The Optical Wonderland of Sossusvlei

Photo: Chloe Durr

The Optical Wonderland of Sossusvlei

03 August 2020 | Tourism

A trip to Namibia would not be complete without a visit to Sossusvlei and the surrounding attractions.

By Chloe Durr

The breathtaking landscape of red dunes, contrasting white clay pans, silhouetted acacia trees and mysterious fairy circles make it arguably the most popular year-round tourist attraction in Namibia. It certainly is one of the most photographed destinations in the world. In this “Sea of Sands”, you will find some of the world’s tallest sand dunes as part of the largest conservation area in Africa. The Namib Naukluft National Park lies hidden within the oldest Desert in the world - the Namib Desert.

The name Sossusvlei means “dead-end-marsh” and is of mixed origin - derived from the Nama word “Sossus” (No-return or dead-end) and “Vlei” (marsh) in Afrikaans, descriptive of the landscape that early explorers would have found.

In order to wrap your head around the concept of Sossusvlei being a marsh, take a trip up to the Sesriem Canyon. Multiple layers of exposed sedimentary rock reveal a time when the Tsauchab River once flooded about 15 to 18 million years ago. Its sweeping waters eventually pooled into the “dead-end marsh”, being Sossusvlei.

The name Sesriem is derived of “six lengths of ox-whips”, which were required by early explorers and settlers in order to collect the water from the bottom of the canyon.

A Desert Oasis
There are many hidden treasures in the Sesriem Canyon, including a variety of plants, animals and birds. This hidden oasis in the desert is one of the few places in the area that holds water all year-round, even though one needs to delve down for it in years such as the drought year 2019. Sesriem Canyon is best experienced in the early morning or at sundown, as the light illuminates the exposed rock faces casting interesting shadows that make for exceptional photographs. Cooler months allow travelers to take their time wandering the canyon trail.

The eerie, desolate landscape of Dead Vlei adjacent to the Sossusvlei stands as a powerful reminder of the impact of Climate Change. Nine-hundred-year-old Camel Thorn trees stand in contrast to the blinding-white clay pan and encroaching rusty dunes. One can scarcely imagine this merciless desert-scape once was a lake of water from the Tsauchab River; its water flow obstructed from reaching the Atlantic Ocean (roughly 60km further west) by the encroaching dunes that enveloped these vleis. After heavy rain in the Naukluft Mountains, the thirsty pan transforms into a kaleidoscopic vision of pools of water reflecting the dunes and cobalt blue skies - a rare and magnificent sight!

To truly comprehend the magnitude of Sossusvlei it is worth taking on the challenge of climbing one of the dunes:

The "Namib Sand Sea"
Big Daddy is the tallest dune in the area (325 meters) and the toughest to climb; however, the expansive views over Dead Vlei right over to the Sossusvlei, make the journey worth every step.

Dune 45 is an 85 meter high alternative to Big Daddy, offering panoramic views overlooking the expansive vlei and the moon-like landscape. Dune 45 is located 45km from the Sesriem Gate along a tarred road, making it the most photographed dune in the world due to its ease of access to normal vehicles.

Remember that the “Namib Sand Sea” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the only coastal desert in the world that includes extensive dune fields influenced by fog. Covering an area of over three million hectares and a buffer zone of 899 500 hectares, the site is composed of two dune systems, an ancient semi-consolidated one, overlain by a younger active one.

So if rustic, sand-sea-solitude is what you are after, then escape the crowds and head to Hidden Vlei - the least visited vlei in the area (a 2km walk off the beaten track). Here you will get the chance to admire the fauna and flora of the Namib Desert.

The area around Sesriem and Sossusvlei is an adventurer's paradise. For the adrenaline junkie, the dunes can be explored on quad bikes on some of the lodges, and for the more romantic traveler, a sunrise hot air balloon ride is a must.

“For tomorrow belongs to people who prepare today” - African Proverb

Plan ahead - Sunrise is the most picturesque time to visit Sossusvlei, and if you plan on capturing panoramic views from the top of the dunes this is the time for the perfect golden light. Avoid climbing the dunes during the heat of the day as the merciless desert temperatures, breaching 40°C, are a killer!

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