The land around Sossusvlei in Namibia is expansive, open, arid. It is a golden and fire-orange, sand-filled vision; the quintessential desert image. The odd gemsbok or springbok stand silent and still, under a tree if there is one, their distinctive stance and horns shadowed in sharp relief against the vibrant sand. A few houses dot the landscape, most small and square and hunched against the grit of the wind. The animals and houses seem to be part of the wild surroundings,unlike the walled tourist lodges that have sprung up along the main road to cash in on the attraction of the nearby dunes (the largest in the world).
Most people fly into Windhoek, drive down to Sossusvlei, take a trek out to the dunes and the dry salt pans, rest a few days in their lodge, then back to Windhoek and away again, next stop on the trip, next pin in their map. We, on the other hand, have driven here, miles and miles through deserts and towns, watching the land grow and shrink, approach and recede, shapeshifting around us.
Other than the tiny town of Sesriem, which provides essentials and fuel to those passing through, and the Sossusvlei National Park offices, which house a shop and bar, there isn’t much else out here. Just miles and miles of space. Miles and miles of sand. Openness. And, further away, jagged picture-perfect mountains shimmering above it all, their feet immersed in mirages.
This ancient nature, this stunning beauty, allows the rest of the world to fade away. It can be isolating, but it also focuses perspective and perception down to the immediate, the moment, until nothing else exists but what lies before you.
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The parking area at the drop off point for the Sossusvlei dunes is simple and pristine, so perfectly in keeping with its surroundings that the vista almost swallows it completely. A few logs raised about a foot off the ground mark the outer reaches of the parking area, which is a roughly round area in the sand, full of tire tracks and shadowed by several large trees, their roots reaching through the soft ground. There is also a portable nearby with flushing toilets, something which comes as a surprise. It is clean and well-stocked, though there are no sinks for hand washing.
Thankful to have found toilets at all, and considering dirty hands to be a small sacrifice, I didn’t really think twice about the issue of washing. As I stepped back out into the sun, I looked over at the man standing against a wooden frame attached to the toilet portable. Assuming he was in charge of keeping the washrooms clean, I headed over to leave him a tip. As I reached him, he noded his head towards a 5 litre water bottle suspended upside-down from the wooden frame, hanging at eye level.
“Would you like to wash your hands?” He asked. So that was the purpose of the water bottle contraption, a simple but smart pulley system. I smiled and thanked him.
I noticed the compact hardcover book in his hand and tilted my head to read the title: English-French, Anglais-Francais.
“Is that a French-English dictionary?”
“Yes, I’m trying to teach myself French.”
I asked if he was from the area and he told me he was from the north end of Namibia, up by the Angolan border, but that he’d been living near Sossusvlei for 5 years.
“Do many people speak French here?”
“No. But some of the tourists do. I’d like to be able to speak to them. And I thought it would be good to do something to keep myself busy, so I decided to teach myself French.”
We chatted a while longer before it was time to go. “Au revoir,” I said, “Bonne chance avec le français!” And then my family and I headed off, following the thousands of other footprints up and over the rolling waves of sand.
* * *
A month later, I’m still thinking about the man with the dictionary, out there in the sand. His days must be fairly mundane, hot, lonely. And yet, he has chosen to make the most of them, to fight the boredom, to learn.
I wonder how many tourists have stopped to talk to him, to find out about his background, his interests. I wonder how many of them speak French. I wish him well, and I hope he has a chance to practice what he’s been learning.
* * *
Namibia has eight recognized languages in addition to English, which is the official language. French isn’t one of them.