The sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert are often referred to as the highest dunes in the world. Located in the Namib Naukluft park, the largest conservation area in Africa, and fourth largest in the world - the sand dunes at Sossusvlei are just one excellent reason to visit Namibia.
The best time to view Sossusvlei is close to sunrise and sunset; the colours are strong and constantly changing, allowing for wonderful photographic opportunities. The midday heat is intense and best spent in the shade.
'Vlei' is the Afrikaans word for a shallow depression filled with water (well, a depression that might sometimes be filled with water!), and the name 'Sossusvlei' should strictly only be applied to the pan that lies at the place where the dunes close in, preventing the waters of the Tsauchab River from flowing any further - that is, on the rare occasions that the river does flow as far as this. During exceptional rainy seasons, Sossusvlei may fill with water, causing Namibians to flock there to witness the grand sight, but normally it is bone dry. This particular 'vlei' is actually a more-or-less circular, hard-surfaced depression that is almost entirely surrounded by sharp-edged dunes, beyond which lies a formidable sea of rolling sand, stretching in unbroken immensity all the way to the coast. However, the name 'Sossusvlei' nowdays applies to the whole area - an area that encompasses the great plain of the Tsauchab River together with the red dunes that march along like giant sentinels to south and north of the plain.
The second attraction of the area is Sesriem Canyon, which is only a few kilometres from the campsite, the entrance gate, and main Nature Conservation office. The canyon derives its name from the fact that early Afrikaner trekkers had to use six ('ses') leather thongs (a thong is a 'riem') so that their buckets could reach the water far below. The canyon begins as an almost imperceptible but nevertheless deep cleft in level, stony ground, and then widens until it finally flattens out onto the plain. Because it is so deep and sheltered, it often holds water well into the dry season - an invigorating sight in such a barren and stark environment.
Climbing to the top of Big Mama, as it is known to the locals, is well worth every bead of sweat. Catch your breath, take a drink and try to avoid camera shake before capturing some unique moments in your life. From the top you can see Naravlei; so-called because of the countless cucumber-like melons growing around the edge of the pan. The !Nara plant is a vital source of nourishment for many desert creatures, including man. Cessna Pan is to the east and the rocky ridges of Witberg have proved to be a valuable landmark for adventurers over the years. Dead Vlei is at the foot of Big Mama. Its' dead camelthorn trees, some over 800 years old, stand helplessly as photographers worldwide attempt to capture that unique, ageless desert shot. Out of view from the 2x4 car park, tucked behind a dune, is Hiddenvlei. Many species of bird shelter here on both dead and live camelthorn trees.
The belief that nothing could survive in temperatures that surpass 40ºC during the day and fall to below freezing at night is a real one. Water is scarce but life still manages to exist under the sand. Tiny tracks at the base of Sossusvlei's dunes give the game away. A fine example is the toktokkie beetle, one of over 200 species of tenebrionid living in the Namib Desert. Whilst under the surface they communicate between sexes by tapping their abdomens on the ground. The shovel-snouted lizard is another sub-sand survivor, a reptile that has the ability to store water in its body. Other desert-dwelling creatures drink droplets of the desert's periodic fog or lick minute tear-drops of water trickling down rocks and plants. Others simply burrow a channel in the sand, an action that will allow them to accumulate moisture such as Grant's golden mole. This amazing little rodent spends almost its entire life under the sand and as a result of this evolutionary adaptation, has no need for eyes.
Black-backed jackal, a notorious scavenger, springbok and ostrich tip-toe across the dunes frequently. Gemsbok (oryx) last for weeks without drinking water. Moisture is not allowed to leave the body and therefore they stop sweating.