Perched above South Africa on the continent’s west coast, Namibia is an arid country embodied by its magnificent desert landscapes. Nowhere are these landscapes more beautiful, or more unique, than at Sossusvlei, the vast dune sea located in the heart of the Namib Desert. Here, an unusually high iron content has stained the sand the colour of crushed ochre, so that it contrasts vividly with the deep blue of the African sky. Over five million years, strong winds have transported the sand from the coast and swept them into razor-edged peaks - some of which are amongst the tallest in the world.
The Road to Sossusvlei
The word Sossusvlei translates roughly as “dead-end marsh”, a name cobbled together from the country's Afrikaans and Nama languages. It is an appropriate moniker, because driving the gravel road that leads to the park does indeed feel like approaching the end of the world. On either side, the desert stretches towards the horizon, an expanse of nothingness interrupted only by the silhouette of the occasional acacia tree. Even the trees look alien, their branches disfigured by sociable weaver nests. These amazing birds are undoubtedly one of nature’s greatest architects, working in tandem to create their gravity-defying structures.
Staying at Sesriem Camp
At the end of the road lies the gateway to Sesriem Camp, the only campsite located inside the park gates. For those hoping to experience the dunes at their best, it's worth forgoing the luxury of the outlying lodges and opting for a night under canvas - because only those staying inside the park are allowed to enter the dune sea before sunrise. The camp itself is immaculate, with private sites equipped with a braai area and an electrical point. Hot showers are a short walk away, while a shop sells the essentials from icy bottles of Windhoek lager to bags of bone-dry firewood. As evening draws its cloak around the day, the distant mountains are painted with the blush of sunset.
Sunrise in the Dune Sea
Sunrise and sunset are, predictably, the best times to witness the dunes’ ethereal beauty. Overnight, the heat of the desert dissipates, leaving the sand cold and the air frigid as one packs up camp and joins the trail of headlights making their way into the heart of the park. There is a sense of anticipation in the air, as the darkness slowly recedes and the vague outline of the dunes becomes discernible in the gloom. They are as tall as mountains on either side of the road, but as the cavalcade pushes on into the brightening light, their rusty colours reveal them for what they truly are. Everyone is headed for Dune 45, Sossusvlei’s famous sunrise spot.
The Dune 45 Experience
Upon arrival, the silhouettes of quicker campers already line the dune’s spine, like ants upon the body of some slumbering giant. The air is cold, and tastes sharp as one breathes deeply and begins the ascent. The goal is to reach the summit before the sun breaks free of the distant horizon; but the incline is steep and it’s hard to find purchase amongst the shifting sand. The sense of camaraderie deepens, as everyone there focuses upon the task at hand, and the shared desire to make it to the top before it’s too late. There’s no time to stop and admire the view, so that when the summit is finally reached, the awe of it is sudden and overwhelming.
Spectacular Summit Views
The dune is high enough that the valley below seems a million miles away. The coolness of the air adds to the impression of being on top of the world, and all around the valley’s edges, the dunes spread into the distance. At the moment, they are the colour of burnt copper; but as the sun finally appears in a blaze of fire above the dunes in the east, they are transformed into a kaleidoscope of rose, gold and orange-red. Sunlight spreads its fingers across the valley, and a feeling of immense privilege seeps into the consciousness of all those gathered upon the summit to watch. On the descent, the gathering warmth is tinged with joy.
Other Incredible Sights
With the day now fully risen, the park gates open and people from the outside lodges are free to enter and explore the area’s other treasures. The tarred road from Sesriem runs into the heart of the park and then stops abruptly, with the final few kilometers to sites like Deadvlei and Big Daddy made up of thick sand. Those with 4x4 vehicles and off-road experience can tackle the drive themselves; but otherwise, shuttles offer easier access to the park’s more remote areas. The most worthwhile spots include Sossusvlei, the bone-white pan after whom the area is named; Big Daddy, one of the park’s tallest and most iconic sand dunes; and Deadvlei, home to a thicket of petrified trees.
Of these, Deadvlei is perhaps the most photogenic. Here, a basin formed of fractured white clay stands out in sharp contrast against the red of the surrounding dunes. The sky overhead is indigo-blue, and across the pan the skeletons of blackened trees are fixed in a frozen dance. These trees are relics of a past time, when Deadvlei was an oasis in the desert. When the river that fed the oasis diverted its course, the trees dried up and became the twisted, bare-limbed sentinels that they are today. This is Sossusvlei’s ultimate photo stop, with the trees and the glaring whiteness of the pan itself providing the perfect backdrop for an unlimited number of inventive shots.
There are many highlights of a trip Sossusvlei. There’s the spectacle of sunrise from the summit of Dune 45, or the wonder of sunset from secluded Elim Dune. The sight of the region’s painted oryx moving in single file across the desert landscape is one of Namibia’s most iconic; whilst the challenge of climbing Big Daddy should satisfy the most ardent adrenaline-seeker. Above all, Sossusvlei offers a chance to immerse oneself in an area of pristine wilderness - which is, after all, what exploring Namibia is all about. The area is part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, and can be visited all year round.