Why You Shouldn’t Climb One of the World’s Tallest Sand Dunes at Noon AND OTHER SOSSUSVLEI STORIES

Driving into Namib-Naukluft National Park, fat rain droplets hit our windshield. It’s Namibia’s rainy season when storms are never far off in the distance. And when they arrive they seem to pass within seconds, leaving the land just as parched as it was minutes before. We lean into the moment, roll the windows down and play Toto’s Africa. It’s cliche and perfect and as the second chorus starts up I have that brief out-of-body experience where I need to tell myself that yes I’m really here, on a new continent I arrived in just the day before, in a new country, in this land of sand and mirages. 

We drive 60 kilometers into the Sossusvlei entrance, until the tarred road ends and the dirt path to Deadvlei begins, then promptly turn back and make the drive all over again. Deadvlei is for tomorrow morning at dawn when we’re ready to hike a sand dune into a valley of withered trees and cracked earth. Now, with the sun starting to set, we need to make our way to The Desert Homestead Outpost where we’ll be spending the next two nights.

Road tripping in Namibia is pretty smooth we’re told. Just don’t try to drive at night. You never know when a gemsbok can surprise you on a gravel road. And except for in the country’s capital Windhoek, nearly every road throughout Namibia is gravel. 

In an attempt to beat the sun we take the more adventurous back-route into the lodge. There’s no internet, so we rely on the GPS our SUV is equipped with to reel us in. We take a turn off the main road and drive for a ways at 25km on a gravel pathway I’m not truly convinced is a road. I start to get a wee bit panic-y, but we luck upon a massive open topped SUV bearing the name “Desert Homestead Outpost”. The man driving is taking a couple back after a sunset driveabout and is clearly confused by our presence here. He asks us where we’re trying to go, and when we confirm we’re all going to the same place responds almost with a sigh, as if he needs to do this every week, “Follow me”. Not another word is spoken between us. 

We arrive sweaty, tired, and three kudo sightings later at the Outpost. We’re given a short introduction about our stay — Dinner is from 6pm-8pm. Internet is available in the main lodge, but not our individual cabins. There’s no air conditioning but there is a pool. We should most definitely check out the sundowner deck to watch the spectacular Namibian sunsets. There has been a jackyl hanging out in the area as of late so keep an eye when walking back to our cabin at night.

Upon entering our room, I find a moth with a 4-inch wingspan hanging off the bed’s mosquito net and immediately nope out of there to the sundowner deck where I fall in love with the view. I see the African plain, unbroken. It spans for miles in every direction. The land almost hums, it’s so vibrant. Siena earth lit by a sky quickly being encroached upon by a thick, mauve cloud tucking the area to sleep. It’s so beautiful I’m positively giddy. 

Namibia has a population on par with Chicago, but a land mass on par with Texas. With so few people over so much space, the stargazing is splendid. Back at our cabin after a 3-course dinner, my husband and I curl up on a chaise on our private porch and watch for shooting stars. We spot several. 

I sleep soundly, which is lucky since our alarms are set before dawn. Too early for a hot breakfast we pick up the bagged breakfasts we requested the night before and munch on apples and bananas on our drive back to Sossusvlei (pronounced sue-sue-flay) to finally make it into Deadvlei. It’s a place I’d first seen decades before in a National Geographic calendar my step dad gave me as a child, which if I’m being honest, is what drives my dream-destinations to this day. 

Deadvlei translates into dead marsh. It’s where the dunes of the Namib desert meet, creating a  pan where the Tsauchab river once flowed. Previously an oasis with acacia trees, those trees have since died and shriveled, leaving behind ghostly husks. Now it’s a white, salty floor dotted with black trees, beneath fiery auburn dunes and a cloudless cobalt sky. 

A hot air balloon is making a sunrise flight over the desert when we enter the park. We make the same drive as yesterday, smooth sailing on a paved road, and hold our breath when it ends. Here we’ll be off-roading it across the desert. A 4×4 vehicle is a requirement to make it into Deadvlei and even then it’s no cakewalk. Our SUV is nearly caught in the sand multiple times. We use the tire tracks ahead of us as our north star, estimating that the tracks most grouped together as the most successful, making a point not to follow the lone set of prints off into the distance. Five minutes and one incredibly bumpty journey later we arrive in the Deadvlei parking area where we load up our backpack with water and sunscreen to prepare for our desert hike.

We opt to take the route up and into the basin, up being onto a dune that overlooks Deadvlei then circles us downwards, depositing us into the pan. The sun has barely risen but already it’s hot. Ahead of us a trio of German women give up halfway across the dune and decide to run down its side to circumvent the long walk. They stumble a bit, kicking up red sand in all directions, but all three make it unharmed. I imagine there are many painful wipeouts resulting in a mouthful of scorching sand each day. Carl and I take our time and are gently set down into Deadvlei.

The landscape is Martian. The horizon is cut into distinct parts — There’s the earth, ecru and veined with cracks, the dunes that blaze red and the brilliant blue sky that’s cut into a jagged line by the land below. In the distance is nothing. Nothing for hundreds of miles. In every direction there’s only desert. This nothingness is palpable. 

I spend the next hour wandering from tree to tree, comparing the swirls in each branch in an effort to find the most gnarled one. I even make up a game for myself — Can I hide myself entirely in tree shadows? If I contort my arms just so or carefully angle a knee I find that I can have my presence erased. Gobbled up by the twisted branches.

We take the flat, easy route back to the car, and my first sight back in the parking lot is a man leaning against his SUV — On his head is an Outback hat, in his mouth a half smoked cigarette, and in his hands he holds a hiking boot, currently held upside-down and emitting a stream of red sand. 

Driving across the sand into Deadvlei we passed no-one. The tracks were easy to spot. Now, the sand is patterned with dozens of tracks. We need to recalibrate and reassess what our metric for “success” is. We decide to go with the paths with the deepest treadmarks, thinking those are the areas where the sand is most compacted and therefore most stable. When our wheels make a sudden jerk and pull us into unknown territory things get choppy. Our feelings of dread are exacerbated by the two stuck cars we’ve passed thus far, wheels dug deep, spinning sand in an escape attempt. When there’s no distinct tread and we start to lose hope we go rogue, steering towards the end of the sand dugout we prop one side on higher ground while the other paves through the sand. I feel like a running back pushing my way through defenders inwardly chanting “Not this day”.

We do make it out. Our wheels hit tar and I’m elated. We hiked into Deadvlei and it wasn’t so hard. We didn’t get sand-stranded. It’s only a quarter after 11. The whole day is ahead of us. We’re unstoppable in this gleaming, mirage-ridden land. We ask: “do we dare try and climb Dune 45? One of the most notable sand dunes in a desert boasting some of the tallest sand dunes in the world?” “Yes,” we say. We agree we can do anything then blast Rosanna into the empty desert.

It’s 11:50 when we pull into the parking lot. Except for one couple climbing down we have the dune to ourselves. At dawn the light here is dramatic, with half the dune blazing red while the other half lies in deep aubergine shadow. Now, the entire dune is burnt orange with the sun hitting every nook of Sossusvlei’s dunes. It’s hot. Real hot. 90 degrees in the open desert does not feel like 90 degrees in Pittsburgh. This is nowhere-to-hide-heat. I notice the wind has also kicked up. Maybe the breeze will provide some respite from the heat, I think.

How quickly a mood can change. Half-way up the dune I have no idea what direction the wind is blowing from. It feels like it’s coming from everywhere at once, to my left, below my feet, from portside, starboard, outer space. All I know is the gusts are blowing piping hot sand into my now ringing ears. The sand at my feet is dancing and scattering in all directions, glittering like mica. 

My lungs don’t know what to do with the heat. Each grain I breathe in is like shattered glass. Breathing through the nose coats my nostrils in a layer of sand that immediately absorbs all moisture. I’ve been on this damn dune for 15 minutes and already I feel shriveled up. 

I want to use my hands to cover my mouth but they’re occupied clutching my sunglasses to my face. They’re what’s protecting me from being blinded by flying sand which outweighs the heaviness on my lungs. During all of this my hearing is muffled. There’s an ongoing whoosh and whir. 

All I can do is stand still and hope it will pass. I’ve given up hiking the rest of the peaks. I’m merely waiting for the best moment to turn around and head back to the car. This landscape is completely capable of driving someone mad. Light reflects off the desert to create mirages. You can’t trust what you see. You can’t comprehend what you hear. Exposed in the open for too long and you’re fucked. 

The wind is unrelenting. Carl, who was daring, decided to press on after I firmly planted myself in place. I watched as he turned into a black dot going off into the distance, but now I see the dot is getting larger. He’s given up on a completed climb. Noticing this my heart lets out a huzzah and I start my descent downward towards the salvation that is the parking lot and the 100 degree car waiting for us. 

I’m not graceful going down. I don’t make slow, measured movements. I half-run and each time a foot steps down it plows 8 inches into the dune. My hiking boots are filled with scorching sand and each shoe is like an ankle weight but I don’t care. 

At the car I pour the sand from my shoes and put my damp, pale, shriveled feet into flip flops. When we start up the car Roseanna picks back up on the stereo. It’s not even 1pm but the two of us decide it’s time to go back to the Outpost where a pool awaits us. We scrub the layer of sand and grime off our bodies, swimsuit up, take a dip, and Carl naps poolside for a good hour. I order a tall bottle of Radler and read. We’re the only two guests making afternoon use of the lodge and it feels absolutely luxurious.

A storm rolls through just before dinner. Watching storms roll across the African plain reminds me just how large the planet is. It takes hours for lightning to cross the desert and go out of eyesight. During that time the horizon turns chartreuse then plum before transitioning into an inky navy. We sit outdoors under a thatched roof, sipping lager, watching it all pass. A few hundred feet from where we’re sitting is a small illuminated watering hole where a lone zebra drinks. It all feels so unreal and Carl says if my mother were here seeing all of this, she’d “lose her composure”. I laugh and stand up to go inside where a dinner of kudu steak awaits. 

We walk back to our cabin in the darkness, on a path illuminated by foot lights. I hear no jackal and see no jackal, but wonder if it’s out there watching us tread the pathway. This thought does not stop me from making use of our private outdoor shower however, and the lukewarm water hitting my skin in the night air is exhilarating. 

In the morning we’ll drive North along the skeleton coast, going from a red desert to a beige one until we hit the ocean. I love deserts with their stark skylines and seemingly endless hold on the land, and Deadvlei only further solidifies that love for me. Every so often someone is perplexed why I choose to vacation (and elope!) in deserts, but without deserts there can be no oasis. 

One Comment

  1. Marie

    A trip down memory lane – Visited the region in 2017 and actually stayed in Desert Homestead Post also, making that drive to Sossusvlei before sunrise…. Thanks for sharing. XXXMarie


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