We’re driving the Land Cruiser down a dry riverbed. All week we’ve been tracking rhinos, up in the heartless desert above, following the miracle of them, but today we have left their country—one of the driest places on earth, the Namib Desert, where only an inch or two of rain might fall each year—and we’re cruising the sand-wash beneath the cool shade of mopane trees, looking at elephants, giraffes, oryx.
In certain places—the ghost-eddies of where the river once flowed, and where it will flow again—heavier cobbles have settled, so that an inlay of water-polished dark stones lies packed beneath us, and for a few moments it is like driving on the brick streets of Paris, with sun and shadow stippling us—and then the ghost-river’s signature changes, and we are deep once more in the silken whisper of sand, and we feel immediately the greater reflected heat.
In other places—the shallower places, closer to the shore—fantastic polygons of dried mud-cracks shelve and overlap one another like scales of shed reptilian armor, or like a surreal collection of china and dinnerware, the curled plates and cups still darkened from last week’s rainy season.
Elsewhere, crystalline salt patches sprawl gleaming like pools of spilled paint, around which butterflies congregate by the dozens, feasting, gathering the minerals and nutrition that will help empower them to return to the desert floor above, to aid in the pollination of so many desert plants and flowers, upon some of which the rhinos graze. From a distant enough perspective, I suppose a viewer could say that a butterfly is a rhino, or that a blossom is a rhino; and that a flooding, charging river of tumbling, clacking boulders and cobbles, drying weeks later to the sheen of hard-baked salt pan, is a rhino: for all of these things, great and small, conspire to create a rhino. In this made and healthy world of Namibia, it may be that there is nothingthat is not a rhino—and yet we almost ran out of rhinos.
In the blood-red plains of basalt above, remnants of the old fire of the world, now cooled, the giant black rhinos wander, the last 92 of their kind in Namibia, having inhabited that desert— the place no one else wanted, the place where almost nothing else could survive—for 50 million years or more, without interruption. The country is so harsh that the dominant vegetation is the toxic, latex-based Euphorbia bush—but somehow the rhinos (perhaps by virtue of their size) survive on it; and somehow they can travel two, even three days without water, with ground temperatures rising above 120 degrees.
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