Flaunted in countless holiday brochures, wildlife documentaries and even car ads, 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 and stark beauty. 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 a 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 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.

Elim Dune

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. Possessing relatively abundant vegetation, the dune is interesting to visit at dawn on a calm morning, as you’ll see a multitude of criss-crossing tracks made by insects, reptiles and small animals that are supported by the grasses. Watch out for the aggressive Namib dune ant, which has a distinctive black-and-white-striped hairy abdomen and exceedingly long legs, to keep its body well elevated from the hot sand.

Sesriem Canyon

Sesriem Canyon is a narrow, shallow gorge consisting of sandstone and pebble conglomerate whose formation began some 10–20 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. The layers containing larger rocks were formed during periods of strong water flow, whereas those formed of smaller pebbles and higher concentrations of sand were established when the current was less fierce. A continental uplift a mere 2–5 million years ago then set off a process of erosion that continues today. The name Sesriem derives from the ses (six) riems (leather thongs knotted together) that were needed to draw water up to the gorge rim. 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.

Dune 45

Probably the area’s most photographed dune, Dune 45 is, believe it or not, 45km from the entrance. 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.

Hidden Vlei

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 end point 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.

Sossusvlei

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. Look carefully in some of the camelthorn trees, where you may spot the parasitic mistletoe entwined around their branches. 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. The resulting shallow lake remains for weeks, miraculously populated by water lilies and dragonflies, and attracting a flurry of aquatic birdlife.

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