I feel as if I’ve stepped into an abstract painting. The landscape is composed of three stripes of intense color—off-white, rusty orange, and a rich blue. Clay, sand, sky. In the foreground, the skeletal forms of long-dead trees—just trunks and branches, no leaves or twigs—lend a surreal touch. No wind blows; no bird calls. The place is silent. Still. Apart from my husband and myself, there is no one.

We’re in Dead Vlei, one of the most celebrated places in the great sand sea of the Namib Desert, in southern Africa. Vlei is Afrikaans for “seasonal pool.” Centuries ago, a river flowed here, and the trees grew. Then the river changed its course, leaving the trees to die. Because the climate is so dry, they didn’t rot, so they stand here still, ancient relics surrounded by some of the planet’s largest and most spectacular sand dunes.