Nambia. Dune Shadow - Sossusvlei. Photo by Jeanne Block
Namibia. Dune Shadow - Sossusvlei. Photo by Jeanne Block
Dune Shadow – Sossusvlei. Photo by Jeanne Block

How the Journey Starts 

My stomach churned and my pulse raced as we roared up the face of a steep sand dune and hung suspended for a moment in open space before dropping down the other side.

Gunning the engine, we raced ahead to do it all over again. I was on an all-day four-wheeling adventure with Sandwich Harbour 4X4 in the Kuiseb River Delta just south of Walvis Bay, Namibia.

On the southwest coast of Africa, Namibia sits just above South Africa, with Botswana to the east, and Angola and Zambia to the north.

About the size of California, Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.

It is also a leader in environmental protection, with more than 40 percent of its land under some form of conservation management, encouraging the protection of wildlife and benefiting rural communities through wildlife tourism.

Walvis Bay, the main ocean port of Namibia, is a gateway to the coastal sand dunes which are part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the largest game reserve in Namibia.

The park covers a large swath of the south-central and coastal areas of the country. Walvis Bay is also home to colonies of flamingos, Cape fur seals and one of the largest solar salt works in Africa.

Travel in Namibia

The 4X4 excursion began with a visit to the Pelican Point peninsula for a great view of ocean-going freighters in the harbor framed by lounging groups of seals and flamingos wading in the shallows close to shore.

I saw black-backed jackals, which I first thought incongruous on a wet sand spit, but then realized the seal colonies provided an easy meal on occasion.

Then our caravan of three four-wheelers headed for Sandwich Harbour south of Walvis Bay. In this protected lagoon, the sand dunes literally drop away to join the sea.

Of course, getting there was the real thrill, at times racing along the beach, flirting with the incoming tide, then crisscrossing stories-high dunes in a natural roller-coaster ride.

For the pièce de résistance we stopped in a protected bowl in the dunes for a gourmet champagne lunch.

Besides great food, there was a lively discussion of travel and world politics among my dining companions, who were an interesting international mix, including three from Italy, two each from France, Belgium and Namibia, one from Germany and one from Switzerland.

I was the lone American on the trip.

Before dessert, I got up to stretch my legs and walk a bit. To my delight, I saw a tiny brush-tailed gerbil busily feasting on a Nara melon. He seemed to be enjoying himself as much as we were.

Namibia. Walvis Bay Salt Works. Photo by Jeanne Block
Walvis Bay Salt Works. Photo by Jeanne Block

Our last stop was the Walvis Bay Salt Works, the largest producer of sea salt in sub-Saharan Africa.

Here the dunes of sand are replaced by dunes of salt, which are dried through solar evaporation in huge brine ponds, then harvested for further washing and drying.

Finally, we headed back into town where I bid farewell to my travel companions, several of whom I met again several weeks and hundreds of miles north in Etosha National Park.

Earlier in the trip I had booked a 4 day/3 night Namib Desert Dream Tour through the Cardboard Box Travel Shop based in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city.

The Cardboard Box has a website that is a treasure trove of information and knowledgeable staff  who love to promote their country.

They helped me with everything from booking lodges, campsites and a rental car, to providing maps for a self-drive tour and suggestions for places not-to-be-missed.

Namib Naukluft National Park

Within the Namib Naukluft National Park, the Namib Desert Dream Tour takes you inland from Walvis Bay and deep into the Namib Desert – the oldest desert on earth.

It includes a stay at the Namib Naukluft Lodge and visits to the undulating red sand dunes of Sossusvlei (dead end marsh) and the fossilized acacia trees of Deadvlei (dead marsh or death valley), two of the best-known attractions in Namibia and among the most photographed areas in Africa.

Pictures of the other-worldly beauty of this desert are what attracted me to Namibia in the first place.

The Namib-Naukluft Lodge is located on a 25,000-acre farm turned private game reserve. Each of its 16 rooms provides stunning views of the desert and mountains.

It offers guided tours of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, a hiking trail that crosses open land, then snakes into rocky hills, and evening drives of the farm.

Namibia. Pale Chanting Goshawk in Acacia Tree. Photo by Jeanne Block
Pale Chanting Goshawk in Acacia Tree. Photo by Jeanne Block

I hiked the trail several days in the cool of the morning. Out of sight and sound of the lodge, it felt like being alone in a desert wilderness.

On the evening sundowner tour, I was amazed by the prolific wildlife in the arid desert. We saw herds of desert-adapted zebra, as well as springbok, gemsbok, ostriches, and the most incredible birds’ nests I’ve ever seen.

Huge fibrous masses – giant “bird apartment blocks” – are built by small brown birds called sociable weavers. Each nest houses hundreds of birds, can weigh several tons, and can be continuously inhabited for 100 years.

Sossusvlei

The day of my visit to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, we left the lodge in chilly pre-dawn darkness.  But it wasn’t chilly for long as the temperature rose quickly with the sun.

As the sky brightened and we approached Sossusvlei, it became apparent why we left so early.

The angle of the sun in the early morning creates the amazing dune shadows which make for stunning photographs of the red dunes, especially when viewed against the clear azure sky.

Once again there was an abundance of wildlife in the desert. Before reaching Sossusvlei, we drove past numerous springbok and gemsbok, also known as Oryx, the national animal of Namibia.

Later in the day we saw more of each, as well as many unique birds, including ostriches, several pale chanting goshawks, a gorgeous, emerald green swallow-tailed bee-eater, and kori bustards, the largest flying birds in Africa.

As visually stunning as Sossusvlei is, Deadvlei is even more dramatic. Formed centuries ago when sand dunes blocked the Tsauchab River from the clay pan where camel-thorn (Acacia) trees grew, the fossilized blackened trees – estimated to be 700-900 years old – form a barren forest in the desert.

We hiked up one of the dunes surrounding the bowl of Deadvlei, then ran straight down the slope into the graveyard of trees.

Namibia. Moringa Trees at Namib-Naukluft Lodge. Photo by Jeanne Block
Moringa Trees at Namib-Naukluft Lodge. Photo by Jeanne Block

Many visitors rent cars and drive themselves, but seeing the park with a local guide is highly recommended.

They know the desert flora and fauna, the best spots for photography, and how long it should take to climb Big Daddy, the tallest dune in Sossusvlei. They also know how to drive in deep sand.

I saw multiple tourists stuck hub-deep in sand who were rescued by local guides, and we stopped to push two of them out ourselves.

Most lodges near the park have their own guides, and I was lucky to spend the day with Michael, a charming and very knowledgeable young man from northern Namibia.

We spent 11 hours in the desert and I loved every minute of it.

I slept well that night, with visions of desert dreamscapes floating through my mind.

If You Go:

Cardboard Box Travel Shop  https://www.namibian.org/

Sandwich Harbour 4X4  https://www.sandwich-harbour.com/index.html

Sossusvlei https://www.sossusvlei.org/

Namib Desert Dream Tour https://www.namibian.org/travel/safaris/accomsaf/desert-dream-tour.html

Author Bio: Jeanne Block is a nurse/health educator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and has been traveling solo for over 25 years. Her solo journeys have taken her around the United States and to Europe, Africa, Micronesia, and to Mexico eight times. She has had multiple travel stories published by GoNOMAD.

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