Up, up, up you go, sloshing in the softest sand until suddenly you’re at the top of one of the world’s highest dunes at over 275 metres. Nothing prepares you for this vision: dune fields stretching endlessly away begin to bloom from apricot to brick-red as the sun rises.
Writer Julienne du Toit aptly describes Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft National Park as “the world’s largest sand-pit for adults”. Whether you walk sedately back down the spine of the dune or run whooping like a child down the steepest slope, the wonder and magic of this destination will inspire you.
This is the most photographed place in southern Africa and it’s not hard to see why. The sweeping red dunes crisp against the blue sky. The salt and clay pans, as white as marble, like dance floors enclosed by walls of sand. The black limbs of long-dead acacias, relics from a time when an ancient river flowed here, then lost its way among the dune, reach up like strange sculptures to the sky, unable to decompose in this dry place.
Sossusvlei is located in the southern part of the Namib Desert in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the largest conservation area in Africa, and it is easy to access for the self-driver. The gates open before sunrise and as you drive through the dark, you sense them before you begin to see the faint shadows rising darkly about you. A tarred road runs through the desert to a carpark. From here a 4×4 shuttle will take visitors on the last 5km of deep sandy track to where most of the biggest dunes – including Big Daddy (325 metres) – rise up like a gathering of giants.
Although its sculptural beauty is its main attraction, there is wildlife here, both big and small. On your drive from the Sesriem gates you are likely to see oryx antelope, springbok and even jackal. Walking among the dunes a myriad tiny tracks alert you to interesting small animals and desert-adapted insects such as the fascinating long-legged Namib beetle that harvests moisture by collecting it on its back and channelling the minute drops of water to its mouth.
Unbelievably, many plants battle out an existence here too, living in a symbiotic relationship with the animal inhabitants. The shade-giving camelthorn trees with their deep, determined roots indicate the passage of underground water, and their seedpods the only food source for many creatures. The ancient and miraculous Welwitschia mirabilis and lifegiving nara melons are other fascinating plants that the dune explorer might find.