Sossusvlei is a magical place – so much more than the postcard images
Early morning traffic on an early-morning commute from Wilderness Little Kulala to Sossusvlei includes the vehicles that have taken a squadron of hot air balloons to their launch site, where the canopies are slowly rising out of the gloom like giant dinosaurs stirring from slumber as they inflate.
Inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the main road, for an artery that runs through a thoroughly barren area, is disconcertingly busy. Why that is becomes clear when the tar some distance further along, simply runs out. The only reason to drive down there is to go to Sossusvlei, and the last section involves either parking your soft city car at a parking lot where the deep sand begins and paying for a shuttle for the last section, or braving the 4×4 stuff, where a measure of practice in similar conditions should be considered mandatory. Before reaching the end of the road, though, the famous Dune 45 – arguably the most well-known dune in the region simply because it is, of the large ones, the hill closest to the road – comes up on the left. As an introduction to walking up a slippery, sandy slope, it’s gentler than what comes later, but beware of investing too much energy too early – whatever hiking you’re including on the schedule later will take place in unfiltered desert sun.
On arrival at the business end of the sandy section, the most recognisable Sossusvlei visuals – the red dunes against the white pan, with the skeletal ancient camel thorns providing focal points for a million photographs – are initially nowhere in evidence. The pan, more correctly known as Deadvlei, is invisible from the 02 23 parking area, being a five- or ten-minute walk over some low dunes to get there, with the neighbouring pans looking very different indeed. Ostrich Vlei, in an adjacent valley, has a fair amount of water in it, with ducks more evident than ostriches. Alongside that is Cessna Vlei, named for the illegal visitors who used to land there in small planes, which is usefully flat for such activities but otherwise considerably less dramatic. And it’s worth noting that ‘Sossusvlei’ is not the famous image Mecca in all the travelogues. The pan officially bearing that name is on the opposite side of the valley, with its most exciting facet being that it is a relatively reliable water source for animals, as it was for the area’s original human inhabitants.
Dominating the furthest end of Deadvlei is the looming bulk of the 300m-high dune called ‘Big Daddy’. When it was named, the natural formation was unlikely to have been associated with the term’s current sexual inferences, but the name does allow for endless innuendo, should you have any breath with which to quip once you’ve climbed along the ridge, all the way to the top. It’s not an easy hike, but it’s possible for anyone of average fitness, provided you don’t try it in the middle of the day with the sun at its zenith. Getting light-headed on a narrow crest with steep slopes on either side is not the best outcome… After completing the challenge – take time to survey the countryside from up there; it’s spectacular – it’s possible to make another, smaller dune from the sand that clogs your socks and shoes as you descend. Once that’s done and you can walk without feeling two inches taller, take a slow meander through the static sentinel tree trunks. It’s a wonderful, soothing and mysteriously meaningful experience. In fact, the whole location is enchanting, and for once, in the literal sense: it puts a spell on you. The tourist traffic is unavoidable, and meaningless chatter about the best angle from which to take a selfie or similar is as annoying here as it is in a cathedral. But you can understand why they are as excited about these surroundings as you are, and to deny them their choice to wear identical white outfits that contrast beautifully with the red sand would be churlish. That accommodating attitude is difficult to sustain once they start clambering over the primeval tree relics to create more exotic poses for their social media posts, despite every guide in the valley’s instructions to the contrary. They should note that, if someone takes acute offence, there are plenty of places to hide a body out here…