Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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Sands of time

A GP climbs Namibia's monumental dunes to photograph one of the earth's most astounding natural treasures

My resolve was weakening -- this was tougher than I'd expected! My wife and I were in Namibia, climbing

Big Daddy, which, at over 350 metres, was reputed to be the highest sand dune on earth. Sunday, our guide, had estimated it would take two to three hours to reach the top. Three hundred and fifty metres may not sound very high, but the ridge seemed narrow, the sand loose and the gradient steep. Now only an hour into the climb, the desert's morning chill had already given way to the sun's fierce heat.

"Namibia -- why would you want to go there?" An American delegate at the IDF 19th World Diabetes Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, had posed this question to me a few days earlier. I might have replied "the Etosha Game Park," one of the best in Africa, or "the Fish River Canyon," second in size and grandeur only to the Grand Canyon, or "the Kalahari Desert," home of the San Bushmen, one of the few remaining hunter/gatherer peoples in existence. But no, for me the attraction was the Namib Desert and the spectacular red dunes that have drawn artists and adventurers from around the world.

This awesome desert landscape is a place of mystery, menace and beauty. It is a desert of superlatives -- the oldest, driest, highest and, with its rust red dunes, surely the most photogenic. It is also home to some of the most uniquely adapted life forms on earth.

Though first attracted to its physical beauty, the more I learned about the Namib Desert the more fascinated I became. The red dunes have their origin in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa from where that country's major waterway, the Orange River, gathers massive amounts of silt to be dumped eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. Strong currents carry the sediment north where it is deposited on the mainland of Namibia, accumulating over aeons to form the coastal dunes.

The growing mass of sand has expanded ever farther into the ocean, such that ancient shipwrecks now seem mysteriously engulfed in desert sand, high and dry from shore. Much of this coastal sand is blown inland, and over time has formed the magnificent drifting sand-sea known as the Namib Desert.

Pale yellow, verging on white near the coast, the sand gradually darkens due to the oxidation of traces of iron within it -- first to a shade of apricot, and then, further inland, to the characteristic rust red of the Sossusvlei dunes. Using a small pocket magnet, Sunday was keen to demonstrate iron particles in the sand. Like us, he beamed: the older it is, the rustier it becomes.

All Creatures Great and Small
Its unlikely origin and stunning beauty are only part of the desert's intrigue. Wind, the master sculptur of the dunes, is also the source of the desert's lifeblood -- sea fog. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Namib Desert is the mysterious ocean fog which regularly blankets the dunes, providing a vital source of moisture to the desert life that, over millions of years, has adapted to survive in such a hostile environment.

The Welwitschia mirabilis plant has a peculiar leaf structure that enables it to exist on fog alone for hundreds of years. Small acacia trees, some of which are also hundreds of years old, have root systems that extend over 40 metres. Beetles dig condensation traps and trenches and one even stands on its head to allow droplets to trickle down its back into its mouth.

Namibia's national animal, the oryx, a large, strikingly beautiful antelope, can survive the brutal desert heat without ever having to drink. Its water requirements are met entirely from succulent desert plants and night grazing, when dry desert grasses are heavy with dew. The oryx also have the remarkable ability to tolerate body temperatures greater than 40°C, so have no need to perspire, thus conserving body fluids.

We left the Kulala Desert Lodge, our base on the outskirts of the Namib Naukluft Park, some time before sunrise so we could catch the best light on the dunes at Sossusvlei -- an area regarded as the jewel of the Namib Desert and home to Big Daddy. Long ago, Sossusvlei (which literally means "marsh of the river that has no mouth") was an area through which the Tsauchab River's seasonal floodwaters flowed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Massive dunes have blocked the river's path so that today Sossusvlei is essentially a vast expanse of high dunes dotted with dried-up clay flats. These areas are parched, except after exceptionally heavy rains which may bring down sufficient floodwaters to penetrate the dune area and fill the plains with lakes.

The Art of Survival
Little in my experience can compare to sunrise on the Namib Desert. The visual poetry of shade, light and line, alongside the sensuality and perfection of the gentle dune curves carved by the interplay of wind and light, combine together to create a masterpiece of overwhelming beauty. It is a scene both stunning and humbling.

Such fantastic imagery soon had my cameras in overdrive -- I could scarcely keep my finger off the shutter buttons. My goal was to make images that would evoke the true spirit of the dunes -- captivating, majestic and menacing. Their hypnotic beauty, with soft sensual contours, and warm, soothing colours, belied their deadly potential. How could anything survive in this vast, primitive ocean of red sand? And yet we saw signs of life everywhere, including beetles skimming across the sand surface, tracks of gerbils and jackals, springbok and oryx. A "moving bush" turned out to be a male ostrich. Unlikely clumps of thriving green shrubs added dramatic contrast to the sandy slopes, their splashes of colour looking as unreal as the extraterrestrial canvas on which they found themselves. Had I been a snowboarder rather than a photographer, I would have found the curves and slopes just as irresistible. Boarders do in fact tackle the dunes at Swakopmund, a town on the coast where sky diving and four-by-fouring attract other adrenaline junkies. Climbing Big Daddy provided us with ample adrenaline. Despite my state of awe at the surrounding landscape, our elevation on the dune began to make me feel a little nervous -- something I hadn't anticipated. I worried about my cameras, one on a tripod, one around my neck and one in a pocket; they would be unlikely to survive a roll in the sand. I figured I wouldn't break any bones, probably just dislocate something like a shoulder or knee. Yikes! The more I dwelt on the consequences of a spill, the steeper and narrower the trail seemed to become. Taking a Peak Suddenly we were then at the peak, tired and thirsty but intact, surveying the extraordinary panorama of a geologic marvel so clearly etched on the earth's surface it is used for calibration purposes by orbiting weather satellites. Wave upon wave of dunes receded to a hazy juncture of sand and sky. Far below we could see a wonderful mosaic of white gravel plains, dried-up clay flats with matchstick trees, and swathes of yellow desert grass. The ascent had taken just under two hours. "Great time!" Sunday exclaimed as he produced juice boxes from his backpack -- what nectar! Sitting atop Big Daddy with warm sand snugly moulding one's anatomy is a sensory experience I highly recommend. More powerful than the physical thrill, however, was a deeply philosophical sense of time, place and belonging. Here in the stillness and deafening silence of the Namib Desert was a spirituality that went beyond religion. How fantastically beautiful and varied is our planet, and how ingenious and fragile and precious is the life it sustains. Another thrill was in store. Sunday suggested removing our shoes on the way down. With every step we would sink in up to our knees, our skin tingling with the sandy contact. As Sunday leapt down the steep dune slope, each sinking step produced a peculiar resonating sound like the deep note of a tuba, the displaced sand flowing like liquid in waves downhill. Taking a different route off the dune, we descended on Deadvlei -- a large, dried-up pan of cracked white clay, parched and lifeless, surrounded by towering red dunes and dotted with tortured, skeletal remnants of ancient camel thorn trees. Hundreds of years old, these trees have resisted decay largely because of the lack of moisture and bacteria. Walking over the pan, we felt like figures in a surrealistic Dalí painting. Back at our vehicle, exhausted but elated, and enjoying a well-earned picnic lunch, a jolly, overweight Australian and his friend approached to ask the way to Big Daddy. "Over there," we said, pointing to what now looked like a smallish dune shimmering in the distance. "You should make it in no time." "Thanks mate," he said, and off they trotted. Good luck, we thought. New Heights Easily accessible from the road, Dune 45 is the best known and most climbed of the Sossusvlei dunes. In early morning light, its perfect shape and dramatic colour make it the most photographed of the Namib Desert dunes. Though breathtaking, its mundane name simply indicates its distance from a central map reference point. We tackled Dune 45 the day after Big Daddy. Now feeling ourselves to be seasoned dune climbers, we were about to discover another challenge. The master sculptor was at work, blowing fiercely over the crests and whipping up the sand to create what is known as "dune smoke." These mini sandstorms came in powerful gusts, making photography a logistical nightmare. I struggled not only to protect my cameras and my eyes from the blowing sand, but also to maintain my balance on the sandy ledge. After a gruelling and gritty climb, we were eventually at the summit. The wind had miraculously abated. I happened to think (aloud) what a great composition could be made with a figure running on a distant dune. Before I knew it Sunday was off, and in what seemed an amazingly short time appeared on a distant dune crest. When we left Sossusvlei, we flew west across the breadth of the Namib, heading for Swakopmund on the Atlantic coast. The view of the dunes from 1830 metres in the air was unforgettable. I've shot polar bears in the Arctic, grizzly bears in Alaska, sunrise on the Taj Mahal and sunset over the pyramids. Nothing has captivated and inspired me like the incredible Namib Desert.


Andrew Farquhar is a family physician working in Kelowna, BC. He has previously worked in Australia and the Arctic. An experienced photographer, Farquhar's work has been published in PhotoLife magazine and on the cover of a Canadian Geographic calendar. He is smitten with deserts and has visited the Sahara in Egypt, the Lamu Sand Dunes in Kenya, the desert landscape of Fuerte Ventura in the Canary Islands. He has just returned from a trip to the Sahara in Morocco.

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