In a country overflowing with surreal scenery that pushes the boundaries of what you think the earth can look like, Sossusvlei is perhaps the most peculiar. There, sand is piled at its greatest heights and trees that have been dead for centuries still stand in a dried up marsh. A surprising amount of animals survive amidst the gigantic rust colored sand dunes and fog and seasonal underground rivers feed vegetation in this seemingly dehydrated place. Just a few dozen miles away, the desert abruptly ends at the ocean where waves crash against the cliffs of sand.
In this place, sand tests you, taunts you and swallows up your feet. Sometimes sand is more hellacious than you thought it could be, sometimes it’s just as soft and forgiving as you would expect it to be.
Officially, Sossusvlei is the name of a large salt and clay pan located inside Namib-Naukluft National Park, but the area that surrounds it has taken on its name as well. We spent a morning exploring this part of the park, and it felt like we were visiting another planet.
We woke up before dawn and arrived at the park as the sun rose.
Even though this one of Namibia’s most heavily visited spots, it often felt deserted.
But there was always an animal nearby.
Our guide had us step out of the vehicle to look for some kind of animal. We couldn’t find it and I never was sure what we were looking for.
Dune 45 is one of the most popular dunes to photograph because of its wavy shape. It certainly stood out amongst the dunes and it didn’t hurt that there were some oryx grazing in front of it as well.
Aside from beating the heat, one of the best reasons to get to the park at sunrise is to be able to see the great shadows and shapes the sun creates in the early morning.
We noticed a speck on one of the dunes and figured out that it was an ostrich running straight up it. I wondered if it had a purpose for doing so or if it was like us, climbing mountains of sand just for the hell of it.
Watching people trek up a huge dune that was smaller than the one we were about to climb amplified both my fear and my excitement.
We ventured up a dune nicknamed, “Big Daddy”. Climbing sand dunes seems like a challenge before you begin and once you start, it’s even harder than you thought it would be. It’s one of those painful activities you impose upon yourself that turns you into a sweaty, sandy, out-of-breath mess but you do it because its an adventure and you’ll value it even more when you’re done.
As we climbed higher, we got a better look at the Deadvlei. It’s a clay pan that was once fed by a river which allowed trees to grow there, but it eventually dried up. These dead acacia trees are said to be about 900 years old.
Our guide would stop to point out things like desert beetles while casually sinking into the side of the sand dune. While we struggled up the sand dune, he practically sprinted as if he were on level pavement. He was clearly at home, and connected to this land in a way that was well beyond what we could grasp in just one day there.
Sossusvlei is full of natural color blocking.
Two by two, we went down the sand mountain to the Deadvlei as we ran out of stamina. These were the last two. They got the furthest, but came down after they saw that fog wiped out the view of the ocean near the top of the dune. To go to the Deadvlei after Big Daddy, it makes more sense to go straight down the dune rather than following your footsteps back along the ridge. At first, I was scared when I took my first step down the sand cliff and got a sense of how high up we were. Then I realized how much fun it was to build momentum and propel myself down a steep cliff of sand. Having the chance to run and slide down the dune was well worth the grief of climbing it.
A few years ago, I saw photos of the Deadvlei and it was the first thing that intrigued me about Namibia and made me want to know more about the country. Standing amongst these dried up trees, surrounded by orange sand and the bluest sky, the Deadvlei lived up to the photographs I saw of it and more.
After exploring the Deadvlei it was still quite a trek through the sand to get back to our vehicle. Our legs were wobbly and we were dehydrated and hungry. In a great surprise ending to our morning, our guide presented us with a champagne brunch. Mimosas have never before been so delicious.