The Namib-Naukluft National Park is one of Africa’s largest protected areas, which has increased in size from a small game reserve in 1907 to a vast national park – larger then either Switzerland or the Netherlands – that now encompasses a huge tranche of the Namib Desert, including former restricted mining areas. Only a fraction of this immense and unique landscape, however, is accessible to the public.
As a tourist destination, the park is renowned above all for the desolate beauty of the vibrantly coloured dunes round Sossusvlei, on the eastern edge of a rippling dune sea, whose relentless progress is eventually halted by the Atlantic Coast to the west, and the Kuiseb River to the north. Yet the Naukluft Mountains, which loom out of the gravel plains further east, prove an equally compelling destination for hikers, where the permanent water sources that lurk in the massif’s deep ravines (kloofs) support a surprising diversity of flora and fauna.
In the northwest corner of the reserve, north of the Kuiseb River, a rockier desert landscape emerges, though interspersed with pockets of dunes, beyond which extend gravel plains strewn with specimens of the planet’s oldest plant, the welwitschia mirabilis. Along the northern section of the park’s windswept coastline, lie the constantly shifting contours of Sandwich Harbour – a shallow lagoon encircled by majestic dunes, and a major wetland site for resident and migratory birds. This northern section of the national park is accessed via Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, and therefore described in the Central Coast section. Here, we describe the southern section, which has two main access points: at Sesriem for the dunescape round Sossusvlei, and southwest of the tiny crossroads at Büllsport, where there is an entrance to the eastern side of the Naukluft Mountains.
Flaunted shamelessly in countless holiday brochures, travel magazines, wildlife documentaries and even car advertisements, the towering sand dunes of the Sossusvlei area constitute Namibia’s most iconic landscape, epitomizing the country’s vast, arid and seemingly uninhabited expanses of wilderness. Yet, despite this overexposure, the dunes rarely disappoint when you finally get to see them for yourself, though at dawn in high season the 65km access road from the Sesriem gate to the Sossusvlei car park can seem like a commuter highway, as an endless stream of vehicles race to catch the best sunrise shot or beat the crowds to the 325m summit of “Big Daddy”, the tallest dune in the area.
The best time to visit is early morning, as the gradually rising sun causes the dunes to undergo several dramatic changes in colour, though you’ll need several hours to explore the area fully. Late afternoon, towards sunset, is also rewarding, and usually less crowded since only visitors staying inside the park can stay that late. After 10am, with the sun high in the sky, temperatures soar above 40 degrees in summer, and rarely dip much below 30 degrees in winter, although at that time of day you’re almost guaranteed to have the place to yourself.
The prized destination for most visitors is Sossusvlei itself, a large, elliptical-shaped, salt-rich pan surrounded by acacias, grasses and the odd shrub, and enclosed by giant dunes. Sadly, the 4WD car park has severely encroached onto the pan, which inevitably detracts from the sense of wonderment, though, thankfully, this can easily be restored by climbing one of the neighbouring dunes and gazing around at the vastness of the desert.
Once every five to ten years after exceptionally heavy rains, you may be lucky enough to witness the vlei totally transformed by a flash flood from the ephemeral Tsauchab River, resulting in a surreal shallow lake that remains for weeks, miraculously populated by water lilies and dragonflies, and attracting a flurry of aquatic birdlife.
Given its proximity to the main gate, Elim Dune is a popular spot to head for at sunset. Notable for its photogenic tufts of the Namib’s endemic stipagrostis grass set against the rich ochre sand, the dune also offers dramatic views across the surrounding gravel plains to the Naukluft Mountains, though it is a deceptively long climb to the top.
Sesriem Canyon is a narrow, shallow gorge consisting of sandstone and pebble conglomerate that was formed 15–18 million years ago when the Tsauchab River, which now only flows every few years after heavy rains, was a much more potent force, carving its way through the landscape. You can walk down into the canyon and along its sandy floor; it’s only just over a kilometre long, around 30m deep and only a few metres wide in places, flattening out as it heads towards Sossusvlei. In the rainy season, pools of water collect in the canyon’s deep hollows.
Probably the area’s most photographed dune, Dune 45 is 45km from the entrance – hence its title. Although only 85m in height, this star dune proffers a classic curvaceous spine, with a perfectly situated gnarled camelthorn tree at its base, though it’s getting progressively harder to capture a shot of it without vehicles parked in front, or a stream of people toiling up the sand for sunrise.
Tucked away behind rust-coloured dunes, Hidden Vlei, a ghostly clay pan dotted with dead acacia trees, is less visited than Dead Vlei, but just as atmospheric. Look out for the oryx and springbok spoor across the pan.
Dead Vlei and “Big Daddy”
Eerily beautiful, Dead Vlei was once the endpoint of the Tsauchab River, until the climate changed and the watercourse became blocked by dunes, leaving the camelthorn trees – some of which are estimated to be nine hundred years old – to wither and die. Their sun-scorched skeletal trunks still remain due to the aridity of the climate and absence of wood-boring insects; protruding from the parched, white clay-pan floor, they provide a stark contrast to the surrounding golden dunes and cerulean sky. “Big Daddy” lies to the south of the vlei, and you’ll be rewarded for the hour-long slog to the top by a spectacular panoramic view of the dune sea rippling away into the distance, topped off by a five-minute adrenaline rush as you race down the dune slip face into the pan.