September, 2014: Our second climb of the day will be much longer and hotter than the first. I tumble out of the sand truck onto the hard ground, dirt and grit. The brilliant blue skies and pink sands rise in every direction around us, and we spiral around on the spot, in the centre of a storm of beauty, looking each and every way. The distance is an untouched photograph or a painting, and we are standing on the edge of its frame.
We start to walk up a well trodden path. Sand lightly falls from either side of our well-placed but untimely feet, waves shimmering down each side of the thin crested dune. Tiny avalanches of macroscopic inconsequence, microscopic power. I stop for a long while to watch a tiny sand insect scurrying across the surface of the dune, its tiny feet pattering across the shimmering colours.
The landscape changes as we walk, in ways imperceptible from the road, and only discernable from close quarters. From every silent turn we make on the shifting sound, over one more dune and one more hill, the salt and clay pans that arise from the bottom of each valley are more beautiful each time. The salt and clay pans are less broken and tired, as they seem from the start of the trek, but increasingly more full and spanning. Parched gorse clings onto the white frayed edges. On each salt pan, it gets harder to measure the end and the beginning of the next, and still we somehow pass them.
One sheer expanse marks the end. It rolls from one side of a far valley to another, entirely white, with only the skeletons of trees punctuating it. There are only three strong colours in this world, and they all seem to be entirely different in the scheme of nature. The sky is blue and unbroken, from cerulean to light azure on the edges of the observable horizon. There are the golden rolling hills around us. And then there is sheer white in the midst of the sand lake. Gold, white, blue and nothing more. It is like all surfaces of a dead earth have come here – land, snow and sea – to meet in quiet harmony.
So we decided there is no point walking back, and no point going forward; we may as well go down. Strapping anything that might be seen as earthly valuables into layers of fabric – particularly well covered is a camera lense, which won’t survive the sand – we walk down the sides towards the snow lake. But walking doesn’t exist here; it’s sink or swim. We slide down the edges of the dune, and each step sinks us into the cottonness of the sand, slipping over our knees like water. I give up and run. For ten seconds of glorious momentum I’m spiralling down the hillside, and then I tumble head over heels, and mostly head. I’m caked from foot to shoulder. I find golden sand in my fingernails and hair for days afterwards.
We reach the bottom and enter another entire level of perception. We are in Deadvlei, a former oasis. From close up, the salt and clay can be seen much more easily, dried and cracked into rock that is easy to prise away. The heat is intense down here in a way it isn’t from up above. We slip between the groves of burnt tree trunks, blackened acacia. Thirsty and dirty from only a few hours, I can’t imagine what they must feel.