September, 2014: Half way through the night we rise and pack up our camp beds by torch light, pausing to boil some water for tea before we’re traveling back across sand and dirt again. We drive on one straight road for hours, with only the landscape changing around us to hint we were going anywhere at all. I drift in and out of sleep. I hadn’t slept well that night; the cold had been arctic after a hot day of desert sun. Shivering under four jumpers and a winter sleeping bag, watching the cold stars through the gaps of our open hut’s straw roof, I had half dreamed that night of a leopard, jumping down the rocks behind me and watching me in the moonlight.
Through fleeting naps on the long road, the sun was beginning to rise. The cold sheets of mist lingered over still plains, mountains rising to one far side, elusive and lonely. Along this straight line, at an unmarked and untraceable point, sharp eyes spot a cheetah walking away from us in the far distance. We can barely see its spots but we can see its bony flanks rising and falling, side to side, undeterred and unbothered by our presence.
And finally, through one closed eyelid and another, rock mountain gives away to sand dunes, one grand height of sand after another, rising and falling like the wind. It is sudden, an unpredicted avalanche of sight, miles upon miles of sand cast over the world. After a clumsy breakfast next to our dusty truck, we head out over unmarked paths towards the highest of these dunes. Golden is the obvious word. I see them more as the colour of the skin of a peach, warmed by the surface of the sun as it rises remarkably slowly. Yet when you focus on one spot for too long, it is dazzling white, like sparkles of sunlight on the sea. Every handful is just rocks and grit and dirt, spots of it dark brown or sheering white and never seeming to be in between; as it joins the sea of sand, each individual colour seems to wash away, like a crowd of people from very far away.
I climb steeply, too high to go for lack of breakfast and for the dirt that clings to my weak lungs. This is called Dune 45, although any dune would do, I think; this just happens to be the path most worn, even though new sand blows to replace it every day. Dawn is the time to be here. We look down on this ridge, the edge of a star from the earth. We are easily 50km from the sea, maybe further, deep in the Namib Desert. Yet everywhere in the morning light is a vision of wet brown sand, rivers of patterns formed by the wind, endless sand down to an endless sea.