One time while I was traveling, I felt like I was exploring a potential future. It wasn’t in some angular futuristic metropolis of Eastern Asia — it was in Varanasi, India, one of the world’s oldest cities. I remember the crowdedness, sitting in cars while drivers tried to move through masses of humanity, the buildings stacked upon buildings, lives stacked upon lives.
Namibia was a contrast to that. In its vast expanses of nothingness, I often felt like I was exploring a beginning. Before I arrived in Namibia, I’d read that it was the second least populated country and I wondered what that would look like and feel like. As we drove great distances from one destination to another, we wittingly yet unexpectedly immersed ourselves in the mightiness of Namibia’s great emptiness:
In the Savanna and Bushland
Everywhere is the middle of nowhere. The road’s vanishing point shimmers and blends into the sky, a never ending illusion. The pillowy billows of magnificent clouds that roll above us seem close enough to touch if we could just jump high enough. It’s hard to tell the difference between what’s in front of us and what’s overhead.
On either side of the road is shrubbery or small trees that extend beyond the horizon. Sometimes a daredevil warthog emerges and decides to run across the road in front of our vehicle as soon as we approach it. I wonder what else is lurking in the bushes.
Every so often we see public transportation vehicles that have enticed customers with slogans like “No Fear” or “Trust Me” or “The Choice is Yours.” Sometimes a car comes zooming up behind us and passes us on this two lane road, sometimes we pass a slow moving truck. There are worn wooden billboards for companies that probably no longer exist.
The clouds begin to blend into wall of gray and the wind picks up. The rain comes as anticipated; it’s a flash of ferocity that obliterates our sight beyond the immediate few feet. It ends quickly and the clouds allow sun to peek through little openings and illuminate patches of land like spotlights. Then they break apart, once again fluffy and nonthreatening.
The further we go with each mile looking like the prior one, the more relativity fades. We can no longer sense how many hours and miles it’s been since we left. Time and distance are ambiguous when you’re driving through emptiness.
In Etosha National Park
Not too long ago, we left a rest camp filled with people and a parking lot filled with white 4x4s splattered with mud and dust. Now, as we drive across the park to another rest camp, we hardly see anyone. We are traveling along Etosha Pan, a 75 mile long salt flat that covers almost a quarter of the park.
In a dry patch of the salt flat, we see a few oryx sunning and resting. In parts where it is flooded, tufts of grass emerge and flocks of birds gather.
We are enticed by a dirt road that veers off the main roadway and leads to the middle of the salt flat. We decide to drive down it. The further we get, the more the ground morphs from solid to liquid. We eventually get stuck in the muck.
This is where the magnitude of our adventure sets in. AAA memberships are useless here. There’s no tow truck to call and be mildly inconvenienced while we wait because we are a little bit out there. We are all the way out there. I step out of the car to try assess the situation and my foot sinks into the earth up to my ankle.
Thankfully, we are not alone; a few others were drawn out onto the flooded salt flat as well. A kind German couple sees our struggle and pulls over to help us. They are able to get our vehicle out of the muck, off of the short wooden post it’s stuck on, and onto more stable ground. Our sighs of relief can probably be heard across the salt flat.
Later, we pull into the parking lot at the next rest camp and our white 4×4 looks just as dirty as the rest. We’ve earned our mud stripes.
In the Desert
Everywhere in Namibia has felt like an adventure, but as we begin this leg of the journey through the Namib Desert, the adventure feels amplified. The road is all bumps and dust, but it’s all part of the undertaking. The road smooths out sometimes, but we still never come across a gas station or rest stop or any kind of structure. The only human touches here are the road and the periodic signs reminding us how far away our destination still is.
It begins to feel like an adventure to nowhere. Wide open spaces are something I’d always associated with freedom. I never imagined that they could crush you with their grandiosity.
We see no one for miles. We see nothing for miles besides sand and grass. We get excited when we come across some unspectacular trees because finally there’s something instead of nothing. It’s also exciting to see another car because at least we’re going somewhere someone else is going to or came from. Maybe this road goes somewhere after all.
Clouds are a welcome addition to the scenery. Rolling hills and small rock formations seem almost as grand as the Grand Canyon. Any minimal variation in the landscape feels monumental, like a sweet secret surprise shared among us and the few others we pass by on the road.
A rather unceremonious sign marks the Tropic of Capricorn, and we cross the invisible line that hosted summer solstice just a few days before.
Sometimes we see springboks or zebras and I wonder how they survive in this harsh sun burnt landscape with little water or cover. In contrast to the animals of Etosha that kept eating as we passed by without a glance toward our vehicle, these wilder animals take a break from munching to cautiously watch us as we pass by, wary of our intentions.
“Thirsty?” a sign reads. Then there’s another one, and another one. I can’t figure out if it’s a taunt or an advertisement, or perhaps both. We stop at the one and only rest stop along the way, relieved that we have indeed been heading in the right direction. Then it’s back on the road for who knows how long.
When we finally get where we are going, we are still nowhere.
Namibia is about twice the size of my home state, California, but the population of the entire country is 1.5 million less than the population of Los Angeles. With so much vacant land and without much variation in scenery, my perception of its size was skewed. Or maybe it’s just that in exploring such an empty place, for the first time I truly began to grasp how big this world is.
Namibia often made me wonder what it might have been like when life began, when exploration and discovery were firsts for all humankind and there wouldn’t have been the assurance of a road sign or a set destination and there were no motorized vehicles to make the journey faster. You’d have no clue where the desert would end or if it would end.
This kind of exploration is long gone; almost everything to find on the Earth has been found. But the potential for personal discovery is infinite. And in the humbling tremendousness of Namibia’s scenery, I fully understood that.