If you ever vacation in Namibia - an outlandish choice but a very good one - you should strongly consider setting aside three days for a trek with Tok Tokkie Trails through the Namib-Rand Reserve. In this stunning but superficially inhospitable place, you may see life whose power is heart-stoppingly obvious - like a leopard surprised at the waterhole where your trek begins. You will almost surely see an oryx (or fifty), whose beauty is similarly grand and impossible to ignore. At night your eyes can travel the Milky Way the whole breadth of the southern sky, while a clear day will tempt you never to drop your gaze from the shimmering horizon. Your guide will rescue you from this mistake. His name may be Nico, and his knowledge will be vast. He'll wisely encourage you to adjust your focus to sights of a finer grain.
The founders of Tok Tokkie named the company for creatures whose small size and ungainly looks belie their modest magnificence. Tok Tokkies are a subset of the darkling beetle family, twenty or so species that have "learned" to thrive in the Namib desert. They're not out of Seuss - they came by their comical moniker because they "tok" to each other when they're looking for mates, by tapping their tiny beetle butts on the wind-compacted sands of the dunes they call home. Research into the relative seductiveness of various time signatures remains inconclusive, but we do know that Tok Tokkies have mastered some other fine tricks over the course of their eons-long evolutionary improvisation. Long legs lift their bellies away from the sand and let them outrace the afternoon heat. In the mornings, "fog basking" Tokkies and others perform headstands on the crests of the dunes, facing west toward the chill Atlantic. Mist gathers on their bodies and trickles into their mouths.
When we trekked with our hosts Nico, Agnes, and Willy three weeks ago (a sweetly merry French family joined my stepdad, my husband, and me), we caught the Namibian winter by its tail. Thank goodness for wool underwear and hot water bottles! We awoke from our first night's fitful sleep quite literally frosted over, so it was delicious that morning simply to move and to feel the blood return to our extremities. (I pitied the sluggish Tokkies their lack of internal combustion.) It was also good that we got our leopard sighting done early - we knew we'd already exhausted our given portion of spectacle and this let us relax into a contented curiosity about the small dramas playing out all around us, many of them at our feet. The sands, Nico told us, were the desert's morning paper. They recorded the night's events in a tracery that would become illegible in the next strong wind.
The wind itself makes beautiful patterns on every scale, in partnership with whatever it finds. Nico continually reminded us that these partnerships go beyond the aesthetic. The seeds of "bushman" grass catch the wind by the feathery tips of their long, spiraled stems, and wherever they land they wait, like the Tokkies, for the morning fog. As moisture expands the twined fibers of the stems, they twist and so drill the pointed seeds down into the ground.
I want to take a lesson from this, maybe one about ambition and finding what we're made for (instead of all trying to be big cats). But for the moment it seems enough just to enjoy the peculiar and entrancing shapes that life takes when pressed.
p.s. One of the best uses I've found for my iPhone while traveling has been the recording of audio snapshots, which can be, contrary to the old adage, more evocative than a thousand pictures. Agnes, the talented cook who accompanied us, belongs to one of the Nama peoples descended from the San, a.k.a. Bushmen. (I hope she will correct me if I have gotten any of this wrong.) Her language, like theirs, is sonically rich and full of clicks; her nightly delivery of the menu was a highlight of the trek.