Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Sunrise over Sossusvlei - Namib Naukluft Park, Namibia

"... this sheltering giant of desert and sky is like a world in which man seems to be such an unlikely visitor that he has no place. Yet he is beckoned and enchanted by the ghostly silence and surreal space of the Namib.", Jon Manchip White, author of "The Land God Made in Anger"

Sossusvlei, located in the Namib Naukluft Park – the largest conservation area in Africa measuring about 19,300 square miles (50,000 km²), and the fourth largest in the world, is a clay pan found in the park and is, with the exception of the wildlife in Etosha Park Namibia's chief attraction.

Known as the 'Gathering place of water' by the indigenous Nama of Namibia, Sossusvlei was formed by the Tsauchab River 60 000 years ago when it gave up its battle to meet the Atlantic Ocean and chose instead to drain away beneath the massive surrounding dunes. Thomas Smit, my resolute Namibian tour guide in a moment of unnatural cheerfulness, revealed that two years ago, “... this place was buzzing. It rained so heavy, the vlei filled with water and created a turquoise lake that lasted for months, and people came from all over to see it". No evidence of any lakes during my visit, but perhaps not so uncommon as it generally only occurs every five years when the Tsauchab floods its banks.

Dune 45

Having read every online review written about Sossusvlei, I still found myself largely unprepared for the size of Dune 45 which took my breath away, both literally and figuratively.

So named for easy referencing and not for its distance in kilometres from Sesriem Canyon, as is generally thought, it is the most popular and at 170 metres, most accessible dune in the Sossusvlei.

We’d somehow gotten really lucky and as the only two people around, had it all to ourselves on our  arrival before 5am in order to reach the summit in time for sunrise – reportedly the best time to view Sossusvlei as the air is still mercifully cool, few make it all the way to the top and the sunrises were said to be wonderful. 'Tell me you have seen anything more beautiful ... and I will say you are lying”, Thomas stated.  Too exhausted to utter a word I dropped in an ungainly heap at the spot where he’d been waiting for the past ten minutes, patiently watching my hour long, lungs bursting and chest exploding plod up the edge of the dune. I was ready to see what all the fuss was about.

Surreal sunrise

It soon became apparent. That high above the ground, there is a stillness so complete and endless and the landscape, so remote and filled with deep gulleys and shadows seemed like another planet. The desert cloaked in darkness was an eerie phenomenon until the moment the sun slowly flushed the sky with faint orange blooms and began to fire the sands of the Namib. Suddenly every laborious step up the dune was worth all the effort.

Watching the sun climb and rise over majestic sand dunes, some of which at a height of 300 metres are the highest in the world, was magical. Their beauty is undeniable, so simple and stark yet so evocative. The shadowy dunes seemed to cast aside darkness, transforming into shimmering mirages of deep orange, reds and mauves against a sky so blue, it was almost too bright to capture. Sossusvlei brings out the creative photographer in everyone. Surreal shapes, colours, textures and landscapes are accentuated by the ancient trees and desert-adapted wildlife like gemsbok, springbok and ostrich.

Heart in my throat, utterly spellbound by the mystery unfolding before me, I was lost in the moment but as the sun continued to rise I was faced with a harsh reality. Within an hour, the sand would be impossibly hot to walk on and possible wind storms could make life very uncomfortable. It was time to leave the wonder behind and return to reality.

Coming down from the top of Dune 45 proved much easier on the legs, and the lungs, and where its ascent required a full hour, the descent – shrieking with laughter as I tobogganed down its side on my towel lasted a mere five, fun-filled minutes.

Sunrise over Sossusvlei? ... Sublime.

Where to stay

Visitors have the option of staying at luxury lodges in the area or choosing more economical accommodation in the tiny village of Solitaire or Sesriem camping grounds which are 60kms from Sossusvlei.

The gate from Sesriem to Sossusvlei opens in time for campers to drive to Sossusvlei before sunrise. To protect the fragile wilderness, only day trips are allowed into Sossusvlei and due to the opening time of the national park gates the only way to be on the dunes in time for sunrise is to either camp at

Solitaire or Sesriem or stay at Sossusvlei Wilderness Camp, Kulala Lodge, Little Kulala or Kulala Wilderness Camp.

Wanting the best of both worlds we cheekily tried out one of each option:

Sesriem Campsite

To start with, we spent two laidback economical nights at Sesriem camping grounds where on the first night, we struck up friendships with fellow travellers Jane and Scot Ireland from Wales, and shared travel experiences and laughs at the lively bar late into the night. Situated just 4kms from Sesriem Canyon, the views from the camp site are brilliant and if you’re on the west side of the campsite which we were fortunate enough to be, chances of seeing springbok, gemsbok and mongoose strolling through your camping area are pretty good.

The campsite which has a general store, petrol station, dipping pools and plenty of hot and cold showers is managed by NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resorts) and reservations must be made in advance at the Central Reservations Office in Windhoek.

Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge

Having read that Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge had been featured as one of the world's top 20 new lodges in Condé Nast Traveller UK, we had no choice but to check in on our final night in Sossusvlei.

The lodge and the excellent service provided by its helpful and attentive staff were amazing. No request went unattended and everyone’s friendliness made us feel very welcome and at home. The large suites, made up almost entirely of glass are wonderfully designed so that regardless of where you are, you’d still have a perfect view over the plains. I loved the outside shower, a wonderful treat in the afternoon and the king-sized bed in the bedroom, raced with skylight above it, made for perfect star gazing. Furnishings were both luxurious yet comfortable enough to make you feel utterly pampered and relaxed. A personal favourite of mine was the lodge’s swimming pool which was an absolute delight. Acting as a massive birdbath it draws many different species of birds, which presented great photo opportunities. I could happily have snapped away for hours had we not arranged a guided night drive with the resident astronomer. Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge is the perfect mix of luxury, excellence and friendliness. I was loathe to move on the next morning but our stay was over and the real world was waiting. 

Wining and dining.

There are no restaurants so if you are camping you will either cook or eat at the lodge where you are camping. Campgrounds usually have barbeque facilities.

Lodges offer three meals a day. Breakfast comes with your room but lunch and dinner are extra. Meals at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge were a study in gastronomy and worth every penny. Our meals prepared by master chef Hugo Hayes were sumptuous affairs. On the whole, the cost of meals are reasonable and packed lunches can be ordered the night before. Dinner is generally a buffet or a barbeque set off with a fine selection of excellent South African wines.

If you like meat you and love adventure, then you will not be disappointed. Prepare yourself for game as the meat is usually a choice of kudu, oryx or eland. Some lodges will have beef, pork, and lamb and sometimes even ostrich or crocodile.

What to See                                                                            

  • Big Daddy - Highest dune in the world - Wait 30 million years and you get Big Daddy, one of the oldest sand dunes on the planet and thought to be the biggest. Sossusvlei’s ziggurat of red sand, Big Daddy rises 325m from the parched African earth of the Namib Desert. 
  • Sesriem Canyon – Ses is six in Afrikaans and riem means thong – six thongs. Sesriem derives its name from the time when early pioneers tied six lengths of rawhide thongs together to draw water from the pools. The canyon is a narrow gorge 30m deep and 1km long and is evidence of shallow seas and wet periods of days gone by. The canyon is usually filled with pools of water good for a refreshing dip. Walk along the dry riverbed or watch the amazing sunsets from this superb point. The canyon is only a few kilometres from the campsite. 
  • Dead Vlei a short drive from Dune 45, is a pure white, 1km long salt pan. Due to the lack of water, petrified camel thorn trees carbon dated to 900 years old, though dead, have been nearly perfectly preserved for centuries. 
  • !Nara Vlei – a salt pan which has a number of endemic !Nara bushes eking an existence from the scarce water that occasionally makes it down from the Naukluft Mountains; and Hidden Vlei which is a barren amphitheatre some distance beyond Dead vlei. 
  • Wildlife in the area includes antelope, mountain zebra, springbuck, hyena, Cape fox, aardwolf, black-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes and the elusive leopard. Great bird watching opportunity abounds with several species to view. 
  • Fauna and flora - a fascinating variety of dune-adapted reptiles and beetles as well as unique desert plants are the dominant life form in this desiccated realm. 
  • Namib - Oldest desert in the world - Stretching 1,600 km along the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia, the Namib, having endured arid or semi-arid conditions for at least 80 million years, is the oldest desert in the world. The startling red colouring of the sand is an indication of its age. Slow iron oxidization and fragments of garnets cause the colour change: The older the dune, the brighter its colour.

What to Do

  • Ballooning – go hot air ballooning over the Namib’s Great Sand Sea for an excellent perspective of the expanse of dunes. 
  • Scenic Desert Flights – take to the skies on a 40 minute to an hour flight in a light aircraft.
  • Eco Quad Biking – most lodges offer exhilarating yet eco-friendly, fixed quad biking trials which have been meticulously laid out so as not to interfere with the area’ s indigenous plant and animal life. 
  • 4x4 Guided Nature Drives – as with the eco quad biking, most lodges offer relaxing drives through pristine nature where Oryx and springbok wander freely. 
  • Elim Dune which is about 5km from Sesriem, makes for a worthy climb and excellent photographs.

Getting There

Pretty easy when like us, it’s as simple as hopping onto a two hour flight from Cape Town to Windhoek, and then sitting pretty for 5 hours in a air conditioned 4x4 to Sossusvlei.


There are several airlines flying to Namibia from Europe, America, the Far East and other destinations.

 Some flights are direct, though most connect from Johannesburg via British Airways and South African Airways and fly overnight so you can fall asleep on the plane and wake in southern Africa, ready to explore.

* Air Namibia offers direct services to Windhoek from Frankfurt, Cape Town and Johannesburg.


Flying:              Scheduled charter flights and light aircraft operate to Sossusvlei

Driving:              Sossusvlei can also be reached by two wheel drive vehicle on good gravel roads. The travelling distance is 380 km (235 miles) from Swakopmund and 360 km (220 miles) from Windhoek. The drive is approximately 5 hours long.

Tour operators:  Most tour companies operate tours from Windhoek and Swakopmund to Sossusvlei.