The pitfalls of travelling while black, unfit and a woman in the Namibian desert

First published on True Africa

‘There is no use complaining about the heat in Namibia. You’re in a desert for crying out loud. And no one invited you to spend December there, so just get on with it.’ – my internal dialogue as I made my way up Dune 45.

One of my best friends and I had decided against spending yet another festive season in Cape Town. So instead, we booked a 12-day desert safari where we’d visit a different part of the country every single day and end up in the capital, Windhoek, a day before New Year’s eve.

Our tour group, 24 people from all over the world, was a particularly young and fit team.

The night before the hike up Dune 45 – the most photographed sand dune in the world although it does not look anymore beautiful than the other dunes around it – we were sitting around a fire.

Emboldened by the gin and tonic in my hand, I’d told everyone how my friend, Nontando, and I, were basically going to beat everyone up the dune.

Our guide told us there was another dune, much higher than Dune 45, called Big Daddy. And I, of course, said we were going to climb Big Daddy too.

And there I found myself, the following day, sitting flat on the hot sand, not even halfway up the tourist trap and seriously considering making my way back down.

Nontando had long made it up the dune and she was waiting, along with the rest of our group, for me at the top. To be honest, they were really not waiting for me; they were just looking for the perfect spot to catch the sunrise.

The only thing that got me off my ass (besides the hot sand) was the thought of the old woman with the walking stick swiftly making her way through the parking lot would make it up before I did.

I eventually made it up, breathing so heavily that I may have been about to suck up all the fresh air up there. The views were spectacular. The sun kissed the dunes and depending on the direction I was looking, they changed from grey, to yellow and shades of orange.

I took one of my favourite pictures from the trip on that dune. I am wearing my brightest smile realising that I did make it all the way up here yet knowing I’d betrayed how awful I felt making it here. Nontando and I even had time for a handstand when we got to the bottom. There would be more headstands later in the day as we visited the Deadvlei.

Our guide promised that this would be a leisurely walk but having spent a few days with this guy, I was a bit sceptical as to whether we understood these terms to mean the same thing.

Bearing in mind socks were the only barrier between feet and the hot sand, the walk was as leisurely as it could be: we clambered up a few small sand dunes before being greeted by the Deadvlei.

It is a clay pan with dead camel thorn trees sticking out of the hard floor stretched out towards the clear blue sky. The pan was formed when the Tsauchab River flooded with so much water that camel thorn trees started to grow there.

But the climate changed and the sand dunes encroached on the pan, blocking the river from reaching the area, which has trees estimated to be 900 years old.

The dry climate meant the trees have not been able to decompose.

It was the most breathtaking thing I have seen.

But although it was beautiful, and while we were travelling with a group of really chilled tourists, it was hard to escape the fact that we were black and female on a tour mainly filled with white people.

For example, right at the beginning of the tour we were informed by everyone, from the shuttle drivers to our guides that we were probably the first black South Africans to have come on the trip. Was this meant to make us feel proud or to just point out how much we stuck out?

At one of the lodges we visited, we were assumed to be prostitutes from a nearby village, because, apparently, besides the waitresses, those are the only black women who frequent the place.

At one place we checked into, a guy offered me money to ‘spend time with him’. Bizarre. But eventually, we just moved on, ignoring the stares and murmurs and did our own thing. What other choice did we have?

But even that was not as uncomfortable as when we sat around the fire to listen to our guides telling the group whitewashed stories about the history of South Africa and Namibia.

Which also made me think about the travel industry and safaris, in particular. And how these kind of tours allow white people and overseas tourists the nostalgia to look at Africa as a place for Acacia trees, animal safaris and endless landscapes with Toto’s ‘I bless the rains down in Africa’ playing in the background while watching the sunset around the fire (no kidding, this actually did happen).

I can’t imagine visiting Australia, the UK or even the US and not having a single interaction with locals there on my level. It is a bit disheartening that some people’s idea of the real Africa is one that is devoid of residents and they forgo the chance to learn a bit more about who they are.

But even with all of that, you should really visit the dunes. They’re amazing.

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