The Dunes of Soussusvlei

Soussusvlei - Day 2

After a bit of a fitful sleep, waking up at odd hours to check the time on the iphone to make sure I don’t miss the wakeup call, hmm how dumb is that! Kelly and I are up and out looking at the stars at 5:15am when the phone rings. We quickly get dressed, grab all our gear, head for reception and a morning cup of coffee before we set out for our visit to the Dunes at Soussusvlei.

As we are having coffee we find out that most of the guests at the lodge have left and beside the two of us there will only be two more couples coming in today, one a selfdrive and the other flying in. Wow! this means that for the dunes trip it will only be Sigfried, our guide, and ourselves. We are soooo happy that's perfect, just the way we like it.

We will be doing over 120 kilometres this morning and we are going to be travelling in a closed Nissan Trailblazer, that means airconditioning and comfort. Sigfried's plan is to get us to the park gates at sunrise, that's when they open and let the first cars through. We climb onboard, I'm upfront with Sigfried and Kelly's just behind us, and head out of the lodge for the main road, just as the sky is starting to lighten. The Trailblazer is perfect on the rough gravel roads and even at over a 100 kilometres and hour it's really smooth running.

Map of our route today

We arrive at the main gates around 6:30am to find a line of cars and safari vehicles there by the time we arrive. According to Sigfried the park gates are supposed to open at sunrise, but in reality they really open when the park guards decide to wake up and get to work. So there’s a bit of tension in the air as people mill about and it heightens everytime someone on the park side walks toward the gates. Sigfried doesn’t get into line but just angles the Trailblazer between the 2nd and 3rd cars in the lineup.

Sunrise at the park gates

Finally around 7am the gates are open and it’s like the start of a formula one race, there’s cars going everywhere, one almost runs into us in their frantic attempt to get in first. Sigfried just laughs it off because he knows that once they get in the gate they have to line up again and buy their park pass, whereas he can just keep driving through and fix it up on the way out. So after the scramble to get in we find ourselves and one other safari vehicle alone on the road toward Soussusvlei!

As we head down the road toward we see off to our left a hot air balloon floating toward us while an ostrich runs away from the road. As it’s the only one I think it’s probably the same one that we will be in tomorrow morning.  

Ostrich and hot air balloon, what a country 

At first we are driving through a wide plain with mountains off in the distance but the further we go the plains become a corridor, a few kilometres wide, with huge dunes on either side. After we’ve gone about 24 kilometres from the entrance gate we pass over the dry bed of the Tsauchab River. Even though it’s dry you can still see the green camelthorn that indicates there is permanent underground water, we stop just after crossing the bridge to look at the first large dune. It’s huge and the faces that we can see are covered by these hardy desert grasses; it’s amazing they can survive clinging to the dunes.

The first dune on our drive to Soussusvlei

Continuing on the dry river bed runs parallel to the road and we are in awe of these incredibly massive dunes with their ridges highly defined by the early morning sun. The ridges look as sharp as a knife and create a beautiful sinous edge between the sunlit and shadow sides of the dunes.

As we continue westward the dunes line each side of the road and there are side-tracks leading to feet of some of the dunes. The dunes are numbered according to their distance along the road from the office. Dune 45, on the south side, is a very popular dune to climb up, but we took one look at the crowd and decided to push on.  

Dune #45   

As we drive deeper into the valley the dunes line each side of the road and continue on as far as we can see.

Contrasting textures of the dunes

About 36 kilometres after crossing the Tsauchab river we arrive at the car park. There’s a couple of dubious looking toilets and we passed the toilet water truck several kilometres back so we thought we pass this time. If you are driving yourself this is as far as you can go, you can either walk or take a shuttle bus to Soussusvlei, unless you are with a guide like Sigfried and you can just power on with the 4-wheel drive through the very deep sand.

Sigfried pulls up the Trailblaizer about half a kilometre from a really huge dune, in fact, as he tells us with a wry smile its called “Big Daddy”. Then he laughs as he gets his walking stick down and tells us we are going to climb it!

Big Daddy

This is considered the tallest dune in the park, reaching up to a height of over 300 metres! I’m still recovering from this bloody chest infection and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to do the climb. Sigfried leads on and tells us a tip is to step into the footprints of the person in front, that will make it easier to climb. 

Sigfried encourages us to climb

Our intention is to climb “Big Daddy”, well maybe not to the top, and come down into Dead Vlei. It was heavy going climbing up and the sand was quite soft, but we pushed on wheezing a coughing a bit but determined to make it.

Kelly pauses to take in the view

Finally we reach a point where we can look down on Dead Vlei. Dead Vlei is a white clay pan not far from the Soussusvlei pan, it’s name means “dead marsh”. The clay pan was formed after rainfall, when the Tauschab river flooded, creating temporary shallow pools where the water allowed camel thorn trees to grow. When the climate changed and drought affected the area the sand dunes encroached on the pan, and blocked the river from the area. The trees, which are thought to be 900 years old, died and have been blackened by the sun. They are not petrified though but they don’t decompose because the environment is so dry.

Dead Vlei from Big Daddy

So the only way down is straight down the face of the dune. I’m first, so I tuck my camera under my t-shirt to try and protect it incase I come a cropper on the way down. I launch myself off and it’s like I’m floating down the dune, the sand is so soft you just take this big leaps and bounds. I look back up and Kelly’s on her way down.

Kelly running the dune

 ... while Sigfried isn’t far behind.

Sigfried skipping down

That was so much fun, and a damn sight easier than going up. Once we were at the bottom we looked around at the surreal landscape we found ourselves in.  The feeling of actually being in this place, which is how Namibia is represented in so many photographs, was almost like dejavu but new and exciting at the same time.

At the base of Big Daddy standing in Dead Vlei

The first thing we had to do was to remove half a sand dune from the boots as you couldn’t walk with them full of sand. 

Half of Big Daddy in my boots

After that Sigfried and I took off for a walk around the Vlei.

Walking the Vlei with Sigfried

By this time the sun was much higher in the sky and is I turned around to look at the dune we had run down, the sun was casting shadows off the small grasses clinging to the dune.

Rising sun casting shadows on the dune

After a lot of walking and picture taking we started to head back toward the vehicles, on the way back we met up with Sigfried’s brother, I think his name is Larry? By this time the people who’d had to stop and pay for access to the park had arrived and there were groups of people climbing and walking about, though still not crowded at all.

Sigfrieds brother?


We hoped into the vehicle and headed for a picnic spot not far from the Dead Vlei called NaraVlei. It’s a beautiful spot with lots of tables set under the trees, we picked a spot and started to get the gear out for breakfast. The table we had chosen was decorated with a painted sand dune and the prophetic words “across the sands of time” which I felt was quite appropriate for the morning we’d just experienced. 

Across the Sands of Time

It wasn’t long before we’d gotten the table laid and all of the breakfast out and ready. Sigfried went to get the coffee and hot water flasks so we could have our morning Amarula and coffee but the kitchen staff had packed empty flasks! We said not to worry we would have our Amarula straight up, but he saw a friend of his at another table not far from us and convinced them to give us a couple of coffees and we thoroughly enjoyed our Amarula coffees that we’d come to love in Ulusaba.

Kelly having her breakfast fix of Amarula

While we were having breakfast there were lots of small birds flying down to the table, if you put some crumbs in your hand they would fly and perch on your hand while eating them.

Feeding the birds

There were also a number of the large Pied Crows about but they kept their distance. 

Pied Crow

Talk about how lucky we have been on our holiday! During breakfast we were talking about the morning’s experience and how wonderful it was to climb the dune and walk around Dead Vlei. Sigfried said that yesterday’s drive had been a big dissapointment as it had been really windy and had made it impossible to really see much let alone climb the dunes, in fact the weather was so bad they couldn’t have breakfast in the park and they actually had to return early to the lodge for breakfast. What a contrast with today, almost glad I was a bit sick and took a rest day yesterday.

We helped pack up breakfast and headed off back to the main gate, where Sigfreid paid his park dues, but there was one more stop before we left the park and headed back to the lodge. Just past the park office is a turn off to the right onto a gravel road to Sesriem Canyon. It’s about 4 kilometres from Sesriem and the canyon is a narrow fissure in the sandstone, 30 metres deep in places and was carved by the Tsauchab River. It was used by the early settlers, who drew water from it by knotting together 6 lengths of hide rope called riems. Hence it became known as ses reims.

We pulled up near the edge of the canyon and got out to take a look. Sigfried said we should look from the top and then head back to the lodge but Kelly took off down a narrow path heading into the canyon.

Looking down into the canyon

 Sigfried just shook his shoulders and said, “lets follow the boss”. 

Kelly  takes off down the canyon

I’m glad Kelly took off like that because the views down in the canyon were too good to miss.

Kelly and Sigfried at the end of the canyon

Kelly and Sigfried at the end of the canyon

We had the canyon pretty much to ourselves but as we were climbing out there was a constant stream of tourists coming down into the canyon, when we reached the top there were a couple of large tourist buses and people milling about everywhere it seemed.

On this note we thought it was time to head back to the Desert Lodge for a bit of R&R and lunch. Sigfried told us that we’d head out for the quad bike rides at about 4:15pm that evening. We thanked him for such a fantastic drive and headed back to our lodge, wow what a morning!

After a nice rest and a bit of relaxing on the deck with our books we were ready for our next adventure quad biking and met up with Sigfried at the main lodge. Woo hoo once again it was just Kelly and I going on the drive, can’t believe our luck.

This time we head out toward the large dune we can see directly in front of our lodge, cutting across the plain passing some Oryx on the way.

Oryx

It takes us about half an hour to reach a timber shed where they keep the quad bikes. Now neither Kelly or I had ever ridden these so we helped Sigfried gas them up, watched closely by this Eagle Owl.

Eagle Owl

Eagle Owl

Sigfried gave us the run down on how to change gears, stay seated on the bike and a few other tips and tricks.

Ready to rock and roll


Off we went down this bumpy trail alongside the dune, the trick was to half stand similar to the way jockey’s ride otherwise every bump went straight through you. We reached the spot where we headed up into the dunes and followed Sigfried up weaving through the hills and gullies and around the tall grass. Kelly was a bit hesitant at first with the gear changing and all but it didn’t take her long to really get the hang of it and then there was no stopping her.

Kelly's bike acrobatics

Me I took a more humble more reserved attitude.

A humble kinda guy

At one point in the ride we pulled up on the top of dune where we could look out over the valley back to the lodge. There is this strange phenomenon in Namibia, it also happens to a lesser degree in Angola and South Africa, called Fairy Circles. These fairy circles consist of round areas barren of vegitation; as yet there is no clear picture as to how they are formed. In the oral myths of the Himba people these barren patches are said to be caused by the gods and/or spirits and natural divinities. It was incredible to see the circles stretch to the horizon. 

Fairy Circles

We finished up exhausted but both of us would have gone again if we could have. Instead we packed the bikes away and Sigfried drove us to the top of a dune to have a gin and tonic and watch what would be our last sunset in Soussusvlei.

Our last sunset

We arrived back at the main lodge after dark tired, exhausted but energised by such a fantastic day. What a way to end a holiday and yet there is still tomorrow, our last day, and our balloon ride. When we thought it couldn’t get any better, the boys had set up dinner for us in our lodge, filled the room with candles and had a chilled bottle of champagne waiting for us!

Dinner in our lodge

Tony Redhead

93 Maud Street, Unley, SA, 5061, Australia