Sossusvlei - Namib Naukluft Park
Internationally known as a photographer's dream the sand dunes of Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert are often referred to as the highest dunes in the world. Whether they are or not, these extraordinary giant sentinels of sand - some measuring over 300 meters - are certainly amongst the most spectacular sights in Namibia.
Located in the 50,000m² Namib Naukluft Park, the largest single conservation area in Africa, these monumental dunes have developed over many millions of years. Vast quantities of sand were dumped by the Orange River into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Benguela current then shifted these sands north, where they were returned to the land by the powerful surf, creating coastal dunes. The coastal dunes were pushed further and further inland by the wind, and this formidable sea of rolling sand stretches in unbroken immensity all the way from the coast.
Sossusvlei itself is a huge clay pan, enclosed by these giant dunes. "Vlei" is the Afrikaans word for a shallow depression filled (or sometimes filled) with water. The dunes are at their highest where the Tsauchab River empties itself into the vlei, which is normally bone dry. It is only during exceptional rainy seasons that Sossusvlei may fill with water. As the clay layers hardly allow any water infiltration, a turquoise lake will remain for quite some time, drawing flamingos and other aquatic birds to the area.
The best times to view and photograph the striking patterns of these giant red dunes are at sunrise and sunset, when colours are strong and the sharp edges highlighted against shade. The midday heat is intense and best spent in the shade.
At the entry to Sossusvlei is the second attraction of the area - Sesriem Canyon. Centuries of erosion have incised a narrow gorge of about 1km in length. The canyon begins almost imperceptibly as a deep cleft in otherwise level, stony ground, and then widens and flattens onto the plain. At the foot of the gorge, which plunges down 30m to 40m, are pools of water that become replenished after good rains. Because the gorge is so deep, and sheltered, it often holds water well into the dry season - an invigorating oasis in this otherwise harshly arid environment.