Thursday, September 4, 2014

Sossusvlei: Dunes, Dunes, Dunes!

On Wednesday, we moved on from the horses at the Desert Homestead to be closer to the national park entrance at Sossusvlei.  We exchanged the comforts of the lodge for the slightly more rustic, albeit equally scenic, "tents" at the Desert Camp.

As the sun set and Giorgio prepared dinner on the braai, we listened to barking geckos and spotted jackals trotting through the desert grasses.  Eventually, only the outline of the mountains in the distance remained visible.  Our final self-catering destination, the Desert Camp was a nice change of pace from other Namibian accommodations, although our cooking options were limited to the provisions found at the “Sossus Oasis” (an appropriately named combination gas station, fast food, convenience store, and grocery).

Prior to Wednesday afternoon’s arrival at the Desert Camp, we set out to explore part of the national park before joining a guided tour via 4x4 on Thursday morning.  Sesriem Canyon was the first stop after entering the park gates and paying for the requisite permit.  Although certainly not as spectacular as the Fish River Canyon in terms of size, the narrow fissure of the Sesriem Canyon was a unique destination in its own right.  For one thing, it is one of the few sources of water in the dry landscape.  After parking the car in the broiling sun (it was noon by the time we arrived), we managed to miss the path down to the base of the canyon (of course there weren’t any signs) and spent a fair amount of time peering into the 30-meter gorge below.  We eventually found the path we had overlooked during our prior inspection and began our descent into the cool shade of the canyon below.  It was the perfect spot to explore in the midday sun and we spent time wandering in both directions, finding the limited water during dry season and having a brief James Franco moment in the narrow space. 

Even though we were scheduled to see the dunes on our tour in the morning, we wanted to get a sense of what all the hype was about – Sossusvlei is one of the main attractions in Namibia.  The massive red sand dunes are numbered by kilometer along a 60 km drive to Sossusvlei.  We stopped at Dune 45, which most people climb in the morning, when the light is better for photos and the heat is less intense.  We alighted from our Nissan to get a bit closer and for Giorgio to take some photos.  Steph thought the dune didn’t look that high and set off to climb it, despite the baking sun.  After embarking on this endeavor, she realized that the dune was significantly higher and steeper than it looked and that she should have brought some water.

Giorgio, apparently an expert in dune climbing because he is Peruvian, helpfully pointed out that the dune was obviously higher than it looked and that there was a right and wrong way to scale dunes.  Finally reaching what we deemed to be the top (footprints of others scaling the dune ended), we were at the perfect location to survey the never-ending sea of red dunes extending into the distance.  Even though the massifs were hazy in the blowing sand of the afternoon, we were the only people for miles – it was perfectly desolate.

Not surprisingly, the descent of Dune 45 was much easier than the ascent and we made good time until a sudden windstorm began to swirl around us, whipping the sand onto our bare legs and eliminating the path entirely. At this point, we haphazardly zigzagged down the rest of the dune.  Fun fact about the Sossusvlei dunes – they are not static, but rather move every day depending on the wind.  Our views on Wednesday were different than those on Thursday.

We rushed to the car to escape the wind and beating sun.  As Steph was preparing to jump into the passenger seat, the entry/exit permit for the park, which had been tucked into the door, decided to make a break for freedom.  A sprint after the small paper ensued, as the guard at the gate was sure to check to make sure we had paid our fees.  The wind would briefly die down, and then pick up the document to blow it yet further away.  We finally gave up the pursuit and dejectedly walked back to the car, mentally preparing ourselves to pay the entry fees a second time. 

However, as we drove back down the road, we could see a white object in the distance – taking out the binoculars, we were fairly certain it was our permit.  Giorgio promptly took the Nissan (not a 4x4) off road in pursuit of the permit, while we both crossed our fingers that the gravel wouldn’t cause a tire to blow. 

Permit retrieved, we were once again on our way!  We just needed to rid ourselves of the red sand that had permeated everything -- our boots, clothes and skin.

For Thursday morning, we signed up for a 4x4 tour to take us the whole way to Sossusvlei, which our Nissan was not designed to do.  Although the receptionist was unclear as to whether the tour would begin at 5:30 or 6:30 am, we decided that 6:30 made the most sense, as it would coincide with sunrise when the park gates open. Up bright and early, we embarked on the expedition in an open-air vehicle with two other couples and the guide. Our small group headed toward the park gates along with a line up of other vehicles – everyone was eager to see the dunes in the best light and the least heat.

Prior to setting off up the 60 km dune corridor, our guide stopped to show us several animal tracks and provide a detailed explanation of the formation of the desert.  Giorgio was particularly fascinated when our guide tracked a white lady spider, which burrows into the sand during the day and hunts at night.  With a long stick, the guide pulled a specimen out of its burrow to show us this unique animal.  Stephanie was less enthused and stayed as far back as possible.  

After learning more than we wanted to know about nature, or at least spiders, we were zipping down the dune corridor.  We pulled over at Dune 45 again -- unlike the prior afternoon, there was a line of people attempting the ascent, appearing like ants in the distance. The other members of our group made it to the top of the first summit of the dune in the time allotted, but not as far as we had gone in the heat on Wednesday.  Since we had already conquered the dune, we chose to watch the scenery peacefully from below. 

Onward to Sossusvlei!  The final 15 kilometers bordered by the red giants flew by – the tarred road quickly ended and 4x4 adventure began.  It was definitely a good idea to book the tour rather than strike out on our own, as our SUV would have quickly become mired in the sand.  En route, we saw at least one heavy-duty 4x4 with its tires completely buried. 

A vlei is essentially a temporary body of water or pan.  At Sossusvlei, there are underground rivers providing the limited vegetation with water.  Hundreds of years ago, the course of one of these rivers was altered, producing what is known as Deadvlei.  There, the 300-year-old trees lost their water source when one of the dunes moved and they have been immobile in the dry clay that was left over for the subsequent 600.  We hiked to Deadvlei along the crest of one of the dunes, with "Big Daddy" (allegedly the largest dune in the world, measuring about 350 to 400 meters depending on the day) looming over us. 

After exploring the area, one of the group members was having a “Steph moment” (aka, flipping out because he was hungry) -- he should have brought snacks in preparation for such a moment, like Steph does.  At any rate, we headed to the base of "Big Mama," another large dune, for breakfast.  Our guide had set up a lovely picnic provided by the lodge and it was a welcome respite from the heat under the shade of one of the few trees.  Fueled by the hearty meal, the two of us set off to ascend Big Mama, while the rest of the group waited below. 

Tomorrow’s stop is Swakopmund, the only town on our Namibian itinerary.  Swakopmund is also located on the coast – it should be a welcome treat to see the ocean after so many days in the desert!


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