Sossusvlei Namibia by phodo, ShutterstockA lone tree stands in stark contrast to Sossusvlei’s red sands © phodo, Shutterstock

Individual dunes afford superb views across this landscape, with some of the best from ‘Big Daddy’.

The classic desert scenery around Sesriem and Sossusvlei is the stuff that postcards are made of – enormous apricot dunes with gracefully curving ridges, invariably pictured in the sharp light of dawn with a photogenic oryx or feathery acacia adjacent. Sesriem and Sossusvlei lie on the Tsauchab River, one of two large rivers that flow westward into the great dune field of the central Namib, but never reach the ocean. Both end by forming flat  white pans dotted with green trees, surrounded by spectacular dunes – islands of life within a sea of sand. 

The road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei is soon confined into a corridor, flanked by huge dunes. Gradually this narrows, becoming a few kilometres wide. This unique parting of the southern Namib’s great sand sea has probably been maintained over the millennia by the action of the Tsauchab River and the wind. Although the river seldom flows, note the green camelthorn (Vachellia erioloba) which thrives here, clearly indicating permanent underground water. Continuing westward, the present course of the river is easy to spot parallel with the road. Look around for the many dead acacia trees that mark old courses of the river, now dried up. Some of these have been dated at over 500 years old. 

Most years, the ground here is a flat silvery-white pan of fine mud that has dried into a crazy-paving pattern. Upon this are huge sand mounds collected by nara bushes, and periodic feathery camelthorn trees drooping gracefully. All around the sinuous shapes of the Namib’s (and some claim the world’s) largest sand dunes stretch up to 300m high. It’s a stunning, surreal environment. Perhaps once every decade, Namibia receives really torrential rain. Storms deluge the Naukluft’s ravines and the Tsauchab sweeps out towards the Atlantic in a flash flood, surging into the desert and pausing only briefly to fill its canyon. Floods so powerful are rare, and Sossusvlei can fill overnight. Though the Tsauchab will subside quickly, the vlei remains full. Miraculous lilies emerge to bloom, and bright yellow devil thorn flowers (Tribulus species) carpet the water’s edge.

Surreal scenes reflect in the lake, as dragonflies hover above its polished surface. Birds arrive and luxuriant growth flourishes, making the most of this ephemeral treat. These waters recede from most of the pan rapidly, concentrating in Sossusvlei, where they can remain for months. While they are there, the area’s birdlife changes radically, as waterbirds and waders will often arrive, along with opportunist insectivores.

Meanwhile, less than a kilometre east, over a dune, the main pan is as dry as dust, and looks as if it hasn’t seen water in decades. Individual dunes afford superb views across this landscape, with some of the best from ‘Big Daddy’. It’s a strenuous climb to the top, looking out across to ‘Big Mama’, but the climb, followed by a long walk, is rewarded by the spectacle of Dead Vlei laid out below – and the fun of running down the slip-face to reach it.

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