't like offending people. But this is something I'm going to have to keep an eye on as I continue south.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Awesome. Way to zig-zag across the continent from German East Africa to German West Africa. Did you notice any German hangover in Tanzania?

  2. Puts me in mind of the conversation I had with Angela early in her year with us about why we refer to "African-Americans" here . . .

  3. Your host felt like he had to come back after forty years and climb that sand dune with you? That's impressive hospitality! Nice narrative and very interesting on all points. Looking forward to the pictures. Those of us here appreciate those there who are providing you interesting experiences and warm welcome. Lv, Anonymom

  4. Count C- little to none there in Tanzania. But I'm now staying in a hostel full of Germans here in Namibia. It's a little surreal.

    Anonysis(I presume)- Had a similar discussion with her parents soon after arriving. Funny how that works. They all send their regards and thanks as well, and would love to have you visit sometime, too.

    Anonymom- His initiative and suggestion. I didn't even know the dune existed before he said he wanted to climb it with me. Got your txt btw, ty.

  5. Inspiring post. A great story with lots of depth and insight. Thanks for the read.

  6. What is the Skeleton Coast? Why skeleton? I am imagining dire things.

  7. L&A- glad you enjoyed it, thanks!

    Catherine- It's called that because of the shipwrecks on the coast, not human skeletons. It was a notoriously dangerous coast to make a landing on in the old days, so if you go far enough you can find the "skeletons" of lots of wrecked ships,