The Namib Desert: The Great Sand Sea

November 29, 2013
Namib Desert
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But how many pictures must one see to feel the sensation of standing atop of one of the world’s tallest dunes while looking out at a sun-drenched sea of blood-red sand?I don’t believe there is an answer to this question. I don’t think any number of photos, videos or descriptions could ever come close to capturing one of nature’s greatest wonders with the same profundity as the naked eye.
The daunting task of capturing my visit to Sosussvlei has caused me to delay in writing about the destination, because I knew that my descriptions would be futile. I wanted to wait until I found the perfect words to convey the the sensation of standing amid the waves of rust-colored sand. I wanted to memorialize my experience and imprint it into my memory.
But I have yet to find the perfect words, and I wager I never will.I had been wanting to visit the Namib Desert since the first time I set my eyes on a picture of Sosussvlei’s fiery dunes, and I could hardly contain my excitement as we set off from Swakopmund–along some of the bumpiest roads I have ever experienced–toward Namibia‘s premier tourist destination.

The gravel road took us past the golden coastal dunes near Walvis Bay, along endless plains, twisting canyons and pastel landscapes. As with our other days on the road, we were struck by the desolation of our surroundings and the stark beauty of the ever-changing views.

Landscape near Sosussvlei
Landscape on the way to Sosussvlei

We drove for hours without passing cars or signs of civilization, engulfed in feelings of emptiness and isolation. The long, empty stretches were interrupted at times by a solitary oryx or groups of ostriches. We passed the Tropic of Capricorn, stopped for lunch at the tiny outpost of Solitaire–a bizarre little place that resembles a wild western town along the Route 66 and claims to have the world’s best apple strudel–and reached our campsite at the lovely Weltevrede Guest Farm by nightfall.

car on the way Sosussvlei
Car buried in the sand on the way to Sosussvlei

The next morning, we rose with the sun and set off toward the gates of Sosussvlei.

The road into the park cuts through a dry valley and is flanked by towering orange dunes and purple mountains on either side. Along the road, rippling fields of yellow grasses are littered with springbok, oryx and ostriches and the mysterious fairy circles–circular patches of barren land that have baffled scientists due to their unexplained origins.When we reached Dune 45, we got out of the car and set off to hike the dune. Dune 45 is one of the most photographed dunes in the world and offers stunning views of the parched earth from its summit.

Though not the tallest dune in the park, many tourists opt to climb it due to its proximity to the road, its relatively gentle grade and its beautiful vistas.I sat at the top of Dune 45 for a while, looking out over the sinuous ridges of the surrounding sand sea. As journalist Elinor Burkett describes, “Those naive enough to believe that a dune is a dune is a dune are faced with a dizzying array of sand configurations.” These sand configurations have been chiseled over the course of centuries by the Kalahari and Atlantic winds. They have been beautifully sculpted by the elements and stand as a testament to nature’s sometimes raw and unforgiving power.

dune 45
The top of Dune 45
From Dune 45, we continued deeper into the park and reached the end of the paved road. We then hopped on a 4×4 vehicle and set off for the spectacular clay pan at Deadvlei.Deadvlei is a large pan of cracked, dry clay that is cradled between some of the world’s tallest dunes. It was formed when the Tchauseb River temporarily flooded and created an environment in which Namibia’s desert-adapted Camelthorn Trees could thrive.

Shifting sand and dry temperatures, however, cut the pan from the course of the river and, as a result, the area has long since dried up.Over the course of approximately 900 years, the unrelenting sun charred the tree bark and painted it a deep black. Today, the black trees, white clay, red earth and deep blue sky combine to create a dazzling and otherworldly display of colors and a unique geographic feature unlike anything I had ever seen on my previous travels.We ended our day in Sosussvlei with a visit to the Sesriem Canyon and a quick hike up the Elim dune around sunset.

Sesriem Canyon
Me in the Sesriem Canyon

Unlike the other highlights of the Namib-Naukluft Park, Elim is not known for its immensity or grandeur. Rather, tourists visit it for its beautiful display of pastel colors. Tufts of green grass spring from the red sand and contrast with the yellow grasses and purple mountains.


I would have loved to stay until sundown, but we had to race out of the Park’s gates before the sun dropped below the horizon.

Elim Dune
Pastel Colors of the Elim Dune

There are some places that are too beautiful for words or photos. I could post hundreds of pictures of my day in Sosussvlei, but they would not accurately depict the mesmerizing landscapes I saw with my own eyes.

While I apologize that I was not able to do justice to the beauty of the Namib Desert, I hope, at least, that I can somehow inspire you to add this natural wonder to your list of future places to visit.I promise you will not be disappointed.
Photos by Erika B. 

About Erika Bisbocci

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