Sossusvlei sand dunes – sensational shifting sculptures in the desert

travelafrica Camping in Southern Africa, More than just wildlife - other activities, Planning your trip to Africa, Self driving in southern Africa

For anyone who loves nature, who loves shapes and textures and colours, Sossusvlei sand dunes, the highest sand dunes in the world, are a must. Buried in the heart of Namibia these dune fields take your breath away as they shift in the most fabulous ways – bending and blowing, bouncing and tricking with the whims of the sun and wind and numerous critters – big and small, who call them home.

We arrived at our campsite inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park at dusk and made sure our alarm was set for 5.00am, well before sunrise. We then drove into the darkness, zooming down a tarred road into the unknown as the stars slowly faded and the sky slowly lightened to a pale yellow and deep blue in the east. It was quite eerie to see these huge black shapes emerge on either side of the valley as the sky lightened further. We drove passed the famous Dune 45 – quite a few cars were parked there as this is a popular spot for sunrise and we could see torches making their way up the dune. We chose to keep going and made our way to Sossusvlei itself. The last 5km are 4WD only with a shuttle bus service available for those in a 2WD (although note the shuttle service only starts a bit later in the day). In our Toyota Hilux we made good progress through the sandy 4WD track and we were 1 of only 2 cars in the car park when we got there. We quickly piled out of the car and bundled up in our jackets (it’s very chilly in the pre-dawn morning – even in summer – so if you are there in winter it will be very cold!) we made our way across the plain to a sand dune on the east side of the valley and climbed up its sharp peak, perfectly sculptured and smooth and clean from the polishing the winds gave it the night before.

What a perfectly magical spot to be in – perched on the edge of a red dune, sky lightening in front of us, dunes stretching away on either side in the most fabulous organic shapes we could imagine. The stony plain behind us and more superb dunes on the other side of the valley, their brown sides already turning red as the day got lighter.

We couldn’t stop taking photographs, initially of the fantastical shapes all around us, then we realised that the colours and shadows were changing by the minute as the sun slowly crested the rise and said hello to a brand new day. The smooth sand surfaces all around us sprang to life in the deepest of reds and we were all quite speechless as we watched the sun swiftly inch up the sky.

The kids took this as a sign to also spring into life and they took full advantage of the soft sand to run and jump, jump, jump – off the dunes, over each other, sliding down the dunes like penguins.

A few more people had arrived by this point, and to beat those making their way to us from Dune 45 we slowly made our way over the dunes to Dead Vlei – the famous white clay floor, red sand walls and stark dead tree limbs beckoning. These sculptured trees seemed quite tortured yet there was something very hypnotic about the landscape and it is certainly a photographer’s dream.

After Dead Vlei we had some breakfast by the car (it’s a good idea to take some food with you in a day sack so you have something to munch on before or after sunrise –also don’t forget your hats and sunscreen) before exploring some of the other dunes and vleis in the area and then heading up to Dune 45. The Dune was pretty quiet by the time we got there and just cool enough to still climb it barefoot. The boys had a ball running down its steep red bank and even came eye to eye with a superb spotted eagle owl resting in a tree at the bottom.

We all then returned to camp to snooze and relax the day away by its pool. That afternoon, after taking a walk down the Sesriem Canyon, we rounded the day off by watching the sunset behind Elim Dune, one of the dunes nearest to camp. More amazing shapes, colours and textures to complete a superb day – again, constantly shifting and changing by the second.

Hints:

  • You can easily spend two nights in the area, alternatively, if you are stretched for time, you could watch the sunset on your first night and then leave around mid-day the next day.
  • There are lots of activities you can do in the area including a scenic flight, helicopter flight, hot air ballooning, horse riding, hiking, sundowners and dune tours.
  • Accommodation ranges from camping to 5 star luxury and depending on budget and availability (note: accommodation during the peak months of June-August books up very early – often even a year in advance!) you can either stay in the National Park or in the stunning landscapes around it.