Joan Larsen in Wildest Africa: Climbing the Dune

Posted on June 28, 2017


By Joan Larsen

As a child, I whirled the big round globe that graced our living room, with a single finger choosing the countries I would go to when I grew up.  For so many of us, the pictures in National Geographic  fed our dreams… dreams that danced in our heads, refusing to go away.  Ever.

It was up to me to make my dreams come true.  For this one, it would take half a lifetime.

Half a world and a long plane ride away was the mostly undiscovered world of southern Africa … and the home of the oldest desert in the world – the Namib – where the wind has carved the most breathtaking red dunes in the world into shapes and shadows, forming a constantly changing scene as the light plays through them.

Among these giant dunes was the highest and most gorgeous sand dune in the whole world, 1000 feet high, just begging to be climbed.  And I was game to try.

We were in the country of Namibia on the southwest African coast — and one of the three premier wildlife viewing areas of all of Africa (and yes, we spent time in them all), but the first night found us enjoying a “sundowner” overlooking the softly glowing dunes at Sossusvlei, lost in our own reveries as we tried to take in all we had seen.

The next day dawned.  And wildlife would appear as we drove farther into the high desert, posing for our cameras and then disappearing.  Yes, ostriches.  Mountain zebras – a different species of zebra than you see at a zoo – would scamper across miles of parched desert.  Zebras are all striped.  How does a mother distinguish its own baby in a crowd of these animals?  When the baby is born and standing, the mother will stand back far enough – and long enough – to memorize his individual and unique stripe pattern.   After that, she will know him forever.  That is love.

Oryx, singly or in twos – one of the most striking animals on earth – would stop and pose proudly with the vivid dune background.  And then they were gone.


Desert elephants – again a type of elephant you will never see elsewhere – live in the Namibian desert closer to the sea – and notice their longer legs and big feet that are used to dig down for water.   We found a footprint and the scuff of sand tells which way it is going.  I started almost running to follow it and was practically knocked down by the naturalist who said the print was new and the elephant would run for me upon seeing me in his territory!   I decided to heed his warning!

The desert heat goes well over 100 degrees during the day.  The dune is best climbed at dawn and not close to noon, but the sights were too good to miss.

This is what the beautiful climb looks like in its early stages:


And these attractive curvy lines? Under the dune keeping cool and waiting are sidewinder rattlesnakes.  Like us, they cannot stand the burning heat of the top layer so quickly move one part of the body up to cool and then down for a second, making the pretty curves.

What could that sidewinder – who would not expect a human in a million years – be looking for?

This gecko – as cute and colorful as one can get – might be his meal. Notice the huge eyes on the gecko?  He has no eyelids but he has an enormous tongue that finds his only moisture on his own eyes when he wipes his tongue across.

Only a few of us made it to the 1000 foot top of the dune.  NO ONE wanted to take photos by that time, believe me.  We applauded each other, put our hands over our heads, and then ran or stumbled down the best we could, knowing our guide had water by the gallon waiting for us.

At home I have a large sign on the wall:  ELEVATE YOUR EXPERIENCE.  Once again I had done just that.   And if joy comes from the best of life’s experiences, one of them has to be a day of azure skies, vivid red and orange dunes  with smoking sand wisping off their tops, and reaching that peak of sand to be queen of all I surveyed.

That will forever stay with me.



Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home”.