My Travels: Light and Dark in the Namib Desert

Light and Dark in the Namib Desert

What hit me this year with not a cloud in the sky for five days was the wall-to-wall feeling of light in the Namib Desert. For the last two years I had been blessed with rain and dream clouds, with spectacular orange and red sunsets and sunrises.

Now this time it was not only during the day that we had this light. We were blessed with the energy of the full moon, and there was still wall-to-wall at light at night, with only the stronger stars of the constellations and the planets visible in the night sky.

The best appreciation of light in this special and beautiful place was gained in a balloon flight early on morning. More about the balloon flight later. In fact, I was up later than usual, only 5 a.m., to launch at about 6:15 am.. But that meant leaving Little Kulala Lodge as the orange rim lit up the length of the eastern horizon behind the Naukluft Mountains at 5:30 a.m. and arriving at the balloon launch site fifteen minutes later.

The moon moving down into the earth’s shadow.

What was most impressive about the morning light was not the sunrise, but rather the setting of the full moon, with the softening of the harsh moonlight being burnt away by the eastern warmth.  What follows next with the moon setting in the earth’s shadow is nothing short of spectacular. From the air you can clearly see the dark shadow the earth casts on the horizon in the west as the sun rises in the east. As the moon descends it enters a fuzzy lighter zone called the penumbra, and then finally the dark zone of the real shadow, the umbra. This  point in time, with the sun, earth and moon almost aligned in the heavens but short of an eclipse, is an observer’s delight. It lasted for about fifteen minutes, and is so beautiful I had to remind myself to breath.


Then suddenly it was daytime. The dunes lit up soft red for five minutes and then shadows started falling.


My best moonrise was at sunset a few days earlier, sitting on the dune called Big Mama above Sossusvlei, having recovered from the exertion of the climb and again, waiting with slow breathing for the moonrise.


Moonrise over Sossusvlei
Moonrise over Sossusvlei

The earth’s shadow formed but the umbra was narrower because we were looking over the Naukluft Mountains. The sun set suddenly, with a blush of redness on the dunes and the sudden dimming of the bright eastern light. Unlike the east coast of Africa where the twilight does not exist, here in the desert the twilight lingered for almost an hour. Slowly the earth’s shadow would become night, but before that we saw the orange rim of the full moon rising. In the shadow and the dust of the autumn sky from bush fires over the Kalahari the moon rose like a soft face. I almost recognized it, and smiled to myself, spellbound in the beauty of this light and dark.