The Namib is the oldest desert on earth. It may also be the most beautiful. Hidden in what was once a little-known corner of Namibia, between the wild Skeleton Coast and the gravel-faced Naukluft Mountains, the Sossusvlei dunes come close to sand-dune perfection. For centuries the wind here has sculpted sharp ridges of sand that form faultless arcs rising from valley floors to heights over 300m/984ft. Each one is different, and each is constantly being remade by the wind. It is a world in motion, of sand dunes that seem to go on forever, one sand summit after another beyond the far horizon. It is the desert that we dreamed of as children.
The isolated desert outpost of Sesriem is the gateway to Sossusvlei. Reaching here involves long, lonely roads across an often-empty land. The town itself is 321km/199mi southwest of Windhoek and 344km/214mi southeast of Swakopmund, and it is somewhat underwhelming. Sesriem settlement revolves around two essential functions: the petrol station and the park office for Namib-Naukluft National Park.
The park office is where you pay your park fees and obtain your entry permit. Accommodation possibilities in the town itself are few, but numerous choices lie scattered for miles around, often far from the town itself. The best of these options have glorious views of the Sossusvlei dunes that rise like ramparts southwest of Sesriem.
When you think of the sand dunes of Namibia, you’re probably thinking of Sossusvlei. Queues form well before dawn at the park entrance. The road that carries you into the world of dunes follows the path of the dry Tsauchab River, a narrowing expanse of table-flat sand with sand dunes rising from either side. At the northeastern end of the valley, Elim Dune requires a 5km/3mi detour. Mark this one for later in the day as this is the best summit from which to watch the sunset.
Further in, side roads leave off the paved road to the base of dunes, one after the other, waiting to be climbed. Dune 45, so named because it is 45km/28mi from the Sesriem entrance, is one of the more popular. Further west again, the 2WD car park is the starting point for shuttle services that go further into the dunes to the west. The car park is also the start of the walk to Hidden Vlei. This 4km/2.5mi return hike over the sands is marked by white posts and takes you into an eerily desolate bowl, surrounded by some of the highest of the Sossusvlei dunes. By the time you reach the 4WD car park, back in the main valley or pan, dunes crowd in all around.
If you were drawn here by images of charcoal-black skeleton trees across a sheet of sand, all signs of life dwarfed by golden mountains, Deadvlei is your place. This is the defining image of the sand dunes of Namibia, and one of the signature shots in all southern Africa. At midday the scene is apocalyptic. The white-hot sand in the glare of the desert sun looks for all the world like an over-exposed photograph.
The silhouetted trees like petrified echoes of life in a wasteland of frightening power. In deep contrast, early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the warmth of the golden sands and the relief of lengthening shadows brings depth and a wholly different dimension to the experience. And it’s in Deadvlei that you can see Big Daddy Dune. At 325m/1,066ft high, Big Daddy is the highest of the Sossusvlei dunes.
The sandy track to Deadvlei begins at the 4WD car park and is signposted. It’s a 3km/2mi-return walk.
Off on a side road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei, Sesriem Canyon is a wonderful complement to the big horizons and moving sands of the sand dunes elsewhere in Sossusvlei. Deep, narrow trails cut between the canyon’s vertical cliffs, snaking through an otherwise impenetrable mass of mountains rising from the desert floor. Sesriem Canyon is like nowhere else in the Namib, with strange rock formations, secluded pools of water and a labyrinth of trails.
Sometimes the experience is claustrophobic as the walls appear to crowd in ever closer. At others, the feeling is one of intimacy. A secret world of shade and shadows hidden away in the heart of a desert that extends from here for hundreds of miles in most directions. The canyon is made from sand and gravel that have merged and solidified down through millions of years. There is an air of permanence here, a feeling that is impossible out amid the shifting sands.
When to Go
High season runs from July to November, and this is when accommodation costs are highest and crowds are at their peak. This is also when desert temperatures are at their mildest. Outside of this, May and June can be a good option. Temperatures have begun to cool, and many lodges and tented camps offer lower rates for accommodation. For the rest of the year, expect soaring temperatures, which will severely limit the amount of time you’ll want to spend out among the dunes.
The gate into Sossusvlei Pan at Sesriem opens at sunrise and closes at sunset. The only way to get in before that is to stay at Sesriem Campsite or the upmarket Sossus Dune Lodge, both of which lie inside the park boundaries. These are the best possibilities if catching the best morning or afternoon light is your priority. That said, the advantage is small because driving inside the park before sunrise and after sunset is not permitted. All you’re avoiding by sleeping inside the park is the queue at the gate. However, this can involve dozens of vehicles in high season. If not staying in the park, make sure you are back at the gate before the sun dips below the horizon.
Plan of Attack
There are many ways to plan your visit through Sossusvlei. We suggest you drive to your furthermost destination (e.g. the 4WD car park) as fast as the speed limits and obligatory photo stops in the morning light en route allow. This will improve your chances of having good photographic light at places like Deadvlei. Coming back, plan to be within striking distance of the gate, or somewhere like Elim Dune, a couple of hours before sunset. This will allow you to enjoy the views nearby, rather than wasting some of the best light driving back from further down the pan.
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