“It’ll be worth it at the top,” I whispered over and over as grains of sand whipped against my calves.
Gritting my teeth, I battled against the winds to climb ever higher, one step forwards and two slips back, desperate for a view to rival all others; convinced it would be worth the pain if I could make it to the summit.
I turned back around and attempted to gather all of my hair into a tight ponytail, wondering how it was possible for the wind to be attacking me from every direction. Dave was standing in the car park below, patiently waiting for me to give up and descend the dune, but I’m stubborn and hate to fail. Deserts were my thing, and I was going to succeed at climbing Dune 45.
A huge gust of wind swirled around me, shooting pinpricks of sand into my flesh. I yelped and crouched down into a ball, attempting to shield my skin from the exfoliation. When the wind did nothing but increase, I relented and slid back down to the ground.
“It’s too windy!” I croaked at Dave. “Did you see me?”
“Yup,” Dave smiled, showing me a couple of photos on his camera of my face engulfed by hair. I looked like Shrek, the overgrown sheep from New Zealand.
“I’ll get to the top tomorrow,” I told him.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Deserts are my favourite type of landscape, and at 55 million years, the Namib desert is the oldest in the world.
As we drove our sandblasted rental car around the park, I wound the window down and gazed out in wonder, calling for Dave to brake every couple of minutes so I could take a ridiculous number of photos.
Here’s a tip: everyone who comes to Sossusvlei aims to enter the park at sunrise. They’ll drive straight to Dune 45, climb their way to the top, slip back down again, make a quick stop at Deadvlei to see the famous camel thorn trees, then leave just as the sand is roughly the temperature of the Venus. What very few people choose to do is visit the park just before sunset. And if you do that, you’ll find yourself with every single dune to yourself.
And sure, it’s so freaking windy in the afternoon that you’ll struggle to climb anything without sandpapering your flesh to the bone, but photos of the dunes without any tourists on is something not many visitors manage to leave with.
We were spending the night at Sesriem Desert Camp, which consists of a dozen luxurious tents beside a glimmering turquoise swimming pool and, most importantly, alcohol. Dave grabbed us a couple of beers from the bar, and we sat on a wooden picnic table to watch the sunset.
“I’m tired,” I announced.
“I’m shocked,” he countered with a warm smile.
We were nearing the end of our Namibia road trip — just one more destination left after this — and the strain of moving almost every day, rising with the sun and immediately leaping in the car had started to hit. We’d set the alarm for six that morning, then driven for six hours to get to Sesriem. Once we’d arrived, we’d climbed back in the car to drive around the sand dunes for a couple of hours. We’d be setting the alarm for six again the following morning to enter the park at sunrise, spend a day climbing sand dunes, then get back into the car for a five-hour afternoon drive to our next stop. Where we’d have yet another sunrise start to the day.
Fast-paced travel in Namibia is nothing if not exhausting.
The following morning, I pulled myself out of bed and piled myself and my backpack into the car. My research the night before had convinced me we should avoid the famous Dune 45 and instead head straight to Big Daddy. It’s the tallest sand dune in Sossusvlei and, because of that, doesn’t have coachloads of tour groups climbing it at sunrise. If we were lucky, we might even have it all to ourselves.
Unlike the day before, we had to queue to enter the park, but unlike everyone else, we didn’t need to stop every few metres to take photos. We’d taken our shots yesterday, which meant we only needed to stop once, to swoon over a warthog wandering across the sand, because obviously.
We pulled up at the car park at the end of the road and paid a ridiculous 150 NAD ($11.50) for a five-minute shuttle ride to the base of Big Daddy. If you’re rocking a 4×4 around Namibia, you can opt to skip the shuttle and tackle the deep sands yourself, but judging by the amount of beached cars we passed on the drive, I’d advise coughing up the cash regardless.
Jumping out of the shuttle car, I placed my flip-flops in my bag, having already decided to make the climb barefoot. Ahead of us stood an enormous sand dune with a small line of people making their way to the top. Behind us, even more sand. I truly felt like I was in the desert now.
I smiled at Dave, reached for his hand, and together we made our way to the base of the dune.
It was time to climb Big Daddy.
Everything I’d read online about Dune 45 cited a painful and slow climb to the top of the 70-metre-high dune, with some people even claiming it to be the toughest physical challenge of their life. Let’s just say, then, that I was feeling a little intimidated at the prospect of mounting Big Daddy, which stands at a whopping 350 metres. I hoped the views from the top would make the burning in my calves worth it.
What burning in my calves? Pfft. We scaled that bad boy in less than half an hour, barely out of breath and wondering what all the fuss was about. Apparently I was far fitter than I even knew.
As I surveyed the swirling shadows of the dunes in the early morning light, I turned to offer Dave a high five.
“Made it!” he grinned as his slapped his hand against mine.
“Look at this view,” I marvelled, gazing out across miles of sand and down towards famous Deadvlei below. It was a spectacular landscape, and I was overjoyed to be witnessing Dave’s first time in a desert. I wanted him to find it as spellbinding as I did.
“Look at that sand dune,” he said to me, pointing upwards to a peak in the distance. “Imagine climbing to the top of that.”
I laughed. “Yeah, seriously. That’s one enormous pile of sand.”
As I watched a couple skip down a dune together, I pondered my own descent and whether I’d be able to make it with all my limbs in tact. After all, I was standing on the top of the largest sand dune and–
Wait a minute.
“Dave,” I whispered, stifling a giggle.
“I, um, think we may have climbed the wrong sand dune.”
“Big Daddy is the tallest sand dune in Sossusvlei, right? Well, we’re not on the tallest sand dune, are we?”
He looked up at the peak we’d been laughing at moments before. “Ah.”
“I think that’s Big Daddy.”
“I think so, too”
“Well, that sucks.”
It turned out we were stood on top of Big Mama, the smaller sand dune that runs alongside Big Daddy.
But we’d come to climb Big Daddy, so Big Daddy we were going to climb.
Fortunately, it was still early in the morning, so the air was cool and the sand still damp.
Unfortunately, the shortest route to Big Daddy now involved us descending a third of the way down Big Mama, then beginning an even steeper ascent.
We followed the ridgeline on the right in the photo above, dipping back down then stumbling up again, discovering we were the first tourists of the day to make this mistake as we created footsteps in virgin sand.
The final ascent was the hardest.
It was a steep climb of relentless incline and by this point, the rising sun had evaporated much of the moistur on the sand. It was less compacted now, and the softer surface made it trickier to find your footing. Where before there had been dozens of footprints to place my feet into, there were few this high up.
And so upwards we marched, taking one step forwards and slipping three-quarters back. Up, up, up. I thanked god that I lived in a city made of hills, because inclines are something I seem take in my stride these days.
Before I knew it, we had made it.
We were standing on top of Big Daddy and life was wonderful.
Ahead of us stretched an ocean of sand, reaching as far as the Atlantic, 50 miles away from where we stood.
Where only we stood.
We had the entire top of the dune to ourselves in that moment, free to take as many photos as we wanted without having to wait for other people to leave. It was a surreal experience to feel as though we were the only two people in a vast world, with no sounds but our breathing and the sand shifting beneath our toes.
The Namib Desert felt more wild than I had expected, and part of me wanted to continue walking deep into the sandscape. The ridgelines looked so walkable.
We spent 20 minutes taking photos and dancing in the sand, enjoying being alone in the desert until it was starting to burn our feet. The only thing left to do then was to descend.
Big Daddy towers over Deadvlei, a white clay pan that’s famous for being filled with dead camel thorn trees that are hundreds of years old. It took us over an hour to reach the top, but would take just two minutes for us to hit solid ground.
Face first, in my case.
Yes, as I watched Dave tearing down the dune with his hands in the air, I reminded myself that balance was not one of my strong suits. No, I was going to utilise my rarely-found common sense. Instead of risking my life, I would take the descent nice and slow, treading steady steps down the side of the dune, making sure not to injure myself along the way.
Well, let’s face it: that kind of got boring after a while.
I threw my fears to the hot desert wind, and began to sprint my way to the bottom. Dave gazed up in awe at my agility.
“Woohoo!” I squealed with joy. There was no greater adrenaline rush than the one I was experiencing right now.
And no greater shock than when I tripped over my feet and fell face first into the sand with my mouth wide open.
With Dave now bent over with laughter and me covered from head to toe with bright orange sand, I barely even noticed the surreal landscape that surrounded us.
We were in Deadvlei, a place I had long dreamed of visiting, ever since spotting a photo of it in National Geographic, and all I could do was giggle about the fact that I unexpectedly looked like a mini Donald Trump.
Gathering myself, I made my way across the dune-formed amphitheatre, and by the time we reached the centre, I felt as though I was walking in a dream.
Sun-scorched trees surrounded us in every direction, some as many as 900 years old, none of them decomposing because the air is so dry. The clay pan was once full of water when a nearby river flooded the area, which allowed the trees to grow. When the climate changed and sand dunes began to encroach on the area, though, the water evaporated, leaving this skeleton forest behind, frozen in time for hundreds of years.
It was such an unearthly landscape.
This was one of those rare situations where Dave and I managed to perfectly execute a travel experience, because as soon as we finished taking our photos, dozens of tourists made their way into the pan to join us.
We took that as our cue to leave.
It was only midday but it already felt like one of the best days of my life.
What to Know Before You Visit Sossusvlei
Planning on visiting Sossusvlei? Best. Decision. Ever. Here’s what to keep in mind:
- Dune 45 or Big Daddy? I didn’t find climbing Big Daddy to be particularly hard and I’m not a super-fit person, so if you’re confident in your abilities to climb for an hour or two, I recommend opting for it. You’ll encounter fewer people at the top, if any at all, and your photos will be just as spectacular. As a bonus, you’ll descend right into Deadvlei while the temperatures are still reasonably low.
- Permits for Sossusvlei cost 80 NAD ($6) per person and 10 NAD ($0.70) for your car, and the shuttle ride to Big Daddy/Deadvlei is 150 NAD ($11.50).
- Don’t plan on scaling the sand dunes in flip-flops or sneakers. Instead, opt to go barefoot, in sandals (Tevas are great for this kind of thing) or in socks, and carry your shoes in your bag. In the early morning, I was fine in bare feet, but by the time we had finished exploring, the sand was so hot, I scorched the soles of my feet when I attempted to walk across it.
- Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen! And water, water, water! Two essentials when you’re going to be spending time beneath the hot Namibian sun. Don’t forget to bring either with you. You will need them.
- If you want to climb a dune at sunrise (and you should), opt to stay in Sesriem, which is just a few minutes’ drive away from the entrance to the park. We went with Sesriem Desert Camp, which was the cheapest option in town, and loved it. The staff were friendly, the tents were more glamping than roughing it, there was hot water and Wi-Fi, and a bar on-site, which was perfect for sundowners. I highly recommend it.
- If you want an advantage over other visitors to Sossusvlei, you can stay inside the park at Sossus Dune Lodge. Because it’s the only accommodation within the entrance gates, you’ll be able to explore the dunes past sunset and before sunrise, but prices do start at $200 a night.
- Unless you’re obsessed with deserts and want to climb more than one dune, you don’t need to spend more than 24 hours in Sesriem. Try to arrive before mid-afternoon so that you can see the dunes with nobody else around, then be at the entrance for sunrise to hike in the cooler temperatures.