A family sojourn to Sossusvlei
Text & Photographs Elzanne McCulloch
From the Spring 2023 issue
Travelling experiences are like a rich tapestry of interwoven moments, stitched together like colourful threads to create a beautiful diorama. A story unfolds, the minute details of which combine to imprint itself on our memories. I experienced this sensation again on a recent family retreat to the forlorn and yet vibrant wonders of the south, where key moments stood out against the collective experience and became chapter headings of a wonderful memory.
The descent into freedom
The drive from Windhoek towards Namibia’s southern gem of Sossusvlei is among my all-time favourite Namibian trips. Heading south from Windhoek, through the “picture bridge” and on towards Rehoboth, the landscape opens up into a vast panorama. The odd outcrop seems to only accentuate the flatness of the surrounding plains. From the main road our journey takes a south-westerly turn and soon we reach the mountainous landscape that precedes the best view in Namibia – Spreetshoogte Pass. The meaning of the word “vast” is powerfully entrenched in our minds as we gaze in wonder over the endless terrain spread out before us. Straight ahead of us lie uninterrupted plains, but shifting our gaze towards two o’clock, we marvel at a swath of navy mountains, layered in depth and different hues of blue. A vision of freedom.
Icons of the desert
Before we reach the Sossusvlei area, another iconic landmark lies in wait along the dusty roads that criss-cross these southern landscapes. An unassuming but by-now-famous apple crumble awaits at Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery at Solitaire. My sister-in-law pops into the bakery to stock up on this must-have as we refuel, while my one-year-old runs after the Sociable Weavers that hop around on every available service. Solitaire is an oasis in this dry locale – home to a petrol station, shop, accommodation, restaurant, tyre service centre, restrooms and the iconic bakery. Standing sentinel, a windpomp slowly turns in the slight afternoon breeze.
Denizens of the south
Not far from Solitaire we find our resting place for the night. Even though we are not too tired after the three-hour drive from the capital, it is nice to stay over somewhere comfortable. Wandering along the way, and all around the lodge, are the denizens of the south (and most other regions of Namibia) – the gemsbok. In the vast amber expanses of Namibia, where dunes rise, valleys fall and the horizons blur into eternity, the gemsbok stands as a regal emblem of the desert’s untamed beauty. This majestic antelope, with its long, slender horns stretching towards the cerulean sky, embodies the spirit of resilience. As the sun casts a golden sheen over the desert sands around us, the gemsbok meander about, their silhouettes shimmering against the backdrop of dunes and mirages. Its very existence is a testament to the miracles of adaptation, thriving where few dare to tread.
That evening at dinner, we met another denizen of the south. No sooner had we sat down at our table when the friendly chef, with laughter lines etched deep into her skin, made her way over to us. With a spread of tantalising dishes adorning the buffet table, she shared stories of how her mother used to cook and how lekker was nog nooit sleg nie (translated: delicious food is never a bad thing). The tradition of making simple dishes well was passed down through generations in her family and one can see by the light shining from her eyes that making people happy through homely meals is her ultimate joy. And that is what our dinner was: pure joy. It was more than food; it was a communion of tales, tastes and traditions. Made all the more special by the presence and prose of the chef and her stories. A few more unique threads woven into our tapestry.
Firsts and fiftieths
Rising early the next morning to beat the heat and the rush, we set off to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The friendliest of gate guards greets our adventure into the spectacular desert belt that funnels the visitor along a 60-km tar road to the spectacular Sossusvlei and adjacent Deadvlei at its culmination. The last five kilometres of the journey is a treacherous off-roading thick sand track that should certainly not be attempted by the inexperienced 4×4 driver, let alone by someone without an actual 4×4! We pass two vehicles, stuck belly-down in the soft sand, as we journey along. A one-kilometre walk from the parking area, over soft sloping red dunelets, leads to the moment in which Deadvlei presents itself to the intrepid adventurer. As you crest the final uphill along the somewhat trodden sandy track, a majestic salt pan appears. The white clay expanse is interrupted intermittently with the black skeletal silhouettes of ancient petrified camelthorn trees and the shapes of other explorers wandering among them and across the swathe of white. Along the higher ridges of the surrounding dunes, we see the tiny outlines of humans who have been energetic and dauntless enough to scale the ochre sands for indescribable views from the top. At the furthest edge of the pan stands Big Daddy. It will take you an hour or two to ascend, but the sights from the top of this mammoth dune are life-changing (I swear I am not one prone to over-exaggeration!).
This is probably my fiftieth visit to this Namibian icon, but for my young son, it is a first. He waddles across the white clay surface in his characteristic one-year-old gait, stopping only to inspect cracks and rocks along the way. Finally he stumbles upon a camelthorn in his path. Up, up, up he looks at the giant tree, centuries older than him. It is well-known in the tourism industry that we do not sit or lean against these ancients. Explaining that to a baby is almost easier than trying to convince visiting tourists of the same. After snapping a quintessential photo of Luka and his first experiences of this magical place for the memory book, we continue along in awe of the surrounding beauty. Whether it is a first or fiftieth visit, the wonder will always remain.
Ice-cold refreshments and visitors from afar
Back at Sesriem, after a quick visit to the nearby eponymous canyon, we order a cold beverage from the bar. Chilled glasses of draught appear before us as if by some desert voodoo. An ice-cold beer in the Namib is almost as iconic as Sossusvlei itself. A simple pleasure, but one that never tires. We play a guessing game as we listen to the loud group of tourists on the other side of the circular counter. “Is it Italian?” my husband whispers. “Or Russian?” I retort, our ears perking up. The truth lay somewhere in between – an Eastern European dialect that kept us guessing. The lilt and rhythm distinct, evoking the same sense of mystery that the desert had. We are just so happy to once again be surrounded by visitors from far-off lands. They were missed during the dry pandemic years. Their laughter adds to our collection that weaves together a magical memory of a weekend well-spent with family in beautiful places.
On our final morning we prepare for an early farewell, the sun making its majestic ascent over the dunes and mountains. It feels like a silent benediction, a golden seal on the mosaic of moments that had made this trip truly special. The journey back is reflective. Sossusvlei, with its vast landscapes and intimate moments, had offered an experience that was both monumental and deeply personal. From the tales of a chef and her mother’s culinary legacy to the awe-inspiring beauty of Deadvlei. From the simple joy of an ice-cold beer in the desert to the delightful puzzle of deciphering a foreign language, every moment had found its place in the tapestry of memories. As the dunes faded in the distance, I realised that truly special trips are not just about the destinations. They are about the moments, the experiences, and the stories that stay with you long after you have left the place behind. And along our journey south to Sossusvlei, I had found a treasure trove of them.