The Enchanted Beauty of the Giant Dunes in Sossusvlei
The Namib Desert is a sand sea of manicured rust colored sand dunes that extend 400 kilometers along the Namibian coast, and drift 100 kilometers inland. Their sand walls stand hundreds of meters high — so mammoth they now block the winds and rivers that formed them. This creates a silent ecosystem within the dunes. The landscape lies motionless except for radiant heat rising like liquid smoke, and the drafts at dusk, which nip at the crests of the dunes.
This protected world feels like an alternate reality where geckos bark at night, and Ruppell’s Korhaan birds croak like frogs. The fine sands emulate water, covering mountains like powdery snow, cascading in ripples down the dunes when displaced, and splashing apart for the wedge snouted lizard when it dives through them for cover.
Each morning the rising sun saturates the dunes a Tuscan red, which slowly bleeds down the slopes to their white sand bases, which sit like miniskirts around their bottoms. In the soft dawn light, the slopes look like velvet, and the crests cast shadows accentuating their curves like giant red and black s-shaped sidewinder trails. Paths of animal prints in the dunes create a time shadow so you can read the history of the day, until dusk when darkness sweeps it away.
Reading “Sand Skrit” from the Sky
By dawn the dune faces are wedding cake smooth again, with crisp hospital corner crests. The dune morphology which controls this process is delicate and complex and only really seems understandable from the sky.
Flying over the Namib Nauluft National Park around Sossusvlei, you glide over artful wisps of star and crescent shaped dunes. They seem to be connected in long scripts as if purposefully painted by a calligrapher’s brush. For those that can decipher this “Sand-skrit”, they tell ancient tales of wind and rain in geological time.
In the sheltered havens between the bases of the dunes, swamps used to exist, called “Vleis”. Dead Vlei and Hidden Vlei grew mopani and camel thorn trees in times when lakes lapped against the dunes. However, after almost a millennium of dry weather, all that remains are skeletal tree statues protruding from the white chalky earth. As if subjected to a spell, these natural graveyards are suspended in time.
Exploring Big Daddy Dune and Dead Vlei
My favorite adventure in Sossusvlei is climbing Big Daddy Dune at dawn before the desert heat sets in, and then running down the slip face into Dead Vlei at the bottom. Entering the dunes on foot to explore these places triggers a dreamlike state. The heat bakes your brain, your sweat sizzles off your skin, and everywhere looks exactly the same in this endless sandy maze.
Tightrope walking dune crests induces vertigo, and each step into the silky sand sinks you back down the slope like moonwalking in mud. However, the view from the top of Big Daddy Dune is worth the effort. To the west, you look over endless dunes flowing all the way to the horizon, back to the east you can see little people the size of ants, huffing and puffing up the dune crest after you.
The slip face of Big Daddy is steep enough to snowboard, and extends 325 meters (1,066 feet) all the way to the floor of Deadvlei. With a little bit of faith, you can leap over the crest of the dune onto the slip face, and run down it at full speed. Your feet sink into the sand just enough to prevent you from face planting (although I have seen it happen), and you can keep going until you are too tired to continue, at which point you crash back into the dune for a rest.
As you rest, and your friends zoom by. Their screams echo into the dunes, and you can hear their feet squeak into the sand. The vibrations of their steps emanate into the sand and through your body. It is as if the dune is alive, somehow communicating each movement on it through a chain of trillions of grains of sand. There is a hard landing on the clay of Dead Vlei, and you can see the tree skeletons across the vlei in a watery heat mirage.
There is just a small window every day at dawn when the desert heat permits you to make this climb. It is worth the early morning to witness the austere beauty handcrafted by time, wind and water. It is the only way to know if this landscape which rusts like a shipwreck, flows like water, vibrates as if alive, and extends to the horizon in elegant sand-script is actually a natural phenomenon and not just another dreamlike desert mirage.
Notes for Nomads: My first visit to Sossuvlei was with Wilderness Safaris, we stayed at Kulala Desert Lodge, and took a scenic flight that continued over the Skeleton Coast and up to Damaraland. I highly recommend them for a luxury experience. My second time to the Sossusvlei we camped at Sesriem Campsite. They have a bar, supply store, and windy little campsites with braais, and communal ablution blocks. It is a good choice, as it is the only campsite actually in the Namib Nauluft National Park, which means you can start driving towards the dunes about an hour before everyone else staying outside of the park, giving you a good chance of seeing the sunrise over the dunes.