(The first edition of this article ran in SLOW mag) My trip was made possible by Namibian Tourism, Namibian Airways and affiliates.
Namibia is a land of superlatives, a country with a raw and blazing beauty that will envelop you and leave an indelible imprint.
Sossusvlei is just a salt pan. Not.
Say “I’m going to Sossusvlei“ and people sigh with envy. It’s on everyone’s bucket list, as it should be.
The name Sossusvlei is derived from the Nama word ‘sossus’ meaning ‘dead end’ and ‘vlei’, Afrikaans for ‘marsh’. The off white elliptical pit is punctuated by charred trees and framed by orange dunes beneath as impossibly vivid blue African sky. It is an astonishing sight. Reputedly one of the most photographed places on the African continent, the pan is the where the last waters of the ephemeral Tsauchab River have trickled to their last and met their end in a parched basin that is located within the oldest desert in the world, the Namib.
The famous salt pan is the focus for most visitors, but Sossusvlei extends beyond that into a far larger area that incorporates the Hiddenvlei, the Deadvlei, and a sea of imposing dunes that seem to go on forever. The 50,000 square metre Naukluft-Namib Park in which Sossusvlei is located, is the largest private nature reserve in Namibia and the biggest conservation area in Africa, ranking fourth in the world.
Road tripping at its best
Travel, as it’s said, is about the journey, not just the destination, and kilometre for kilometre en route to Sossusvlei, Namibia delivers in spectacular fashion. On this trip we covered a vast expanse in nine days, starting in Swakopmund and going through Walvis Bay, inland past Mariental, Keetmanshoop, Aus, to Luderitz on the coast and finally heading back up to Windhoek. Some of the distances between cities and towns took up to 5 hours and although it seemed endless at times, the shifting landscapes and gorgeous terrain were a glorious distraction. Namibia is a photographer’s paradise.
Sunrise on the dunes
Dragging myself out of bed at 04:00 to catch the sunrise over Sossusvlei was well worth what awaited us at Naukluft. A small group of us sat quietly above the still plain, watching as the morning emerged through the inky darkness. The day came alive as the temperature rose with the sun – Tok tokkie beetles scurried through brittle shrubs, weaverbirds chattered in the acacia trees and in the distance, hot air balloons rose up languidly and drifted off slowly across the horizon. It was a magical moment.
As the morning advanced, the pantone shifted to gorgeous pastel tones, a backdrop to camel thorn trees bleached white from decades of extreme heat and drought, poking their spindly branches into the vivid blue sky like the art installations.
The dune ranges of Sossuvlei are acknowledged as amongst the tallest in the world. Most of them are five million year old mountains covered in fine sand that has been whipped into shape by strong winds blowing in from the coast almost 600 kilometres away. The older the dune, the redder it is because of a high concentration of iron oxide. The most prominent include the Elim Dune near the Park’s main access gate at Sesriem, and the 325 metre high Big Daddy. Dune 45, standing 170 metres tall, is the one that attracts climbers. Shoes off, I walked a fair way up it and two minutes in was wheezing like an asthmatic. Aside from being the most photographed dune in the world, be aware that 45 is a very tough climb and the summit never really seems to materialise. Persevere though as the panoramic view from higher up is your great reward.
Drought and wildlife
In spite of the drought that is dragging into its 11th year, most arid areas support thriving ecosystems. Oryx, springbok, jackal, hyena, cheetah and a variety of reptiles have managed to adapt to the brutal environment.
The feral wild horses at Garub near Klein-Aus Vista are a testimony to resilience, a remnant generation of the herd that was abandoned after WWl. A viewing hide opposite the old Station allows tourists to observe them at their watering trough, maintained for them by local farmers and conservationists, some respite in an otherwise sparse and unforgiving land. Other natural wonders close to Sossusvlei include the Sesriem Canyon, the smallest one in the world where, at certain times of year you can walk on the riverbed dwarfed by incredible formations that have been carved over millions of years by the strength of the flow of the Tsauchaub. (keep an eye on the weather though as flash floods have been known to tear through the canyon, unexpected and at times deadly).
The wow factor doesn’t end at Sossusvlei. Whether you’re headed towards Swakopmund, Luderitz, or the capital Windhoek that is more towards the middle of the country, you’ll be treated to exceptional diversity as you cover vast distances between settlements, town and cities. Solitaire, in the Khomas region is a settlement at the junction that connects Walvis Bay and Bethanie, and Rehoboth with Sossusvlei, two key tourist routes. Vintage car skeletons lie half buried in the sand as you enter Solitaire, a semblance of a one-horse town in an old cowboy movie. It has a post office, general dealer and a bakery that serves up the best ‘pigs ears’ I’ve ever had and an apple strudel that rivals what I’ve tasted in Berlin. It’s the only place for miles where you can refuel, eat and get vehicle repairs done, with an option to overnight at the campsite or motel.
Thirteen kilometres north of Keetmanshoop on the road to Koes is the ancient Quivertree (Kokerboom) Forest on the Farm Gariganus, so extraordinary that it was declared a national monument in 1955. The Giants Playground is further along on the same property, with dolomite rock formations dating back 180 million years, where it looks as if huge hands have carefully placed misshapen boulders into curious piles that dot the area for miles around.
With only 2 million inhabitants in a country that is almost twice the size of Texas, Namibia has an enormous amount of unutilised space, with endless beautiful expanses of nothingness. They say Namibia is the land that God made in anger. Clearly fury maketh for divine creativity because the natural Namibia I experienced is glorious. Brace yourself for its beauty.
My trip was made possible by Namibian Tourism, Namibian Airways and affiliates.
All tourist info: Namibia Tourism via www.namibiatourism.com.na
Tour operator: Impala Tours www.impalatours.com
Accommodation options: www.gondwana-collection.com
Temperatures in winter: 4 to 28 Degrees depending on the region
Clothing etc: walking shoes, sunblock, hat, flip flops, layered clothing
Tip: keep your camera protected at ll times from dust and fine sand.
Currency 1ZAR – 1N$