Climbing sand dunes to watch the sunrise has to be one of the top things to do in Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert, Namibia. For stunning views of neighbouring orange/red sand dunes, complete silence and the knowledge that you have just conquered some of the highest dunes in the world, the early start heaps you with just rewards. In addition, once you have watched the beautiful sunrise you can run down the slipface into eerie Dead Vlei below.
The following guide gives you all the information you will need, to ensure that you get the most out of your experience.
One of the most photographed regions of Namibia are the mammoth red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, located in the idyllic, unspoilt desert of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, about 380 km from Walvis Bay (on the Western coast of Namibia).
The name Sossusvlei literally translates as “Dead-End marsh” from two languages, Nama and Afrikaans and refers to a large salt and clay pan which was created by the flow of the Tsauchab River. The dunes came together preventing the river from continuing its course to the Atlantic Ocean.
The pan remains bone-dry most years due to the dry arid conditions in the Namib Desert, so you can imagine the excitement during an exceptional rainy season when the Tsauchab River fills the pan, resulting in the appearance of a “lake”.
The characteristic red colour of the sand is due to a high concentration of iron and oxidation processes. The dunes are referred to as “star dunes” due to a multi-directional wind pattern across the area. These winds appear responsible for the lack of dune movement and their stability.
The majestic red dunes set amid an isolated arid desert landscape make for incredible photographic opportunities and this area should be explored thoroughly.
How To Get To Sossusvlei
From Walvis Bay (Allow at least 4 hours)
Drive south on the C14 via the Kuiseb River Canyon joining the C19 to the town of Solitaire. An atmospheric middle of nowhere location, with a fuel station and general dealer, it provides a reliable place for refueling and any punctures to be mended. Continue on the C27 for another 15 km to reach Sesriem.
BEST TIP :
- Be sure to wander into the Solitaire General Dealer located behind the garage for a surreal experience of stepping back in time. There are old fashioned wooden counters, old weighing scales and anything from tinned food to ostrich egg necklaces on sale.
- An absolute must, is a stop at the bakery for a piece of the legendary apple pie, baked every day on the premises and served hot! Sit in the shaded seating area and enjoy with a cold drink or hot coffee, and you will probably be joined by a lovely cat who lives there.
From Windhoek (Allow at least 5-6 hours)
The best direct route avoiding any mountain passes, is to head south on the B1 to Rehoboth. Head West to Bullsport. Continue on the D854, right on the C19 and then left to Sesriem. (About 4.5 hours)
Sesriem is the gateway to the sand dune desert of Sossusvlei and is the place to stop and buy your entry permit into Namib-Naukluft national Park.
- Permits currently cost N$80 per person for tourists outside SADC, N$60 for South Africans, and N$30 for Namibians, N$10 for cars up to 10 seats, N$40 for cars with more than 10 seats, and children under the age of 17 (0 –
16) are free.
Opening Times Are :
Summer (September-March) 05.45-18.15
Winter (April-August) 06.45-17.15
BEST TIP :
- If you want to climb a dune before Sunrise, you are restricted by your accommodation choice, as the only lodge within the Park itself is Sossus Dune Lodge. It is ESSENTIAL to book accommodation here as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
When you enter the Park you will be driving on a tarred road, and all of the attractions in the area are easily accessible along the 65 km drive to Sossusvlei. It is only the last 5 kms which become soft sand and you will need a 4×4 to tackle the route to the vlei.
Always drive carefully as you will often see animals crossing or even standing in the road!
At the end of the tarred road is the parking lot for 2WD vehicles and other vehicles, and where you can pick up a shuttle bus and be transported to the base of the tallest dune in Sossusvlei, Big Daddy.
Tips For 4×4 Driving In Sand
The sand in this area is soft, aerated and usually a little churned up.
- Ensure all wheels are engaged.
- Reduce the tyre pressure to about 50%.
- Select the correct gear, usually 2nd or 3rd gear.
- Maintain speed and keep going without changing gear, or you may come to a dead stop.
- If you get stuck, don’t spin your wheels or you will dig yourself deeper into the sand.
- Do not attempt to walk out of the area but wait with your vehicle until one of the patrol vehicles comes past and will assist you.
The Sand Dunes Of Sossusvlei Area
On entering the Park Gates, the main dunes on the way to Sossusvlei are in the order as follows :
As you leave Sesriem there is a turning off to the right after about 5 kms. This short track leads to a shaded parking area and the foot of the nearest sand dune. The climb to the top takes about an hour and is a great climb at sunset, as you can return to Sesriem quickly.
As you progress towards Sossusvlei, there are several dunes which are numbered according to their distance from Sesriem gate. The next one of note is Dune 45.
There are signs to Hidden Vlei on the left hand side of the parking lot and it is about a 2 km walk over the dunes to the south. This is the least visited vlei and will afford you with solitude and a landscape of dead, old acacia trees.
Climbing The Sand Dunes Of Sossusvlei
Sunset At Dune 45
Checking the time for sunset in Sesriem, we headed along the paved main road towards Dune 45 and the parking area. As this is the closest sand dune to the road, it is extremely popular. Thankfully, a coach was waiting for its occupants to return from their climb, so after passing the last few stragglers as we started our climb, we had the dune to ourselves.
The climb was relatively easy as we followed other climbers footsteps and kept to a steady pace. It was quite breezy near the top of the crest which meant the sand was blowing in our faces. We stopped every now and then to sit and simply take in the view and the sheer vastness of this area. As the light starts to change, so does the colour of the dunes. Vibrant red and orange hues set against shadows bouncing off individual peaks makes for incredible photos and landscapes.
Even though we were staying inside the Park at Sossus Dune Lodge, visitors still have to be back at the accommodation 1 hour after sunset, so we headed back down the dune continually stopping for the incredible views.
If the scenery at the top was first class, the scenes as the sun sets were simply stunning. The lights in the sky were almost dancing, the yellows reds and oranges colliding with each other for pride of place.
BEST TIPS :
- Don’t leave as soon as the sun sets, the next 20-30 minutes will be the best time to view the changing colours in the sky.
- Make sure to be down at the parking lot after the sun sets, to ensure you still have enough light to drive back to your accommodation in time, keeping alert for any animals in the road.
- Be sure to take plenty of water with you to keep hydrated.
- Be mindful of keeping your camera covered from the blowing sand.
- The climb to the top takes between 30 and 60 minutes, but pace yourself and yo will be fine. It takes about 5 minutes to descend.
Sunrise From Big Daddy
Grabbing a quick coffee and pastry for energy, we headed out at 4.20am into the darkness with our guide Sammy, from Sossus Dune Lodge. We were lucky to be the only 2 people on the sunrise tour, so had Sammy’s undivided attention for the entire trip.
Despite having our own 4×4 transport, we had decided to take a tour as we did not want to take the chance of getting the vehicle stuck in sand and missing sunrise while we waited for someone to come along and assist us.
Arriving at the Dead Vlei parking area, it was chilly outside and still reasonably dark as we set off to the base of Big Daddy. We were wearing hiking boots and layered clothes, without jackets. Sammy pointed us in the right direction and said he had to go and arrange a table for breakfast and would catch up with us later, leaving us to start our accent.
In the dim light of early morning the landscape is yet to reveal its secrets and we took a steady climb, pausing every now and then for a drink of water. The climb was made easier for me as I was walking in hubby’s footsteps, however as long as you have an average level of fitness and pace yourself, then the climb is manageable.
Walking at a steady pace, we reached the first plateau after 20 minutes and even at this stage, the panoramic view is alluring. The sand is very soft and your feet sink down into it and slide slightly to the side, which is slightly off putting initially.
We decided to sit here and watch the sunrise as the light was changing and starting to cast soft shadows across the dunes around us.
The sand dunes were bathed with different length shadows, turning the sand a heady mix of colour extremes, ranging from hues of brown, red and orange. Coupled with the silent stillness, we felt as though we were the only people alive for thousands of miles. Sitting in the quietude and gazing at the natural beauty of the undulating landscape you cannot fail to feel a peacefulness, calm and serenity flow over you.
Looking down into the barrenness that is Dead Vlei, the white clay pan resembles snow, as the light rays are yet to brighten this photographer’s paradise.
If you want to reach the top of Big Daddy, you will have a further climb of 20-40 minutes depending on your fitness levels. The steepness is interspersed with a few flat stretches but as long as you pace yourself you will be fine.
It is not the steepness that is the problem but the fact that your feet sink into the soft sand and slide sideways that makes the climb tiring. Wearing sturdy walking boots will offer support to your ankles, although some people prefer to walk barefoot. This is not a good idea in the heat of the day though as the sand reaches 70 degrees quite quickly.
Once you reach the summit you will get your just rewards, a 360 degree stunning panoramic vista of endless red sand dunes across an endless desert backdrop. This is what the climb was all for and it was worth every puffed step, every twinge in your leg muscles and every dry mouthed gasp.
Despite the arduous climb and the time taken to ascend Big Daddy, you will descend the steep side of the dune into Deadvlei, in less than 5 minutes.
Deadvlei offers an entirely different landscape to the one at the top of Big daddy. In fact the scenery in Deadvlei could not be more stark.
When the Tsauchab River changed course, the acacia trees were deprived of water and now over 500 years later, they are skeletal imitations of their former self. Dead black and white withered acacia trees contrast starkly, against the white clay pan, making its surrealistic nature a strikingly beautiful sight.
In the early morning light, each tree is silhouetted and set against the backdrop of sand dunes changing colour, the whole scene is a paradise for taking photographs.
We wandered around the pan, mesmerised by the changing light and changing colours, thankful that we were the only ones there.
Gazing upwards, the first few trickle of climbers were beginning their ascent of Big Daddy, and their voices were carried down to us in the pan.
One of the party decided to break off from the group and run down the side of the dune towards Deadvlei, arms waving manically and screeching. This definitely signaled our time to leave! It also reaffirmed our decision to rise at 3.45am so that we were leaving as others were beginning to arrive.
Back in the truck and making our way from the parking lot it became apparent why Sammy our guide had left us when we first arrived. He had managed to book one of a few picnic tables under the shade of the Camel Thorn Trees. He had placed a tablecloth on top and set out crockery, in preparation for our return.
Feasting on cereal, boiled eggs, fresh fruit salad, an assortment of meats and other goodies, we chatted like old friends. Sammy gave us an insight into his homeland and its people and as a previous guide in Etosha National Park, he was able to provide tips for our impending stay there.
Even travelling independently, we do occasionally take a guided tour as it is invaluable for learning things from a local that you would otherwise not know. Sammy had a wicked sense of humour, was passionate about the area and answered all our questions with great enthusiasm.
BEST TIPS :
- Ideally stay 1-2 nights at the least to enjoy everything the area has to offer visitors. Stay inside the Park, to be able to access the dunes as early as possible.
- If short on time, buy your permit the day before to avoid queueing and losing time at the dunes.
- Even if you are driving a 4×4, if you don’t feel confident driving on the sand, don’t hesitate to take a tour – the money is totally worthwhile and you will not regret the expense.
- Wear thin layers, as you may be cold initially, but trust me, you will soon be stripping off as your blood starts pumping and you don’t want to be carrying anything.
- Take sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat to protect yourself from the harsh sunlight.
- There are drop toilets in the parking area of Sossusvlei but no water available.
- Take plenty of water on the climb, about 1.5 litres per person, although you would need more if climbing in the daytime heat plus sun protection.
- Be sensible about your health and ability to exert yourself. This is not a climb for those without a good level of fitness. You can still view sunrise from the base and wander around Deadvlei if you decide not to climb Big Daddy.
- Take snacks or a breakfast pack, so you can stop and eat when and where you wish.
- Outside of sunrise and sunset, try to visit the dunes early morning or late afternoon. The shadows cast against the dunes will be more prominent which makes for better viewing and taking of photos.
- Don’t forget to stop and enjoy the views, the peace and quietness.
Whatever your accommodation budget, there are options to suit everyone’s needs and preference. Whether you want to camp, self-cater or indulge in some luxury there is something on offer for every visitor.
The most important consideration is whether you want to experience the dunes at sunrise and sunset. If the answer is yes, there are two options.
Option 1 – Sesriem Campsite
The campsite sits just outside the gate but has its own entrance which opens one hour before the main gates. This makes it perfect for visitors to experience the sun setting over Elim Dune as the dune is only 5 km from Sesriem. You will however, not be able to drive to Sossusvlei and climb Big Daddy and be at the top, in time for sunrise and sunset.
There are 20 camping sites, well spaced out with their own water point and fire place, and ablution blocks offering showers and toilets. Facilities include a central swimming pool, basic shop and bar.
I didn’t camp here myself, but others have said it is adequate for their needs, plus be sure to ask for a site in the shade of the camel thorn trees.
Option 2 – Sossus Dune Lodge
Option 2 – Sossus Dune Lodge
Being the only lodge inside the Park, and allowing visitors to benefit from being able to reach Sossusvlei before sunrise and stay after sunset, this lodge is extremely popular. It is imperative that you make your booking as early as possible to avoid disappointment.
Passing through the Park gate, take the road for Sesriem Canyon and then turn right just before reaching the Canyon parking area. Continue along this track to the lodge’s parking area.
The Lodge has 25 individual rondavel-style chalets with thatched roof, linked by a wooden walkway and set in an incredible location. Facilities include a restaurant, bar, swimming pool and shop.
Guests can take part in the lodge’s guided sunrise/sunset drives and trips to Sesriem Canyon and Elim Dune for a fee.
You now have all the information you need to assure that you can make the most of a trip to this beautiful part of Namibia.
Has anyone climbed Big Daddy yet?
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