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What can I expect from Sossusvlei?

The magnificent red dunes of the Namib Desert surround the clay pan of Sossusvlei, making it one of the most spectacular (and photogenic) places on the planet.  If you’ve seen any photographs of Namibia, then you’re sure to have seen several taken in this area.   The area is now one of the two major attractions in the country, so expect to see a lot of other tourists, but a short walk over the nearby dune and you will almost immediately feel the solitude that makes a holiday in Namibia so unique.

Conventional wisdom is that the best time to visit the dunes is early in the morning. And we do agree that this is an excellent time to be in the dunes, the downside is that the queue of cars waiting at the park gate gets longer and longer every year. While we used to adamantly subscribe to the ‘get to Sossusvlei early’ school of thought, we’ve come to realise that there is no time to be in this beautiful place, the light changes throughout the day, and if you are brave enough to endure the midday heat you’re likely to see shimmering desert mirages, while a late afternoon visit is likely to bring a sighting of a lone oryx in the shade of a camelthorn tree.

Warning this paragraph is boring and functional! If, like me, you don’t care about details skip it – the rest of the article is probably more fun. If you’re more like Rachael, then read on…  There are two main ‘destinations’ that encompass the Sossusvlei experience.
Sesriem (named after a small canyon nearby) is a campsite but also the entrance gate to the Namib Naukluft Park and Sossusvlei.
Sossusvlei is a large pan surrounded by massive dunes and in all probability why you are in the area.
If you overnight at a lodge, you will (with two exceptions) be staying outside the park, and will need to enter via the Sesriem gate, which opens at sunrise.  If you are staying at Sesriem campsite or one of the two lodges inside the park you can get a jump start on everyone else as the second (inner gate)  at Sesriem opens 45 minutes before sunrise.
There is a distance of 60km between Sesriem and Sossusvlei (on a tarred road through the most spectacular scenery).

Sossusvlei (and the 4×4 car park) will always hold a special place in my heart when we were young and dating this is where the game ‘watch out Rachael’ originated; it’s a simple game and still keeps me amused – I shout ‘Watch out Rachael!’ and then push her (reasonably gently) in the hope she might fall off a cliff, slide down a dune or fall into a lake.  She then beats me to within an inch of my life – and then we fall about laughing.

I’ve been visiting Sossusvlei (and Sesriem Campsite) for over 40 years– and never tire of the dunes splendour. If I’m honest, the crowds of people annoy me and while it is a must-see, once in a lifetime, place – but there are other less crowded, different but still spectacular parts of the Namib which now appeal to me more.

Things to See and Do in Sossusvlei

Take a photo of the trees at Deadvlei
Find a quite dune and climb it
Feel like a pro 4x4 driver in your rented VW Golf!
Visit Sesriem Canyon
Drink a Windhoek Lager (or 2!)
Do the walk to Hidden Vlei (not many people do!)
Play a game of watch out Rachael.....
Striped mouse at Sossusvlei

Striped mouse

Deadvlei near Sossusvlei


The Basics

Accommodation – There are many lodges in the Sossusvlei area, these range from the spectacular to the downright awful. Expect to pay a premium on accommodation closer to the park entrance gate.

Food – You will almost certainly end up eating at your lodge, as there are no independent restaurants in the area.  Most properties will do you a breakfast pack so you can get an early start into the dunes.  If you are camping, bring supplies with you – the shop at Sesriem is minimally stocked.

Drink – There is a small bar at the Sesriem campground. But other than this you will be drinking at your lodge. Some lodges offer a fully inclusive rate (which may include drinks) – but do check to see which drinks are included as they usually only stretch to local (South African & Namibian brands)

Transportation – Several lodges offer guided transfers into the dunes, but if you’re an independent traveller, we recommend driving yourself. The last 4 kilometres into the dunes is down the sandy Tsauchab River and is 4×4 only. It is a fun and easy drive (but do deflate your tyres).  If you don’t have a 4×4 or are not up for the challenge NWR run a shuttle from the 4×4 car park into the dunes.

Sand dunes near Sossusvlei

Sand dunes

Sand angel

Sand angel

Local Tips

There are dunes everywhere Sossusvlei is in the middle of a large dune field. Nearly everyone climbs the same two dunes: dune 45 (halfway between Sesriem and Sossusvlei) and Big Mama (at Sossusvlei). If you want a less crowded experience climb another dune in this vast desert area. But if you’re wandering away from the main routes do take your bearings so you can find your way back.
Stay at least 2 nights Sossusvlei is a long way from everywhere, about 350 kilometres from Windhoek or Swakopmund. Make the most of your time here and spend at least two nights near Sesriem. Doing so affords you the chance to spend a full day in the dunes without having to rush to another destination
Deflate your Tyres Deflate your tyres before driving the last 4km along the Tsauchab River into the dunes. The drive is easier in the morning when the sand is cold and more compact, but by midday, the sand becomes looser, and you tend to dig in more, deflated tyres spread the load and offer more traction. It is a good idea to ask your rental company for a compressor – so you can reinflate your tyres before driving back to Sesriem. For driving in thick sand, we deflate to as low as 1 bar (if you do a 4x4 driving course in Windhoek before your trip they can teach you an expeditious and straightforward way of deflating to exactly 1 bar)
Deserts are remarkably sandy You will get sand everywhere – your underwear, ears, toes and in your camera equipment. If you don’t want your camera gear/phone/family jewels becoming as sandy as a golden mole keep them in a sealed bag and try to avoid changing lenses!
Take Beer (and water) After climbing a massive dune in the hot African sun nothing can beat a cold beer.
Wear closed shoes If you want to climb the dunes sandals are not ideal. This is especially true in summer when the sand will be scorching hot.

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