Namibia: Land of Awesome

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Elaborating on last week's post on the nature of wanderlust, today I have a practical example to share. Here's how wanderlust works. You're minding your own business, and then something lands in front of you -- say, this month's issue of Mental_floss. You flip to the back of the mag and devour a great feature article on Namibia, and you start to feel a funny tickle in your brain. That sounds interesting, says the tickle, which leads you to the internet, where you start looking up Namibia on Wikipedia and a few hours later are looking it up on Kayak (the plane ticket comparison site). Since flights are north of $2,000 apiece, you settle for writing a blog about why it would be awesome to go there. In short, Namibia is a safe and hospitable former German colony (and the birthplace of homo sapiens -- check out the floss article) thinly populated by about two million folk (that's just two per square kilometer), about 2% of which are third- and fourth-generation German. Its physical beauty is so diverse and stunning that Lonely Planet calls it "one of those dreamlike places that make you question whether something so visually orgasmic could actually exist." (How do you really feel, Lonely Planet?) Anyway, let's get specific. Here's what sounds irresistible to me:

The skeleton coast
skeleton1.jpgAside from having geography's coolest name (I'm always attracted to spots with forbidding names like "Furnace Creek" and "The Funeral Mountains"), it's an extremely remote and formidable desert -- one of the world's most arid and inhospitable places -- where the dunes march right up to the edge of the sea, and continue underwater -- creating a region of deadly hidden shallows that has wrecked hundreds of ships along its unwelcoming coastline over the years. The crews' grizzly fate is obvious -- they had survived shipwrecks only to die of burning thirst in the desert. Over time, the shifting sands have encroached onto the sea, and wrecked ships that were once in shallow water are now surrounded by oceans of sand, far from shore, creating a surreal graveyard. Locals call it "the land God made in anger"; Portuguese sailors called it As Areias do Inferno, or Sands of Hell. There aren't a lot of roads through the Skeleton Coast; the best way to explore it is by small plane, touching down at remote landing strips throughout its length.

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Sossusvlei
If amazing dunes are your thing, look no further: the towering, endless, ochre-red dunes of your dreams are in Namibia. One of the oldest and driest ecosystems on earth, it's the kind of place where you can feel like the last human on the planet, and explore the strange beauty of "singing" dunes. The Atlantic's Clive Crook, writing as if he spent a few too many days wandering among the dunes himself, eloquently describes their hypnotic power:

We drove to high points in the dunes and, despite the modest elevation, gazed out for what must have been 20 miles. To the horizon in every direction, there was nothing but pristine, curving planes of sand—precise edges that might have been cut with a scalpel, and surfaces minutely poised at the limit of what the laws of mechanics allow, before they flow, fall, and cascade. There is a wonderfully poetic technical term for that limit: the angle of repose. Wind blows sand up a dune and drops it, at the crest, onto the leeward side, until the angle of the leeward surface to the horizontal exceeds the angle of repose; when that critical slope is reached, the sand drops away on the leeward side, leaving a perfectly defined edge, until the angle of repose is restored. When you disturb the sand on one of those edges, it moves like a viscous liquid, pouring over the surface beneath. From an edge, say, a hundred feet up, this film of excess sand may take minutes to move slowly but unstoppably all the way down. It is mesmerizing.

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Fish River Canyon
It's one of the world's largest canyons, but few people have heard of it. 160km long, 550m deep and up to 27km wide, it's like nothing else in Africa: a bizarre and humbling moonscape carved by giants. Pictures hardly do it justice:
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Kolmanskop
A few miles outside the remote coastal town of Luderitz -- an oddity of cutesy German colonial architecture lost along an endless, inhospitable coast -- sits the ghost town of Kolmanskop, a small diamond-mining village built like a German town in 1908, and abandoned to the encroaching sands after a diamond bust in the 1950s. The town still remains, but the houses are slowly disappearing beneath the dunes.

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Etosha National Park
One of the largest and best savannah conservation areas on the continent, vast Etosha (it's approximately the size of New Jersey) protects 114 mammal species and some 340 varieties of bird. Much of the park is an enormous saltpan that turns into a shallow lake during the rainy season, which attracts all the animals.

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Photo by Flickr user Matzepeng.

December 16, 2008 - 7:01am
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