Before us stand the skeletons of camelthorn acacia trees that flourished before Vasco da Gama made his way around the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century. The cracked whitish basin, or pan, on which the acacias are still rooted is appropriately named Dead Vlei. On three sides, reddish-orange sand mountains rise as high as 300 meters. Our group is in the midst of Namibia's dune sea, more than a 400-kilometer drive southeast from the coastal city of Swakopmund. The Namib Desert extends in a strip 2,000 kilometers long and up to 150 kilometers wide down the southwestern African coast.
The sand heaps that tower immediately over us are star dunes. The wind blowing from multiple directions gives them right-angled ridges. When viewed from an airplane or a balloon, they assume the namesake shape. If you've seen one dune, you haven't seen them all. Namib cousins of star dunes bear names like parabolic, transverse and Barchan (crescent-shaped). According to comparative dunologist Nicholas Lancaster, a research professor at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., satellite imagery reveals that the same types of dunes can be found in Saudi Arabia and southern California, in addition to Namibia.
This article was originally published with the title Desert Metropolis.