Red Dunes of Sossusvlei

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Arnold, our guide, picked us up from Villa Vista after breakfast. Breakfast was on the roof, looking out to Windhoek and the distant hills. Another couple was having breakfast, a German couple, both about our age. The man had short grey hair and like me wore his beard short and, well trimmed. His wife was pale and brown haired. She stood behind him, caressing his head and then kneading his shoulders, all in affection and care. It was most embarrassing to watch such intimacy in public.


Arnold was as tall as me but far more well built. He was no darker. His head was dome-shaped from the back. His voice was between tenor and bass and his English was clearly enunciated without the flatness and harshness of South African accent.


Our jeep was well equipped: several spare tyres if we were to need it, two jacks, so many litres of fuel, water, water and even more water. We had a converter to charge up our devices, air conditioner, and radio to keep in touch with the world. We felt like real, modern explorers with little of the risks attached to discovering new worlds.


We drove out of Windhoek. It was already a hot day but it would become even hotter. The wind was rising, the predominant southwesterly was picking up. The ease with which sweat and water loss occurred in this climate was quickly brought home and the mantra was drink 3 litres per day, drinking small amounts frequently.


Between Windhoek and Rehoboth acacias predominated. There were innumerable varieties but of them all the sweet acacia with its yellow flowers that looked from a distance like mimosa was the most impressive. Also, the road was tarred, narrow like an ‘A’ road. It was rare to meet any other vehicle and as for farmsteads they were far apart and sparsely populated. This Namibia was a geographically large country, the size of France and the UK put together, but hardly populated.


Rehoboth was a town of “Basters”, Dutch and African mixed-race people who had moved to Namibia from South Africa in the 19th century and founded the town and named it after a figure in the Old Testament, Rehoboth, and meaning ‘We will flourish in this land’. Well, they haven’t flourished! They are considered a different tribe in Namibia and have not intermarried with other tribes. But, more ominously because of their intermediary position, they remained neutral in the protests and resistance movements that signalled the desire for freedom first from German rule and then from Afrikaans oppression. The inhabitants of Namibia have interpreted this neutrality of the Rehoboth as a betrayal. Apparently, the community has been devastated by alcoholism and drug misuse. I suppose you will have to think of them as marginal peoples.


We turned off the tarred road here at Rehoboth. That was the start of the gravel roads that crisscross this country. At the junction was a Shepherd Tree, the first of many that we saw. The country gradually became drier; there were fewer trees, even fewer acacias. Mostly now, were grasses and clumps of bleached bushes. We were now travelling alongside Naukluft, a mountain range of black lime and basalt, wonderfully shaped, endlessly played on by the light and forming shadows and mysteries according to the clouds’ desires and the interest of the shapes and mounds of its surfaces. Occasionally there were gigantic boulders, yellowish boulders of granite. To the far right, in the direction of the east, there was the escarpment, a range of mountains, flat-topped going all the way to Cape Town to join the Table Mountain.


I heard the term “Perennial River” for the first time. Not surprisingly, in a country that is this dry, rainfall is welcome and treasured. Every drop is received with gratitude. There must have been rainfall overnight: there were puddles, pools, truncated streams, of muddy water in a few places and every so often a watering hole, an oasis hidden within long grass and bushes.


Arnold was ecstatic; he was full of laughter for this meagre rainfall.


There were numerous common, sociable sparrow weavers. Their nests hung on tree branches and then in a spectacular display of ingenuity, they were sometimes balanced, beautifully designed nests, on the top ends of telegraph poles. We saw shrikes, a bustard, and maybe a Roller if not a glossy purple or brilliant blue starling such as one sees in Lagos. There were donkey herds, cattle herds, horses, goats, and fowl in settlements. But, the pick of the fauna was the Oryx, with their majestic horns and sable coats.


At sunset, it is impossible to describe how the mountains were lit up. The predominant palette was brown, earth dun brown; sometimes clear, sometimes cast in shadow to almost black, or bleached almost yellow or even dirty white. The sky speckled or darkening, and then the oyster white or resplendent tufted white of the clouds. A slight breeze, a fluttering of the ears of grass, and an expanse of blue, corn blue that stretched and then became elastic and encircled the horizon so that it was no longer a horizon but a circumference. Here you could turn a full 360 degrees and still have the horizon in view. That’s how large, how immense the sky was here in Namibia.


In the evening I sat and looked out at a group of six people riding back in single file on horses across the evening light. The horses: a grey, a deep brown, another soft brown, gently swishing their tails and coming in and, behind them a lone gazelle, a Springbok.


Next morning, it was an early start, 4:45 am to be precise. The drive started before dawn. The sky was still dark and the stars were still very visible. The new moon, a sliver of silver, if I might coin such a term was shining. As we swung into the entrance into Sossusvlei, the Naukluft range was to our east and it was, from this vantage point like giant battlements, castellations, towers, several deep in a defensive strategy that made this imagined rocky kingdom impregnable. The dark of the battlements was enhanced against the grey and slate blue in between.

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To the West, the dunes, all 60 kilometres of this extraordinary corridor was the subject of a play of light and shadow, of various shades of red, from crimson to the deepest of ochre, even vermillion and cochineal. How shape, contours, texture and depth inflected the light to sing in the utmost register of the imagination, soaring and skirting, deepening and once again soaring to the pinnacle of the human voice, Maria Callas of the vlei, Puccini scaling the precise edges of the dunes.


This symphony was merely the prelude to the corridor of dunes on either side. At this point, the dunes traversed a dried river valley, the dried Tsauchab only present in the gravel beach of its bed. Like at Chesapeake Bay the gravel of basalt and granite formed an unusual beach. In this case, on both sides of the corridor, the beach rode like a skirt right up to the dunes edges, their pink and grey, starkly contrasting against the changing, ever-changing magnificence of the dunes.

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We saw a solitary brown hyena dash across the road. Then springbok, Oryx, several ostriches, and a gerbil. When we passed Dune No 45, the supposed most aesthetically pleasing dune, there was already a gathering of enthusiasts, walkers and climbers, and keen photographers. We passed on. Our Dune, Big Daddy and Big Daddy’s arm, was the entrance to Deadvlei. There were others already making their way along the shape edge of the dune, climbing up towards its peak. We joined in this 1-2 mile hike, a test of stamina and bravery, at least in my case. The strain on the calves, on the buttocks, on the breath and lungs was, to say the least, demanding.

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Once we were up, how to get down; the ordeal was to push our heels into the sand, down this precipice of sand. I, first of all, balked at it, but relented and down we went, every step the balance between slipping and rolling over and staying upright like a stick in the mud. Well, we arrived safely at the bottom, at the most alien world imaginable- petrified trees, 8-900 years old in the middle of a dried up river bed enclosed by mysterious dunes. The battle between the Tsauchab River and the dunes had been won by the dunes about 1000 years ago and, the river’s journey to the Atlantic had been blocked off. And, then the river starved of water, of rainfall had all but dried up. It still fills up occasionally but what can a river do if it is starved of rainfall?


Breakfast was under a thorn tree, albeit a dead one but providing enough shade to become our temporary home. Our guide, Arnold, became a master chef, without prior warning. He was rigged out with coffee, cheese, cold meat, scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausages (cooked on his magical stove). As we ate, a cathedral of sparrows arrived singing and waiting to drink from the camp container of washing up water. Perhaps twenty sparrows stood on the edge of the plastic container to make its edge fall to the ground so that they could dip their beaks in the water. A spectacle of team effort, of ingenuity and surprising intelligence. On the tree branches, there were piebald crows, cawing; the male loudly entreating the female, puffing up its chest, and spreading its wings. Sadly, the female was unimpressed and merely flew away. The male was undeterred and followed her. If he was human he might have been done for sexual harassment, for not taking no to mean no!


Just a few minutes’ drive away was Sesriem, a modest gorge, not far from Deadvlei. Its bottom was estimated 2 million years old. To walk along this antiquity was relatively easy, you just walked a few steps and turned left and walked another 500 metres and you were walking with Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis. Strange idea.


By midday, the dramatic display of colour by the dunes had quietened down. The dunes were now mostly bleached laterite red. It was dawn and the rising sun that had played the singular role of quickening our hearts, showing how awe-inspiring Planet Earth was. And, it truly was awe-inspiring.


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Photos by Jan & Femi Oyebode




2 thoughts on “Red Dunes of Sossusvlei

  1. Namibia has always been on my list of places to visit….you have just provided additional inspiration!
    Any advice/information on travel arrangements very welcome!

    1. Tunde,
      Good to hear from you. We travelled courtesy of Timbuktu, a London travel company who made all the arrangements and their Southern Africa partners were excellent. We flew into Cape Town then into Windhoek before setting out for wilderness- Sossusvlei, Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, Tywelfontein, and Etosha. It was spectacular and very well worth visiting.

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