Deadvlei Valhalla – Fatal Attraction in the Namibian Desert

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Fury Road

Lining up at the Sesriem gate in our shabby 2WD Sedan, I observe our competitors. A myriad collection of badass 4WD’s designed to tackle tough terrain are waiting to set off well before sunrise. Damn, this is going to be a hell of a race.

In front of us: the apocalyptic Fury Road in the bone-dry Namibian desert. In the next hour, a high-speed car race along a 60 km tarred road with devious potholes will lead us to Sossusvlei: the jewel of the Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia.

With apricot sand dunes, cracked desert floors, cobalt skies and jaw-dropping landscapes, the Sossusvlei area is one of Namibia’s most spectacular attractions. No wonder Namibia was name-checked four times at the latest Academy Awards for helping Mad Max: Fury Road take home six Oscars — the biggest haul of the night.

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The best time to visit Sossusvlei is close to sunrise, when the sun’s crepuscular rays cast an incandescent flaming hue around the towering red-coloured dunes, allowing for surreal photographic opportunities. The drive from the entrance to the dunes is 65km, which can take over an hour, so by the time you arrive, the sun is already up. Time is of the essence here. We want to be there before the crowds arrive.

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The distant howl of a jackal. The Sesriem gate opens. The game is on.

I put my foot on the brake and punch the gas which makes the rear tires spin. The 4WD’s behind me are covered in burnout smoke. Classic deception. I’m gripping the wheel like I was going to squeeze it to death and push the pedal to the metal. A horrendous roar follows. Our car shoots ahead while blowing the horn as we pass the 4WD in front of us. Another one bites the dust. In high gear, we move skillfully along the remaining 4WD’s and yell out loud: “MEDIOCRE!”. Don’t mess with my Sedan.

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After a near hit with an unexpected crossing of a herd of gemsbok, we arrive at the 2WD parking area well before the other road warriors. The final stretch to the Sossusvlei pan is through soft sand and 4WD only. So we jump out our car and hop in one of the park shuttles to cover the remaining distance. We’ve got it made.

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Big Daddy Ain’t Half-Steppin

The Namib desert arguably contains the tallest sand dunes on the planet, some towering well above 300m. They are characterised by a brilliant orange-red palette,  coloured after 60-80 million years of oxidation of iron-rich sand deposited by Atlantic winds.

The highest dune in the Sossusvlei area is ‘Big Daddy’, measuring 325m in height. Situated between Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, it dominates the surrounding landscape. But don’t let its relative height fool you, the climb to the top can be quite a gruelling effort, especially considering that temperatures here can easily reach 45°C. Locals call it ‘the crazy dune’ as it requires a fair amount of endurance and stamina.

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Hiking Big Daddy’s exposed ridge, I’m greeted by a furious desert wind along with dancing sand particles attacking my body from every angle. Meanwhile, with each step forward in very loose dune sand it feels like I’m taking half a step back – another way of nature flipping me the bird (uphill battle tip: if you see other people’s footprints in front of you, just step in it, the sand here is partially compressed so you’ll sink less). It’s a constant upwards struggle with a few fairly flat stretches, a topographic gift to power up the climber’s psyche. As we proceed, Big Daddy’s summit appears tantalizingly close, yet it takes countless rest breaks to reach it.

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After a 1,5-hour quad sucking exercise I’m rewarded with a spectacular 360° panorama as the sun rises over the horizon slipping its morning warmth over the vast Namib desert. It was well worth every bead of sweat.

Below, the entire expanse of the Deadvlei pan appears in front of us. It’s a photographer’s wet dream, dead camel thorn trees casting dark shadows in stark contrast over the white pan surface – against the backdrop of a red sea of dunes.

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Deadvlei Valhalla

The vlei was formed millions of years ago, when the Tsauchab river flooded after rainfall, creating temporary shallow depressions where the abundance of water allowed camel thorn trees to flourish (“vlei” is Afrikaans for “marsh”). When drought hit the area, encroaching walls of sand blocked the rivers route into the clay pan. With no water to survive,  the trees died 600-700 years ago and due to the exceptional desert dryness, normal decomposition did not occur, which explains why many camel thorn trees have been neatly preserved. Over centuries, the remaining tree skeletons scorched black in the burning desert sun.

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Now comes the fun part – the descent! A three-minute slip ’n slide down to the desiccated vlei of dead trees. I pour the sand out my your shoes and wander around this truly magical place.

If you experience a sense of déjà vu here, don’t be surprised – Deadvlei has appeared in many films and TV shows worldwide, and is one of the most fascinating geologic features in Africa. And as of June 2013, the Namib Sand Sea has been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Go unleash your inner Mad Max in the surreal sand dunes of Namibia. Just go. You won’t regret it.

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Sossusvlei is inside the Namib-Naukluft National Park so a permit is required to enter. Permits can be purchased at the park office just inside the gate at Sesriem. The gate opens at sunrise and closes at sunset.

Sossusvlei is located 65km from the entrance to the park and the drive takes about an hour. The road from Sesriem to the 2WD car park is tarred but in poor condition. The last 5 km are through soft sand so you’ll need a 4WD to get to the vlei. You can either walk or take one of the park shuttles that regularly run between the car park and Sossusvlei (for a fee).

After a day of hiking in the desert, you can relax at the bar on the Sesriem campground where most of the dune hunters hang out. The only place to buy groceries is from the small general store at the Sesriem petrol station.

There are many accommodation options in the Sossusvlei area. If you want to sleep inside the National Park I recommend Sesriem Restcamp (just past the park gate, behind the permit office, +264 61 285 7200, e-mail: reservations@nwr.com.na). The campsite is run by Namibian Wildlife Resorts. There are 24 sites with a thorn tree for shade and a fire pit at each site. Showers and toilets are available at the two ablution blocks and there is a swimming pool. Reservations are made through Namibian Wildlife Resorts or travel agencies. N$125 per person (max. 8 people per campsite).

 

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