Crossing well and truly into the Namib Desert yesterday (although we’ve been in and out of the desert for the last few days and it’s basically been desert weather for the entire trip), we now have just a couple hours of driving this morning to reach Namib-Naukluft National Park and two of Namibia’s most popular natural attractions, the sand dunes and the large salt and clay pans that lay beneath. Unlike the arguably more well-known dunes in Morocco that I visited earlier this year, these dunes are brilliant orange in colour and are actually the tallest dunes in the world, so it will be interesting to compare.
All the details: Dune 45, Deadvlei & Sossusvlei
Cost: A permit for Namib-Naukluft National Park is N$80 for tourists plus N$10 per car, payable at the Sesriem Gate upon entry. If you do not have a 4×4 vehicle, a shuttle from the 2×4 car park runs around N$170 per person to transport you to Sossusvlei/Deadvlei.
Getting there: The nearest airport is 5 hours away in Lüderitz. Alternatively, drive 4 hours SW of Windhoek to reach the Sesriem Gate. After passing through the inner gates, Dune 45 is 40-ish minutes down the road and fully accessible by even 2×4 vehicles. To visit Deadvlei and Sossusvlei, you’ll either need a 4×4 or you’ll need to pay for the park shuttle to transport you from the 2×4 parking.
Where to stay: Camp inside the park gate at Sesriem Camping, which will allow you to avoid the morning crowds (after the park gates open) and climb Dune 45 for sunrise. Campsites are N$220-240 per person, depending on the season.
Top tip: Climb Dune 45 as early as possible to beat the heat, but leave your shoes behind– socks make the best hiking boots on sand! If you plan to climb Big Daddy, though, definitely do this first, as it’s a much longer climb and the sand at the top is the temperature of molten lava.
In an attempt to avoid the scorching desert heat when climbing up the famous Dune 45, we leave our camp just after 430am this morning and drive straight to the Sesriem gate, aiming to be there by the time it opens at sunrise. (I am admittedly disappointed to be missing sunrise from the top of the dunes, but the only way to actually be inside the park gates at that time is to sleep inside.) Once out of the truck, however, any disappointment quickly fades. The deep orange dunes are glowing in the light of the early morning and there are peaks in every direction— some distant mountains and some nearby dunes— that create a breathtaking view no matter which way you are facing.
Grabbing cameras, we all set off from the truck in socked feat to tackle the 80m Dune 45 that has been designated for climbing. It may not sound like much, but hiking 80m in sand is truly an exercise in perseverance— with every two steps forward, I slide another step back, and it’s impossible to get a good stride going when I can’t generate much force on impact. Still, it’s not a physically demanding ascent and most of the group is snapping photos at the top within 10 minutes.
If I thought the view was amazing before, it’s nothing compared to the sweeping views visible from the top as we look out over the expansive Namib Desert and its seemingly endless sea of vibrant red sand. The golden dunes of the Sahara are beautiful, but they don’t truly hold a candle to these towering Namibian dunes. We happily spend an hour on top of the sand, just taking photos in every direction, climbing farther along the ridge, and trying to coordinate group photos with all the girls. Eventually, we run/slide/fall down the side of the dune and make our way back to the truck for our breakfast, all perked up by the morning’s activity and keen for the next.
After a short drive in the truck, we are all back outside in the rapidly mounting heat and ready to catch our park shuttle further afield. From the drop-off point, it’s just a 20-ish minute walk across the sand to Deadvlei, an iconic salt and clay pan characterised by the gnarled dead trees that dot its surface. As we set out, though, it is mentioned that we could potentially climb Big Daddy, a 380m sand dune that absolutely dwarfs our earlier climb. While most of the group (wisely) elects to continue on to Deadvlei, Nicole, Diane, Grace, and I decide to tackle to dune and set off in the opposite direction.
Just walking to the base of the dune takes easily 20 minutes and, as we meander across a shade-less salt and clay pan, I begin to feel a bit apprehensive about the heat. It’s around 9am, but you wouldn’t know it.. The closer we get to the dune, however, my concern shifts from the unforgiving sun and the constantly mounting temperature to the heat of the sand itself. Not having known that we would be climbing Big Daddy when we left the truck, we are all in thongs or sandals and, it soon proves, grossly underprepared for the task at hand. We can’t climb very efficiently through the loose sand in thongs, so we are left barefoot on top of what feels like a stove top. Usually, you can burrow your feet to the under layers of sand and find some relief, but the day is already so hot that even the buried sand is unbearable to touch.
The result is a lot of running and screaming and a bit of crying as we make our way up the dune. In sections, the shape of the dune has kept some of the sand in shade longer than the rest (although it’s far from shaded now) so it’s not quite bad enough to elicit crying, but then there are stretches where the sand has been in full sun for hours and it’s physically impossible to stand on it for longer than a few milliseconds. We do our best to run up the dune, but it’s not easy to move quickly up a near-vertical sand dune and, even at peak speeds, the heat of the sand always catches up, so we have to throw ourselves into sitting positions with our feet and legs raised off the sand just to get a moment’s relief. Only a half hour into the walk, the bottoms of my feet are beet red and the rest of the group is experiencing similar burns.
Still, we are determined to get to the top, so we soldier on. Leading at a brisk pace, I try to keep moving upwards, but the heat of the sand is even worse as the first person, so there is plenty of shouting and cursing that is probably not encouraging anyone to catch up. After a particularly bad stretch of sand where I honestly think my feet must have blistered, we all collapse on our shorts and try to cool our feet off. Without the constant pain, I can finally appreciate the beautiful landscape below and around us— even halfway up Big Daddy, we tower over the surrounding dunes. On the salt and clay pan below us, we can even see ostriches poking around, just small dots with unmistakably long necks.
Resolve weakened but still not broken, we get up to continue the ascent, Grace stepping forward to lead. She takes only a couple steps up the sand before she starts crying, sprinting quickly up the hill and then turning around and practically falling back to our rest spot in search of some bearable sand. As much as we want to make it to the top, it’s looking like a worse idea by the minute. We are sunburnt, out of water, dizzy from the heat, and red raw on the soles of our feet from the sand, and still less than halfway to the top. The sun will only get stronger, the day hotter, and the sand more painful, so we finally have to consider the possibility of turning back. As is, we are already worried about burning our feet on the descent— the sand we walked across 20 minutes ago could be twice as hot by now.
Begrudgingly, we all agree that we have no choice but to head down, but the hard part is still far from over. Thongs in hand in case of emergency, we all bolt down the hill, struggling to keep ahead of the horrible burning while also staying upright. Just as we suspected, the sand is far hotter than on our ascent and there is literally no relief to be found. Just when I think my feet will melt off, I throw my thongs down to stand on for a brief break, but they are cooking from the heat and end up covered in falling sand that leaves them just as hot as the ground. I have no choice but to pick them up and finish the sprint down the hill to the clay pan, actually crying as I come off the hill at top speeds.
Fried to a ruby red crisp on my back and shoulders, limping along on badly smarting feet, and sorely disappointed by our failed attempt at climbing Big Daddy, I follow the group back across the salt and clay pan towards the park shuttles, still another 20 minutes away. When we finally make it back, everyone else is eager to hear how we went and it is painful to have to admit that we didn’t make it to the top. Still, I’d take a bruised ego over forced amputation any day.
Not long after our return, we get picked up by another open air shuttle and driven to the nearby Sossusvlei, another salt and clay pan, but one with surprisingly green trees (photos above) that is not nearly as picturesque as the more well-known Deadvlei. I’m starting to feel a bit disappointed about missing out on Deadvlei while we were hiking the dune, so we coordinate with the driver for Grace, Diane, and I to get dropped back off to do the 20 minute walk out to the pan while everyone else returns to the truck for lunch. Tess and Kate generously donate water and Kerri even gives Grace her socks to wear under her thongs, and then they cruise on back to the truck for lunch while the three of us stand by ourselves in the middle of the sand and start to question our refusal of the offers to borrow running shoes.
Naturally, as we turn to walk towards Deadvlei, the hard sand quickly gives way to loose, boiling sand and we are again in agony. I have my thongs on this time and I try to walk as delicately as possible to avoid unnecessary contact with the sand, but it always ends up between my shoe and foot anyway, scalding my already raw soles. After what feels like hours, we finally come up over a crest and see the pan. And, thankfully, it is incredibly beautiful (because I’d probably just give up and die right now if it wasn’t).
After some photos (and unexpected flexibility on my part), we turn back to the sand and consider the walk back. I’ve guilted Grace into giving me Kerri’s socks, and amazingly it makes a world of difference. I mean, it’s still crippling painful, but at least I’m not lagging 30 paces behind the other girls and crying with every step. Unfortunately, it means that poor Grace is left to do the crying, and we watch as she tries to make a run for cooler ground, both of her thongs break, and she ends up sitting down in tears. It’s funny now (ok, and maybe a little funny at the time).
Long story short, we make it back, get a shuttle, rendezvous with the rest of the group, who have become worried about our long absence, and drive off to our camp for the night. As usual, we all bolt to the pool upon arrival and then play card games in the shade until we disband to set up our tents. Just before dinner, all the girls gather for a sunset photo and then we eat, shower, and sleep, exhausted from the heat and work of the day— Grace’s Fitbit reads 35,000 steps and she’s 10cm taller than me, so I figure I took even more steps than that on our excursions today. It certainly shows.