Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – The Great Dune Field and Sossusvlei

Early wake-up call this morning. As I walk into the chill of the desert night toward the pale light of the refectory tent, my sleep-addled brain tries to take stock. This is Day Two of my journey through Namibia. I am at the tiny Kulala Adventurers Camp, deep in the Namib, the legendary desert that gave the country its name. And I have a sand dune to scale by 7:00 am.

A Namib Dawn

Namibia-Kulala dawn.

A springbok welcomes the dawn in the Kulala Wildernes Reserve.

It’s taken me years to get here, but I am finally about to see the sun rise over the highest dunes on the planet. The reality of the moment doesn’t fully sink in until we, my four fellow adventure travelers and I, are bumping along a sand trail that only our guide, Jimmy Limbo, can detect across the shadow landscape of the private Kulala Wilderness Reserve. The sky begins to glow with pre-dawn light and shortly thereafter we reach the private Wilderness Safaris entrance into the park. It’s precisely sunrise, the official opening time of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Although “our” gate follows the same schedule as the public Sesriem Gate, it has the huge advantage to be a good 25 kilometers closer to the dune field and not subject to any entrance formality delays. For almost one hour, we have the rare privilege to experience the intense silence and awesome grandeur of the oldest desert in the world in exquisite solitude.

Namibia-Naukluft sunrise.

Sunrise over the Naukluft Mountains.

Jimmy drives straight to the Elim Dune, the farthest inland dune, somewhat off the main track that leads from the Sesriem Gate to the heart of Sossusvlei. It is sprinkled with tufts of dry grass that help a bit with the climb. And it offers a unique view of the sun rising over the Naukluft Mountains and the sea of apricot dunes rippling to the horizon.

 

Beyond the Sunrise

Namib-Dune 45.

Dune 45 is arguably the most photographed dune on the planet.

As the sun begins to arch up, we get back on the road more traveled, the 60 kilometer (37 mile) stretch of asphalt maintained by the park from the Sesriem Gate to a central parking area in the heart of the dune field. There, self-drive tourists must park their car; only serious all-wheel-drive vehicles allowed beyond this point. Other visitors may either hike or use a shuttle to go to further into the dunes. Our “Wilderness Mobile,” an imposing custom designed all-terrain Land Cruiser, gets more than a few covetous glances as we go by.

A lone centuries-old camel thorn tree suggest we are nearing the Sossusvlei area.

Jimmy points out Dune 45, thus named for the sensible reason that it stands 45 kilometers (28 miles) away from the entrance gate. Located fairly near the road, with an unusual S-shaped edge and a few picturesque trees lining its base, the 170 meter (560 foot) high dune is one of the most photographed in the park. And climbing is allowed, which also gives it supporting cast status in adventure travel anecdote throughout the world. We snap shots of the celebrity from every possible angle, but no taker for a climb among our lot.

Namib-Big Daddy.

Big Daddy is the ultimate hike in Sossuslvei.

Then we come to Big Daddy. At a height of 330 meters (1050 feet), it is the highest dune in the park and one the highest in the world. I do believe one of us does climb some or all of it. I am too busy dragging myself up a much less impressive incline to get to the Deadvlei (Afrikaan for Dead Lake) pan to take notice.

 

 

 

Namibia-DeadVlei,

A surrealist landscape 900 years in the making.

Once a small basin moist enough to allow camel thorn trees to grow, Deadvlei dried up some 900 years ago due to climate change and encroaching dunes. Today, in the relentless mid-morning sun, the vision of skeletal remains of dead trees rising from the cracked white clay floor against a backdrop of orange dunes looks like a colossal surrealist fresco.

 

Life in the Namib

Namib-Oryx.

This Oryx enjoys the remains of yesterday’s rare downpour.

I’ve come to Namibia for the scenery, not expecting to see much wildlife in such a barren land. Yet the regal Oryx, these desert antelopes with majestic sword-like horns that I had only come across once before in the Kalahari, are everywhere. In spite of the scorching midday heat, we see them repeatedly on our drive back across the Kulala Reserve. We also spot ostriches strutting nonchalantly across the sand, and the occasional springbok. We even get a glance at a silver-back jackal stealthily on the prowl.

A magical Kulala sunset.

After lunch at the camp, I spend  the early hours of the afternoon on the shaded porch of my tent, taking in the stillness of the desert. Its endless vistas of rock and sand look like an overexposed photo in the harsh light of the overhead sun. Then, as it begins to dip down and the landscape regains its full power, Jimmy has one more treat in store for today, a sunset drive to the top of a nearby ridge. He muscles the truck expertly up a perilous rocky slope that I would find hard to handle even on foot, to the top of a mountain with a 360 degree view that redefines infinity. And where we sip our sundowner cocktail while dusk swallows up the horizon.

We enjoy a hearty braai, the traditional southern African barbecue, under the stars,  accompanied by a chorus of barking geckos. Tomorrow, we head north toward the Atlantic Coast and Walvis Bay.

Namib-Kula Sunset 2.

 

Good to Know 

  • A Dune Primer – The Great Dune Field around Sossusvlei is thought to have formed some five million years ago, when sand colored by iron oxide washed from the Orange River in the Kalahari to the sea. The Benguela Current drove the sand north, then northwest winds blew it back inland and began shaping the dunes. The quartz sand that made the Namib dunes shimmers in different colors; the more intense the shade of red, the older the dune. The wind constantly reshapes the dunes, depositing the sand on the windward side. It then slides down on the leeward side (the slip face), which is therefore the steeper side of the dune.
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator with a significant presence throughout eastern and southern Africa over the past three decades, recognized for its responsible tourism practices. They offer private access to some 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife and wilderness areas. While they do not take direct bookings, they work with a global network of destination specialists, including Wild about Africa, who I selected to arranged my journey around Namibia.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced, solo-traveler-friendly small group safaris (maximum 7 participants) in Bostwana, Namibia and Zambia. Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).

Location, location, location!

Sossusvlei

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Journey to the Edge of Africa – From Windhoek to the Namib Desert

Namibia had been on my radar screen for over a decade. On successive journeys across Africa, the name popped up now and then, usually around the fire at some remote camp. That is when strangers brought together for a day or two by the chance of converging itineraries exchange their most memorable travel experiences. The recurrent tales of parched deserts, mountain-high dunes and eerily fogbound coastlines insidiously worked their way into my mind. Namibia began calling my name in an insistent crescendo.

Namibia - Great Escarpment.

Going over the Great Escarpment feels like an encounter with the edge of the planet.

But there was a major catch. These rugged Namibia cheerleaders spoke of self-drive adventures and sleeping under the stars. My own idea of wilderness travel doesn’t include venturing into one of the most unforgiving deserts on the planet at the wheel of a rented four-wheel drive and pitching my own tent at the end of the day. It looked like Namibia might forever remain the top destination on my Africa wish list.

 

Wild About Africa

Then, while researching for a recent article on the economics of solo travel, I came across Wild about Africa, an offshoot of U.K. based Expert Africa, a trusted specialist in high-quality custom-made safaris, and a pioneer in Namibia travel since 1991.

Namibia-Kulala Adventurer_1.

The Kuala Adventurer Camp offers a unique experience of the Namib Desert.

This younger sibling (created in 2003) offers small-group (maximum 7 participants) road trips in custom-designed, guide-driven land cruisers. Accommodations are ideally suited to my idea of “roughing it”: fully staffed tented wilderness camps exclusive to the group, with the occasional hotel or guesthouse stay thrown in where required by the itinerary. Their “Namibia Wilderness Safari” includes everything on my wish list, plus a couple of destinations I haven’t even thought about. The virtually all-inclusive in-country pricing is reasonable and the solo traveler’s upgrade nominal (86 British pounds or 110 U.S. dollars at the time of my visit). I want in!

Namibia-Windhoek Schweringburg,

The capital of Namibia, Windhoek, retains incongruous of its German colonial past.

I promptly dispatch a query, and things keep getting better from here on. The response is near instantaneous, and in spite of the onset of the year-end holidays (admittedly the most awkward time of year to start planning a complex trip), all my questions are thoroughly addressed, often in real time. The amazing Sabina Hekandjo, clearly a Namibia expert in her own right, becomes my new best friend. Within a few weeks, an exhaustive personalized booklet recapping every point of information I could ever need to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure lands in my mailbox. A detailed map of the country and a copy of the award-winning Bradt Guide to Namibia are thoughtfully included. Let the countdown begin!

Where It All Falls Into Place

It’s late afternoon when I land in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, dazed after 24 hours of non-stop travel from Europe via Johannesburg. A greeter from Wild about Africa’s local partner, Wilderness Safaris, takes over. Once delivered to my comfortable guest house in a quiet suburb of Windhoek, I manage to stay awake just long enough to meet my guide, Jimmy Limbo, who drops by to introduce himself and recap the main points of my journey of the next twelve days. I meet my traveling companions the next morning, two friendly couples from Australia and the U.K. respectively.

Namibia-Wilderness Truck.

Our custom-design Wilderness Safari vehicle is masterfully handled by guiding expert Jimmy Longo.

We pile into a custom-designed, extended-cab land cruiser with a pop-up roof, three stepped rows of seats and six slide-down windows, so each passenger gets unrestricted views and photo opportunities. In addition to the 12-volt cigarette lighter charger, the dashboard includes two USB ports to recharge cameras on the go. The rear of the vehicle features a locked luggage compartment and a refrigerator stocked with drinking water and picnic lunches. With its oversized tires and high off the ground chassis, this is one impressive all-terrain truck!

A Tropical Bavaria

For the moment, however, it is smoothly gliding over the asphalt of downtown Windhoek, and I get my first real look at this most unlikely African city. No colorful chaos here, cacophonic crowds or free-for-all traffic that define most African capitals.

Windhoek- Christ Church

A Windhoek landmark, the Lutheran Christ Church is a remainder of Namibia’s colonial past.

Namibia’s largest city (population of 368,000, close to 15 percent of the country’s total of 2,500,000) is a well-groomed, modern provincial town shaped by its colonial past when the country was known as German Southwest Africa. Along the neat avenues lined with palm trees, the orderly traffic flows at the regulated speed of synchronized traffic lights. I take in the skyline where new steel and glass commercial and public buildings incongruously mingle with crenellated medieval towers. Jimmy points out the neo-Romanesque Lutheran Christuskirche (Christ Church), topped with a sturdy pseudo-Gothic 24-meter (79-foot) spire, circa 1910. Spread across a verdant plateau of the central highlands, some 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) above sea level, and framed by the brush-covered Auas mountain range, Windhoek brings to mind a misplaced tropical Bavaria. I am hitching to get on with “the real Namibia.”

Off The Grid Into The Desert

Khomas Highlands-Rock Formations

Sculptural rock formations rise from roadsite brush.

I don’t have long to wait. Within the next 20 minutes, the asphalt abruptly gives way to to a dirt road that meanders through the soaring amber-colored schist ridges of the Khomas Highlands. In this landscape eighty million years in the making, the rock formations are eye-popping. Occasional ancient rockslides rise out of the brush like gigantic modern sculptures. I start snapping away non-stop.

 

 

Khomas Highlands-Meerkat.

A meerkat stands guard by the roadside.

We are heading southwest toward the Namib Desert, another five-hour drive on washboard gravel roads, so Jimmy tries to keep photo stops to a minimum. Nonetheless, a moment later he pulls to the side and points into the brush: “meerkat,” he announces. Two of them actually, their slender body erect on a rock, in their familiar standing-guard position. Scenery is definitely the main event in Namibia, but we get interesting wildlife sightings as well, birds mainly, such as a colony of social weavers busily adding an extension to their already tree-sized common nest, and bright russet-colored chestnut weavers for whom nest-building is all about hanging out (quite literally, upside down).

Namibia-Kulala rain.

The Kulala Wilderness Reserve after the rain.

After a quick roadside picnic lunch under a shady camelthorn tree, we continue on over the Great Escarpment, and down in the gravel foothills of the Nautkluft Mountains. Then the unexpected happens. Clouds start building overhead, and ahead of us a wide telltale opaque gray vertical stripe reaches down to the mountaintops. Rain! My heart sinks. I’ve been waiting for decades to experience to one of the most parched deserts on the planet. It cannot rain on the day I get there! Jimmy, on the other hand sounds excited as the clouds keep building and huge drops start splattering our windshield. He says something about the start of the rainy season. What rainy season? Isn’t this place supposed to get barely 100 millimeters of rain in a good year? I keep my peevish thoughts to myself.

Namib-Kulala light.

The landscape changes color with the light.

By now, we are steadily moving through a middle-of-nowhere landscape of lake-size puddles that the parched earth has yet to absorb, featureless save for the black shadow of a mountain range. But shortly after the downpour subsides, the topography returns. We are now in a broad valley, and the mountains on both sides go from black to purple to a warm golden brown as the sky clears up. A right angle turn reveals a half-dozen tents tucked along the base of the mountain. We are in the heart of the 18,5 hectare (46,000 acre) private Kulala Wilderness Reserve, at the edge of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. And this is the remote Kulala Adventurer Camp, our home for the next two nights, with its friendly staff of two.

Desert Advendure At Its Breathtaking Best

Namibia-Kulala Vista.

The setting sun turns the mountains into burnished gold.

My tent is a cozy three-meter by three-meter dome, raised on a large, canvas-covered wooden platform, with two comfortable cots clad in crisp white cotton bedding. At its rear, the full bathroom with a solar-heated shower and flush toilet is conveniently supplied with a stack of thick cotton bath towels and a full range of biodegradable toiletries. At night, lighting is provided by solar-powered LED fixtures. But the best feature of my desert abode is the front veranda, where I can take in the pyrotechnics of the African sunset on the valley, and the mountains and dunes beyond. The sun has returned just in time to bathe the landscape in burnished gold. Then the sky begins to blaze in every shades of crimson to purple before suddenly fading to black.

At dinner, a wholesome, freshly prepared three-course menu, Jimmy announces the morning schedule: wake-up call at five (!), breakfast at five-thirty, departure by six, which, he explains, will get us in the Sossuslvei dunes area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park just in time to watch the sun rise over the most famous sand dunes on the planet.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – For overseas visitors, Hosea Kutako International Airport, located a 45-minute drive east of Windhoek is the main entry point in the country. Visitors from most Western and Asian countries may enter Namibia visa-free for up to 90 days.
  • Wild about Africa is an established destination specialist focusing on moderately-priced quality small-group safaris in southern and eastern Africa. They are a fully-bonded member of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO). Wild about Africa, 10 & 11 Upper Square, Old Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 7BJ, U.K. Contact: e-mail enquiries @ wildaboutafrica.com, tel. +1-800-242-2434 (U.S.), +44 (0)20 8758 4717 (U.K.).
  • Wilderness Safaris is a major ecotourism tour operator in eight countries in eastern and southern Africa. They offer private access to over 2.5 million hectares (six million acres) of Africa’s finest wildlife.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Kulala Wilderness Reserve