They say that there is just one place that you really have to go to in Namibia, and that is Sossusvlei. Interestingly, I have criss-crossed the lonely roads of Namibia on at least six occasions and I have only found my way to Sossusvlei once. It was appropriate that Adam’s birthday trip would end at this beautiful place and I would make my second visit there.
I guess I do have some degree of licence here to share some interesting geography to this blog (thanks to Dayne from Batis Birding for the lesson and apologies for any inaccuracies), so here is a bit that you can skip over if you want:
The dune field that stretches more or less from the Orange River on the southern border of Namibia all the way to the Swakop River in the middle of the country has its origins in the Drakensberg, if you can believe that.
The erosion of the mountains in the eastern escarpment of South Africa takes sand particles from that range, which travel along the Orange River to the west coast, where the alluvial is deposited at the Orange River mouth. You may be aware of the importance of these alluvial deposits from a mining perspective, as it is probably one of the world’s largest sources of diamonds.
But, diamonds aside, these deposits play an equally important role in shaping the landscape in southern Namibia. The cold Benguela Current, which travels northwards along the coast takes that sand and dumps it onto the beaches north of the river.
Over millions of years those sand deposits are washed further up onto the shore and the prevailing southwesterly winds, which blow at least three quarters of the year, push that sand inland and northwards, piling on top of each other, creating the dunes. If you look at an aerial photograph of southern Namibia it is easy to see the south-west to north-east striations in the dune field, indicating that prevailing wind.
The dune field has a natural barrier in the north in the Swakop River and, in the east, the central Namibian escarpment, which keeps these dune fields in the south western corner of the country.
With the wind continually pushing the sand eastwards it has accumulated towards the escarpment where the largest dunes are at the end of the system, and that is where one finds the spectacular portion of the dune field near Sossusvlei.
Sossusvlei, itself, is another interesting story. There are two main rivers that drain into the dune field. Approximately 150kms north of Sesriem is the Kuiseb Canyon, which channels the Kuiseb River from the escarpment towards the dune field. The Kuiseb River used to flow into Sandwich Harbour before it was choked off by the dunes and now is an extinct river system and, in years of very strong rainfall, an inland delta forms at the terminated section of the Kuiseb River, and that is where it stays.
Sossusvlei is a different story.
The Tsauchab River also has its source in the central escarpment and it flows towards the coast until it hits the dune field, where it seems to terminate in Sossusvlei itself. Although the water may appear to dam here in years of very strong rainfall it is different to the Kuiseb River in that the river actually seeps underground and finds its way to the sea, thus allowing it to remain an active system, although on the brink of extinction.
For those that have been to Sossuvlei, the largest dune, Big Daddy, looks westwards into Dead Vlei, which is where the river used to flow until it was turned northwards, for some reason, and then it flowed into Sossusvlei. The last time water flowed into Dead Vlei was 500 years ago and so all the trees that used to source underground water for their existence have now died. The trees are dead but they sure make for some spectacular photos.
Visiting a place like Sossusvlei is so much more interesting when you know a bit about how it came about.
We stayed at Sossusvlei Lodge which is a bit of a misnomer as it is a full 65kms from Sossusvlei itself, and it is actually at the entrance to the reserve at Sesriem. It’s a bit like calling a guest house in Somerset West “Table Mountain Lodge”, but I guess since it is probably the closest place to stay when accessing Sossusvlei it is fair enough.
The lodge itself has a large reception and dining area with luxury tents fanning to the north and south. It is quite a large place but still has plenty of charm being right on the edge of the desert. The meals under the stars on the verandah were some of the best we had on the trip and the buffet style eating was much to most of the family’s liking. Adam made the most of his birthday celebrations tucking into every type of venison imaginable (his vegetarian aunt wouldn’t have enjoyed seeing him tucking into Zebra but if you can’t see the stripes, then it is probably okay) and he even tried a portion of garlic snails.
The only real downside to the lodge is the bumper to bumper traffic that accumulates at the entrance to the reserve at gate opening time every morning, just behind the luxury tents.
We were lucky enough to take a guided tour with Enos from Sossusvlei Lodge. We left Emma and my parents back at the lodge to fix the puncture we had suffered on our way into Sesriem the day before. Incidentally, it was the only puncture we had in 10 days in Namibia and with a little help from a very kind passserby we were back on the road in no time.
Anyway, we hit the long tar road from Sesriem into the valley of the Tsauchab River, with Enos, on yet another perfect Namibian morning, albeit a little chilly in the open vehicle.
The main dune field starts on the northern side of the valley at the imaginatively named Dune 1 after about 20kms from leaving Sesriem. For ease of reference someone decided to start the numbering of the dunes on the northern bank of the river and number them westwards from 1 to about 20 and then, as they come back on the southern side, they are numbered all the way up to Dune 50 or more (I actually didn’t count). Dune 1, as mentioned, is the first major dune that you see and, more importantly for us, it was where we got out of the car and searched in the vegetated lower dune for Namibia’s only true endemic bird, the appropriately named Dune Lark.
It was a cold morning, so activity was delayed but we eventually found a single bird foraging amongst the grass growing out of the dune. Adam and I would have to return later to the Elim Dune for better photographs as we were on a tight schedule to get to Sossusvlei.
The next major landmark was Dune 45, which Enos explained is the most photographed Dune in the world. I doubt there is a statistic that covers that category but it is hard to believe there is one that beats it. The base of the dune falls down right next to the road and it lies at a perfect angle to make the most of the early morning light catching the eastern face and throwing the western side in dark shadow. The large trees fed by the underground moisture of the Tsauchab River are dwarfed by the imposing dune in the background.
By the time we got there, the parking lot was full of tourists and there were plenty of people taking the hike to the top of the dune so our photos would have been ruined anyway, so we pressed on.
Our primary destination was the largest dune in Africa (so we were led to believe). “Big Daddy”, as it is known, rises up from the valley floor, more or less at Sossusvlei itself, to a height of around 300m. It is not quite Everest, but it would be our little mountain to climb. The five of us set out with a bit of water and lots of enthusiasm and headed up the ridge of the dune.
Jacky Jack seems to be the mountain climber in our family, despite his little legs and he led us up the snaking spine, one step in front of the other, towards the summit.
As much as it is nicer to be virgin summiteers, the untouched spine is so much more difficult to climb as the sand is so much softer when undisturbed, so we were extremely grateful to follow in the footsteps of others as we worked our way to the top.
It took us about an hour to get to the top from leaving the car and it is arguably one of the most spectacular views you can hope for. The dunes stretch in all directions with only Dead Vlei directly west, Sossusvlei to the north and the advancing Tsauchab River to the east that breaks the s-shape patterns of the dune ridges.
We spent a few minutes taking our pics and then descended the dune, in five minutes flat, down to the base in Dead Vlei.
It was good fun to put to use some of the herping skills that Dayne had taught us a few days earlier and we were able to get some nice pics of Shovel-snouted Lizard and Spotted Desert Lizard which was another lifer to add to our growing reptile list. We even managed to unknowingly unearth another new species which was a Wedge-snouted Desert Lizard (note: a different animal to Shovel-snouted Lizard).
After a very welcome breakfast served under a huge tree on the edge of Sossusvlei we headed back to Sesriem to reunite with the rest of the family.
The birdlife around the lodge and in the reserve is relatively limited but we eked out what species we could, unfortunately missing one of our main targets being Burchell’s Courser.
We did, however, return to Elim Dune for some better opportunities of Dune Lark pics. It really must be the best place in the world to see Dune Lark and we eventually had our subject sitting still for more than a second or two so we could get a photo.
We added one more reptile to our list during a night wander around the lodge, a Speckled Thick-toed Gecko, which we found and identified ourselves so we were quite pleased.
The one we were saddest to miss was the Common Barking Gecko, which we could hear on both evenings as they start barking from their holes on the small ridges of sand in front of the lodge. It was frustrating, beyond belief, as we stood there and were flummoxed as to where they could be as they just seemed so close that it would have been impossible not to see them.
Departure day inevitably arrived and the long, but truly scenic, drive up the Remhoogte Pass and back to Windhoek gave plenty of time for reflection on a wonderful 11 days in Namibia.
I didn’t measure how many kilometres we drove but it must have been somewhere near 2000 and most of it was across the gravel. Only one puncture was a good effort in our Quantum taxi. We had 17 pieces of luggage that we loaded and unloaded many times over, perfecting the configuration towards the end of the trip.
Most importantly we saw 177 bird species, 28 mammals and 25 reptiles (Namibia is not the most impressive place for frogs).
It was a celebration of Adam’s tenth birthday and we were very grateful, as a family, to be dragged along to share it with him. He netted 29 lifer birds and he creeps closer to his brother’s total and 600 species in the sub-region (mind you, still some way off at 560).
The final word is that I actually never say after a Namibia trip that that is the last time I will go there. I have now been there seven times but I still know I will go back. Maybe next time we will head further north and tick that pesky Angola Cave-chat!