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Dune Climbing on the Dark Continent

10/12/2010 11:19 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are at least five sand dunes in the world with base-to-summit heights above 1,000 feet. Cerrro Blanco, in Peru's Sechura Desert, is highest (3,860 feet) followed by Mendanoso in Chile's Atacama Desert (1,805 feet). In China's Gobi Desert, there's 1,640-foot Badain Jaran, and in Iran's Lut Desert, Rig-e Yalan (1,542 feet).

Fifth on the list is in Africa's Namib Desert: Big Daddy, a 1,256-foot-high monster and the object of this post.

Of my excursions to the dark continent, perhaps the most interesting was to Namibia. There's the country's skeleton coast, replete with its famous shipwrecks, and Walvis Bay, where friendly seals literally jump into tourists' boats. But by far the most interesting area, for me at least, is Sossusvlei and its exotic dunes.

A dune starts small with a bush, say, or a stone--anything that gets in the way of strong desert winds carrying sand. As centuries pass, currents deposit more particles, and the sand piles higher. The longer this goes on, the higher grows the dune.

Wait 30 million years, and you get Big Daddy. A ziggurat of red sand, the thing rises from the parched African earth to the height of the Empire State Building. Above is the deepest of blue desert skies; at its base is a sea of golden, talc-like clay. The sharp contrast of the three colors reminds one of a giant Rothko painting.

Climbing Big Daddy, however, is not like climbing a Rothko, which must be a great deal easier. First you've got to get yourself to Namibia, sandwiched between Angola and South Africa. We flew 15 hours from New York to Johannesburg, connecting there to a two-hour flight to Windhoek, Namibia's capital. From Windhoek it's still another hour in a small charter plane to Sossusvlei, but the ride, with the sea of dunes undulating below, is supernaturally beautiful.

Since shoes are clumsy and tend to fill with sand, you normally climb dunes in bare feet. So you want to start early, before the sun heats up the sand to well over 130 degrees F. Wake-up for us was 4:30 a.m., as Big Daddy was still a good two-hour drive from camp. Climbers ascend in one of two ways: along the long, gradual ridges leading to the summit or straight up the 65-degree slipface. Most of the few hundred people who try each year choose the former. We chose the latter.

From the start it was tough going. Locals say that most climbers who quit do so within the first 100 feet. I can see why. For every step up, you slide back at least half that. You quickly learn to go up on all fours, like a giant spider, using your hands as anchors so your feet slide less. Like with mountain climbing, you also learn not to look up -- the top never seems to get any closer. I took to counting steps. First I tried 40, then rested. Too many. Then I tried 20. Too few. Finally I fell into a rhythm of 30 steps, a minute's rest, 30 steps, a rest, and so on.

An excruciating hour later we were on top. The view looks well, other worldly -- something like that from the red planet. For miles in all directions hundreds of red dunes, all shorter than Big Daddy but still imposing, fill the horizon. Pitch-black shadows alternate with an intense palette of bright reds. We posed for some quick photos, then it was time to go down. The sand was already beginning to heat up, you see, and with it our bare feet.

The descent was easy. A combination of "dune surfing," sliding and just plain stumbling had us back to the base in seven minutes, our feet giving off comical, seal-like squeaks as they rubbed against the sand.