Namibia (Sossusvlei Dunes)

The dunes at Sossusvlei in Namib-Naukluft Park are Namibia’s postcard image, a collection of large, apricot-colored sand mountains with sinuous wind-blown curves that at sunrise are set ablaze in fiery hues offset by deep, wavy shadows. It’s a wonderful abstract canvas.

The dunes are located about 40 miles from the park gates at Sesrium, a little tourist oasis area with a gas station, a bar, a small food store and a swimming pool. There’s lodging near Sesrium outside of the park, and a campsite just within the park’s boundary. I dug deeper into my pocket and opted to stay at the Sossus Dune Lodge, which is located a little further inside the park.

While it’s more expensive than staying in the Sesrium area, the advantages are several: it’s higher-end and has an exclusive feel; the food is excellent; the views of towering sand dunes, stark brown mountains and savannah from the individual lodging huts are incomparable; and you can scoot down to the Sossusvlei dunes pre-dawn and get ready to take photos at sun up, versus having to wait for the park gates to open at dawn if you stay outside of the park. The latter point is of more importance to serious shutterbugs. (The dunes are great for photography at sunset, too.)

Namib-Naukluft Park is one of the world’s largest national parks. It was created in 1978 when two existing parks and nearby government land were joined together. You can spend a lot of time in the park, but my interest was solely on the Sossusvlei dunes, which I first read about in a travel article in 2006. I saved that article and put it in a folder with other travel articles about places that piqued my interest. “Maybe,” I thought as I filed away the article, “I might someday actually get to see the dunes in person.” Well, that day had come as I drove south in the pre-dawn light toward Sossusvlei.

Sossusvlei itself is what’s known as an ephemeral pan that’s normally a bed of dry, cracked mud, but which sometimes contains water. My waiter at dinner the night before at the lodge said I was in luck because there was still water in the pan from an earlier rain, which he said should make for good photography.

The pan is ringed by tall, colorful orange, apricot, red, copper (the colors change as the sunlight changes) sand dunes of the Namib Desert, which is supposedly the world’s oldest desert with an age estimated to be at least 55 million years old. (I’m always dubious about such claims.)

The road to Sossusvlei is paved, which is a very welcome change of pace from the usual gravel roads of Namibia’s countryside. It was almost impossible––no, it was impossible––to adhere to the 60 km/hour speed limit, particularly when I was bursting with excitement to see the dunes. Mountains line the road and are set back at a distance by large buffers of savannah. The plains are peppered by occasional springbok herds, or by a few oryx here and there. The mountains gradually give way to the sand dunes, some of which can exceed heights of 200 meters, or more than 600 feet.

The road ends at the 2WD parking lot, and beyond that is a 5-kilometer, deep-sand trail to the Sossusvlei parking area. My Daihatsu Terios vehicle was the smallest 4WD vehicle I could rent (I was solo and didn’t need much space, and I wanted the best gas mileage possible), and while it was very reliable and had gotten me this far, it wasn’t a vehicle I was confident about taking into deep sand. Nor, for that matter, was I entirely confident about my ability to navigate through deep sand, given my lack of off-roading experience. So I paid N$100 Namibian (US$12.50) for the large, 4WD shuttle. Based on the conditions of the trail, I think I made the right call.

That said, I imagine it shouldn’t take much to “improve” that trail to make it easier to navigate, and I suspect it’s kept in that condition for economic reasons––i.e., it provides employment to the shuttle drivers, and it puts money into government coffers.

Regardless, I got out of the shuttle and hiked a little ways toward a big dune. As sunrise came, the gentle light on one side of the dune turned the sand a copper color while the other side remained dark, creating an abstract scene with sharp contrast between the two sides divided by the dune’s wavy, parabolic-shaped ridges.

I climbed the dune, and it took about 10 minutes of steady, non-stop hoofing to reach the top. Hiking steep ascents in deep sand is one of the best quad-burning workouts there is. The top of the dune offered spectacular views of surrounding dunes in the early morning light.

I hiked up and down another dune and made my way to the Sossusvlei pan, which indeed was filled with water. That made for nice photos as the dune on the other side of the temporary lake was reflected in the water.

As the Sossusvlei area became more crowded, I ventured across the way to Dead Vlei. It was maybe a five- to eight-minute walk to the Dead Vlei parking area, and from there a lengthy walk to the vlei itself, which is a wide, white and dry pan filled with a multitude of dead camel thorn trees. The forlorn trees appear as ghostly images framed by the surrounding dunes. It’s a compelling visual that is one of the planet’s most unusual panoramas.

The landscape in the Sossusvlei area lives up to the hype, but I also got a kick from watching long-legged Onymacris plana, or Narra beetles as they speedily scampered along dune surfaces and left stitches-like tracks across the sand.

I had gotten up pre-dawn to witness nature’s art show at Sossusvlei. But now at sunset, I was enjoying perhaps a more sublime moment: with drink in hand on the deck of my spacious, thatch-roofed bungalow at the Sossus Dune Lodge within Namib-Naukluft Park, I looked out over brown mountains and distant dunes framing a sweeping savannah that shined in the golden sun. A few springbok and warthogs passed by, and the breeze was very pleasant. It was an enchanting scene.

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