Beating Namibia’s Big Daddy

Ishwar Persad went to Namibia to climb a giant sand dune. Along the way, he discovered a stunning desert ladscape, the ubiquitous oryx, the joys of Windhoek beer — and truly endless horizons

The trek to the summit of  Big Daddy follows the giant sand  dune’s sloping crest. Photograph by Ishwar PersadAdmiring a view of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Photograph by Ishwar PersadThe oryx is an icon of Namibia. Photograph ©ISTOCK.COM/MOGENSTROLLEBig Daddy towers above the desert. Photograph by Ishwar PersadThe author celebrates his conquest of Big Daddy on the white clay pan of Dead Vlei. Photograph by Ishwar Persad

After spending a week in Windhoek, capital of Namibia, we set out on the six-hour journey to Sossusvlei in a bakkie (or pickup truck), equipped with essential supplies: some Windhoek lager and a few boxes of KFC.

I am one of those Trinis who cannot pass up on KFC in any country, and have a secret ambition to sample it all 115 countries where Colonel Sanders has a presence, and write a prize-winning book about it. But that’s another tale.

Located in southwest Africa, Namibia is a former German colony that was later administered by South Africa until independence in 1990. And I was here on a mission: to climb Big Daddy. Before you get the wrong impression, let me explain: the Namib-Naukluft National Park in the Sossusvlei area of the southern Namib desert is Namibia’s most popular tourist attraction. It is Africa’s largest game park, a whopping fifty thousand square kilometres — more than ten times the size of Trinidad. And it’s home to the tallest red sand dunes in the world — of which Big Daddy, standing at 350 metres, is the tallest and most famous.

The park’s landscape is stunning, traversing through rugged mountain ranges and wide desert gravel plains. I was struck by the aridness of the landscape. It was the Namibian summer, when the mercury regularly crosses forty degrees Celsuis — though the lack of humidity and cool nights make it very bearable. And the heat did give me an excuse to grab a Windhoek, the all-natural national beer, brewed in accordance with German purity laws of 1516.

After a couple of hours on the road chomping on my KFC and washing it down with Windhoek (I was the designated drinker), I spotted a small herd of the majestic oryx. Found all over Namibia, including on the coat of arms, this large grey-coloured antelope has striking black and white markings on its face and legs, black side stripes on its flanks, and a long black tail. It looked so different alive than on my breakfast plate earlier that morning, and I made a mental note to desist from any further culinary indulgence in this magnificent creature. Unfortunately, the pledge was short-lived — at the solitary gas station on our route, I bought some oryx biltong (a dried meat snack, akin to jerky). Windhoek lager defeats willpower — it was not the first and would not be the last time on this trip.

Finally we arrived at the well-camouflaged Little Kulala Lodge — home for the next couple of days. I had heard it was on the luxurious side, hosting numerous celebrities, including Chelsea Clinton on her honeymoon. As we entered the thirty-seven-thousand-hectare private reserve, a herd of antelope and a flock of ostriches moseyed by. At the lodge itself, we were promptly greeted by the welcoming staff with cold towels and equally cold drinks. The buildings blended perfectly with the natural desert environment, with eleven kulalas — thatched houses with top-notch in-room amenities, private plunge pools, and the ability to have your bedroom moved to the rooftop so you can sleep under the stars. My first thought was, what if it rains? Silly me — it almost never rains here. A night on the rooftop sleeping under the dense starry heavens absolutely convinced me that this place was a kind of Shangri-la.

As I sipped a couple of sundowners on the large semicircular patio, watching springboks drink from the adjacent watering hole, the thought of the arduous trek up Big Daddy the next morning crossed my mind. Hmm! Maybe I should have an early dinner and call it a night.

But there was no luck with this plan, as the managers of Little Kulala were friends with my travelling companion, and they insisted on taking us to a buffet dinner at the “nearby” Sossusvlei Lodge. A bumpy hour’s drive later, we arrived at this other luxurious retreat. The property has a porte-cochère that takes your breath away, with a stunning red façade and walls made from river-sand bricks, blending perfectly with the surrounding sand dunes.

After obligatory shots of Jagermeister (Namibians and South Africans live on the stuff) and a Windhoek lager, it was time to tackle the non-liquid buffet. To my surprise, there was an actual vegetable and salad station. But my new friends passed it like a full bus, and headed straight for the meats. In keeping with my time-honored “when in Rome” travel principle, I followed suit. There were numerous labelled bowls of seasoned meats to choose from, with a chef waiting to cook selections to your request. And what a selection it was: kudu, springbok, blue wildebeest, oryx, zebra, ostrich, eland, and hartebeest. Did they just make up the names of some of these animals? The bowls of beef fillets, lamb steaks, and chicken breasts were neatly tucked away at the back — not very popular, and for the “vegetarians,” I guess. I thanked my wild meat upbringing in Trinidad, and selected the kudu and eland. Better eat what I don’t know now, I thought, before finding out what they are.

We sat down on an enormous terrace to dine al fresco, looking out on a floodlit watering hole, watching a passing procession of oryx, springboks, and jackals. Tomorrow’s lunch, perhaps? Later, as I lay exhausted in my palatial kulala, snuggled under my thousand-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, I replayed the magical day’s events in my head. What a country! What a place! And I had not even climbed Big Daddy yet.

I awoke at dawn, cursing Windhoek lager, Jagermeister, and myself for the indulgences of the previous day. Feeling slightly better after some strong black coffee and a meaty breakfast, I joined our small group in a 4×4 for a drive across white bleached plains populated with ostriches and oryx, the rust-red towering dunes, and the deep blue wondrous sky devoid of any clouds. We passed the famed and widely photographed eighty-metre Dune 45, which most people settle on for dune climbing. Our guide gave me a look, as if to say, “Maybe you should settle for this one, son — the closest hospital is hundreds of kilometres away.” But as you probably realise, I am not most people, and avoided his meaningful glances.

When we arrived at the base of Big Daddy and looked up at its imposing, towering crest, my slightly constipated look betrayed my state of mind. “If you want to be a man at night,” my travelling companion remarked, “you have to be a man at day.” Somehow I knew this wouldn’t be the last time on this trip I’d hear this common Southern African saying. There was no turning back. Armed with essentials — a cap and large bottles of water, instead of my customary Windhoek — I commenced the labourious trek up Big Daddy’s edge.

After trudging for about an hour, we reached the first plateau. The two other trekkers in my group were pooped, and decided they had had enough. Parched and exhausted, I seriously contemplated turning back with them. Its looked like Big Daddy had kicked my butt.

Then, as if by divine intervention, a solitary, middle-aged lady, who reminded me of Trinidad’s famous marathoner Granny Luces, leisurely scurried past us. I caught her eye and I could tell what she was thinking: “Kitchener was right — ah good-wukkin old ting better than a young ting.” Or something like that.

This was just what I needed for a second wind (or was this my third or fourth wind of the day?). I literally picked myself up, dusted off the sand, and decided to follow this Energizer bunny, even if it killed me. For the next hour I shadowed her footsteps, on sand that was over five million years old, with the midday sun blazing down on us.

I kept muttering under my breath, “Lord, who send meh?” Two things kept me going. I was not going to be embarrassed by this obviously fitter pensioner. And a cold Windhoek lager was not far away. An hour later, I finally made it to Big Daddy’s crest. I had earned myself bragging rights. Impulsively, I hugged my inspirational trekker. We took pictures of each other and of the awesome dune panoramas all around. Even more stunning was the view far below of Dead Vlei — an enormous white clay pan dotted with dark fossils of nine-hundred-year-old camelthorn trees.

Now came a fun part I did not expect. While it’s a two-hour struggle to the top of Big Daddy, it’s only a few minutes’ run down the slip face of the dune to get back to the bottom. I felt like a kid again during my bouncing and exhilarating five-minute race down to Dead Vlei.

Later, as I sat at the foot of the dune, catching some deserved shade and trying to correct the imbalance in my lager-to-blood ratio, I pinched myself several times. In visiting over sixty countries in my short life, this was by far my most surreal travel experience. I wanted to take this moment in forever, and never leave. But I still had another week in this remarkable country, where equally amazing experiences were in store: petting full-grown cheetahs at a conservation camp, hand-feeding ostriches, cruising to a seal colony, chasing a herd of zebra on a farm. No wonder Brangelina and millions of other visitors have fallen in love with Namibia. For once, I thought a tourist board had got their promotional slogan right. Namibia: endless horizons — I couldn’t disagree with that.