The Namib Desert: Namib-Naukluft and Sossusvlei

C. Fraser Claire

Namibia's Wide Open Spaces and Some of the World's Tallest Dunes in Sossusvlei

Towering red dunes and Namibia's wide open spaces in Sossusvlei

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Sossusvlei and the Namib Desert by The Safari Store

Sossusvlei and the Namib Desert: Land of Truth and Mysteries

The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world. It is a place that has remained unchanged for millions of years. These are landscapes of sweeping ancient dunefields and scorched, dark inselbergs dating back to around 80 million years ago. The landscape may be constant in its agelessness, but visitors to the desert can’t seem to help but be changed by it.

Long before I visited deserts for myself, I was awed by the beauty of dunes in pictures. Satellite imagery of Namibia’s dune seas used to be my screensaver on my phone – a daily reminder of desert dreams. To this day, I have been seduced by desert descriptions in books. These descriptions seem to speak of what appears to be a universal truth. The landscape forces truth, fortifies the pleasures of solitude, and guides self-discovery and survival.

On experiencing the profound beauty of the Namib Desert for myself, I have been reminded that space and silence are keen teachers in places like this. After climbing a (relatively) short red dune, butt-prints in the sand and eyes memorising the horizon, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats. “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow stronger.”

‘Namib’ means ‘open space’ (giving Namibia, ‘the land of open spaces’, its apt and very beautiful name). Seldom does one get a sense of space quite like in this place. This space is multi-dimensional. Length and breadth, yes – but it is also home to the world’s second tallest sand dunes and some of Earth’s darkest skies. This is space extending into space, which can’t help but leave room for rumination, imagination, and even poetry. →

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Dune climbing at Dune 45, Sossusvlei - by The Safari Store

Dwarfed by Dunes
Dune 45 isn't the tallest dune at Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park. That doesn't mean it doesn't render mankind miniscule - grains of sand even - in this towering scenery.

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Dune 45, Sossusvlei by The Safari Store

Sossusvlei and Deadvlei

Swathes of the Namib Desert are protected by the Namib-Naukluft National Park. One of the major attractions in the park is the dune fields at Sossusvlei. These looming terracotta dunes are coloured by age, shaped by the winds. These are the sands of time made literal.

The approach to the Sesriem entrance to Namib-Naukluft National Park typifies Namibia’s open spaces. Vast gravel plains connect the road to craggy inselbergs and distant mountains – light and shadow sun-dance in the foreground, while the dunes and mountains reconfigure the closer you get to Sossusvlei.

Then you are encircled – a cadence of dunes rising and falling the further you drive. The height of the horizon soars. Suddenly, we are the particle, the grain. We pulled up to Dune 45 – the most photographed sand dune at Sossusvlei. The heat of the day had yet to set in. Like so many before us, we stood at its base with grand plans for summit.

As I was to learn over and over again on our Namib Desert adventure, distance in the desert is deceptive. I didn’t make it the length of the ridge to the top. My camera, unsteady footing, and childhood fear of heights conspired to end my dune climbing. I walked past the single tree, casting a filigree shadow at Dune 45’s base, watching Steve and his father diminishing into the distance of the dune’s apex. Much red sand was poured from their shoes on their return. Big Daddy is the tallest dune at Sossusvlei – and remained unclimbed by our party that day. →

Self-drive 4x4 safari to Sossusvlei by The Safari Store

Room to Explore
Namibia is the most aptly-named country. Translated to mean 'wide open spaces', the busy tourist attractions soon give way to a stirring sense of space and desert silence.

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Deadvlei is the land between. In a valley between the red dunes, the dessicated white clay pan is a relic of more prosperous times. The camelthorn trees at Deadvlei grew as the result of a flood and have remained suspended in time ever since – a forest of scorched tree skeletons.

In the Namib, the winds control everything. They are whispering narrators that govern the brutality of the coastline, set the shape and form of the ancient dune field, and affected slow evolutionary selection of plant and animal species.

As part of the Skeleton Coast National Park system, these winds are the creators of brutal coastal conditions. The winds are also life-giving: blowing fog from the coast as a water source and plant and animal debris as a food source for adapted species. The closer one looks, the more it becomes apparent that the winds are the breath of life, dispersing seeds to propagate new life, shifting the dunes and serving the constancy of this ancient landscape at the same time.

Desert survival is a miracle – and the species here are totems of the brilliance of existence. The closer you look, the more the desert astounds. For example, the white-flowered rogeria has a wooden seed pod with two compartments. The outer layer of the pod opens and seeds are dispersed, but it takes survival a lot more seriously than that. The inner compartment only releases its seeds once it disintegrates, which can be decades later. →

Walking in Sossusvlei by The Safari Store

In this wrinkle on the Earth’s face, today matters, but preserving the certainty of tomorrow is an intrinsic, natural purpose.
Tree at Dune 45, Sossusvlei - by The Safari Store

Land of Light and Shadow
The often barren landscape makes life a feature among the dunes. The filigree shadow of trees write poetry in disappearing ink in daily cycles as the days go by.

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Sossusvlei dunes by The Safari Store

Lions In the Sky

My camera is full of photos of the dunes from our day trip to Sossusvlei. The patterns of the sand reminded me so much of the folds of lions’ skins when they are lying down. It was as if the world’s secret form is closely cloaked here as if in silk rather than sand – concealed, yet hinting at identity.

Little did I know at the time that lions would connect my modern-day musings with some ancient interpretations of the world. The nomadic San traversed the Namib Desert and saw the Pointers of Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri as male lions. The three brightest stars of the Southern Cross were viewed as female lions – guiding generations of travellers through the darkness. →

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Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia - by The Safari Store

The Sands of Time
As one of the world's oldest landscapes, the dunes, trees, and clay pans at Sossusvlei and Deadvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park are part of the world's chronicles.

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Airstrip in the Namib Desert, near Sossusvlei - by The Safari Store

Mars Landing
With red dunes and craggy, mountainous outcrops, to fly in to the Namib Desert must be otherworldly.

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Namib Sky Hot Air Ballooning in Sossusvlei, by The Safari Store

Float Earth Society
If you want a multi-dimensional view of the incredible Namib Desert dunes at Sossusvlei, Namib Sky Adventures takes the trip of a lifetime to new heights.

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Sossusvlei fly-in safari by The Safari Store

I Believe I Can Fly
A fly-in safari over the Namib Desert makes how you get there part of the adventure. Explore from the air before you start exploring on the ground.

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