Vince drove the Landcruiser in (we took it in turns to drive, since we both like it so much), the sand making humming noises under the BF Goodrich's (which, contrary to advice, we had not deflated, feeling sure they would be capable of Anything) and we stopped several times to get out and look at insect and animal tracks in the morning sand of the dunelets close by, or to climb the messily tussocked rises that characterize this vlei, to get a better view of the big dunes or springbok grazing.
As the free-for-all tracks converged on a final sandy basin, we realized we'd arrived at the last point to which we could drive, parked in the shade of yet another you-know-what-sort-of-tree, and watched a couple camped nearby having their early morning coffee, and being absolutely besieged by the largest flock of the prettiest and most aggressive sparrows I've ever seen.
Give us your buns! This was the tiny swarm that visited us as we wolfed raisin buns for breakfast. We longed for our espresso pot. We could have brought it. We had the gas burner but food had stayed in camp.
Vincent headed for the dunes ringing the vlei, I headed for a shade tree. I was still wearing my fleecy jacket from the morning's cold and felt quite comfortable, but did not want to follow the few human ants ahead of us up the dune's spine.
A small movement drew my eyes to the left. An owl sat on the sand in the shade on the low dune beside me not 15 feet away. I didn't move. He watched me with a very worried, owl expression. Then I saw, in the old camelthorn tree on my right, another owl! I called Vince down in slow-motion and made him look at the sand owl and the tree owl. And suddenly we were looking at three tree owls, ranged above one another. Then the sand owl flew over and joined them. Four owls. Early morning dunes behind, cool shade, and four Cape Eagle Owls contemplating us with orange eyes.
This was when I began to want a real camera. I love my Canon Powershot (SD 880, Jane). Its macro is amazing. It is small and neat and does so much. But it ain't no telephoto.
After Vince had returned to his high dunes I spent about an hour sitting quite still in the shade, watching the vlei below me, the owls above, the lizards living in the trees, going about their lizard business, a bee eater whose emerald feathers glittered in the sun when he danced after insects, to return to his perch beside me, several other birds, not known, ants, and distant springbok.
The floor of Sossusvlei. Cartoon mud. A lone, owl-harbouring camelthorn behind?
We crossed the floor of it and climbed the flank of the dune opposite, where we had seen some springbok grazing on invisible grass.
Sure enough, we looked up into that tree on the opposite side of the vlei bowl and...owl! Yellow eyes and smaller stature indicating that it was a Spotted Eagle Owl this time, not Cape Eagle. One morning, five owls.
I saw gemsbok spoor heading down the dune, probably long before we got there, but very soon we saw...
I let Vince get closer to him with his better lenses, and did what I do when I am anywhere new. Looked down. Lots of miniature grassy things in the dune, and not as dead as one would think. The antelope were eating something, after all.
The green tips meant there had been some rain. The grass was absolutely close-cropped. But the tips were new.
And the grass meant business. At no more than two inches high, it had produced flowers. Must. Make. More. Grass. Now.
I coaxed one out. Animals had eaten from a couple lying loose. Could we? Guiltily I picked mine up and carried it back to the car.
Above our head we coudl hear the intrusive drone of a small plane as it showed the dunes below to airborne tourists. An obese German man in cut off T-shirt, his pale, skinny arms hanging disconsolately down beside his massive stomach, itself poised perilously over the abused waistband of a pair of pink shorts, entered the vlei with his large, turquoise summer suit-clad wife. Paradise lost.