© Nova Fisher 2015


Sossusvlei is one of the most remarkable sites in the Namib-Naukluft Park. Huge towering sand dunes, the highest in the world, rise dramatically over 330 metres above the surrounding plains. The Sossusvlei cover a great expanse of almost 500 square kilometres of the Namib Desert. Literally meaning 'the gathering place of water', the Sossusvlei is actually a clay pan which holds rain water to form a lake. This pan retains water for a long time due to the high clay content. Known as the ‘Vlei’ the Afrikaans word for pan, it’s the place where the dunes come together, causing the Tsauchab River to stop its course. Most often, the river does not flow this far because it is dry. But a heavy rainfall could turn these Vleis into spectacular lakes flanked by orange, sparkling dunes. The dunes are numbered sequentially from the start of the valley. Dune 45 is a popular dune to climb because it is accessible from the road (only 4x4 vehicles can enter the vlei area). The 2 largest dunes at Sossusvlei are known as Big Mamma and Big Daddy. The area has 4 major vleis – Deadvlei, Sossusvlei, Ostrichvlei and Naravlei. Dead Vlei is bordered by the "Big Daddy". This clay pan was formed after rainfall, when the Tsauchab river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools where the abundance of water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed, drought hit the area, and sand dunes encroached on the pan, which blocked the river from the area. The trees died, as there no longer was enough water to survive. There are some species of plants remaining, such as salsola and clumps of Inara, adapted to surviving off the morning mist and very rare rainfall. The remaining skeletons of the trees, which are believed to be about 900 years old, are now black because the intense sun has scorched them. Though not petrified, the wood does not decompose because it is so dry.
The dunes of the Namib Desert have developed over a period of millions of years and it is thought that vast quantities of sand were deposited into the Atlantic Ocean by the mighty Orange River. The sand was then moved Northward by the Benguela current only to be dumped back onto the land by the strong currents and surf, thus creating the coastal dunes. These dunes were then shifted further and further inland by the strong prevailing winds. The sand deposited on the windward side makes the dune flat, while the leeward side is considerably steeper. However, the patterns on the dune vary according to the direction and speed of the wind and these dunes have taken a million years to be developed. The Sossusvlei today is ever changing and evolving. The Sossusvlei may be known for its vast expanse of giant dunes, but what makes them even more impressive is their colour composition. The presence of iron oxides in the sand coupled with innumerable particles of garnet gives the dune its brilliant hue. The shades vary according to the age of the dunes, and the older the dune the brighter the sand’s colour. These varying shades of red are the highlight of the Sossusvlei and, in the soft morning light, the dunes are an intense red colour that gradually fades as the sun rises higher and the contrast is lost. Although this is not a game rich area, the wildlife to be found is interesting and often unique, having adapted itself to the harsh environment. Among the animals to be found are the springbok,oryx (gemsbok), ostrich and wild horses, plus smaller creatures such as bat-eared fox, black-backed jackal and Cape fox. The rare and elusive aardvark is occasionally sighted at night, along with Cape fox, polecats, aardwolf and other nocturnal animals. Our guide dug out a venomous Dancing White Lady spider (a.k.a. Wheel Spider). During the process of digging its burrow, the spider can shift up to 10 litres of sand. In the initial stages of building a burrow the spider is vulnerable to pompilid wasps, which will sting and paralyze the spider before planting eggs in its body. If the spider is unable to fight off a wasp, and if it is on a sloped dune, it will use its rolling speed of 1 metre per second to escape.

Sossusvlei from the air

At 5.30am in the morning we watched the sunrise over this stunning landscape and then took to the air to observe it from the silence of a hot air balloon. We floated over the rolling plain and black mountains toward the orange sand dunes. The morning light on the black mountains gave it an eerie look as if clouded in mist, whilst the sunlight on the dunes gave them a magical orange colour. After the flight we breakfasted on champagne and a feast of excellent food. It was an experience never to forget.

Kulala Desert Lodge

The lodge is in a large (67,000 acre) private reserve bordering the Namib-Naukluft Park. It offers excellent views of the red dunes of Sossusvlei, the mountains and vast open plains. Early morning guided game drives to the spectacular dunes are via a private gate on the Tsauchab River. We took an early morning nature drive into the desert to visit Deadvlei and Sossusvlei then in the afternoon we went to the Sesriem canyon and on to a high point to observe the sunrise and have our last sundowners. Other highlights included sleeping under star-filled skies, and watching blood red sunsets accompanied by the sound of barking geckos. The area is also one of the best in southern Africa for stargazing.

Sesriem Canyon

Sesriem Canyon was created by centuries of erosion that formed a narrow gorge about 1 km in length and a width that ranges between one and three metres wide. At the foot of the gorge, which plunges down to 30 to 40 m, are pools that become replenished after good rains. The name Sesriem is derived from the Dutch/Afrikaans words for “six (zes) belt (riem)” and was given to the canyon by early pioneers returning from the Dorland Treks. “Six belt” is a reference to the six belts, usually made of Oryx hide, that a thirsty settler would have to tie together in order to draw water from the clear pools on the canyon floor.