The NAMIB-NAUKLUFT NATIONAL PARK is one of Africa’s largest protected areas. It has increased in size from a small game reserve in 1907 to a vast national park – larger than Switzerland – 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. It is 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, or en route to/from, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The southern section has two main access points: at Sesriem for the dunescape around Sossusvlei, and southwest of the tiny crossroads and farm at Büllsport, where there is an entrance to the eastern side of the Naukluft Mountains.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of all the ways to comprehend the vastness of the desert and marvel at the play of light on the dunes, it’s hard to beat the truly magical experience of witnessing sunrise over the Namib from a hot-air balloon. True, it doesn’t come cheap, but if you only splurge on one activity during your trip, this should be it. Though you’ll only spend around an hour in the air, the whole event lasts several hours, starting with a pick-up around an hour before dawn, followed by a safety briefing, then the balloon envelope is inflated, you clamber aboard and lift off. To the west the dune sea ripples away towards the coast while the Naukluft Mountains stand guard to the east. As you float upwards, you can clearly make out the shapes of the various inselbergs below and track herds of springbok or solitary gemsbok as they trek across the desert. On landing, you can enjoy a sumptuous champagne breakfast before being driven back to your lodgings.
Undoubtedly, for most people desert equals sand, and there are few more spectacular examples of sand desert (erg) than the Namib dunes, which stretch for most of Namibia’s Atlantic Coast, pushing south into South Africa, and north into Angola. The remarkableness of the 50,000-square-kilometre Namib Dune Sea within the Namib-Naukluft National Park – about the size of Belgium – has now been internationally recognized in its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the Namib boasts some of the highest dunes in the world, at over 300m, it’s the ever-changing palette of colours that most impresses – from gold to pink, cream to brick-red, apricot to maroon. The coastal dunes are generally paler, consisting of newer sand, much of which originates from sediments washed down the Orange River to be swept northwards by ocean currents and tossed up onto the beaches. The colouration becomes deeper and redder towards the eastern limits of the sand sea, due to the amount of iron oxide present in the predominantly quartz sand and the ways in which the dunes have weathered over time. Even so, the dunes magically alter in hue with the changing light.
Dune morphology, on the other hand, depends principally on the strength and direction of the wind; most kinds of sand dunes are longer on the windward side, where the wind pushes the sand up the dune, with a shorter “slip face” in the lee of the wind, where the blown sand tips over. It’s here that occasional grasses take root, helping to stabilize the dune, and wind-blown detritus collects, providing food for some of the Namib’s extraordinary desert-adapted creatures. The following main dune formations are present in the Namib:
Classic crescent-shaped dunes with two “horns” facing downwind. The most mobile of dunes, forming in strong unidirectional winds; some in the Namib can migrate over 50m per year. They are especially prominent around Lüderitz and Walvis Bay, and up the northern section of the Skeleton Coast. Less common, parabolic dunes are also crescent-shaped but with the horns trailing upwind and the slip face on the inside.
Converging winds push the sand into long lines or ridges, running parallel to the prevailing wind; some linear dunes in the Namib are over 32km in length.
Many examples of these giant dunes are found round Sossusvlei. They are formed when several winds blow from different directions, resulting in three or more steep ridges radiating out from a central peak. Star dunes do not migrate, but continue to grow vertically, and in the Namib form in a south to north direction.
Long, asymmetrical dunes that form at right angles to the prevailing wind in conditions of abundant sand, such as on the road between Walvis Bay and the airport; with steep slip faces, they appear like giant ripples from the air.
One of the largest private reserves in Africa, the NamibRand Nature Reserve shares a 100km border with the southeastern section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, thereby creating an important buffer zone. The reserve contains similar scenery to the national park: gravel plains, inselbergs, spectacular dunes and impressive mountains, as well as comparable flora and fauna, attracting over 170 bird species. However, the small handful of exclusive tourist concessions means you won’t need to share this beautiful desert wilderness with hundreds of other tourists, as can be the case round Sossusvlei. The reserve is also the first designated dark sky reserve in Africa, so it’s the perfect spot to indulge in stargazing. The southeastern section of the reserve hosts the only luxury multi-day walking safari in Namibia, the Tok-Tokkie Trail, which provides a unique opportunity to get close to nature for an extended period without sacrificing too many comforts.
Taking the nickname of the acrobatic, Tenebrionid beetle, the Tok-Tokkie Trail covers 20km across undulating vegetated sand dunes over one full and two half days of walking. The emphasis is on getting close to nature and learning about desert ecology from a knowledgeable guide, while having encounters with some of the area’s more intriguing, less obvious wildlife: from barking geckos to dancing spiders, fairy circles to the aforementioned beetle. The two nights are spent out under the stars on camp beds, and guests use hot-water bucket showers. Bear in mind that while the cooler daytime temperatures of the high-season winter months are ideal for hiking, they can make for freezing cold nights, though the bedding will be as warm as possible. The walking is made easier – or as easy as is possible over sand – by only having to carry a light daypack, as a full back-up crew transports the rest of your luggage from camp to camp and provides gourmet alfresco dining, complete with white linen tablecloths. This is serious glamping, though you do need to be reasonably fit to do the trip.
In the rush to experience what for most people is the “real desert”, namely the dunes round Sossusvlei, first-time visitors to Namibia often overlook the Naukluft Mountains, an impressive escarpment that falls off the Central Highlands and a rewarding, if challenging, hiking destination. This vast plateau boasts near-vertical cliffs in places, which rise over 1000m from the surrounding gravel plains. Formed 500–600 million years ago, it consists predominantly of porous dolomite and limestone rock, riddled with caves, galleries and ravines, sitting atop a solid granite base. Indeed, Naukluft takes its name from a Germanic corruption of the Afrikaans “nou kloof”, meaning narrow gorge or ravine. Where the underground water spills out in springs and streams in these fissures, crystal-clear pools form that support a surprising variety of plant and animal life, including around two hundred bird species. Look out for klipspringer, kudu, steenbok, oryx and Hartmann’s mountain zebra, as well as soaring black eagles that nest along the cliffs.
There are a couple of fairly demanding circular day hikes and an arduous multi-day trek that takes eight days, or four days if you arrange a pick-up (or leave a vehicle) halfway. The two day-trails require no prebooking and can be walked year-round, whereas the multi-day hike has to be booked with NWR in advance. All three hikes, which are clearly marked with painted footsteps, involve rocky terrain, requiring robust hiking shoes or boots. You’ll also need to carry at least two litres of water per day.
Probably the most popular trail, this 10km loop (4–5hr) starts from a car park 4km from the park office. It steadily winds its way up onto the plateau past many olive trees before descending via a gradually deepening valley – look out for the quiver trees – where towards the end you will need to use a chain bridge to navigate a canyon wall. The trail eventually joins a 4WD track that leads back to the car park.
Starting near the campground, this more strenuous, and arguably more scenic, 17km hike (6–7hr) takes you up a narrow ravine, dotted with pools (in the rainy season), onto an open, exposed plateau and then onto a ridge, which affords superb panoramic views. The trail then descends steeply past further pools and waterfalls (after rains) before meeting the usually dry Naukluft River and then a 4WD track, which you follow back to the start.
This gruelling, eight-day, 120km trail (with a four-day option that avoids the toughest sections) allows you to experience the full variety of the massif’s rocky terrain but is not for the faint-hearted, those afraid of heights, or the inexperienced. Moreover, while some sections of the trail lead you through impressive scenery, others take you along seemingly endless rocky ravines and riverbeds. Averaging around six hours’ hiking a day, you’ll stay in very basic shelters, offering only water and toilets (no showers), and, with no fires allowed in the park, you’ll need to carry a stove. The good news is that it is possible to leave a vehicle with supplies for the last four days at Tsams Ost, the shelter for the fourth night, thereby saving having to carry the extra kilos of food. Those doing the shorter four-day trail will also leave a vehicle here for transport back out of the park.
The Naukluft multi-day hike is only permissible between March 1 and the third Friday in October (Tues, Thurs & Sat); buy a permit in advance from NWR in Windhoek, for which you need a current medical certificate. The cost is N$135 per person, in addition to park entry fees. A minimum of three people (maximum twelve) is needed to hike the trail.
One of Namibia’s many striking curiosities is its desert wineries: one is situated outside Omaruru in the Erongo Region, whereas the more visited Neuras Winery lies only a few kilometres off the D850 – an easy detour and perfect lunch stop if you’re travelling between the Naukluft Mountains and Sossusvlei. Since this means it can also be popular with tour groups, it’s advisable to phone ahead and time your visit accordingly. While the landscape at first glance would seem too harsh for successful viticulture, a guided tour soon puts you right, explaining the unique microclimate of the spring-fed estate, where the alkaline soil is perfect for planting and the mountainous backdrop protects the vines from the worst ravages of the desert winds. The first wine from Merlot and Shiraz grapes was produced in 2001, resulting in about 3000 bottles. Since then, the estate has expanded, various experimental grapes have been planted, and production is up to 15,000 bottles of red wine and brandy a year. Full tours of the vineyards and cellars take around an hour, culminating in a wine tasting of two reds, accompanied by a platter of cheese (N$285). If you want to skip the tour, you can still sample the wine (at N$20 each), which is surprisingly good, or linger over a light lunch – wraps, salads, pasta, a plate of antipasti and the like (N$45–105) – in their pleasant shady, patio restaurant, and savour a full glass or bottle.
The rugged, scenic Tiras Mountains rarely receive more than a photo stop from most travellers as they skirt their eastern flank, driving up or down the C13, on their way between Aus – and beyond, Lüderitz – and the dunes of Sossusvlei further north. Yet this beguiling range is worth lingering over for a couple of days as it lies at the convergence of several ecological zones, resulting in impressive plant biodiversity and varied landscapes, which transform their colours with the changing light. At the very least, consider a detour round the semicircular gravel D707 – just doable in a 2WD but better in 4WD – one of the most picturesque routes in southern Namibia. It picks its way round the southern and western edges of the mountains – giant rocky outcrops fringed with flaxen grasses, punctuated by hardy succulents – while affording mesmerizing views across to the richly coloured pink and apricot dunes of the Namib to the west