Want a picnic site away from it all?
Tired of sharing your space with others? Weary of picknicking cheek-by-jowl with fellow tourists? Ever wanted to really get away from it all?
Well, Namibia in general - and the Namib Naukluft park in particular - is the place for you! The splendid isolation of this picnic spot is quite beyond dispute ... and what the camera can't show is the 30km radius of similarly majestic nothingness that surrounds it!!!
The Namib gets hellish hot in the middle of the day, even in winter, and for fear of stating the obvious, there is absolutely no shade - the tree in picture was literally the only one for kilometres. This little picnic spot with its metal roof may have been very basic, but it was an exceedingly welcome spot to break our journey and quench our thirst.
It may sound obvious, but in such an arid environment, you need to keep hydrated, and you must travel with sufficient water to tide you through an emergency. Even driving in an air conditioned vehicle will dehydrate you, so aim to drink two litres of water a day to counteract this even if you're sitting in your vehicle all day.
Despite taking every reasonable precaution, there are also times when you may find yourself stranded because your vehicle's broken down, the road is impassable or - most often - you've miscalculated the huge distances (and the impact the aircon has on fuel consumption) and have run out of fuel. Under these circumstances, it's important not to panic - virtually all of Namibia has cellphone coverage, so you should be able to call for help to either the car hire company or the accommodation you're heading for - but make sure that you have enough water to be able to comfortable sit out what might be quite a wait. In case of the vehicle overheating, it's also sensible to have water available to top up the radiator.
My rule of thumb is to travel with about 20 litres of water - all supermarkets and petrol stations will sell water very affordably in 5 litre plastic containers (sometimes larger) which you can then refill en route.
A jolly useful mud map of Sesriem/Sossusvlei
I have always found this little sketch plan (what the Aussies endearingly call a 'mud map') extremely useful in planning my visits to the Sesriem/Sossusvlei section of the Namib Naukluft park, and I hope it will be equally useful to others.
The key point to note is the significant distances involved: from the main gate, the parking area for 2 wheel drive (2WD) vehicles at Sossusvlei is 60km, which should take you about an hour to drive as 60kph is the speed limit. Unless you're staying within the park (either at the Sesriem camping site or the very pricey hotel accommodation in and adjacent to the park), this means that in order to avoid the midday sun, you need to get a very early start. This is advisable anyway, as not only is it cooler, but the light conditions are far more suitable for good photography.
The next challenge is which bit to do first, since most moderately athletic types will probably want to hike into Sossusvlei and also climb Dune 45. Neither offer any shade to speak of, and especially in the summer months, the heat is punishing and the risk of dehydration and serious sunburn is commensurately high. So come armed with a hat, high factor sunscreen and preferably a long sleeved top made of a lightweight natural fabric, as well as plenty of water.
I personally would do Sossusvlei first - remembering that if you only have 2WD, it's a 5km hike each way over often soft sand, so the round trip (complete with photo opportunities) will probably take you at least two hours. So in summer, even if you enter the park when the gate opens at 06:00, it will already be 09:00 by the time you're finished at Sossusvlei and about another half hour back to Dune 45.
Climbing Dune 45 is fun - and I would highly recommend it - but like all dune climbing, the 'two steps forward, one step back' routine make it hard going and I wouldn't recommend it for younger children or the unfit. By contrast, the descent is an absolute doddle!
Whichever order you decide to do the other attractions in, I would recommend leaving the beautiful - and much underrated - Sesriem gorge for last, as this is the only place that offers any shade whatsoever. It's not massive compared to other gorges, but it an enchantingly atmospheric place, and well worth an hour or two of your time. The size of the rocks in some of the boulder beds exposed in the gorge walls provides you with a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the power of the occasional flash floods that wash through the Namib's ephemeral rivers. After summer rain there may be water in some hollows in the gorge - some lucky people visiting after storms even get to swim - but don't count on there being any water at other times of the year.
Visiting Sossusvlei in the late afternoon when it's cooler and the light is less harsh is theoretically an option, but not such an attractive one given the driving distances involved. Bear in mind that you need to be out of the park by the time that the gate closes at sunset, so working backwards, that mean starting the hike into Sossusvlei about 14:00, which is pretty well the hottest time of the day.
At the time of writing in November 2011, the park gates open and close at 'sunrise and sunset', which isn't awfully helpful from a planning point of view. As a rule of thumb, factor on them opening at 06:00 in summer and 06:45 in winter and closing about 18:00 in winter and 18:30 in summer (the actual times should be signposted at the gate - if not, then ask).
Doing the Sossusvlei Shuffle at Dune 45!
Dune 45 on the way to Sossusvlei is so named because it is 45km from the park gate. It is probably the most climbed dune in the entire Namib and for obvious reasons: at over 170m, it's one of the highest dunes in the Namib, as well as being easily accessible and stunningly beautiful.
Given the fact that you want to do this as early as possible - both to avoid the heat and get the best photographic opportunities - the challenge is to decide whether to hike Sossusvlei or climb Dune 45 first. Personally I'd get as early a start as possible, do Sossusvlei and stop off at Dune 45 on the way back.
If you do Sossusvlei first remember that if you only have 2WD, it's a 5km hike each way over often soft sand, so the round trip (complete with photo opportunities) will probably take you at least two hours. So in summer, even if you enter the park when the gate opens at 06:00, it will already be 09:00 by the time you're finished at Sossusvlei and about another half hour back to Dune 45.
Climbing Dune 45 is fun and I would highly recommend it if you're fit or just plain mad. Just be prepared to do the Sossusvlei Shuffle: mastering the steps is easy (even for those of us who have two left feet) as it's simply two paces forward and one pace back! Because of the steepness of the dune and unstable footing - combined with the heat - it's hard going and I wouldn't recommend it for younger children or the unfit. By contrast, the descent is an absolute doddle!
For fear of stating the obvious, when you're hiking any dune - Dune 45 included - you are extremely exposed and at severe risk of serious sunburn and particularly dehydration as climbing the dune involves serious physical exertion. So come armed with a hat, high factor sunscreen and preferably a long sleeved top made of a lightweight natural fabric, as well as plenty of water.
Hiking into Sossusvlei's not for cissies!
You can't visit Namib Naukluft Park and not visit the iconic Sossusvlei ... just be prepared for the fact that it's not the most accessible of attractions if you're travelling on a budget and can't afford a four wheel drive (4WD) vehicle, so you're going to have to work for the experience!
Sossusvlei is a 'pan', which is a flat area in which water temporarily accumulates after heavy rain. The reason why the water is retained on surface is because of a near surface clay layer that prevents the water draining straight into the sand below. In the case of Sossusvlei, the water comes from the Tsauchab River, which only carries flow after exceptionally heavy downpours that only takes place a couple of times each rainy season (if at all).
The attraction of Sossusvlei and the related complex of pans (including Dead Vlei) is the photogenic combination of vlei surrounded by high red dunes, punctuated by the odd dead tree to lend dramatic perspective. It really is an extraordinarily beautiful place that lends itself to exceptional holiday snaps, particularly early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the light picks up the sharp contrasts. Unless you're staying within the park, early morning is the more practical time to visit - follow this link for some guidance on the somewhat tricky issue of timing your visit if you're not staying within the park.
If you only have 2WD, it's a 5km hike each way from the parking area to the vlei over often soft sand, so the round trip (complete with photo opportunities) will probably take you at least two hours. If you have 4WD, then you can park much closer to the vlei, but there is still some walking involved to get a good view, so unfortunately I wouldn't recommend this for those with young children or limited mobility. I gather that at certain times of the year, a 4WD shuttle operates from the 2WD car park to the vlei, although I frankly wouldn't bank on this operating year round: check with the staff at the gate when you arrive to confirm whether or not it's running.
Be warned that there is NO shade on the hike - you could probably count the number of live trees en route on your hands and still have fingers left. Last time I did the hike out of the vlei - which was a very hot day despite it being winter - I motivated myself by focusing on a large acacia tree on the horizon and the prospect of a little shade as a respite from the heat and glare. Little did I know that once I arrived, I would find the shade was already occupied by a very large gemsbok who clearly had zero intention of sharing!
Lastly, don't underestimate the twin risks of severe sunburn and dehydration, particularly in summer. Come equipped with a hat, high factor sunscreen and preferably a long sleeved top made of a lightweight natural fabric, as well as plenty of water - as a rule of thumb, you should be looking to drink 2 litres of water if you hike in and out of the vlei from the 2WD parking.
You need luck to witness the desert in bloom
One of the most special experiences you can have in Namaqualand (the Northern Cape of South Africa) and the neighbouring south of Namibia is the extraordinary privilege of witnessing the desert literally bloom.
Unfortunately this spectacle is not something that you can plan to see because it's simply too unpredictable: if you are so lucky, then it's an absolute bonus.
The best chance of seeing the wild flowers in the south of Namibia is in the Southern Hemisphere late winter/early spring between July and September when the daisies burst into bloom. Exactly when and where the flowers will be at any given point in time is pretty random - ask at tourist offices and accommodation along the way for the best local insight.
After summer rain, you may often see the desert carpeted in little primrose yellow flowers, which looks beautiful: just be careful if you're wearing sandals or flipflops, because this creeper isn't called 'devil's thorn' for nothing!
Some tips on driving through the desert
You either love deserts or you hate them, but one thing's for sure - it's hard to feel ambivalent about them!
If you've not visited a desert before, then here are a couple of suggestions that will hopefully help you to make the most of the experience.
Firstly, try not to travel during the hottest period in the middle of the day. Driving in extreme heat is not pleasant and even the wildlife tends to lie low and seek whatever respite from the heat it can find, so the game spotting opportunities will also be less. Instead try to time your travel for the early morning or the mid to late afternoon (bearing in mind that travelling on Nambian roads during the dark is not only poorly advised for fear of potential collisions with animals, but is actually forbidden in national parks).
Secondly, deserts lack vegetation, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are devoid of life - it's just a different sort to that which you're probably used to. So drive slowly so that you don't miss the birdlife - which is often cryptically coloured to blend in with the landscape - and stop often to appreciate the smaller plants and animals such as insects and succulent vegetation. My personal feeling is that the allure of deserts lies at two ends of the spectrum: the vast majesty of the desertscape contrasted with the intricacy of the desert ecosystems.
Take regular breaks which mean that you're less prone to driver fatigue. I would always advise registering two drivers when you hire the car: this is relatively inexpensive, and allows you to share the driving responsibilities, as well as providing a fallback solution if (God forbid) something happens to the main driver - such as spraining an ankle, for example.
Lastly, get a feel for your vehicle's fuel consumption before you venture into the desert. The combination of dirt roads and aircon blasting full belt is not good for fuel consumption, and your fuel tank gauge can start to drop alarmingly under these driving conditions. My first recommendation would be to 'test' your fuel gauge on the main tar road - where there are petrol stations about every 100km - to see whether the level gradually reduces, or whether it shows very little decline until it hits a certain level and then plummets (this is largely a function of the shape of the fuel tank). In the same way as you should never pass a toilet with a small child in the car, never pass a petrol station, as you are never quite sure when you'll come across the next one (and, in more remote areas, even if you manage to find one, whether they'll have any fuel available for you to fill up).
early morning Hot air balloon drive over desert
Staying overnight in Camp Mwisho, a tent-camp with the most wonderful view on the namib rand desert.
Starting in the early morning with a Hot Air Balloon. 1 hour drive right over the wonderful desert with the red sand dunes.
Champagner breakfast after landing.
(Sounds good, right?: It is!)
- Hot Air Ballooning
The best around
Deadvlei is the pictorial pinnacle of Namib Naukluft Park. It is probably the most photographed place in Namibia and deservedly so. The floor of the pan is made of minerals cracked in myriad blocks from where the surrounding dunes start going up to the summit of Big Daddy. The valley used to be part of the mud plain at the end of the Tsauchab river valley but was cut off by dunes some 90 years ago and the trees were left dying in the salt. The result is the outwardly atmosphere of charred tree trunks, thirsty salt pan and mercilessly silent sand mountains – magnificently mysterious!
- Budget Travel
The end of the mud plain
Sossusvlei is a bit of an anticlimax after Deadvlei so the wise thing to do is to visit it first which is exactly how the route is planned geographically speaking, no matter whether being in a shuttle car or in your own vehicle. Unfortunately, the stark beauty of Deadvlei is not a match for its poor fellow neighbour. If you attempt to climb Big Daddy you might skip it all together and see it from the top of the dune which is not going to be a miss of biblical proportions.
- Budget Travel
Big Daddy is the place to be
Climbing the Big Daddy or the highest dune in the world is a strenuous but highly rewarding exercise. The dune is more than 300m high and climbing it includes a couple of turns along the way. What is most important is not to start climbing from Dead Vlei because the incline is too steep on the direct ascend and the second option leaves you with climbing, descending and than climbing again which takes more time and energy. There is a special spot on one of the salt flats before the final stop of the shuttle, i.e. Sossusvlei. From there on there is a little ridge skirting a neighbouring to Dead Vlei and an equally dead valley. Following it leads you to the top after many measured steps in the deep sand and the scorching sun.
- Budget Travel
Crowds are back
Dune 45 is a must on the route of the hordes. It is amazing that there are so many dunes but EVERYBODY has to go to only one of them. It is true that it is the most accessible with proximity to the main road and a parking spot but the uniqueness of the experience is rather smothered. It is obvious that for the sake of preservation and sustainable development the park authorities have chosen this spot as the Tsauchab river lookout and have tight control over it. Still, the dune is immense and with some more time on hand one can avoid being pressured by the crowds. In this sense the climb of Big Daddy is indispensable because few people ascend it for different reasons and the feeling of being in the fold of Nature is absolutely real.
- Budget Travel
More soft sand!
We went to Sossusvlei after we had climbed Dune 45. You really need to take a lot of water with you as it is a half hour walk from the car park - maybe longer on the way back depending on how tired you are or how hot it is. Also don't forget your sun cream. Maybe an umbrella or parasol would be handy.
There are e ways to get to the Dead Vlei.
1. The easy way is to walk "straight" there.
2. The slightly harder way is to climb part way up the dune on the left of the vlei, and then take the path that forks down towards the vlei.
3. If you want the hard way - walk all the way up the dune, stop at the top and admire the view, and then slide/run/tumble down to the dead vlei.
I took option 2, my son and Taffy our guide took option 3. It is much hotter here than anywhere else we went in Namibia. It really is a very strange feeling being the only living thing wilting amongst the dead trees.
It is MUCH steeper and harder than you think
When we arrived it was about 8 or 9 in the morning. There were already loads of people on the dune. It looked soo easy. Our guide gave us an hour to get to the top. It might have been enough time... but we didn't make it that far!
- Walk in someone else's footprints
- Don't expect more than one step forward and half a step back
- Start slowly... it's going to take a lot longer than you think
- Coming down is amazing!
- Take your photos early. By 10am the light is too bright to capture the true colour of the sand and sky.
- Look out for adders
If you are travelling with Thimbi Thimbi Safaris your guide will have breakfast ready for you when you get back :)
As we headed deeper into the valley we approached the famous giant red dunes and supposedly the highest in the world, which looked incredible with the yellow grass below and the bright blue sky above.
Unlike the famous picture of the Oryx standing in front of the dune, we never saw any but we saw a few Springbok and Ostrich.
We stopped for a few photo's and of course we stopped and had a look at the famous Dune 45..which everyone seems to climb. Our guide had no idea why this dune became so famous as it is not the tallest and there is nothing special about it. I figured that it was closest to the road, therefore easy to put a car park in without too much damage. Why is it called Dune 45? Well some years ago they did a count of the dunes and all of them were numbered. Anyway we headed off to the vlei for breakfast and to climb an unnumbered dune!
- National/State Park
A salt pan in the desert! This is one amazing place - apparantley a film was made here with Jennifer Lopez and she was smitted with the place too!
Sosusvlei is an amazing sight and something you least expect to see in the middle of the desert. This is one of Namibias highlights and the majority of tours you take into the desert from Swakopmund and the like will include a visit here.
- Budget Travel