At first sight, Namibia is a hot, barren land of sand and rock and gravel, somewhat akin to an oven crammed with broken terracotta. The only life immediately visible was a prepubescent stubble of rust and olive scrub protruding from the pockmarked terrain. I wouldn’t necessarily call the country beautiful, but with time I realised it was more ruggedly handsome, and even the stark, ancient outcrops were softened by the overpowering and infinite blue sky, in the same manner that you can be entranced by that mysterious stranger’s bright eyes.
The sheer expansiveness of the landscape, almost devoid of all life, let alone human habitation, gave a soothing sense of solitude. My South African mobile signal went quiet as I was plunged into the silence of the Namib Desert, the oldest in the world. Beyond the air conditioned bubble of the double-cab truck the stillness of the rocks, dunes, bushes and mountains was soothing after a few hectic days travelling and making preparations in Cape Town. The scenery seemed to whisper: “We have been quiet this whole time, and look! We are still here!”
My sabbatical trip around Southern Africa is like taking a breath for air after the last three and a half years submerged in intensive fieldwork. It comes as no surprise to me that my last year in aid work left me with permanent lines eroded into my forehead. This trip is me slowing down and disconnecting from the things that were wearing me down; not just colossal, earth-shaking events I had experienced, the exhausting office politics and infuriating technical issues, but also the tiny niggles of everyday life that chip and chip away at your energy and resolve. This is me taking the time to enjoy life, to refresh and not worry about all those stupid little things that clamour for your attention from day to day.
But surviving the Namib Desert isn’t only down to patient endurance of the conditions. Likewise, you can’t survive life by disconnecting from it. The desert ostriches I saw had to do more than stick their heads in the sand. As I travelled though the Namib, I realised quickly that there was so much more biodiversity than originally meets the eye. And nature is an arms race.
Everything I saw in the desert had evolved to survive. Plants had roots that broke into the rocks for moisture and nutrients; narrow leaves and thick skins, to retain water – others’ leaves had become needles; some were even poisonous to prevent them from being eaten. Mountain zebras and various antelope picked their way through the gravelly red terrain, knowing how and where to find water, shade and sustenance. Baboons had started scavenging the waste of local villages to the point that scientists had no idea how they survived otherwise. Human society itself had dwelt here since time immemorial, owing its existence to its ingenuity and passing on that knowledge through the generations.
Survival isn’t a passive act. Survival is something that demands your active participation. In essence, survival is success, if you consider that the conditions of the Namib Desert are life-or-death. In more forgiving environments, success – whatever your measure of it happen to be – then demands your active participation. No one is going to hand whatever you want to achieve to you on a plate (otherwise it wouldn’t be an achievement). You have to fight for these things; you have to muster all of your resources, will and abilities, and then apply them in order get where you want to go in life.
In a lot of ways I had just been coasting; I had been like one of those mountains slowly being reduced to a pile of gravel, however ancient and seemingly eternal they might appear to be. I had kind of tumbled from one thing into another, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by chance, seeming to have some kind of momentum until I came crashing to the bottom, stuck in a rut of my own making. Suddenly it became clear that I’d forgotten to be an active participant in my success.
My future plans are still in flux, but there are still things I can be doing, even on this road trip, to make the life I want closer to a reality. This is true for everyone: if you want to succeed you need to adapt, find your niche and then be willing to adapt some more if the conditions change (for better or worse). The simple fact is that life is a desert, and your survival is in your own hands.