Through the haze I could barely make out what I felt must have been the living room of the house I grew up in. Through it came my cat, careening through the air. With a chirp he collided with something flying through the air. Both creatures tumbled back to the misty earth, and suddenly the cat was gone.

“What did he run into?” said the woman. She was an apparition, a golem of a former lecturer.

The fog of imagination parted, and on the floor was a bird. It stood up, several feet in height and regarded us. It might have been some sort of owl, its feathers were black and its head rounded, like some unholy beanie. Two other things hindered its classification. For one, it spoke to us, in some extravagant but inscrutable language. For the other, its beak protruded from an extensive cavern. One eye was missing; where the other should have been firmly situated sat a fleshy stalk that supported an eye that swivelled as it tracked us.

“Que pasa pájaro?” said the woman. I turned back to the rot-infested thing as it waddled out the front door, it turned once and suddenly was seven feet tall, an avatar of avian death, with razor teeth lining an awesome-sized beak. It beat its wings for a moment and cackled. It looked at me, then turned its head to the sky and unleashed a cry like shredded paper, an anguished sortie on my sleeping eardrums. As this demonic cockerel crowed, a million litres of ash seeped from its feathers. Life’s palette shrank as the ash of ancient death covered all I could see.

* * * * * * * *

I coughed. My voice rasped in the dry air.

“What time is it?”

“Mmmm?”

I coughed again and grunted.

It took me a few moments to locate my phone, its alarm buzzing.

“It’s six already. We should get up.”

Christina rolled over, slowly blinking awake. “Ok,” she said.

I peered at the slatted window blinds. It seemed to me that light was already seeping in. Jesus, I thought. The sun must have already come up. How could it have? We’re to the west of Malawi, and it would still be dark there.

I thought a little bit harder about it. Eventually my eyes adjusted, and I could see that I had been fooled by the porch light reflecting off the concrete floor. It was still night.

I lurched out of bed and looked out into the darkness. I could see the dry desert grass slowly waving in the wind. Off in the darkness, the dull silhouette of the nearby mountain brandished the moon’s faint rays.

“I thought it was light already.”

“Mmmmm?”

“I saw the porch light, through the front door, and thought it was light already. It’s still dark.”

“Oh, ok,” she said, sleepily.

“We don’t have much time until they start serving breakfast. Who knows how long we’ll have until the sun comes up.”

Groggily she acquiesced and we struggled on our hiking clothes.

* * * * * * * *

We walked down the gravel path from the lodge to the car park with a set of packed breakfasts in hand. A chorus of crickets celebrated the coming morning. Christina unlocked the door of the Nissan pickup and, letting me in, started the engine. We reached the gate of the lodge and, after a moment’s hesitation, took off north, towards the Sossusvlei gate.

We drove for some time in silence, save for the clack of granite chips off the bottom of the truck. After we reached the gate turn-off, I glanced in the rear view mirror.

“The sun is coming up.”

“Do you want to stop?” Christina said.

“Sure, just give me a second.”

As the truck pulled off the road, two vans roared by, packed with eager tourists, kicking dust up into the air.

“Ugh, so much for the photo.”

I waited a few moments and snapped a couple of photos of the rising sun, before we jumped back in and continued towards the gate.

As the sun continued to rise the harsh grey landscape began to soften. The red peaks of the surrounding mountains erupted as the light spilled over the horizon. It felt deeply primordial out there, the only exception being the plumes of dust rising from the increasingly traffic’d road. We eventually arrived at Sesriem, the small group of buildings that comprised the entrance of the national pack. The tour vans, having an arrangement with the park, zoomed through. We had not yet paid our entrance fee, and so the black police official, dressed in desert fatigues and sporting a clipboard, waved us over.

“Right, how many are you?”

I looked at Christina. We answered.

“Two.”

“Just for the day?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you from? Are you Swedish?”

“No, actually, I’m Danish and he’s English,” said Christina.

“Ok”

“But we live in Malawi,” I said with earnest.

“Really?” The policeman gave us the astonished response we had already met with some frequency there. To those of Namibia, Malawi sounded far away, dangerous and primitively poor. “Is that, is that SADC?” he said.

“I’m pretty sure it is,” I said, “Why?”

“Well, SADC members get a discount. That will be 112 Namibian dollars.”

“Sure” we handed over the money.

“Is this car a 4×4?”

“No only two.”

“You’ll have to park at the 2×4 car park, about sixty kilometres in. There are shuttles from there.”

“Thank you.”

We pulled back onto the tarmac and sped off to the west.

* * * * * * * *

“Can you see it?”

“Where?”

“Right there, there are the dunes.”

And there they were. The toppled fossils sat frozen in the desert wind, gloriously refulgent in the morning sun like great armoured beasts left to rot on the battlefield.

We pulled over next to the first giant, taking some time to wander around its base, tracing animal tracks in the red sand. We had breakfast in its shadow, before continuing on.

The road ahead was direct and distinct against the smooth, precisely obliterated landscape. There would be a turn here and there, but this did nothing to alter the patience of the horizon, evenly rippled by dunes. Eventually a particularly prominent one jutted out to the road invitingly.
“Is this Dune 45?”

“I imagine that’s what the sign ’45’ means.”

We pulled up to the exposed dune, where a jumble of cars and buses had assembled. A few dozen people stood around taking pictures, while a few were slowly trekking up the spine of the dune, leaving it spotted with footprints, like a tattoo.

We got out of the Nissan and look around. The immediate radius was being patrolled by crows, black and white and similar in appearance to the Malawian breed. They waited for a rejected morsel to come their way.

We clambered up the ridge of the dune, which also is more difficult than expected. As our feet compressed the trail of sand, the edges spilled out over the side of the dune, creating minute waves which grew fainter the further away they got. We got to the local plateau and took some photos. There was a path perpendicular to the dune, down to the desert floor. Christina opted the slow way down, while I ran down the side of the dune. Sand filled my shoes as I leapt metres at a time, shouting in the wind whilst dodging the brittle, dry bushes which were spread about the base. I met Christina at the bottom. She had lost an earring when she pulled off a sweater. We searched for it for some time, but eventually left it to the stones.

* * * * * * * *

“Follow the stakes,” the shuttle operator said. “I’ll show you where the first one is.”

Rotund and sporting khaki, his boots pattered in the grittled parking lot. We stepped over the rope periphery, beyond which there was nothing both desert, save for a half-dozen ramshackle latrines. The surrounding air smelled like dry dung. We followed him to the first stake. He motioned forward.

“The next one is dead ahead. When you reach a stake, you should always be able to see the next.”

We thanked him and continued into the desert. My sneakers squeaked across the uneven mix of blasted rock and sand. The crisp morning had long since given way to the unrelenting midday heat. I wrapped my jumper around my head, securing it with my hat.

Many manners of desperate creatures roamed the sands. Mincing beetles and determined lizards darted across the landscape’s windy furrows, into and out of the hidden tunnels of the dunes that began again to rise up around us, as if the sinking mirage of the car park had encouraged the great beasts to sit up and surround us once again.

As we trekked on the sand gave way to a flinty meadow, a series of platformed rocks sewn with trenches, like a series of ancient ruins carved out of the desert floor. As I stepped closer I realised that the floor was not stone, but mud, so short of moisture and compact that it felt solid enough for the confusion. The edges of the meandering platforms of earth were crumbling, and their faces were crackled with dehydration.

We left the remains behind and continued on, counting off the wooden we found thrust into the ground. A small party of white tourists crested the dune ahead of us. They passed us, sunbaked and mum, save for a slight gurgle from one of the men as he drank from a canteen he kept holstered at his waist.

The path became more wearisome as we ascended, the sand giving way and letting us sink backwards ever so slightly. Amidst the dunes to our left shuffled an ant of a man, a small black blemish on the red canvas. He walked at the base of the dunes with a tripod slung over his back, occasionally hesitating and drawing out his camera to shoot. As we continued up the path he sank out of view.

After further toil we topped the plateau – actually a meeting point of a triad of dunes. We walked a little further and came to the brim of a vast notch is the desert – a deathly plain speckled with dead trees, frozen in their dying pangs of thirst, some pitched along the desert floor as if they were searching for forgotten dew. From or position the sand fell away sharply towards the shores of the Hidden vlei, which itself stretched out what might have been a kilometer of this flayed basin. The wind, faintly cooing across the vista, spoke for us as we settled on the sand, shoulder to shoulder.

***********

I shifted into gear and pulled out of the car park onto the highway. The asphalt smoldered in the afternoon sun. We had visited the other two famous vleis of the area, and I was now eager to escape the dry furnace we had spent the day trudging through, I shifted quickly and brought the car up to 100 kilometres an hour. The desert was still as we raced down the road, the sun now at our backs.

We were alone on the road, which stretched out before us, incongruous against the wasteland. I glanced in the side mirror. There was, it seemed, some sort of flutter, and then suddenly a clanking, crashing sound. I saw something glint in the light as it pitched off the side of the car into the road. It tumbled and flapped before it stilled.

“What was that?” Christina said.

“I don’t know,”I replied. “I think it was a bird. One of those crows we saw earlier.”

I slowed a bit.

“Are you going to turn back?”

Yes, I thought.

I slowed the car and brought it around. I calmly advanced towards what I expected to be an expired crow.

It wasn’t.

“Oh Matt! It’s your camera!” Christina gasped with horror.

“Oh, fuck,” I said. I left it on top of the car.

We had come alongside the tiny wreck at this point. Christina leapt out of the passenger seat and ran around. She brought the  jagged corpse over to me, which look weathered, but not obliterated. I turned it over in my hands, studying it. My eyes fell on flapping catch for the memory card slot.

“Oh shit.”

“What?”

“The memory card is missing”

I pulled the car over and shut off the engine, getting out.

“Christ, we have to find that.”

Christina nodded.  Without much coordination we each chose a side of the road and paced up and a down, sifting the sand and the light brush with our eyes. Every few minutes a dislodged remnant of the camera was found. A bruised battery caught loitering by a weed. The cylindrical lens casing spotted dancing in the wind.

The first half hour turned up most of the lost pieces, save for the memory card. Christina and I re-oriented ourselves, sweeping the roadside  in tandem, then separate, again and again.

Repeatedly I expressed my frustration, punting rocks this way and that, frustrated at gods of digital photography. The buses carrying the multitude of tourists and suntanned backers began streaming eastward, returning home.

The day began growing late. Without protest, Christina searched with me for the better part of a second hour before we collapsed against the wheels of the truck. My mouth dry and spirit shattered, our memories from the day still fresh, I lost hope. While she had taken some photos from our day of hiking, most of the snaps had come from my camera. We had no time for a repeat performance.

I stood up again and covered the pebbly ground once again as Christina waited. I stopped for a moment and listened, looking away from the road, out to the desert. The wind answered with that soft hum, those unspoken lyrics of indifference drifting across the horizon. The depleted landscape answered with nothing more than I knew already.

It looked back at me as I yielded.

My boots crunched on the ground as I stooped to tie my shoe. I noticed, just next to me, a small green plant. It was sprouting from the side of the road, just barely reaching out of the earth with four little arms. I squeezed one of the arms, and a little trickle of water crept out and ran down my hand.

Christina and I got back in the car and smiled at each other, wearily, as we drifted east.