The last mile to Dead Vlei

Recipe – Red Curry Duck with Lychees

Life does not always make sense. For if it did, no one would live in the Namib Desert during the summer. Let alone willingly choose it as a summer holiday destination. Yet, they come to our desert, in their thousands, every summer, every year.

Over many journeys, I have developed a game to break the boredom, to make the dull moments a little more interesting.

Pick someone – any one – who looks out of place. Build a story around them.

Dancing down Big Daddy
Dancing down Big Daddy

Why are they here? How did they get here? What made them choose this place over so many others? Where do they come from? What do they do? What are they searching for? What will they take from this trip? What do they see? Does it make sense to them? The game has only a beginning, no end. It can last only a few minutes, a few seconds even, or many years, for it stops when you, the player, decide that it should.

There is much to learn from observing people who are outside their comfort zones. Confronted with the unfamiliar, people often reveal their own true selves. And when the unfamiliar is combined with extreme conditions, the walls and masks we rely on for protection, become useless rather quickly, leaving us vulnerable and exposed.

Just last weekend I had ample opportunity to play my game again. And yes, despite my observation at the start, I took someone to the desert – Sossusvlei, to be specific.

Few people go to Sossusvlei and do not attempt to climb at least one of the highest dunes. Why?

Maybe Edmund Hillary was right when he said “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves”.

Not that climbing Big Daddy can be compared to climbing Everest, nor is anyone another Edmund Hillary, don’t get me wrong.

But I do think we attempt these challenges, because we want to see if we have it in ourselves. To go just that little bit further than what our ordinary daily activities require of us.

It was still early when we arrived at Dune 45. Yet it was already busy. Trains of climbers were slowly making their way to the top.

Just minutes ago, they had left the comfort of the large truck that brought them all the way from Europe. And what a beast it was.

Dead Vlei
Dead Vlei

Large like a small whale, designed to swallow 30 odd people, this vessel provides only moderate comfort as it groans its way across the Dark Continent. Every so often, it would spit out its human cargo at a designated point with the velocity of a milk carton hitting the kitchen floor. It is messy, young people everywhere flowing in all directions in search of a few minutes of unconstrained freedom.

I watched them as they started their ascent, with lots of laughter and sunscreen. It was clear – they were dressed to impress, not to protect.

In the short hour that they were gone, life changed. It was not the same group of people who returned. The laughter was gone and the steps were slow and tender. Some were limping and exposed skin had changed colour. There was sand and pain everywhere -in shoes, in socks and in sensitive places.

No one flirted any longer. Everyone wanted only comfort. It became clear that not everyone was a friend. Some simply wandered off to look for shade. Others just sat and stared far into nothingness. It was only 9 o’clock but already the temperature was well past 40°C. Life can be unforgiving, and the desert even more so.

We left. They stayed. Out here in the desert, my little game is best played in the shade with a cold beer.

The short walk to Dead Vlei is nothing like climbing the highest dune. But beware, come prepared and travel light. Come early and leave sometime soon afterward. It is better that way.

I watched him closely as he approached me where I was standing on the edge of Dead Vlei testing some high tech gear. His more than 60 previous years counted against him over the last mile. And so did his expansive girth. He was short of breath and heavy with sweat. He was curious and wanted to speak. But it was too soon for words. He had to breathe first.

Dead Vlei
Dead Vlei

I could tell that he was probably a kind man. He was curious, intrigued by the gear and what I was doing.

I started the short version of my game, while I waited for his breath to return.

He would be a professional, specialist of sorts even. He had that special sort of confidence. Intelligent, yes definitely. It was all over his face and in his eyes. Here was something he’d never seen, and it intrigued him. He wanted to know.

It was also clear that he worked with people. He was comfortable with and around them. Not in the arrogant manner of a successful defense lawyer, but in the gentle manner of someone who cares. A teacher or doctor maybe?

I could tell by the closeness of his shadow over my shoulder that he had gotten his breath back and that he was ready to talk. So, without looking up from what I was busy with, I started the inevitable conversation. As it turned out, he was playing the same game as I, and it took all of ten minutes to exchange answers, confirm our thoughts and conclude that we can trust each other. Pleased, that it was well worth meeting here at the end of the last mile to Dead Vlei. We shook hands and I got back to business.

I passed him on the way back. I could see that he was taking strain. The heat and the sand got to him – again – and allegedly a bee sting had added to the misery. But he smiled, perhaps realising that going back on familiar tracks is easier than laying them down for the first time.

In life, with every journey, it is adventure that we seek when we depart, but it is comfort that we discover when we return.

And that, dear friends, is why I visit the desert in the summer.

Our dish this week is one that gives me great comfort: Red Curry Duck with lychees. It has sweetness and heat, but so has the desert. And if you’re one who has never cooked or eaten duck, remember, in the words of Edmund Hillary: “Even the mediocre can have adventures and even the fearful can achieve.”

Hope to meet you one day, out there, on the last mile to Dead Vlei.

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