Africa is a huge continent. The United States could fit inside a fraction of it; the Sahara Desert alone is the size of the U.S., and below it unfolds the enormous territory of Sub-Saharan Africa – the iconic Africa of elephants and lions, gorillas and chimpanzees, and the roots of human evolution.
My third trip to Sub-Saharan Africa I spent in Namibia … once part of the country of South Africa, now its own large and desolate country; I read somewhere it’s the second-least populated on the planet (after Mongolia). Much of it lies flat and nearly barren, other areas are covered in deep red sand dunes and desiccated like an earthen mummy, and I can't remember now if I ever saw clouds in the sky or not.
Even the moon seemed disproportionately large. One time when we were driving toward it, the entire horizon was a moon; it seemed as though we were going to drive right into it – we’d be eating lunch in a crater. Turns out parts of Namibia in fact conjure the word "moonscape" in one’s mind. (see my post on the dead vlei ...)
Watching the sun set there is like watching it set on the ocean – you can watch the sun be swallowed by the horizon, like a snake swallowing a rat. During the day if you stare at the sun you can’t depict its movement, it’s like watching a starfish cross the ocean floor. But when it contacts a perfectly flat horizon, you feel you are seeing the inner workings of the universe, like the gears of a watch have been exposed. Do you know what 950 miles per hour looks like? It looks like a sunset in Namibia. It’s weird to think it’s our planet spinning – nay, whirling like a dervish – that pulls the sun down. (Roughly 950 mph was calculated with the approximate median latitude of Namibia)
But there are the sizable oases, patches and hills and terraces of green when the water table rises closer to the surface, where wildlife finds refuge and humans have lived for a vast stretch of time. A crowded waterhole, a San bushman …..
Namibia feels to me like a sacred place, a place that compels one to contemplate size in relative terms along both axes of dimension – space and time. You know that peculiar feeling you get at the back of your neck when you are on the edge of something profound … that’s how I often felt. Humans and animals have co-existed throughout Africa since the advent of humanity, so there is nothing unique about Namibia in that regard. But somehow in this particular shared space, this shared length of time, the curtain is thin – the past doesn’t fall into a void behind you but waivers all around you. As much as your body penetrates the space in which you stand and move, time penetrates your body as though it is the corporeal entity moving through the space of your body.
In the wide open spaces of Etosha National Park I found a contradiction in feelings of size. Sometimes the landscape dwarfed the animals and painted a portrait of aloneness – somewhat sad, somewhat heroic.
Other times the large mammals loomed –magnified by the lack of other landscape features for context. Where I saw them in Uganda and South Africa, they typically shared their space with the topography of trees and bushes in close proximity. But in much of Etosha there was just flat land, sometimes all the way to the horizon, or only a tree or two to break it up. In the other countries, elephants could suddenly pop out of the bushes, or even suddenly disappear into them, but in Etosha they often materialized slowly, perhaps a cloud of dust foretelling their arrival as they mosey closer.
This slow “materialization” was a fun feature in Etosha. It must be even more pronounced on the great savannas in Kenya and Tanzania, but I (sadly) haven’t been there to witness it. So in other places I’ve been, the animals emerge from the thickets fully sized, fully formed, but here they start as a mystery and evolve slowly from a spot on the horizon, growing larger and larger. Sometimes the dot grows until it is towering above you.
But sometimes the dot grows only as big as a sweet little rhino – a youngster playing in a waterhole at sunset.
And sometimes a dot in a sand dune that you have to squint your eyes to see it wiggling and wonder at first if it is really moving closer to you, climbing uphill, turns out to be a child of poison in the sterile pile of sand.
And among this all, the modest size of humans. Technically, we can measure up to some of the antelope species, to jackals, lion cubs, a number of birds. But mostly, such tiny creatures we are in the African theater … entering the world to fit in the mere footprint of an elephant.
But our tiny little feet grow. They grew long ago to walk vast distances driven by need or by curiosity, we’ll never really know. They walked, so to speak, all the way to where I live in Colorado. It feels good to fly back to that ancient birthing ground of species large and small, returning like a boomerang thrown long, long ago, to bask in the sun and bathe in the moon, my long brown hair fluttering in the breeze behind me.