by Ron Swilling
Choose a route that suits your itinerary best and
make your way to the incredible Sossusvlei…
It takes a leap of imagination to describe the spectacular scenery that defines the area around Sossusvlei – the most iconic destination in southern Namibia, its soft sienna sand forming a squadron of sensuous star dunes that line the road in their slow march forward.
Over time authors have stretched the boundaries of perception, leading us down rabbit holes, to fairy kingdoms and into different worlds. Yet here this red sand sea, courtesy of the Namib Desert, is real, albeit just as otherworldly as if Carroll or Tolkien had lovingly penned it in ink.
The desert kingdom of ancient sand in south-western Namibia lies in one of the oldest deserts on the planet. The Namib extends some 2 000 km along the entire coastline of Namibia – northwards into Angola and southwards into South Africa – as the most striking feature of the country across which it sprawls. Rather than being devoid of life, it harbours diverse and intriguing flora and fauna that have devised ingenious adaptation mechanisms over the centuries to survive in this fragile sandy world. What has made it famous, however, is the exquisite beauty of this extraordinary feature in the Namib-Naukluft Park that is referred to as Sossusvlei.
Sossusvlei is the pan at the end of the Tsauchab River once it has coursed from the Naukluft and Zaris mountains to the desert. Having penetrated to the Atlantic in former times, the river is now curtailed by the northward movement of the sand dunes, ending here at Sossusvlei. The vlei is a large, cracked clay depression, etched with tracks left by black-backed jackals and brown hyaenas, towered over by dark apricot-coloured dunes and accentuated by the green of camel-thorn trees.
The pan is mostly dry except in years of heavy summer rains when the Tsauchab’s catchment area receives bounty and the water rushes through Sesriem Canyon, further carving out its depths and hurtling along to the dry pan, which fills up like an oasis, a Shangri La, or magical enclave, in the desert. For a while, the wind blows the water gently against the shore, and plovers fly overhead, celebrating this fleeting occurrence of standing water in the Namib. It is here, in these rare and auspicious times, that Tolkien might have realised that reality was just as marvellous and magnificent as fantasy, had he witnessed such a seemingly miraculous event. He would doubtless have been supremely inspired. As the summer departs and the vlei begins to dry out, water lapping against the shore remains just a memory or a dream until the next bountiful summer season.
The trail of underground water can be seen along the Tsauchab course, marked by a verdant line of trees that runs from Sesriem and skirts the dunes to the vlei, visible on the sixty-kilometre route from the Sesriem gates to Sossusvlei. Part of the attraction of the area is Sossusvlei’s sister pan, Dead Vlei, even more frequently photographed than Sossusvlei, with its skeletons of camel-thorn trees, over five hundred years old, standing dark and stark in the dry vlei in poses of jubilation, or supplication, making striking subject matter against the white pan, blue sky and resplendent orange-red dunes.
It is often asked where the Sossus sands originate and why they shimmer red. This is a story that represents the long natural history of the earth and the slow pace of eternity. The sand particles are said to have been carried by the Orange River, the border between Namibia and South Africa, into the Atlantic, washed northwards by the currents and the wind, and eastwards by the waves towards the shore. The dune sand is comprised mostly of quartz, and of grains of mica, feldspar and heavier metals such as magnetite, ilimenite and garnet. The red colour is a result of the large amount of iron oxide in the sand, which transforms the desert with hues of deep, rich red.
It doesn’t matter how many times you visit this unusual place. It is always breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Try to be there, if you can, at the transitional times of the day, away from the direct glare of the sun, when the light is soft and gently covers the shoulders of the dunes with silky shawls of colour, or when the dunes glow as if from a fire deep within the earth, ‘and there is the possibility of magic’. You can expect heat, sand and wind, or you can take the leap of perception and welcome in miracles and a new and exciting reality. This is, after all, the stuff that magic is made of. You are the traveller in a different realm, arriving in a sacred kingdom of old, deep in the desert, here at Sossusvlei where the river runs into sand.
The /Ai-/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park bordering the Orange River is an exciting playground for environmentally aware and responsible 4×4 drivers. They will be rewarded with unusual scenic beauty, rich displays of succulents, halfmens trees and an intriguing mining history.
Coming into the land of big sky from the south, the traveller has a choice of interesting routes, each with its own attractions and highlights. Plan your trip to the sprawling sienna dunes of Sossusvlei with this in mind, and add adventure, exercise and fascinating, fun stops to your journey. Whether you’re an adventurer, 4×4 enthusiast, hiker, history boffin, nature or sand lover, there is a route for you.
The Richtersveld four-wheel-drive adventure takes you through mountainous terrain past fields of flowering succulents to campsites along the Orange River. The Sendelingsdrift border post is an experience in itself, with a pont crossing into Namibia. (Phone ahead if travelling during the first few months of the year to check the level of the water and the condition of the road to Rosh Pinah.) Border times are 8:00–16:30.
Rosh Pinah is a convenient stop to fill up tanks and tummies, and to visit a supermarket. Don’t miss the Geo Centre to view mineral specimens from the area (they also offer geological trips) or the Nama Padloper routes that radiate through this unexplored part of the country. These include the Kyk in die Pot road off the D727, a scenic drive through the Huib-Hoch Plateau dotted with quiver trees, and the D463 and D459 Witputs routes. The D463 also leads to the upmarket Fish River Canyon Lodge on the western rim of the Fish River Canyon.
Fill up with fuel in Aus and enjoy a beer and lunch on the sundeck of the Bahnhof Hotel, imagining Aus’s history as a busy trading centre during the diamond rush at the beginning of the twentieth century, or as a German stronghold in World War I. Overnight at the Bahnhof or several kilometres further west at Klein Aus Vista. Enjoy the panoramas of the Pro-Namib where grass meets desert sands in an embrace of beauty. The wild horses of the Namib Desert begin to appear 20 km further on the B4 towards Lüderitz. A one-and-a-half-kilometre gravel track leads to the viewing hide overlooking the Garub trough where the horses come to drink.
The desert town of Lüderitz has an interesting diamond-mining history. Base yourself at one of the Lüderitz guesthouses, or at the sprawling Lüderitz Nest Hotel positioned on the rocks next to the bay, and explore the environs. The ghost town of Kolmanskop on the outskirts of Lüderitz – where sand blows into the old houses, reclaiming desert territory – provides the photographer with a surfeit of subject matter. Or take a day trip with a tour operator to explore the Sperrgebiet National Park – once forbidden diamond territory – and visit the abandoned diamond town of Pomona and the grand Bogenfels rock arch jutting into the sea. Lüderitz’s promontories can be explored from a schooner or catamaran, and chocolate cake and coffee can be savoured at Dias Point while marvelling over this wind-swept part of the world.
The D707 is one of the most scenic routes leading to Sossusvlei from the C13, providing your first glimpse of the magnificence of the Namib-Naukluft Park before continuing up the C27 to Sesriem and Sossusvlei. Besides the soft, sensuous mountains of red sand visible along this route, mysterious fairy circles dot the land at the Namtib Biosphere Reserve.
Seventy-three rooms overlook the bay at the sprawling three-storied Lüderitz Nest Hotel with windows or balconies letting in the cool sea breeze. Suitable for business travellers as well as holidaymakers, Lüderitz Nest has full conference and function facilities.
Enjoy a drink at the Oyster Bar before descending for a delicious seafood dinner at the Penguin Restaurant with views onto the garden and across the bay to tawny hills in the distance. Laze at the sauna, take a dip in the turquoise pool surrounded by well-tended green lawns, or venture out to explore the town and the interesting sights of Lüderitz.
You don’t have to travel far from the Noordoewer border post (open around the clock) for a river adventure. Several operators offer four-day camping/canoe trips along the Orange River suitable for the whole family, no paddling experience necessary. A series of small rapids, graded at 1–2 on the worldwide scale of 1–6, offers enjoyable and easily surmountable challenges. Whether paddling or not, Noordoewer provides a relaxed overnight stop.
The Amanzi Trails Campsite has sites on the riverbank, while Felix Unite River Adventures has comfortable chalets, as does Norotshama River Resort at Aussenkehr, 50 km further on a tarred stretch of the C13. Continue northwards on the C37 towards the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Spa and the Fish River Canyon. /Ai-/Ais is the end point for the 90-kilometre Fish River Canyon hiking trail. Hikers can park their cars safely here and take the shuttle north to the starting point of the trail.
The five-day trail through the canyon, open only during the winter months – and only for the fit and feisty – must be booked beforehand through the Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) offices. Slightly further afield, the Cañon Lodge chalets are nestled into the granite boulders. Continue to the main viewpoint at Hobas and be awed by the second-largest canyon in the world. Accommodation options include the Hobas Campsite (be aware of baboons) and the quirky Cañon Roadhouse with its frontier-like atmosphere, replete with old American vehicles, memorabilia and quiver trees.
Continue on the C12 towards Seeheim and the B4. Alte Kalköfen Lodge, a short drive on the D462, makes a pleasant lunch or overnight stop along the route. (Remember to visit the lithoparium.) The C14 takes you past Bethanie to Helmeringhausen, both convenient fuel stops. Helmeringhausen, once a single farm, is a good place to break the journey, stretch your legs and have a bite before continuing towards Maltahöhe. A slight detour on the D826 will take you to Duwisib Castle built in 1908 by Baron von Wolf, subsequently killed in France during World War I.
The Tsaris Pass (with gradient 1:18) on the C19, leads over the Tsaris Mountains to Sesriem and the Namib Desert. There is a wide variety of accommodation around Sesriem, ranging from campsites to medium and luxury accommodation, and the visitor is spoilt for choice. These include Kulala Desert Lodge, Kulala Wilderness Camp and Hoodia Desert Lodge; and slightly further south, the Desert Homestead and Horse Trails, the Wolwedans Collection in the NamibRand Nature Reserve, Betesda and Hammerstein. NWR’s Sossus Dune Lodge is situated within the Namib-Naukluft Park, and Taleni Africa’s Sossusvlei Lodge, Desert Camp (with self-catering canvas units) and Sossus Oasis Campsite are a stone’s throw from the entrance gates to the vlei.
Several of the lodges have their own campsites, with the NWR campsite at Sesriem being the most popular because of its proximity to the Sossusvlei entry road. Sossus Oasis – with the neighbouring Engen petrol station – just outside Sesriem, provides an alternative. The lodges offer activities in the area, usually including a guided trip to Sossusvlei leaving at dawn, nature and sunset drives, and walks. Scenic flights and hot-air balloon flights (on still days) are available for those willing to spend a bit more and wanting to experience the grandeur of the Namib sand sea from above.
Twenty dry-packed stone-walled chalets are positioned between corky quiver trees along the western rim of the Fish River Canyon ‘on the edge of eternity’, with superb views over the canyon. The modern architecture contrasts with the natural wood and hand-sewn traditional Nama dress displayed in the spacious and stylish main lodge.
A highlight of the stay is the scenic sundowner drive along the canyon rim. Other activities include a day canyon hike or drive, and a three-night canyon hike, reserved exclusively for lodge guests, with the first and last night spent at the lodge.
Fish River Lodge can be reached via Rosh Pinah on the D463 or via the B4 east of Keetmanshoop and Seeheim. Flying in is a popular option on a short two-hour flight from Windhoek.
Visit the Namibia Wildlife Resorts (NWR) lodges and campsites in the south – they are all in choice locations. On the doorstep of the main viewpoint at the Fish River Canyon is Hobas Campsite, a good base for prime viewing of the geological masterpiece, while at the southern section of the canyon, the /Ai-/Ais Hot Springs Spa offers seven self-catering chalets, 36 rooms with direct access to the indoor spa pools, and a large campsite nestled between the rugged mountains.
Further north, the popular Sesriem Campsite is conveniently situated at the Sossusvlei entrance gates to the Namib-Naukluft Park, while the upmarket Sossus Dune Lodge, constructed from wood, canvas and thatch, is in the park itself, giving visitors the opportunity to reach Sossusvlei with the first rays of the sun.
The dolerite rocks and quiver-tree forests outside Keetmanshoop easily slot into this route from the Ariamsvlei border post open 24 hours. This is the border post used to enter Namibia from South Africa if you’ve visited Augrabies Falls on the Orange River or are travelling to Namibia via Upington.
Karasburg and Grünau are fuel stops along the B3 and B1 as you head towards Keetmanshoop. Overnight options include the Canyon Hotel and Casino on the edge of town, and Bird’s Accommodation (Bird’s Mansions Hotel and Bird’s Nest Guest House) in the centre. Make some time to explore Keetmans before driving 14 km north-east on the C17 to visit the Quiver Tree Forest and Giants’ Playground at the Quiver Tree Forest Restcamp. It was here that giants of old placed boulders one atop the other in artistic displays or tests of strength, and nature sprites delighted each other by planting hillsides with corky quiver trees – or so it seems.
Twenty-five kilometres further on, Giel Steenkamp of Mesosaurus Fossil Camp offers trips into the Quiver Tree Forest and to view the Mesosaurus fossils on his farm. Mesosaurus, resembling a baby crocodile with a long snout, was a filter-feeding reptile that lived in the shallow seas of Southern Africa and South America 250–270 million years ago. Besides the star attraction – the Mesosaurus fossils – another highlight of this tour is Giel’s rendition of Frere Jacques and the South African national anthem Nkosi Sikelel ’iAfrika expertly tapped out on the resonating dolerite rocks. More quiver trees can be seen alongside the B1 at //Garas Park. Look out for Brukkaros on your left as you drive north. Although Brukkaros, rising 600 metres above the plain, resembles a volcano in shape, the slopes were formed by older rock layers bent upwards by a gaseous explosion some 80 million years ago. Brukkaros can be reached from the M98 near Tses and the D3904. A basic community campsite provides a base for those wanting to explore. (Bring all supplies and water.)
An easy drive on the B1 towards Mariental gives you the opportunity to enjoy the wide-open landscapes of southern Namibia. Turn westwards onto the tarred C19 to Maltahöhe. Slow down as you drive through this quiet unassuming town, the gateway to the Namib-Naukluft Park. Maltahöhe provides a good stop-off point en route to the Namib and the arteries of gravel roads that extend into the desert, and is one of the last fuel stops before Sesriem. It’s a place to enjoy a meal, visit the Maltahöhe Hotel (built in 1907 and the oldest country hotel in Namibia); scrawl your name on the walls of the Woestyn Kombuis at the petrol station; buy fresh bread, a pie or an engagement ring at the Pappot Shop and Bakery; and enjoy a touch of Nama culture. At the end of the tar road and tucked to the side, the Ôa Hera Backpackers and Cultural Centre offers a friendly stop to enjoy a light lunch outdoors, an art gallery/shop housing a selection of African art, and a delightful performance by the talented scholars of the Ama Buruxa choir group (to be pre-booked through Ôa Hera).
From Maltahöhe, the C19 leads over the Tsaris Mountains towards Sesriem.
Iconic tree of southern Namibia
Touted as one of the most rare and expensive trees in the world, the iconic giant aloe – the quiver tree or kokerboom, Aloe dichotoma – is common in southern Namibia and the central-western escarpment. In fact, there’s a forest of about 250 near Keetmanshoop, the capital of the south.
These fascinating trees can grow up to 10 metres high, and live for up to 300 years. In the past, the Khoisan people made quivers for their arrows from the branches. They used the hollowed-out trunks of dead trees to keep their meat, plants and water cool while they hunted, and even took shelter in the hollowed-out trunks of larger specimens.
The trees flower in winter (May to July). They provide nest-building sites for sociable weavers, and are handy perches for several raptor species. Because they are so long-lived, quiver trees are ideal for studying the ongoing impact of climate change. It has been noted that specimens in the hotter areas of their range are dying off, while specimens in slightly cooler areas further south are growing and reproducing well.
Species tend to respond to climate change by extending their ranges to higher altitudes or latitudes, but for a slow-growing tree such as the kokerboom, it is likely to be left behind and become extinct if it cannot adapt in time. Specimens planted in gardens further south flourish, so the problem may lie in long-distance seed dispersal.
Stylish yet simple, 20 thatched chalets are positioned equidistantly on open grassland with a backdrop of purple-blue mountains extending into the distance.
Sit on the veranda of your chalet with your feet up and contemplate the scenery, or take a dip in the turquoise pool in front of the main lodge. For a different and unique experience of the area, join The Desert Homestead for the horseback sleep-out package, incorporating visits to Sossusvlei and Naukluft with a horseback safari, and dining under the stars.
Accessible from the C19, 32 km south-east of Sesriem, The Desert Homestead is ideally situated for a visit to the rich red dunes in the surroundings and for exploring the landscape on horseback.
For those travellers arriving from the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park through the Mata-Mata border post (open 8.00–16.30), this route gives you a taste of the Kalahari Desert. Continue on the C15 towards Gochas and Stampriet. Red Dune Camp is positioned between the two. The artesian waters of Stampriet support the lush, green garden and self-sufficiency centre at the Kalahari Farmhouse. Accommodation along the C20 includes Anib Lodge and Bagatelle, both offering nature drives into this intriguing area fringing the Kalahari Desert with its burnished red sands. (Just east of Kalkrand, Teufelskrallen Tented Lodge is an accommodation option on the scenic C21.) The tarred C20 joins the main B1 and a short detour south leads to the C19 to Maltahöhe.
Include the Naukluft mountain area as a stopover and rest point for camping, walking and enjoying the great outdoors (its entrance is 10 km from BüllsPort on the C14). There are three popular trails: the 10-km (4–5 hours) Olive Trail; 17-km Waterkloof Trail (6–7 hours); and challenging eight-day 120-km– Naukluft Hiking Trail, which needs to be booked in advance through NWR and can also be halved into two four-day trails.
Day visitors are welcome in the Namib-Naukluft Park although the Koedoesrus Campsite, positioned in a grove of wild ebony trees on the banks of the Naukluft River, making it a peaceful overnight stop. (Keep food packed away, out of reach of baboons). For those wanting to stroll from the campsite, the pools on the Waterkloof Trail can be reached in about an hour, and provide some exercise and a good helping of beauty without too much effort. The 73-km, two-day 4×4 Naukluft Trail is also available, with an overnight camp at Tjeriktik, 30 km from Naukluft. The trail follows tracks made by early pioneers.
The C19 leads south to Sesriem. A worthwhile loop to Solitaire, a popular desert stop, can easily be added here – if time allows – for tea and cake, padkos, a meal, fuel, and above all, Moose’s world-renowned apple crumble. The once-small general store surrounded by several rusting old Chevys, Fords, a Hudson and a row of cactuses, has grown over the years to include a lodge, bakery and tea garden, and now also offers camel rides.
Pay a visit to Sesriem Canyon, a few kilometres from Sesriem, carved over time by the Tsauchab River as it hurtles westwards after heavy summer rains. A path leads down into the canyon, where a few small pools, decorated with birds’ feathers and grass heads, usually remain after the rains. The gates at Sesriem lead you into a magical world, through the channel of sand dunes with their awe-inspiring beauty, past Dune 45, which many choose to climb for its stupendous views, and finally to the vlei where the Tsauchab River curls into itself, like a Celtic snake or a dog curling up for the night, ending its journey so elegantly between the camel-thorn trees and apricot dunes.
After feasting on the extraordinary and mind-boggling beauty of Dead Vlei and Sossusvlei, include a break at Solitaire if you haven’t made the stop yet, before heading to Windhoek. Namib Naukluft Lodge and Soft Adventure Camp are en route to Solitaire, and the African-style rock igloos of Rostock Ritz Desert Lodge lie beyond. Windhoek can be reached via several mountain passes: the steep Spreetshoogte Pass (gradient 1:4.5–1:6) on the D1275 (stop at the top for breathtaking views); the Gamsberg Pass (gradient 1:9) via the Gaub Pass (C14) and onwards to the hills of the Kupferberg Pass on the C26; or the C24 Remhoogte Pass (1:10). If travelling to the coast, continue on the C14 over the Kuiseb Pass to Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.
• The Sesriem gates are open only from sunrise to sunset. You will first need to purchase a permit at the shop/office before joining the queue at the gates.
• Sossusvlei is a 60-kilometre drive from Sesriem.
• The golden early-morning or late-afternoon hours are the best time to take photographs and view the dunes.
• Wear closed walking shoes and a hat, use sunblock and carry sufficient water. It can be extremely hot at midday, especially in the summer months.
• A shuttle is available at the Sossusvlei parking area to take guests over the last five kilometres of soft sand to the vleis.
• Big Daddy dune behind Dead Vlei is the highest and most challenging climb (suitable for the fiercely fit) while Big Mama, above Sossusvlei, provides magnificent views of the surroundings.
• Carry ample memory cards and a heightened sense of wonder for this picturesque and other-worldly ‘bucket-list’ experience.
Situated outside the Sesriem gateway to Sossusvlei, the three Taleni Africa lodges are ideally positioned for a memorable visit to the red dunes.
They offer accommodation to suit every taste. The large and modern Sossusvlei Lodge with its distinctive entrance has 51 units, a restaurant and alfresco terrace overlooking a floodlit waterhole; Desert Camp offers 20 self-catering en-suite units under canvas with a shaded veranda and kitchenette; and Sossus Oasis Campsite has 12 shaded individual sites with bathroom and kitchen facilities.
Guided Sossusvlei trips and a variety of excursions and activities from archery to hot-air ballooning are on offer at the Adventure Centre at Sossusvlei Lodge.
Experience the spectacular Naukluft Mountain scenery from one of the oldest farms in Namibia, 250 kilometres south-west of Windhoek. This friendly family farm offers six luxury and eight standard rooms, and an exclusive as well as a communal campsite surrounded by towering mountains, a short drive from the guest farm.
A paradise for horse lovers and hikers, Büllsport provides a base from where to explore the area on foot or from the back of a horse. Riding lessons for beginners are offered. Activities include excursions to prime spots of splendour – the Naukluft Plateau and Quiver Tree Gorge, day trips to Sossusvlei and 4×4 trails on the farm.
Hosts Ernst and Johanna Sauber welcome you to their home.
• For the border crossings, remember that Namibian time is an hour behind South African time, that is GMT +1 in the winter months (the first Sunday in April to the first Sunday in September).
• The recommended speed for gravel is 80 km/hour. Keep in mind that travelling on the gravel roads takes considerably longer than on the tar (and an even slower speed is required for the mountain passes).
• Plan your fuel stops beforehand and carry sufficient water and an additional spare tyre.
• Check the condition of the roads in the rainy season between November and April.
• Switch on lights and reduce speed when travelling in the busier Sesriem area, where dust clouds from passing motorists often obscure visibility. (The road also narrows through several farm gates.)
• The Namibia map endorsed by the Roads Authority is easily available and clearly shows which roads are tarred or gravel.