The wind has picked up, just as I begin to climb Dune 45, here at Sossusvlei. The uphill hike was already going to be relatively tough but this is making it even harder.
It’s all this damn sand!
Each step you make up a sand dune has its own small struggle, as your foot sinks down into the sand and you have to pull it back out to tread forward. I’m going barefoot to make it a bit easier, but I still find my leg muscles working overtime.
But now, with this wind, the sand is being picked up from the dune and blasted straight into me. It’s not too bad on my face, expect when there’s a particularly strong gust, but I feel it constantly on my legs below my shorts. It stings slightly as thousands of tiny bits of sand hit me at high velocity.
You know what, though? I’m loving it!
I’m at Sossusvlei in the Namib Sand Sea, as part of my tour through South Africa and Namibia with G Adventures (my second trip with them as a G Wanderer).
Sossusvlei one of the most beautiful natural sights on the planet. It’s all about the sand and to have it between my toes and flying all around me brings me as close as could be.
In this part of the desert, in the middle of the Namib Naukluft National Park, many of the dunes are protected and you can’t climb them. But Dune 45 has been set aside for visitors to explore, so they can learn more about the natural wonder.
As I make it higher up Dune 45, I do take the time to look around me at the seemingly-endless dunes, orange hill after orange hill rolling towards the horizon and the bright blue sky.
The sand dunes of Namibia
The orange colour of the dunes in Namibia comes from the tiny flecks of iron that are mixed in with the sand. Over time they oxidise (rust) and turn red or orange, then changing the colour of the whole dune.
The brighter the dune, the older it is.
Speaking of age, most experts agree that the Namib Sand Sea is the oldest desert in the world and has been around for about 55 million years. For most of that time it has been extremely dry, with most of the moisture that keeps things alive coming from fog.
The landscapes are constantly changing in the Namib Naukluft National Park – but particularly here at Sossusvlei where there are very few trees or plants to keep things in place.
As I stand at the top of Dune 45 after my hike up and look across in every direction, the sand dunes of Namibia seem so huge and majestic. It’s hard to imagine them moving.
But, with the wind blowing harder than ever up at the top here, it makes sense. It’s a slow gradual change, one grain of sand at a time, but it’s happening all around me.
And, as the desert has changed, so have the plants and animals that live here. They have adapted to the harsh conditions and evolved as the environment has changed over millions of years.
From the top of Dune 45, when it’s time to leave, I end up running down the side of the dune. A journey that took almost an hour in one direction takes just a few minutes on the descent. Around me, lots of small black beetles scuttle about.
They are fascinating looking things and they’ve caught the attention of scientists, who are now studying the Namib Desert Beetles. They’re looking for ideas of how humans could learn to live with drought and other climate change effects.
With blazing hot days, freezing nights, and almost no rain, the animals have learned to use the wind and sand to their advantage. For scientists, they are not just marvellous to look at – they could hold the answer to some big problems.
What is Sossusvlei?
What seems at first like a vast uninhabited desert is actually teeming with life just below the surface in the sand.
And for tourists like me, what might seem like a daunting destination at first is actually quite easy to visit. But it helps to understand what you’re looking for.
This whole area of the sand dunes that tourists can easily access is called Sossusvlei, but it’s actually just a tiny part of the enormous Namib Sand Sea.
If you were to look at it from above, you would see an enormous unbroken desert of sand dunes for about 400 kilometres north/south and 100 kilometres east/west, with the Sossusvlei area being a tiny valley just three kilometres wide that comes in for about 50 kilometres from the middle of the eastern side.
Things to do at Sossusvlei
There are quite a few things to do in Sossusvlei and, although it’s much easier to visit in a tour (like G Adventures), it’s possible to come independently as well.
Climbing Dune 45
The star attraction of Sossusvlei is Dune 45, which you can climb right to the top. It’s about 80 metres high and is harder to hike up than you expect because the sand is so soft.
A lot of people try to come for sunrise and it would be an amazing sight to see the colours pour into the desert around you. But later in the morning is also a good time to climb when the light is bright but it’s not yet too hot.
The other main attraction of Sossusvlei is called Deadvlei. This is a clay pan that was once full of water and allowed trees to grow. But centuries ago, the water disappeared and the trees died – but the air is so dry that they haven’t decomposed and have been frozen in time.
It’s an incredible landscape with the white ground, the black trees, and the red sand dunes as the background. It’s easy to spend a long time here just walking through the ghostly trees, finding new angles.
Deadvlei is about a one kilometre walk from the carpark and you can’t get there with a 2×2 car. It is possible to park at the 2×2 carpark further back and get a shuttle to the start of the Deadvlei walking track.
(It’s also worth noting you can do a two kilometre walk from the 2×2 carpark to a similar area called Hidden Vlei, but it’s not nearly as impressive.)
Nearby to Deadvlei and also only accessible by 4×4 is the actual Sossusvlei. Confused? Well, although the whole area is called Sossusvlei, it’s actually named after this particular oasis.
Most of the time there is no water here so the visual spectacle is a bit underwhelming. But, if you happen to be visiting when it’s a bit wetter, it’s stunning to see an oasis in the middle of the desert.
There’s also a picnic area here, which can be a good place to stop to eat if you’ve brought some food with you.
Next to the Sossusvlei oasis is a dune called Big Mamma, which is another option for climbing if you fancy getting up top for another view. But it’s not the most popular one in this area.
At the edge of Deadvlei is a dune called Big Daddy, which is the highest dune in Sossusvlei (although not in the whole Namib Sand Sea).
It is 325 metres and stands tall amongst the other dunes surrounding it. Remember, Dune 45 is just 80 metres, so there’s a big difference here – but lots of people attempt the challenge to climb to the peak.
Another spot worth visiting is the beautiful Sesriem Canyon, back near the entrance gate to Namib-Naukluft National Park. It’s much smaller than Namibia’s famous Fish River Canyon but it has its own charm.
The name ‘Sesriem’ means ‘six leather straps’ in Afrikaans and it was chosen because early explorers had to tie that many together to lower buckets into the canyon to collect water.
There is usually not too much water (if any) in the canyon and you can walk down to the bottom and do a hike in either direction.
Accommodation at Sossusvlei
Right at the entrance to the national park is a small town (if you can even call it that) named Sesriem. This is where my G Adventures group camped for the nights that we were visiting Sossusvlei.
It’s a beautiful way to get closer to nature, watching the sun set over the desert and then seeing the stars in the sky shine so brightly above us.
There is limited accommodation inside the park and near the entrance so, if you’re travelling independently, I would suggest booking as early as possible.
You can see the options offered by the government-owned accommodation here.
Or there are some beautiful private hotels and resorts in the area that you can see here.
Visiting Sossusvlei, climbing Dune 45, seeing Deadvlei – it’s not just a highlight of my time in Namibia, it’s a highlight of the year.
It’s a beautiful country and I’ll have lots more to say about it in coming weeks. I hope you get to see it for yourself one day.
I travelled to Namibia with the support of G Adventures in my position as a G Wanderer. All the opinions expressed are my own – I truly believe G Adventures is one of the best tour companies that you can use for a trip to Namibia.