7.30 am on the Deadvlei salt pan. It is as if I am the only person on a foreign planet. A Martian on a red planet of sand, where water once existed but is now long gone. This must be how the space-age people of the 60s imagined walking on Mars to be like. It is quiet. Still. The air is chilly but strangely easy to breathe, even with the dryness. There are no sounds anywhere, except for my team mates and two other crazies trying to ascend the Big Daddy dune, far above.
The echolessness of the desert is too strange to get used to. It is not just the lack of an echo, but the lack of any sound. There is no sound of birds, people, traffic, or even the wind in the trees – because there are no trees, and often also no wind. And the sound that there is is somehow muffled. As if one were in a padded chamber for lunatics. Standing in the still desert reminds me of the movie Truman Show, where Jim Carrey plays a man who has a lovely suburban middle class life – until he one day wakes up to realize his world is literally a stage and everything in it is scripted and televized. He begins to seek the boundaries of his physical world and comes to the end of it: at sea, outside of town, he touches the side of the dome which he always thought was the sky and the horizon. The water splashes towards it and all sounds are muffled, as if he were inside a room. Endlessness isn’t endlessness, but finite and staged.
My friends, hungry for sights and sheer exhaustion, are making their way up the 325 m tall dune Big Daddy. It has a rough start and a muscle-wrenching end, and in-between those two it is long and winding. While I wander around on the Deadvlei pan by myself, I can hear my friends cheer each other on. It is so quiet we can have a conversation: I down on the salt pan and they up on the ridge of one of the tallest dunes in the world.
At 8.30 am the first group of (other) tourists begin pouring in. Chinese, with big cameras, shouting instructions to each other as to where to stand for a best pose and effect. This is not Mars. This is still the Earth, just more wondrous than I thought.
(Deadvlei, Namib-Naukluft Park, Namibia; July 2017)