It’s official: Namibia is your favourite country on earth. To celebrate, we swoop into the Namib Desert to explore the extraordinary dunes of Sossusvlei
I’ve had pilots of 747s with me who say they taxi along runways at this height!”
André Schoeman wasn’t kidding. Racing alongside our Cessna, several ostriches sprinted across the parched grasslands of Namibia, dust spurting behind them like trails of machine-gun fire. Schoeman, one of the legendary pilots of Skeleton Coast Safaris, nudged the Cessna’s joystick and we climbed back into the sky.
Ahead of us a vivid red gash lanced the horizon. Sinuous ridges of blood-red sand began to seep into the grassland. We had seen the last of the hardy farming outposts with their scrawny wind pumps. The land was yielding to the Namib. Soon we were skimming along the scimitar edge of a huge dune, the first in a scorched sand sea stretching 100km to the Atlantic.
Landing on a gravel airstrip at Sesriem (a campsite, petrol station and little else) we set off by Land Rover along the Corridor, an ephemeral riverbed hemmed in by dunes over 300m high and sculpted by desert winds into graceful S-curves and meringue-whips.
An hour later the road fizzled out in the desert. Parking the Land Rover in the shade of a camelthorn acacia, we began climbing the nearest dune. Its surface was dimpled with animal tracks – a desert dialogue of mini dramas that Schoeman read like a newspaper.
It was hard to ignore the bigger picture though. Pigeon-stepping towards the dune’s summit, we looked down on an extraordinary scene – a shallow lake of cerulean water, legacy of recent floods, nestled in the curvaceous folds of giant, apricot-coloured dunes. Sossusvlei: the perfect oasis.
Sossusvlei (‘sossus’ meaning ‘place of no return’) is a clay pan located in the vast Namib-Naukluft National Park, originally proclaimed in 1907. Apart from a brief period in the 1950s when it attracted diamond prospectors, Sossusvlei has long been Namibia’s favourite tourism pin-up. Its star-shaped dunes are among the highest in the world, with some exceeding 325m. Other striking features nearby include the narrow gorge of Sesriem Canyon, the begging-to-be-climbed Dune 45, and bleached, sun-cracked mud of Dead Vlei.
Sossusvlei is located in the Namib, the world’s driest and oldest desert, the Namib was spawned by the relentless waves of the Skeleton Coast some 50 million years ago. If enough rain falls on the mountains to the east, the Tsauchab River springs to life and rages towards the desert, a flash flood tearing through Sesriem Canyon before surging along the Corridor. But the rejuvenated river never reaches the coast. At Sossusvlei it is choked by an immense sand sea. On the rare occasions – roughly once every ten years – when the vlei (clay pan) is full it forms a natural oasis teeming with flamingos, dragonflies, frogs and other wildlife.
Sossusvlei’s dunes are not the highest in the world (despite what Namibians may tell you). Dunes in the Algerian Sahara reach 430m, while those in the Gobi Desert, Iran’s Dasht-e Lut and Peru’s Sechura Desert are higher still.
For the ultimate high, Namib Sky offers hot air balloon flights over the Sossusvlei area for N$3,950 (£320) per person, including a champagne breakfast upon landing. Most visitors, however, take a more down to earth approach.
The key thing is to get an early start. The gates at Sesriem open at sunrise and you should aim to be heading along the Corridor towards Sossusvlei when early morning sunlight enflames the iron-oxide-rich dunes and etches their contours into sharp relief – a magical time that photographers relish.
Although the road is tarred most of the way and suitable for 2WD vehicles, it is often undergoing repairs, forcing drivers onto a gravel track. Go slow and stop often. With luck you might spot a herd of oryx walking single-file beneath the dunes.
About 24km after leaving Sesriem, you’ll enter a graveyard of camelthorn acacias – frame a dune within their skeletal branches for a classic Sossusvlei-area photo. The dead trees mark old courses of the Tsauchab River, while the few living ones indicate permanent subterranean water.
After crossing the riverbed, the road continues west. Dune 45 (it is 45km from Sesriem) is one of the most photogenic in the area and a popular climb for visitors en route to Sossusvlei. Get here early if you don’t want to join a long procession to the summit.
Another 15km brings you to the 2WD parking area where acacias shade picnic tables and a couple of long-drop toilets. Sossusvlei is tantalisingly close now – just 5km – but you can only reach it on foot (a hot slog; wear a hat and carry plenty of water) or by 4WD vehicle. If you’ve got this far on an organised trip from a lodge, chances are you’ll be in a 4WD anyway. Otherwise, you can take a ride in the regular shuttle service, operating between the parking area and Sossusvlei (8am-4pm) for around N$100 (£8.15) return per person.
You can also take a side trip from the parking area, walking south for 2km over dunes to reach Hidden Vlei. Slightly further, Dead Vlei – a starkly beautiful pan, scattered with dead trees – is reached by following the 4WD track and veering left before Sossusvlei.
Allow two or three hours for exploring Sossusvlei itself. Climb the 105m-tall Sossus Dune to the north of the vlei for spectacular views (and a fun roly-poly down), then take the time to appreciate the subtle beauty of the place. A good guide will bring the desert to life, revealing the antics of long-legged tok-tokkie beetles and shovel-nosed lizards simply by deciphering their tracks. As midday approaches, seek out the shade of an acacia – they’re often full of birds and you can spend an hour or two sitting quietly and picking your moment for a spell of Sossusvlei solitude once the morning rush is over.
The Southern Namib Erg (including Sossusvlei) has remained on Unesco’s Tentative List since 2002. There were a few raised eyebrows when Namibia Wildlife Resorts announced it was opening a property inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park in 2007, but Sossus Dune Lodge turned out to be a model of environmentally sensitive planning. Of more concern was the damage being caused to trees (already at their limits of drought tolerance) by dust kicked up by vehicles driving between Sesriem and Sossusvlei. To reduce dust levels the road has been tarred. However, some drivers see this as a green light for excessive speed – despite the sobering potholes along its length.
“Dead Vlei is in a hollow, so for a 360° panorama climb ‘Big Mama’ dune.” Fintown Trekker
“Sossus Dune Lodge is the only lodge inside the park gates, so you can be in the park to see both sunrise and sunset, without other tourists, Bear in mind if you’re in the park later at night, it gets cold.” JanieB
"Arrange a bushwalk in the surrounding area – it’s truly fascinating to learn the secrets of sustaining life in the desert. You can also visit a petrified forest from here – a pretty spooky experience!” emcupcakes
“Be warned: you will not see the sunrise at the dunes unless you stay inside the park as it takes 45 minutes to get there from the gate. However, the light for photos is much better an hour later anyway!” LP
“You need at least four hours to hike to Sossusvlei and back from the car park. Take at least 3 litres of water each, and something to eat.” LLanir
“If you get to the top of a sharp-edged dune early, put a hand on the ‘east’ side to feel the sand’s warmth, and then on the other, still in the shade, which is night-time cold.” Terry Traveller
When to go Sossusvlei can be visited year round, but seek local advice on road conditions if driving yourself. Some routes can be washed out by heavy rain December to March.
Getting there Located 590km from capital Windhoek and 360km from Swakopmund, Sossusvlei can be approached by normal car for all but the final 5km where 4WD is necessary. Car rental is available from Avis at Windhoek, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Light aircraft charter flights and transfers can be arranged as part of a package staying at one of the lodges in the area, or you could join a Skeleton Coast Safari touching down at Sesriem.
National park information Entry permits for the Namib-Naukluft NP are available from the Sesriem office of Namibia Wildlife Resorts and cost N$80 (£6) per person (free for children under 16) and N$10 (80p) per vehicle.
Where to stay An upmarket property located a few kilometres inside the park boundary, Sossus Dune Lodge enables guests to reach Sossusvlei before sunrise and stay until after sunset. Accommodation consists of 23 chalets, a restaurant, bar and swimming pool, with full-board rates from around N$1,800 (£145) per person.
Also operated by Namibia Wildlife Resorts, Sesriem Campsite (N$125/£10 pp) has shady pitches, a toilet block and basic supplies of fuel, firewood and food. The nearby Elim Dune is a popular spot to watch the sunset.
Further afield, there is a wide choice of accommodation (all offering guided excursions), from the excellent value Desert Homestead to the luxury Sossusvlei Desert Lodge with its contemporary stone and glass suites.