Our Southern African Adventure, Part 5: Namibia – Sossusvlei

Leaving behind what turned out be a surprisingly great trip through the Desert Camp, we were headed north. We weren’t sure what to expect for the next day’s journey, whether it’d be wonderful or awfully boring. However, headed deeper into the desert, what we found waiting for us was simply spectacular.

Day 11

We were up early this morning. Over the past week we had been getting used to early morning wake-up calls, but this one at 5am was particularly bad. Greeted by the stars as we rose, we all hobbled our way into the truck and tried as best we could to fall back to sleep.

Today we were headed to Sossusvlei, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Namibia. A large, white, salt and clay pan characterized by its large red sand dunes, Sossusvlei which literally translates into English as “dead-end marsh” is where the dunes of the Namib desert come together, preventing the Tsauchab River from flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, some sixty kilometers east. Beautiful though it is, I went into today assuming that we’d do almost nothing but take pictures of the sand dunes – Dune 45 within Sossusvlei is meant to the be most photographed sand dune in the world.

Driving into Sossusvlei, we could spot Dune 45 relatively quickly thanks to all the tourist buses crammed around its base. In all honesty, I couldn’t figure why this dune was any more interesting than any other dune in the area, but so it was.

As we turned into the car park, we could see lines of people making their approach to the summit of the dune. For the first time that day, I was genuinely excited. We were going to have the opportunity to climb up the ninety meter dune and then run down the other side of it.

Unfortunately for Rich, his feet were not in the right condition for climbing sand dunes. One of the blisters he had acquired during our ultramarathon in Madagascar had become infected – sore, painful to step on, and violently throbbing in his shoe. Regardless, Rich is a glutton for punishment, so he put some antiseptic cream on his blister, strapped up his shoes and with each step cursed at the universe for giving him such awful feet.

Climbing the dune, was not as easy as I had thought it would be. The sand is incredibly soft, so every time you put one foot forward, the sand around your foot makes way for it, sending you at times calf deep. Pulling your feet from sand pits is not an easy task either as the sand all pours into your shoes, weighing you down. Additionally, we had managed to bring yesterday’s freak weather with us. The wind was at times so strong that I felt powerless against it, praying not to get toppled over and tossed down the side of the dune.

With shoes filling up with sand, and a powerful wind, several people on the trail to the top could be seen giving up and turning back down.

Reaching the summit was a treat. Looking around us, I felt like I was on Mars, the terrain desolate and red. Following the lead of two of the Norwegian girls, I decided that it’d be a fantastic idea to roll down the dune, much like child would roll down a grassy hill. This was a mistake. It was hilarious for the first few moments, but as I rolled the sand got everywhere: in my shirt, in my pants, in my nose, in my eyes, in my mouth. Halfway down the hill I had to stop just to spit as much sand out as I could.

Lis takes a break to spit up sand after rolling down Dune 45
Lis takes a break from rolling down Dune 45

Despite watching me spit up a mouthful of sand Rich followed suit and rolled down the hill, well past me. Picking myself up, I shook what I could out of my hair and caught up with Rich. Together the two of us, dizzy from rolling, decided to run the rest of the way down. Running down the dune was a blast. Dune running is quite similar to skiing in heavy powder, just without the skis. The sand allowed us to fly down as quickly as we liked, our ankles sinking into the dune as we went. If we went in too deep and couldn’t pick up our feet quickly enough we’d trip and belly flop into the soft sand, sliding down the hill for a few meters.

View from atop Dune 45
View from atop Dune 45

Reaching base, we were treated to breakfast and I did the best I could to scrub the sand off my face and arms.

Our next stop would be a few kilometers up the road at Deadvlei. Deadvlei is another clay pan area in Sossusvlei that was formed by the flooding of the Tsauchab River. The flooding of the river allowed for the growth of several camel thorn trees. Unfortunately, as the local climate changed and the sand dunes began to shift, the pan dried out. In turn, the 900 year old camel thorn trees all died, however they have not decomposed thanks to the incredibly dry climate. This makes for a rather eerie scene as the blackened trees stand in stark contrast to the white clay pan, in the midst of massive golden-red dunes.

Much of the track around the dunes of Sossusvlei is paved, however the last 5 kilometers has remained untouched. Therefore in order to reach Deadvlei, we had to leave our truck behind and switch over to a 4×4 that would take us nearly the rest of the way.

Arriving at the end of the road we were given one of two options to get into the center of Deadvlei – climb to the top of Big Daddy and then run down into Deadvlei or we could walk to Deadvlei by circumventing the worst of the dunes. With height estimates between 325 and 390 meters, Big Daddy is one of the tallest dunes in the Namib Desert and by far the highest dune in Sossusvlei. Most of the group had had enough of dunes at this point, scared off by the wind, height, and soft sand we encountered on Dune 45. For myself however, it took one look up at Big Daddy to know that I needed to climb it. Rich, ever the master of pain, and BJ chose to join me on my quest to the summit.

Before starting up, Rich and I made the executive decision to change out of our barefoot shoes and into our massive Hoka One Ones. We wore our Hokas during the Madagascar ultramarathon and therefore knew first hand that they work well for us in the sand, elevating our feet and keeping a fair amount of sand out. As for Rich’s nasty blister, they would give him significant extra padding. Hopefully, this extra padding and a Panadol would be enough to contain most of the pain.

Surprisingly the climb was not as difficult as we had anticipated. Soft sand is always uncomfortable to walk in, never mind climb up in, but what we had expected to be a very steep climb wasn’t actually all that bad. Yes, it could get steep in parts, but the undulation in the dune helped to give our legs a break. BJ and I also realized quite quickly that it was much easier for us to walk exactly in Rich’s footsteps up the dune. The sand that Rich walked along became slightly compressed with each step, allowing for us to traverse through slightly harder sand giving us more support. This of course did not help Rich at all – but it worked out well for BJ and myself.

It only took the three of us an hour to climb to the top of the dune, much less than the 3.5 hours advertised. Sitting down for some rest and rehydration, we took in the scene below and it was incredible. We were surrounded on each side by massive dunes, though Big Daddy towered above them all giving us an eagle eye view. Directly below us was Deadvlei, the color of its cracked white pan beautifully contrasted against the dunes.

A view of Deadvlei from the summit of Big Daddy
A view of Deadvlei from the summit of Big Daddy

After the obligatory photos the three of us set off downwards. Running down this sand dune was beyond belief. Laughing and screaming all the way down, it felt like freedom.

Our Hokas, which had help keep a lot of the sand out as we climbed up the dune, were absolutely buried in sand by the time we reached the bottom. However, to my delight they were spotless. The dried mud that had accumulated on them throughout the Madagascar ultramarathon had been removed thanks to the abrasive sand. Prior to this excursion, I had been worried that our Hokas weren’t going to make it past customs and back into Australia when we flew home, but now they were so clean that they would certainly survive the Aussie government’s watchful eye.

Empting our shoes out, we walked through Deadvlei, past the stunning thorn trees and back towards the 4X4 that would take us to our truck.

A 900 year old camel thorn tree in Deadvlei
A 900 year old camel thorn tree in Deadvlei

Once we were all back at the truck we headed out and on to our next campsite and our next adventure.

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