SESRIEM (Namibia), Nov 27 — Fans of Lawrence of Arabia often dream of what it would be like to wander in a desert, scaling dune after dune. It all seems like such a big adventure.
And it is, as we found out when we visited the Namib Desert in the dry nation of Namibia. At 2,000 kilometres in length and nearly 200 kilometres in width, the desert is massive. Its wind-shaped dunes have been the backdrop for many films such as the fantastical thriller The Cell starring Jennifer Lopez and the meditative, continent-spanning documentary Samsara.
The heart of the 80-million-year-old Namib Desert is Sossusvlei, one of its most scenic vleis. In the Afrikaans language, the word vlei means “marsh” and here in the Namib Desert, vleis are usually salt and clay pans. Sossusvlei is famed for its striking red sand, fossilised dunes and a luminous landscape lit by the desert sun (and, sometimes, daytime moon).
To get there, we had to spend quite a bit of time on the road. It takes about five hours to drive from Windhoek Hosea Kutako International Airport, Namibia’s main airport, to Sesriem, a small settlement south of the Naukluft Mountains. The Sesriem gate is the main entry point to the Namib-Naukluft National Park where Sossusvlei is located.
We could make use of the camping grounds at Sesriem or, for significantly more comfort, drive a further four kilometres to Sossus Dune Lodge. (Naturally, we decided on the latter.)
The lodge is made up of 25 thatch-roofed chalets set at the foot of low-lying mountains. Even if we never left our chalet, we would enjoy incredible views of the dunes in the distant west. Local animals such as oryxes and springboks often wandered by too, right in front of our balcony.
Waking up before dawn is a must here, if we did not want to miss the sunrise. And why would we? The sunrise is a remarkable thing, especially given how flat the Namib Desert is, with dunes and mountains peppering the horizon. Thrill-seekers get up even earlier, about a couple of hours before dawn, to get to the fields where hot air balloons take off, offering breathtaking views of the desert.
Some days we saw the desert moon as we wandered around, our shadows running long into the distance. But we were careful to stick to the designated roads and paths. We didn’t want to end up lost in the desert like the missing legions of ancient Rome, far from any water. We brought plenty of water with us and remembered to drink plenty of it; the heat can be a challenge if you aren’t hydrated.
From the lodge, it takes about an hour to drive to Sossusvlei. The name “Sossus” supposedly means “the place of no return” but given the thousands of visitors it receives every year, this is unlikely to be accurate. Formed by the flow of the Tsauchab River through the Sesriem Canyon, Sossusvlei is a clay pan surrounded by saffron-coloured dunes. (The hue is due to a high concentration of iron in the sand.)
The older the dunes, the more intensely red they are. Some of the dunes here are among the highest in the world. The highest dune, affectionately called Big Daddy, is approximately 325 metres high. There is little vegetation here, save for wild grass and camel thorn trees. It is a stunning, if desolate, landscape.
About two kilometres from Sossusvlei is another clay pan called the Deadvlei. Why the macabre name? We discovered the answer as we slowly walked down a dune towards it: the Deadvlei is an utterly dry, desiccated vlei made of white clay. Its most striking feature is the sporadically-spaced blackened camel thorn trees.
These ghostly trees, so stark in contrast against the white of the pan, have been dead for centuries. When the Tsauchab River flooded many aeons ago, shallow pools were created, enabling camel thorn trees to grow. When the drought came, the pools dried up and the trees died with no water.
Scorched by the sun for 600 to 700 years, these “tree skeletons” turned black. Because the desert is so dry, they did not decompose but are perfectly preserved. The trees stand sentinel, their silhouettes not unlike some ghastly vision from a Tim Burton film. Any occasional breeze would cause the bone-white dust of the clay pan to rise up, adding to the surreal atmosphere.
A white lake in the middle of a desert.
Leaving the Deadvlei, we trekked up the dunes once more to reach our car. The feeling of walking on the shifting sand of the dunes with its serpentine waves (thanks, in turn, to the shifting directions of the winds): quite indescribable.
The desert is a capricious thing, almost alive. Where moments before the weather was fine, with barely a breeze, suddenly the East Wind crashed into the valley. The space between the Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, where our car was parked, started churning like a washing machine on the highest spin cycle. A maelstrom of dust. A sandstorm!
Steady driving and steel nerves enabled our escape; had we stayed still, we risked getting “snowed” in by the insane quantities of moving sand. Outside our swiftly dusted-up windows we could see animals such as oryxes trying to find cover underneath trees, though there was no real shelter here.
Our return to the lodge — and to its creature comforts — was a relief. There can be such a thing as too much adventure.
In 2013, the Namib Desert — grandly titled the Namib Sand Sea — was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site. Considering everything we had witnessed, from the fiery dawn unveiling the red dunes where only shadows were minutes before to the otherworldly mists of the valley of ghost trees, this is a well-deserved honour. A wonder of Nature and a reminder of what a beautiful world we live in.
Sossus Dune Lodge
Sossusvlei, Sesriem, Namibia
Tel: +264-81-886 5788