In 2001, I fulfilled a dream and traveled to Africa. Our small group toured Namibia by Land Rover, visiting wildlife reserves, massive orange dunes, arid diamond fields, and quaint coastal towns. Later we would stay at a camp in Zimbabwe and ride elephants and stand in the spray of Victoria Falls, but those first hypnotic days on the open road gazing at the Namibian landscape, with giraffes clubbing among the camelthorns or pale chanting goshawks soaring like ghosts above the savanna or a lone hyena step-and-hitching parallel to our truck for miles, remain with me even now.
I got to take the controls of a Cessna on that trip. We went for a twilight boat ride down the Zambezi among a herd of hippos. One day we saw flamingoes in the morning and penguins in the afternoon. But my favorite memory of Africa was the evening spent at a ghost town out in the Namib Desert called Kolmanskop.
The little German village, built in 1908 for diamond miners and their families, was abandoned in 1954. In the years since, the desert has been slowly reclaiming its own, swallowing homes, the hospital, school, ballroom, and other buildings. The glass in most windows is gone, doorways are filled almost completely with sand, wood floors are rotting, and plaster is cracking and turning to powder in the relentless heat and wind.
Our group was allowed free run of the place, our guides promising to pick us up after a few hours. We explored the dusty grounds and crumbling buildings, taking photos and marveling at how grand the town must have been in its heyday, yet how remote. I was fascinated with the rooms filled so high with sand, nervous as I crawled through a cramped doorway, thinking about cave-ins.
As dusk fell, my friends headed outside to wait for our guides. I wanted to stay longer, absorb more of the atmosphere. In the mayor’s house, I carefully made my way up creaky stairs to the second floor. The floorboards were broken through in many places; in the dimming light, I could see the first floor below. At a window, I waved to the others outside.
The sudden surge of loneliness, foreboding, and menace hit me like a hard wind. My skin prickled. I was aware of a presence on that second floor. Whoever—whatever—still lived in the shifting sands and empty rooms of Kolmanskop was fine with visitors during the day. But when night came, this place belonged to them, and they didn’t want me there.
I was afraid to turn from the window, to see who was sending me such hateful feelings. But it was getting darker by the minute. I said it out loud, emphatic: “I’m leaving. Thank you. Be well. I wish you well.” My eyes wide in the dark, I shuffled past the gaps in the floor and stepped cautiously down the stairs and out to the yard. And took a shaky breath before joining the group.