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Sossusvlei

“The red sand sea of Namibia, where ancient rivers were absorbed by the desert and became white, clay pans hidden in an ocean of dunes”

Sossusvlei is the number one destination in southern Namibia; the place of the red sand dunes and the highest free-standing dune in the world (yes, you can and should attempt to climb it!) This scenery is not overrated and simply must be seen.

Located within the expansive Namib-Naukluft National Park, Sossusvlei is where the Namib desert sand swallowed up the Tsauchab River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Now, it is where a collection of white clay pans lies hidden in a sea of red waves which stretch all the way to the coast. Entering the park gate at Sesriem, Sossusvlei is 65 km along a tarred road, which winds between scenic dunes the whole way. Dune 45, Dead Vlei and Hidden Vlei are all attractions within the same vicinity as Sossusvlei.

Sossus Dunes

The dunes you see at Sossusvlei are the oldest in the world, geologists say. The Namib-Naukluft National Park, which houses them, is about 50 000 square kilometres in size, making it the largest in Africa. The oldest desert in the world in Africa’s largest national park – Namibia is full of “world’s most” titles and for good reason.

If you’re really up for a challenge, you can take on the task of climbing Big Daddy – the highest dune in the region standing at around 325 metres. Make sure you start early because once the sun starts beating down it gets very hot and climbing a steep, soft dune gets exponentially more difficult. Guides in the know say make sure you reach the top of the dune before 10am or don’t bother!

So much of the desert is unreachable (unless you’re on a specialised, guided 4×4 tour of the coastal dunes), so we highly recommend taking the opportunity to sink your feet into the crest of the accessible dunes at Sossusvlei. Dune 45 is an easier one to climb, located 45 km from the Sesriem entrance gate en route to Sossusvlei itself. The view from the top is breath-taking – dune upon dune for 50 km until the Namib meets the Atlantic.

Speaking of views, if you’ve got a romantic bone in you at all, you’ll book a hot air balloon trip over the dunes. Ballooning at Sossusvlei is a sublime experience and you’ll really get to see the patterns of ancient rivers flowing underground and forming white clay patches between the orange desert swells.

Dead Vlei

Dead Vlei is the most well-known and sought-after attraction at Sossusvlei. It is a photographer’s dream; beautiful in a Tim Burton/Nightmare Before Christmas sort of way. Spindly, skeletal, lifeless tree trunks stand eerily in a white, clay valley between the ochre-coloured dunes. It really is something special to see and as the sun moves overhead, so the shadows cast by the dunes and the naked trees move across the vlei floor.

Just like Sossusvlei, Dead Vlei can only be accessed by 4×4, but don’t worry – if you aren’t travelling in a 4WD, you can jump on with a guide who will drive you expertly through the sand to the actual location. It’s only 5km from a parking lot where you can leave your car safely until you’re finished viewing the famous vleis and climbing the dunes.

Big Daddy towers up alongside Dead Vlei, so climbing the famous dune is one way to see the white pan from above. To get to Dead Vlei itself, you park your car and walk about 1km over some mild dunes (still, those calves will burn) and emerge in the basin. Here, you can walk on the hard clay ground, inspect the old trees and marvel at the huge, wind-carved dunes around you. It’s all quite awe-inspiring.

Sunrise at Dead Vlei is particularly interesting for photographers and staying at accommodation inside the park gives you an extra hour for this activity and before the ‘crowds’ arrive. Ask us for recommendations!

Sesriem Canyon 

The Sesriem Canyon is nothing in comparison to the Fish River Canyon at only 1 km long and about 30 m deep, but it is a worthwhile stop when you’re visiting Sossusvlei. Right on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park and only 4.5 km from the Sesriem park entrance, you won’t see this deep groove in the ground until you’re upon it. What’s pretty special is you can climb down into it and walk along the floor of the narrow canyon where the Tsauchab River occasionally flows.

The canyon was formed two million years ago, carved into the rocky landscape by the Tsauchab before it met its demise in the dunes and formed Sossusvlei. As you walk along the canyon floor, you’ll see large boulders embedded in layers of finer gravelly rock and even sand. What you see is pretty much the physical evidence of the different stages of life of the Tsauchab River – sometimes it was powerful enough to carry big rocks along with it, and other times it only flowed strongly enough to deposit sand and gravel. So, the layers formed.

To the Coast

The distance from Sossusvlei to the Atlantic Ocean is only 50 km westwards, although you’d never guess when you’re standing in the oppressive heat of the desert surrounded by nothing but sand! This great big sandpit that stretches to the sea is the Namib Desert and the best way to see it in all its glory is from above, in a scenic charter flight from Sossusvlei to the coast.

There is no shortage of accommodation in the Sossusvlei area and the great places like andBeyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, Kulala Lodge, and Sossusvlei Lodge have private airstrips, which will set you up for an epic scenic flight from the red dunes to the Atlantic coast. A one-to-two-hour round trip will take you in a Cessna or even a helicopter all the way to Sperrgebiet – or “forbidden coast” – an old diamond mining area along the coast littered with shipwrecks. There is simply no better way to grasp the vastness of this unique land that is the Namib.

Solitaire

If you blink, you’ll miss it. Solitaire could easily pass as an abandoned fuel station in the dusty desert, but in fact it’s hard from abandoned and is really the only place to stop and refuel (the tank and the belly) en route from Sossusvlei to Walvis Bay. Rusty old car skeletons, outdated petrol pumps and a water tower are almost the only things that indicate any activity at this little junction, and that’s just what makes it so appealing.

Solitaire has been a pitstop for travellers since 1949 – a little oasis on the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park – and it still offers a sweet little bakery (apple pie not to be missed), a good restroom, fuel, and a convenience store where you can stock up on car snacks and maybe something of a souvenir. These days, there are even accommodation options and an activities desk for those interested.

Stop, take a couple of Instagram-worthy photos among the rusty old cars, buy something baked the traditional German way, and see if you can spot Kalahari the resident tortoiseshell cat!

Travel tip:

You won’t need more than a day to see Sossusvlei, Dead Vlei, climb a big dune, so no need to allocate more than two nights to this destination, but if you’re checking in to one of the lodges, we recommend taking some more time to try some of the awesome desert experiences on offer. E-biking, helicopter tours, dune driving, hiking, and guided walks are all superb. For photographers a stay of at least 3-nights are recommended to give plenty of time to get those golden hour shots.

When to Go

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Why we like it

  • This THE place of the iconic highest free-standing red sand dunes in world!
  • Photographers will be spoilt for choice as the desert landscape unfolds around you. Sunrise is a MUST!
  • There are plenty of good accommodation options within minutes of the park gates, even some inside the park giving you an extra hour at sunrise…
  • You can climb the dunes, some over 300m high! (warning: challenging).
  • Guides with 4×4 game viewers easily available for those who are in 2WD vehicles to get you close the dunes.

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