Text and photos Marita van Rooyen
No matter what your level of fitness, Namibia’s Big Daddy dune is no one’s playmate. From its base, it might not look like much – and the excited faces of potential dune conquerors going around energetically tackling the sand mass reflects a deceiving sense of doability. But as soon as your boots are buried in a mini-dune and your leg muscles start feeling the pull, you’ll know that this heap of sand is one of a kind.
Not regaled as the highest dune in the Sossusvlei area for nothing, Big Daddy reaches for the skies at about 330 metres, spreading its fine sands over the surrounding red masses when there’s the slightest breeze. Twisting and turning, moving and writhing (although not in such a way that you’d actually notice), the dunes here are forever reinventing themselves, albeit not necessarily at an unhurried pace.
And at a slow and leisurely pace is exactly how you should be tackling our famous Namib Desert. Chad Wratten, owner of The Travel Bug Safaris, and initiator of the ‘coolest and cheapest three-day safaris to Sossusvlei’ greets his guests with the words:
“For most, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the dunes of Sossusvlei and experience Namibia’s unique desert life. Nature is first and foremost the reason we are here.”
And so it should be, because Sossusvlei with its surreal landscapes and unbelievable desert-adapted dune life must be at the top of your list of places to see before you depart from this Earth.
Dreamlike experiences en route
Leaving the capital Windhoek behind, The Bug takes you on a scenic cruise via Kupferberg Pass to the top of Spreetshoogte. Here, lunch is served against the backdrop of one of Namibia’s most dramatic vistas, a true embodiment of the meaning of Namib – the great vast place – spread out below.
With visions of solitude and seclusion, dessert is waiting just around the corner in the form of Moose McGregor’s famous apple pie (and a choice of other sweet delicacies) at the Solitaire oasis.
Somewhat of a twilight zone, with the remains of car wrecks strewn over the soft sands, ground squirrels begging for crumbs, and the refreshing properties of ice-cold beer “This could be Quentin Tarantino stuff,” as a first-timer exclaims excitedly!
From here the scenery takes on a red hue as the afternoon sun paints the surrounding landscape with its rays, and the gigantic dunes start looming in the foreground. It is also at this stage in the exploration game that your guide will start sharing intriguing desert facts and figures, including the reason why the dunes glow red and how the masses of sand piled up into the mountains they have become.
Besides being chauffeured through one of Earth’s most spectacular places, at a pace that is as relaxed as it possibly could be, rest awaits at Camp Agama, before the Big Day (and Daddy) dawns.
Desiccated trees and super-massive sand heaps
“Where some conservation areas were set aside to protect wildlife, the Namib-Naukluft Park was founded to protect our dunes,” explains Chad. And as the third-largest park in Africa, it protects a whole load of sand pile-ups, including the most monumental of them all – Big Daddy.
The park is also home to Sesriem Canyon, Dune 45 (so-called because of its distance from the entrance gate, and quite possibly the most photographed dune in the world), the weird and wonderful universe called Deadvlei, and, of course, Sossusvlei itself.
But sand is by no means all you’ll get from your visit. Here, desert-adapted fauna and flora further tickles the fancy, such as the unique survival adaptations of gemsbok, ostrich and springbok, and the drinking methods of the fog-basking beetle.
Tok tokkies and shovel-snouted lizard (also known as the sand-diving lizard for its ability to disappear as quick as a flash under a layer of sand) lazily look on as the adventurous tackle the dunes, while the ever-present Acacia erioloba provides shelter from the harsh sun.
Interestingly, it is about the only tree that survives this environment, because of its brilliant tap-root system, which can penetrate down into the ground for up to ten times the height of the tree. The dried-out remains of camel-thorns that punctuate the white expanse add to the eerie appearance of Deadvlei, being the last vestiges of what used to be a verdant desert oasis, many centuries ago.
A forest frozen in time, with its cracked and dry, salty surface; the masses of red sand as a backdrop; and the statuesque blacked-out tree skeletons, Deadvlei has been used as the setting for many an otherworldly reality.
Six straps for water
And since you cannot visit Sossusvlei without first viewing Sesriem Canyon, this is where you will learn first-hand about the immense power of the Tsauchab River. The canyon, which is about 1.5 km in length and 30 metres at its deepest, is made up of layers of sedimentary rock and sand, showing clear signs of the rain levels of periods gone by. It is here where thirsty travellers and their hardworking animals sought relief from the heat of the desert in the years when convenience shops and desert lodges were still non-existent.
The name Sesriem, which roughly translates into ‘six straps’, originates from the days when six leather straps or thongs (rieme) knotted together were needed to haul water from the bottom of the gorge.
Today, there is still a pool of permanent water at the floor of the canyon – complete with a school of barber – but rather more than six straps would be needed to bring up water to quench your thirst.
After a day of basking in the unforgiving rays of the sun, admiring mammoth pile-ups of ancient sand and extraordinary desert creatures, the time has come to head back to camp, where your tent, bed, a cool pool, refreshing drinks, and a three-course home-cooked meal awaits.
Aaaah… a weekend perfectly spent.
Who is The Travel Bug?
Initiated by Chad ‘The Chadman’ about four years ago (driving a blue VW kombi minibus), The Travel Bug Safari departs from Windhoek every Friday. It is a fully-catered-for camping safari (except for drinks and snacks) for adventurous souls of any age, kind and taste.
Today tours are conducted in a personalised safari vehicle, with windows large enough to dream far into the vastness and point heavy camera lenses at the open spaces. Guide and driver Rodney Katuutja (who has been a tour guide for about 12 years) takes care of guests, sharing information on matters nature-related and making sure your every need is taken care of.
The last words from The Chadman? “Thank you for tripping with The Travel Bug. Wherever your travels might take you next, be sure to do it safely, and with lots of fun!”
Other Namibian companies offering scheduled camping tours to Sossusvlei: