Namibia is a country on the south-west coast of Africa. It is one of the driest and most sparsely populated countries on earth. The Namib Desert in the west and the Kalahari Desert in the east are separated by the Central Plateau.
Namib Sand Sea is the only coastal desert in the world that includes extensive dune fields influenced by fog
It was time to leave Swakopmund and head towards the Namib desert. It was going to be a long day of driving on the C14, a long gravel road via the Gaub Pass and Kuiseb Pass in the direction of Solitaire and from there to Sesriem. We would be travelling through the remote and barren Namib-Naukluft National Park. After driving for a couple of hours we reached the top of a hill, the first we’d seen for a while. There was a car park and several cars had pulled over. Karen needed a pee and there was a pit toilet, so we decided to stop. From the vantage of the hill, we had some spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. Also, close to the car park were some unusual trees I wanted to take a closer look at. These turned out to be the quiver tree or kokerboom, or to give its official name Aloidendron dichotomum. Despite its name, this is not a true tree, but rather a species of Aloe capable of growing over 30 feet tall. The bark of these trees is fascinating as it is covered in a white powdery substance that’s used to reflect much of the sun’s heat. The plants are also capable of a rare botanical practice known as self-amputation, which allows them to shed diseased limbs to prevent sudden infections from spreading and remove extra limbs in times of drought.
About 180km into the journey we reached the Kuiseb Canyon which contains the ephemeral Kuiseb River, which is no more than a broad sandy riverbed for most of the year. Although it may flow for two or three weeks during the rainy season, it only gets as far as Gobabeb before seeping into the sand. This area earned its claim to fame from the novel, “Wenn es Krieg gibt, gehen wir in die Wüste“, written by Prof. Henno Martin. This novel is a portrayal of the experiences of the Geologists Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, during the Second World War. After the canyon, the geometry of the landscape changes with mile after mile of rolling hills before reaching a series of rocky outcrops.
A little further from the Kuiseb Canyon was a road sign depicting we were crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, Karen’s birth sign. We of course had to stop and take some photographs. Unfortunately, many people had also stopped here, and rather leave with just photographs, they had decided to deface the signs with stickers. How annoying!
The small village of Solitaire was our next stop to get some refreshments and fuel.
There is not a lot to Solitaire but has become famous in the region as a stopover for tired and weary travellers.
Without a doubt, the most famous attraction in Solitaire is its bakery. More than 20+ years ago a Scottish adventurer moved to the town and opened the bakery. A man bigger than life in all aspects, Percy Cross “Moose” McGregor, was a wonderful baker and started selling various bakery items including a German apple pie (Apfelstrudel), made from an old family recipe. Sadly, Moose died in 2012 but the bakery lives on. How could we not stop in this baked product oasis?
At the entrance to the bakery’s parking lot were several rusted, antique American trucks. As American as apple pie! It was too good a photo opportunity to miss.
The bakery has grown over the years and is now a well-oiled tourist trap. We ordered our food (apple pie of course) and a coffee and went out to the courtyard to find a table to wait. It was not long before our refreshments arrived together with a small flock of hungry and attentive birds. Not that they had much chance of getting any of our apple pie.
Feeling cheered by pie and coffee we returned to the car. Disaster … we had a flat tyre. We now scrambled to remember what we’d been told about changing the tire. First of all, we needed to find the spare tyre and jack. Check – done. Now where to set the jack under the vehicle. We realised we had only been given a cursory lesson and didn’t know where the jack point was. So, I guessed and started to jack the car up. Soon we realised something was not right, things started to bend that shouldn’t and the jack went beyond its safety point, and it still has not raised the vehicle enough to take off the flat tyre, let alone put on the new one.
At this point, our bacon was saved by a kind South African family who had seen that we were struggling. They got our ailing jack done and set it further under the vehicle under the axle. The weirdest place, halfway under the car, but it worked and in no time our new tyre was on, and we were ready to go. We were so thankful to these good Samaritans.
Shortly after Solitaire we left the C14 and took the C19 south, a route that passed along the rugged and beautiful Naukluft Mountains.
After 80km we took a turning towards the settlement of Sesriem, and suddenly, much to our surprise we were on the most perfect tarred road. 5km further along this road, we turned off to the Desert Camp where we would be spending two nights. Our accommodation was a small concrete cabin, which was spartan but comfortable, with views across the mountains. It also had a very neat little outside kitchen.
The facilities at the Desert Camp were limited, with only a bar and a pool. We were booked in for half-board and would have to travel a few kilometres to the Sossusvlei Lodge.
On the way to the lodge, we stopped at the service station for those all-important resources – petrol and beer.
Sossusvlei Lodge was a definite step up in standard (and price) from the Desert Camp. The dinner was buffet style and had enough options to keep us happy. The seating area was outside, in the perfect setting of soft lighting and the sun setting over sand dunes. It was lovely and romantic and a great way to end a long, and times stressful day.
We woke to a grey and ominous-looking morning. Rain was in the air. It did not look like the best conditions for exploring the Namib Sand Sea.
The Namib Sand Sea 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. The desert dunes are formed by the transportation of materials thousands of kilometres from the hinterland, that are carried by river, ocean currents and wind. It features gravel plains, coastal flats, rocky hills, inselbergs within the sand sea, a coastal lagoon and ephemeral rivers, resulting in a landscape of exceptional beauty. Fog is the primary source of water in the site, accounting for a unique environment in which endemic invertebrates, reptiles and mammals adapt to an ever-changing variety of microhabitats and ecological niches.
We headed across to the Soussvlei Lodge for breakfast and to plot out our day. At the breakfast, the weather had, if anything, got worse. So, we headed back to our chalet at Desert Camp to wait it out.
By early afternoon we had to decide whether to go for it or get up early and go in the morning … but that was a weather risk too. In the end, we decided to go for it and see what the elements would throw at us.
We paid our fees and entered the park along the perfect tarred road, which passed through a wide valley lined with the red sand dunes for which the area is famous. These dunes are huge, but it was difficult to tell as they were still so far away. We entered the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which incorporates the Namib Desert, the Naukluft Mountains, and the Sandwich Harbour lagoon.
We were headed into the area commonly known as Sossusvlei which is a salt and clay pan located in the National Park. The name “Sossusvlei” is of mixed origin and roughly means “dead-end marsh”. Vlei is the Afrikaans word for “marsh”, while “sossus” is Nama for “no return” or “dead end”. Whilst Sossusvlei refers to a specific place its name is extended to cover the wider area surrounding Sesriem that includes neighbouring vleis (such as Deadvlei) and other high dunes.
The weather was still threatening as we drove deeper into the park, but I could see the skies clearing ahead, so we pushed on. The red colours of the sand dunes were sadly subdued by the lack of sun.
Eventually, we reached the literal end of the road. At least the tarred section. From here on in it was going to be driving over sand, so we’d get the chance to see how the Fortuner did in 4×4 drive. We were on our way to visit Deadvlei, a white clay pan, famous for the dead trees that fill its basin.
The weather had improved dramatically, and the sun was now out as we parked the car. To get to the vlei itself we had to take a 1km walk across the sand and climb a sizeable sand dune. It was hard work, and we were glad we packed plenty of water even for this short hike.
The pan was formed when the Tsauchab River flooded, and the abundance of water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. However, the climate changed, and the sand dunes encroached on the pan, blocking the river from reaching the area. The trees are estimated to be approximately 900 years old, however, they have not decomposed due to the dry climate.
Deadvlei is a paradise for photographers as the contrast between the pitch-black trees and bleached-white pans, and the rusty-red dunes and deep blue sky make for incredible images. We’d arrived at the end of the day, so we were lucky that there was no one else in the pan except for us.
We got back to the car and decided to make the most of the sunshine, which we were not sure would be around for long.
On the way in we’d had gone by several famous sand dunes that are popular with tourists for climbing up. The biggest dune is called Big Daddy. This magnificent dune is situated between Sossusvlei and Deadvlei and at 325 meters it dwarfs the other dunes. We’d set our sights on some smaller dunes that are closer to the road. Dune 45 is a star dune that gets its name from the fact that it is at the 45th kilometre of the road that connects the Sesriem gate and Sossusvlei. Standing over 170 m it is composed of 5-million-year-old sand that is detritus accumulated by the Orange River from the Kalahari Desert and then blown here.
The late afternoon was a perfect time to visit Dune 45, with its west face illuminated by the sun and the other side in the shade, with a sharp divide at the summit of the dune. We started to climb the dune, which was very hard work. The weather had got better but the wind had picked up, blowing sand off the top of the dune, and after getting about a third of the way up we decided to turn around. Coming down was more difficult than going up, and I spent most of my time falling than walking.
A further 7km down the road is Dune 38. This time we decided not to try and climb the dune, but it was a beautiful place to take some photographs.
It was now time to set off for Sesriem before the park’s gate closed. We still had time to stop and take more photos of the dunes and some oryx that were crossing the plains.
We made a quick return to Desert Camp to get a quick shower before heading to the Sossusvlei Lodge for dinner.
The weather had deteriorated again, and new storms were rolling in. The winds had picked up and it was now raining. Most people had headed inside to have dinner, the only problem being that there was no space for all the guests. We decided to brave the elements and found a relatively sheltered space to sit, where we were joined by another crazy British couple. It was a fun if somewhat blustery evening.
Planning your visit to Sosussvlei
Before you set off on your journey, remember that Sossusvlei is 400 km from Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek. The speed limit on gravel roads in the country is 80-100 km per hour, so you will need to set off quite early. Some of the roads may be in poor condition, which would necessitate slow driving.
Make sure to stock up on groceries before you leave Windhoek or any other main town. The general grocer at Solitaire sells the basics, but you might miss that one thing they don’t have. Fill your car up every chance you get, and always ask whether they accept card payments before you do.
Service stations on the way: Rehoboth, Solitaire and at the Sesriem gate.
Most visitors begin their journey from Windhoek, taking the B1 south, following the signposts along the way to Solitaire. From Solitaire, turn onto the C19, following it for about 70 km and then turning onto the D826. After 15 km you will have reached Sesriem, the gateway to Sossusvlei. Keep to indicated roads and consult your map every step of your journey.
The fastest, easiest and most relaxing way to get from Windhoek to Sossusvlei is, without a doubt, by air. Book your flight with any of the private charter companies in Namibia or join a tour to the south. An airstrip is located in Solitaire, 70 km from the Sesriem gate. You’ll need to have arrangements for a pick up from there, which your accommodation should be happy to provide.
There are 2 gates at Sesriem. Here’s what you need to know about each of them:
The main gate
September to April: 6 am – 6 pm
May to August: 6:45 am – 6 pm
If you are staying outside the gate, you will need a permit to enter. The price is €4 (N$80) per person and €0.5 (N$10) per vehicle per day.
The inner gate
September to April: 5 am – 7 pm
May to August: 5:45 am – 7 pm
Things to bring:
|Two spare tires||Seed net/grill||Puncture repair kit||Sand tracks|
|Spade/shovel||High-lift jack||Kinetic strap/rope||Compressor|
|Tire pressure gauge||Car tools and spares|
|Water and food||Fuel||Braai Wood||Flashlight|
|Headlamp||First Aid Kit||Camera||Binoculars|
|Wide-brimmed hat||Sunscreen||Mosquito spray|
Best time to visit Sosussvlei
Sossusvlei is located in the Namib Desert, meaning rainfall is scarce. Conditions are generally sunny and warm, however, considering that you might want to participate in more strenuous activities like climbing a dune, you might want to go during the winter months instead.
November – February
The summer season in Namibia means warm nights and scorching days. In the desert though, evenings may be cool and even cold due to the proximity to the ocean.
April – August
The weather is great for outdoor activities such as climbing the dunes, hiking, going on a safari drive or sitting by the campfire at night. This is also, however, high season, so expect high prices.
Where to stay
Desert Camp is situated just 5 km from the entrance gate to Sossusvlei and Sesriem Canyon in the Namib Nauklauft Park. Nestled under centuries old camel thorn trees, Desert Camp offers unsurpassed views over the Desert landscapes and surrounding mountains – An absolute must for the nature lover and photographer!
The 28 affordable self-catering accommodation units are equipped with an en-suite bathroom, shaded veranda with a fitted kitchenette, barbeque, power points and an adjacent parking area. Each air-conditioned room features twin beds and a fold-out sleeper couch to accommodate 2 small children (under 12) free of charge when sharing with 2 full paying adults. Utility boxes with most utensils needed are available at reception and fresh food supplies can be ordered daily.
Facilities at the main building include a fully stocked and serviced bar with big screen television, a sparkling swimming pool and 2 communal bomas with cooking and wash up facilities which are perfect for groups travelling together.
Meals can be enjoyed at the nearby Sossusvlei Lodge restaurant and their Adventure Centre offers a range of exciting Desert activities to explore the area.
A fully stocked shop, fuel and an Internet café is available at the Sossus Oasis Service Station.