Namibia: Safari to Sossusvlei

13th July - 29th July 2002


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I didn't have to get up early to go on my safari to Sossusvlei. The Wild Dog office was next door to the Cardboard Box Hostel and the tour wasn't due to leave until 09.30. After a good breakfast and a pot of tea at the bar by the swimming pool, I wandered next door to find the minibus almost ready for departure, our luggage being loaded into the trailer before being hitched up to the minibus. The minibus was your standard, two-wheel drive white Toyota, common all across Africa. There were six other tourists on this three day trip to the desert, an older Swiss man, who had travelled extensively and now lived in Thailand; a mother and her son from South Africa, two of the sons friends from Scotland who were cousins, a boy and a girl and the girl's boyfriend, also from Scotland. Our guide and driver, cum cook and mechanic was a young Czech immigrant who had moved to Namibia a few years earlier, where he already had family living.

We didn't have to hang about long before we promptly departed on time at around 09.30. We made one more stop on our way out of Windhoek at a supermarket to buy any personal supplies we might need for the trip to Sossusvlei and the three days in the desert; I returned to the minibus with a bottle of red wine. It does not take long to drive out of the small city of Windhoek and into the vastness of the Central Plateau. Shortly we turned off the main tarred road south of the city and stopped at a police checkpoint before disappearing in a cloud of dust along the gravel road towards the desert. The road was in good condition with hardly any potholes; we were able to make good progress as we drove in a generally southerly direction. The surrounding semi-arid landscape we drove through looked barren and inhospitable, there were few settlements, just every now and again some ranch buildings just off the side of the road. In the few trees that there were out here social weaverbirds had built their huge nests. One nest had become so big and heavy that the tree's branches had finally given way and the nest had crashed to the ground, bringing half the tree with it.

We stopped for lunch at the Spreetshoogte Pass where the plateau dropped away steeply to the Namib Desert, which stretched out into the distance as far as we could see, eventually reaching the coast. From this high vantage point the views were truly breathtaking. I could really appreciate the beauty and the huge expanse of this desert. As we stepped out of the minibus we were hit by the strong, gusting cold wind blowing in from the west. It made a picnic at this exposed point challenging to say the least. The road wound extremely steeply down this escarpment and to the desert floor below. We would not be returning through this pass, our minibus would not be able to make it up such a gradient.

We soon stopped again at the small settlement of Solitaire, an outpost of civilisation in this huge, empty land. This settlement is located at a junction of the C14 and it appears that Solitaire's main reason for existing is the petrol station; it was a welcome sight and the local people were warm and friendly. We had hardly seen any traffic on the road from Windhoek all day, but suddenly as we were stopped at the petrol station vehicles appeared from all directions, all of them to refuel like ourselves. On a blackboard hanging outside the small shop and cafe at the petrol station the latest news had been chalked up, the results of the Wimbledon tennis finals (although by now this news was fairly old). After a drink, a taste of the famous apple strudel and the chance to stretch our legs we continued on the final leg of our journey to the campsite at Sesriem.

After about another 65km we turned off the C14 and onto a road heading west to Sesriem where a sign at the junction caught my eye. Someone had scratched, 'Welcome to hitchhiking hell' on the sign. My heart sunk as I read those words and could only imagine what psychological torture someone went through waiting here, literally in the middle of nowhere for a lift. It must be a difficult place to hitch from, as the majority of the vehicles that come this way are either tour busses, such as us, or tourists in their own vehicles. I had found that neither of these two groups of people stopped often for a hitchhiker standing beside the highway. Mostly local residents had picked me up while I had been hitchhiking around the south of this country but out here they were few and far between. Finally at just after 15.00 we arrived at the Sesriem campsite, our home for the next two nights and were shown to our pitch.

Each campsite is under an old and tortured looking camel thorn tree, a type of acacia that grows well in this part of the desert, providing a large canopy of shade for both tourists and animals. The camel thorn is easily identified from its large, grey, kidney shaped seedpods. The campsite is situated on a semi-arid plain. Only a few kilometres to the west we could see the huge red sand dunes spilling down on to the plain. To our east the horizon was dominated by the distant rocky mountains of the Naukluft Massif. The wind had not abated at all and still blew at almost gale force blowing sand and dust everywhere; we set up camp in the middle of a sandstorm. I had visited many deserts over the past few years but had never had the misfortune to experience a sandstorm, up until now. As well as sand finding its way into everything, the sand and dust created a heavy haze creating rather flat light that would ruin any chances of taking good photographs. We struggled with the tents against the wind and after half an hour or so our campsite was set up as best we could, the tents precariously pitched in the soft sand.

This is the only campsite at Sossusvlei and it gets very busy. The facilities here included a shop selling basic supplies where I indulged in an ice cream, a petrol station, a small campsite bar with a small swimming pool next door and a block of showers and toilets with running cold and occasionally hot water. The site was full with safari tours, overland trucks and tourists in their own vehicles, mostly South Africans, turning this patch of desert hundreds of kilometres from the nearest sizable town into a small tented city. In stark contrast, at the gates to the campsite, a luxury, modern looking Movenpick Lodge provided facilities for those with the money who could not face camping in a sandstorm. At well over US$100 a night I remained in my tent, which I shared with the Swiss man.

Once our campsite had been established and we had made ourselves at home in our tents we prepared for our first trip out into the dunes. We drove the short distance into the Namib-Naukluft Park to the Elim dune, where we planned to watch the sunset. The Elim dune is the closest dune to Sesriem, about 4km away, and is clearly visible from the campsite, the red sand spilling onto the plateau. The dune rises to a height of 137m above the surrounding plain, about a 2.5km walk from the car park, which is situated around a shady camel thorn tree at the base of the dune. The dune is a good vantage point to watch the sunrise and set and see the colours of the sand change with intensity of the light. The dune is named after a former farm, Elim, a name that derives from the bible and refers to an oasis. Hiking up the dune was hard work; at times the dune would be so steep that you would take two steps up and one down; it wasn't long until I had broken out into a sweat, my heart pounding.

The amount of vegetation growing on the dune surprised me; I had only expected to see an endless sea of desolate sand. In the hollows between the crests of the dunes grew a few types of desert grass, mainly the Namib dune grass, a reed like grass that can grow up to 2m in height and the spiky ostrich grass. The further and higher we climbed into the dune field the shorter the grasses became, reflecting the precarious nature of life on a dune. Small animal tracks criss-crossed the sand; mostly left by birds, lizards and beetles. The more I looked the more life I could see out here in this desert. After thirty or forty minutes of hiking we reached a high point on the dune with stunning views all around us. The most impressive view was to the west. From here the dunes marched away from us as far as the eye could see, eventually reaching the coast over 100km away. Suspended just above the horizon, the setting sun glowed orange. Unfortunately, with the strength of the wind, sand blew everywhere. We were sandblasted by the wind as it whipped up and over the dunes. With all the sand and dust in the air the sunset was not as spectacular as I had hoped, the haze in the sky ruined the light and any chances for some quality photography. Despite the relentless wind the dune was a very peaceful place to spend some time relaxing, enjoying the serenity and beauty of the dunes. Once the sun dipped below the horizon we walked back to the car park. Running down sand dunes is a joy, especially when compared to the hard work involved in climbing up. It made the physical effort all worthwhile.

The Namib Desert stretches along the south west coast of Africa from the Olifants River in South Africa to the Carunjamba River in Angola, a distance of approximately 2,000km. It is a narrow desert varying in width between 100km and 150km and is only about 1/30 the size of the Sahara. The coastal fringes are the driest with an average 8mm of rainfall a year, compared with 100mm in the east of the desert towards the central plateau. In comparison, the annual evaporation rate is somewhere near 3,500mm a year. Two factors have combined to create the Namib Desert. The main one is the high pressure zone created at roughly 30' south latitude by the heat of the sun at the equator being at it's hottest creating a low air pressure zone as the warm air rises. As air is sucked towards the equator on the trade winds and rises, it losses it's moisture as rainfall before moving back towards the poles on the antitrade winds. This air is now dry and sinks back down at roughly 30'south causing high pressure and no rainfall. This high-pressure zone also prevents moist air flowing across this region. The other factor creating this desert is the cold Benguela Current, which flows north along the coast from the Antarctic. This current cools the sea temperature preventing evaporation from the seas surface and dramatically reducing any moisture in the air. The Namib Desert has extensive sand seas, mountains and rocky plains. There are oases too but unlike the oases in the Sahara the ones in the Namib Desert are linear oases. These linear oases are in fact dry rivers, which flood during the wet season, the rainwater flowing through the desert as it tries to reach the coast.

Sossusvlei is part of a linear oasis and is a huge pan at the end of the Tsauchab River where the rivers course to the sea is finally blocked by the dunes. From the pan it is another 55km west to the coast. The name Sossusvlei is derived from two words in two different languages. Sossus is a Nama word meaning, a place where water gathers; vlei is a South African term meaning, a hollow that floods during the wet season. The Tsauchab River flows from the Naukluft Mountains and forms a large valley as it flows through the sand dunes.

In the early hours of the next morning we prepared ourselves for our trip to Sossusvlei, stopping at the famous Dune 45 on the way to watch the sunrise. A tarred road follows this valley through the dunes from the campsite. We waited in the dark in our minibus at the park gates waiting for them to open, a queue of traffic behind us. The gates were late in opening so we all had a rush against the clock to reach Dune 45 and our vantage point to watch the sunrise. Huge star dunes rise up either side of the flat valley floor, which is remarkably free of any dunes. It has been found that the dunes here hardly move, the crests move but the bases remain in the same position. This is mostly due to the winds; for six months of the year the wind blows east off from the ocean, for the other six months it blows west from inland. When the river flows it washes any sand in the valley away. The water doesn't flow every year, sometimes it remains dry for years at a time; other years Sossusvlei and even the campsite at Sesriem can be under up to two meters of water.

The wind had not abated overnight and a gale still blew across the desert. During the night I had hoped to see a beautiful display of stars but the sky remained hazy and only the very brightest stars were visible. As we travelled through this valley the sky slowly lightened, the black turning to a deep blue, the few stars shining quickly disappearing with the fast approach of dawn. We reached Dune 45 and turned off the road to the car park, behind us a convoy of vehicle headlights stretched into the distance, the eastern horizon now a light shade of blue as the sun edged nearer. This dune is probably one of the most famous dunes in the world and features on many postcards, calendars and other publications; the red, orange sand, the size and the beautiful curves of this dune make it a photographers dream. It is only a coincidence that Dune 45 is about 45km from Sesriem and is not why it was named such. All the dunes are numbered by the park staff for reference, which is how this dune was named. We were the first group to reach the dune and the first to start the tough climb up to watch the sunrise. It was a hard slog, especially at this hour in the morning; my heart was pounding as my legs pumped my way up the dune. Soon the car park was some distance below us, quickly filling up with 4WD's and minibuses. In our wake other tourists followed us snaking up the steep slope of the dune. After a while the worst of the climb was over as we made our way along the crest of the dune, which swept away into the distance in beautifully crafted curves.

The wind still howled incessantly, blasting sand up the face of the dune and off the crest. We sat or stood on the crest waiting for the sun to appear, sand blowing everywhere around us. As the first rays of sun shone onto the dunes, the colour in the sand came to life, first a deep red before turning orange as the sun became stronger and stronger. By now a crowd had gathered, strung along the crest of the dune watching this spectacle, others were still struggling up the slope, fighting against the sandstorm. By the time we had returned to the car park, in only a fraction of the time it took to climb the dune, our guide had breakfast ready; I needed a cup of tea after the mornings climb.

After breakfast we continued driving along the valley to the 2x4 car park at Sossusvlei, effectively the end of the road. From here we hiked into the desert. The strength of the wind had increased dramatically to almost storm force. The sand and dust created a fog; visibility became severely restricted as we began our hike. Camel thorn trees loomed out of this fog, their branches almost bending to breaking point in the wind; small plants and weeds tumbled past us. The wind blew from behind us; it would have been almost impossible to walk into the wind with the amount of sand that blew about. Even though, it wasn't long until any exposed skin soon hurt as the sand continuously blasted at it. I was glad I wasn't wearing shorts like some others in our group. In the midst of this sandstorm it felt like we were on some strange alien planet. Soon we crossed a number of dunes which began to act as windbreaks, in the hollows between the dunes conditions improved considerably.

Our guide pointed out the various plants that struggled for existence out here in this hostile environment. The most interesting was the Nara (pronounced with a preceding click of the tongue). It is sometimes referred to as the desert melon and is in fact related to the curcubit (cucumber) family of plants. It is a low growing plant with spiky green leaves and grows in clumps, which gathers sand around it creating a sand dune with the plant covering the surface. Once a year the Nara produces a round, spiky fruit, the size of a large orange. This fruit is edible to desert dwellers such as mice, jackals, gemsbok and birds and also humans. It was the end of the season and most of the fruit we found had already been eaten, just the carefully hollowed out spiky skin of the fruit was left in the sand. Eventually our guide found a fresh fruit and carefully plucked it from the thorns and proceeded to cut it open with a small knife. I tried a piece; it was extremely bitter and definitely not a delicacy although if it was a choice between starving and eating this bitter fruit I would as it is highly nutritious and about as good as it gets in a desert. We left the partly eaten fruit under a camel thorn tree where it was soon devoured by a flock of ravenous small birds.

We reached the large, flat Cessna Pan, the mud dry and cracked like crazy paving. Huge orange dunes provided a backdrop to this pan, which we crossed to reach Deadvlei. The wind had begun to drop as we climbed over and around more dunes. Finally we climbed one more dune from where there was a stunning view of Deadvlei below us. Deadvlei is an old pan that has been cut off from the rivers floodwater by a sand dune, which we were now standing on. We walked down onto the pan, the mud again baked by the sun and cracked, ancient dead camel thorn trees standing starkly against the backdrop of huge orange dunes. It was like walking into an amphitheatre, the dune behind the pan must have spilled down a few hundred metres onto the pan; it was an awe-inspiring sight. We spent some time strolling across the pan and soaking up the unique atmosphere of the place, the now only occasional gust of wind blowing a small cloud of dust across the pan. In the distance we could see a line of people climbing a ridge to the top of a dune; the people looked tiny and really gave a sense of scale to these massive sand dunes surrounding us.

Finally from here we walked to Sossusvlei, a distance of approximately 2km along easier tracks than the route we had taken across the dunes to reach Deadvlei. I sat under a large camel thorn tree at the edge of the Sossus pan to take in the dramatic scenery around the pan. We were in a more exposed location and the wind had picked up again creating very hazy conditions. We decided to turn back to the minibus and return to the campsite. We all managed to hitch a ride on a 4WD back to the 2x4 car park. Compared to the conditions when we arrived at the height of the sandstorm, it now appeared fairly calm at the car park. When we returned to Sesriem for a late lunch we found our campsite had taken a battering in the storm while we had been away. Half the tents had blown over, mine had been blown into the thorns of the acacia tree; inside the tent a sand dune had appeared, everything was covered in red sand.

We had some time during the afternoon to relax at the campsite, a lot of this time was taken up in straightening out the campsite and clearing sand out of the tents; it would definitely be a laundry day when I returned to Windhoek. In the late afternoon we went on one more trip into the desert. This time we drove the short distance, about 4km to the Sesriem Canyon. The canyon is part of the course of the Tsauchab River as it flows from the Naukluft Mountains to Sossusvlei and provides an important water source, which was vital to the early inhabitants of the area. The canyon is between 25-30m deep and is very narrow at its start, which helps to reduce evaporation from the small pools at the bottom. It derived its name, Sesriem, from two Afrikaan words ses, meaning six and riem, meaning thong. As cattle and horses could not get to the water at the bottom of the canyon, a bucket was tied to six leather thongs, part of the tackle used with horses, and hauled up. About 250m downstream from the start of the canyon a set of steps leads down to the canyon floor. We climbed down and walked up the canyon and sure enough, near the start between the narrow walls of the canyon there was a small pool of stagnant water. Stuck behind rocks and in ledges and cracks of the canyon walls was debris washed down by the floodwater. It gave some idea of the power of the floodwater surge through this canyon. We walked downstream along the canyon floor. It soon opened up into a much wider canyon, about 300m past the steps, with grasses and acacia trees growing along the dry riverbed. We climbed back out of the canyon, now a fairly easy climb up the rock and shingle wall to watch the setting sun before returning to the campsite.

This would be our last night in the desert, tomorrow morning we would drive back to Windhoek. After dinner I wandered the short distance over to the bar for a few cold beers. It wasn't long until I saw a couple of familiar faces standing at the bar, it was Ben and Vicky, who I had previously met a few weeks ago at St Lucia in South Africa. We spent the evening catching up with travelling gossip and what our plans were for the next few days and weeks. My plans were nearly at an end but I told them I would be returning to Windhoek tomorrow where I would book a flight back to London before spending my remaining days in Swakopmund on the coast. They were also heading to Swakopmund and said they would look out for me when they got there.

I was the last one to retire that night at our campsite; everything was quiet when I returned, except for the snoring coming from my tent, which seemed to reverberate across the desert. I had a sleepless night and at one point abandoned the tent to take my chances out in the sandstorm. Neither the snoring or the sandstorm was conducive to sleep so I eventually returned to the tent and put up with the noise; it was better than having sand blowing up my nose and into my ears.

The following morning I was the first to rise and sat in the acacia tree above our campsite to watch the sun rise. It was surprisingly cold in the morning, the wind of course, still blowing. After breakfast we packed up camp and retraced our route back to Windhoek except for taking the Remhoogte Pass back up to the Central Plateau rather than the extremely steep Spreetshoogte Pass. By mid afternoon I was back at the Cardboard Box hostel in Windhoek and began the task of getting rid of all the sand that had covered absolutely everything.

Continue reading this journey: Windhoek & Swakopmund