Translated literally to “dead-end marsh,” the term Sossusvlei has evolved to refer to the whole area, encompassing the great plain of the river Tsauchab, arid basins, and the red dunes which undulate north and south, rolling all the way to the coast.
The dunes in this area are some of the highest in the world, reaching up to 450 metres (depending on who you listen to) and drawing tourists from around the world. Crushed by wind and water, the sand is powdery, as soft as talcum. It’s no surprise that it’s Namibia’s best-known attraction.
Sixty thousand years ago the encroaching dunes came together and prevented the Tsauchab River from flowing the final 60 kilometres to the coast. The results are large, hard-surfaced, white, salt and clay shallow depressions. Due to the exceptionally dry conditions, the river rarely reaches this far, and the pan remains bone dry. Every 10-15 years during an unusually wet rainy season, the Tsauchab fills the pan, which because of the hard base, can retain water for as long as a year. The glassy surface holds the reflection of the surrounding dunes and draws even more visitors to witness this rare spectacle.
Other singular Sossusvlei sights are the black, twisted, petrified remains of dead acacia or “camel thorn” trees, harsh remnants of the life that once thrived in the now-vanished lakes. Said to be as old as 900 years, their frightful looking branches host black pied crows, stopping to rest, squawk, and gossip before taking off again in the swirling breezes.
As barren and desolate as this landscape is, delve below the surface and you’ll discover a fascinating world of plants, insects, animals and birds that have adapted to thrive here.
Few can resist the urge to climb the dunes and play in the sand, but it’s important to remain mindful of the time and the steep slopes. By midday the desert is blazing and there’s no shade on the dunes. There are two ways down: walk back down along the crest you climbed up, or for the more adventuresome, sand-ski down the slope. The sand is soft and deep and there are no obstacles, but it’s a long way down.
At nightfall, the winds pick up again, blowing the sand around and erasing the day’s footprints. The next day when new visitors arrive, the dunes are again unmarked, looking as they have for millennia.
Photo credits: John Colyer