Trail to the universe in Namibia


Kudu BullTrail to the universe
Leunis van Rooyen

You are on the seventh day of the hiking trail through Namibia’s Naukluft Park. It’s a place of rugged beauty—a rocky énclave on the edge of the Namib Desert. Because of its cliffs and deep ravines it provides refuge for a greater variety of plant and animal life than one would expect in such a harsh environment. Yesterday we saw a sycamore fig growing high up against a cliff, its roots descending for more than 100 meters along a crevice to find sustenance. Life here is not easy.

Today begins with an easy walk along a dry riverbed fringed with acacia thorn. We spot spoor in the sand. It is not that of an antelope. We do not pursue the issue because our minds are focused on what is awaiting us not too far off: the unknown factor of a chain ladder with a drop of about 10 meters that you have to scale to continue to your destination, the shelter on the Snow Flats.

A chain ladder? This is somewhat of an overstatement. You find yourself at the foot of a cliff that in the rare rainy times becomes a waterfall. The hard rock has been worn silky smooth by the waters of millennia. A chain has been bolted in place at the top and the bottom of the waterfall. You must haul yourself up with your arms.

On reaching the top, the landscape changes completely. There are no trees or shrubs, only scattered, stunted grasses. Underfoot there is change too: the trail leads up a long incline and it is totally covered in fist-sized and smaller stones and pebbles. They are all more or less rounded and smooth and come in an array of muted colors ranging from cream and ochre, to russet, black, brown and all hues in between. They are awkward to walk on, but you cannot tear your eyes from them: this is a natural rock garden with a unique beauty all its own.

The trail crests the incline and you cannot imagine where it is leading to for there is nothing else to be seen. Gradually the outlines of what appears to be a shrub define itself on the horizon, right in the middle of the plateau. The shrub turns out to be a tree, a hardy rhus. The prevailing desert winds have made it grow flat, sideways. You round it and then comes the surprising find that your overnight shelter is under the low canopy of this tree. Welcoming the shade, you offload your pack and settle down to light up your stove and to have a snack.

Having rested, you stroll about on the plateau and discover that you have an uninterrupted view of 360 degrees of the skyline. It is magnificent. You walk to various points of the compass, in complete awe of the surrounds. You squat on your haunches and cannot resist selecting a number of stones to place in your backpack to take home as a reminder. Look at this beauty! And that one! It is as though in primeval times an artist had carelessly lost his palette here. Then these stones must have formed a solid crust of rock on the plateau’s top. What forces of nature had had to be in play here to have caused change on such a massive scale?

There comes a point when the late afternoon sky becomes a transparent gold and then slowly transcends into darkness but even though it is new moon a myriad stars are blinking brightly at you. Through the clear desert sky they appear to be close at hand, only a stone’s throw away, it would seem. Up here on the plateau their light is so bright that you can see quite well for some distance. It is pure and utter magic.

Far off you hear the cry of a jackal but then complete and utter silence descends onto the tableau once more as it has done for many centuries.

As you settle in for the night the quiet is rent by the sound of thundering hooves just outside your line of vision. You can only guess at the type of animal rushing past: Hartmann’s mountain zebra? Kudu? Did a whiff of your scent spark their flight? Or is there an animal of prey about?

Before you nod off the thought dawns on you: The heavens are presenting me with a dome through which I literally can look into infinity, back into time. The day’s trail seemed to have been a shortcut to the universe—and well worth the time spent.

The next morning, about 800 meters from the overnight shelter, you come across the carcass of a zebra killed during the night.

A leopard’s kill, no doubt.

About the Author: Leunis van Rooyen is a language practitioner with a keen interest in hiking, birding and adventure traveling.

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