Seduced by Sossusvlei

Issue 6 (November 2010)

Hamilton Wende has spent months driving through Namibia. He recalls his trips in this regular column.


Sossusvlei is a place of stark elements that make up its uncompromising grandeur.  Dry yellow grass is layered against the curves of red dunes and azure skies.  Ghostly dead trees stand like giant prehistoric insects rearing up into the emptiness of the landscape.  There is so little moisture here that the trees cannot decay. Many of them died hundreds of years ago and stand desiccated by time.

Sossusvlei is one of the few places on earth that are virtually devoid of human history, and in that realisation lies its transcendent beauty.  It is a place of calm, a cathedral of dryness that has few animals or birds even.  The life that is here exists in a delicate, exquisitely balanced harmony with its harsh surroundings.  A scuttling lizard or a spiky-legged beetle are some of the few outward signs of this complex ecosystem.  There is something infinitely precious in witnessing these small creatures surviving the heat and drought around them.

There are no settlements here, no traces of any buildings, walls or fields.   The only people in the past who would have breached its shimmering sands would have been nomadic bands of San Bushmen who left no trail of their wanderings save the tales they carried with them and told around the campfires at night.

At its heart lies the Dead Vlei, its cracked surface a metaphor for the power of the elements.  To get there you have to take a 4WD – there is no road to this core of dryness.  It is a difficult drive and not recommended for enthusiastic amateurs.  There are shuttles available for those who don’t have the correct vehicles. The mud from the Tsauchab River piles up here and every 1000 years or so it forces a new way through the dunes and recreates the land anew.

The vlei (‘marsh’ in Afrikaans) is surrounded by a panoply of tall, red sand dunes with ridges honed sharp by the wind and which stretches out to the horizon as far as the eye can see.  The sand that makes up their slopes is five million years old and comes down the Orange River from the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.


The best way to experience these dunes is by floating above them in a hot air balloon.

“Here,” Eric our balloon pilot said to me, as we waited in the freezing darkness before dawn. “Take this hat. You’ll need it.”  I wondered why, but when we clambered into the basket and Eric cranked up the gas fires I felt the heat almost scorch the back of my neck.  With a few more blasts of hot air we were suddenly airborne, floating above the desert surrounding Sossusvlei.

The sun rose into a luminescent sky, casting dark shadows over the dunes below which glowed on the sunward slopes with gorgeous pinks, purples and blues.  It was as if we were drifting through an otherworldly sea of air and perfect  African light.  Other, smaller, dunes were silhouetted against the morning light and the dry, pale grass like a giant parchment of Arabic script.

A balloon ride over Sossusvlei is one of the most extraordinary, ethereal things I have ever experienced on this continent.  It is a chance to see the world in a new way.  As the sun’s rays first touch the edges of the sand, you perceive the fragility of our planet within the vastness of our universe, illuminated for a transitory moment in the still, turning point of silence and light. 


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