Sossusvlei & Deadvlei, Namibia

A mash up of local Nama dialect (sossus) and Afrikaans (vlei), the literal translation of Sossusvlei is ‘Dead-End Marsh’. Which gives an insight into the otherworldly, end-of-the-worldly feel of this ethereal desert landscape. Here, some of the world’s tallest sand dunes receive almost no rain year round and brilliant white salt pans dotted with desiccated, blackened camel thorn trees are the only indication that very, very rarely, water flows in this desert.

Sossusvlei & Deadvlei, a geography lesson

While often used as a general term for this region, Sossusvlei is just one of a series of clay pans clustered in this region of the vast Namib Desert. The Sossusvlei pan itself is the inland end point of the rarely-flowing Tsauchab River; its waters only reach the pan on average once every 10 years after particularly heavy rains in the nearby Naukluft Mountains. It is estimated that Sossusvlei, Deadvlei and the other clay pans were originally formed during a particularly severe flood over 1,000 years ago, which left behind the initial deposits of clay and white salt seen today.

Stretching 2,000km along the Atlantic coastlines of Namibia, Angola and South Africa, the Namib is one of the oldest, and driest, deserts in the world. Formed over 5 million years ago, the star-shaped dunes around Sossusvlei are in constant flux, although they are considered to be some of the most permanent and stable of these types of dunes in the world. Their age can be seen in their colour: the more intense the red, the more oxidised the iron in the sand and the older the dune.

Where the Namib sands meet the sea, warm desert air collides with cold Atlantic currents creating thick fog for more than 180 days each year. While this is a vial life source for desert wildlife, it has been the death knell for hundreds of ships – the remains of which famously litter northern Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Sossusvlei receives its share of the morning fogs, although the main life-giving water here comes from underground sources and the occasional flood, just enough to sustain vegetation on the permanent dunes.

What does a visit to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei entail?

Your days will start early in Sossusvlei, very early. You’ll need to be up before dawn to drive to the park gate and drive the 45km to Dune 45, or even further to Big Daddy to catch the last of the sunrise. This is the time to climb; the sandy ascents are relentless, exposed and much easier before the heat of the day has reached its peak. The low sun at this time of day casts deep shadow and the quartz and iron-rich sands shine various hues of red, orange, purple and cream making for phenomenal photographs. Additionally, afternoons can bring strong winds that whip up the sand on the dune ridges. However, whatever the time you find yourself at Sossusvlei you’ll need lots of water, a sun hat and long sleeves – there’s not many places to escape to the shade in the desert.

Once you’ve reached your sandy summit (and run and jumped your way back down), you’ll typically have time to explore the areas other highlights – including Deadvlei and the Sesriem Canyon, near the main entrance gate. If you’re on a self drive holiday then you’ll need a 4x4 to travel past Dune 45 to Big Daddy and Deadvlei; however, 4WD transfers are available if your car isn’t up to the challenge, or if you don’t fancy driving across the soft sand yourself.

A range of accommodation options, from campsites to luxury lodges, dot the outskirts of the national park around the Sesriem Gate. If you’re camping then you’re unlikely to be troubled by rain; however, this is the desert and the clear skies mean nighttime temperatures can be cold, reaching freezing in the Namibian winter from May to August. Come prepared with warm layers for early mornings and evenings even if you’re staying in a lodge.

How to visit Sossusvlei & Deadvlei

Namibia is one of the only African countries that lends itself to self drive holidays, and the Sossusvlei area is no exception. Well maintained, smooth tarmac roads lead most of the way from Windhoek and Swakopmund (with some gravel sections), and as long as you don’t try to head past the car park at Dune 45 you can explore even without a 4x4.

Whether you choose a self drive holiday, a tailor made tour or small group trip, you’ll likely combine a couple of nights in Sossusvlei with time in Swakopmund and safaris in Etosha National Park, or as part of longer itineraries that head further south to Fish River Canyon and Luderitz, or north to the Skeleton Coast and Himba villages. Your tour operator will tie everything together for you; arranging accommodation, suitable car hire or transport and entrance fees into the national park and leaving you free to relax and enjoy this unique part of the world.

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Sossusvlei & Deadvlei highlights

Dune 45

Huge sand dunes are not in short supply here, with a few options for that perfect dune-top sunrise spot. Dune 45 is the most popular and most accessible meaning you won’t be alone with your thoughts here but the views across ‘Dune Valley’ are still impressive. It’ll take you between 40 minutes to an hour to climb the 170m to the top and just five minutes to run and jump back down.

Big Daddy

The hugest of Namibia’s dunes is Big Daddy, towering at 350m over Deadvlei. That’s the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Unlike Dune 45, Big Daddy must be reached by 4x4, and at 65km from the national park gate is a longer crack-of-dawn journey for a sunrise climb. Spectacular views across an ocean of sand make the 45 degree, calf-cramping climb more than worth it.

Deadvlei

Vivid orange dunes surround this blinding white clay pan punctuated with the blackened remains of dead camel thorn trees. Rather than decomposing, the trees that grew 900 years ago when the pan was a marsh fed by the Tsauchab River have instead become petrified and scorched in the desert heat. Cut off from the ephemeral river’s course by the shifting dunes, what’s left is a surreal, other-worldly photographer’s dream.

Sesriem Canyon

Sesriem Canyon is one of the first things you’ll come across as you enter the Namib Nauklluft National Park through the Sesriem Gate – the access point for the Sossusvlei dunes. Carved up to 100m deep by the Tsauchab River, the canyon is remarkable as one of the only areas of the national park that holds water year-round. Its 1km length is explored easily on foot.

Best time to visit Sossusvlei & Deadvlei

There’s very little chance of rain stopping play in Sossusvlei – this part of Namibia receives pretty much none year round. However, the changing seasons do bring a large fluctuation in daytime and nighttime temperatures, with the Namibian winter offering the most comfortable climate.

Daytime temperatures in the desert are a pleasant 20-25°C during the dry, winter season from May to October, perfect for dune climbing and for exploring the vleis. Happily this is also an excellent time to see wildlife in Etosha National Park as animal congregate around the shrinking waterholes. However, nighttime temperatures at Sossusvlei can drop to freezing and you’ll need to come prepared with warm clothes if camping by the Sesriem Gate.

The temperature climbs from October onwards and daytime temperatures in Sossusvlei can reach a scorching 50°C during December to March. You’ll welcome a swimming pool at your lodge, and will need to limit your visits to the dunes to early mornings if you travel at this time of year.
Written by Sarah Faith
Photo credits: [Page banner: Sunway Safaris] [Topbox: Arne Smith] [Descendin the dune: Anqi Lu] [Deadvlei: yannboix]
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