By Jay Moran — March 13, 2015 —
Namibia is a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Among the many things to do there, one can go on a big game safari, hike Africa’s largest canyon, or sleep under the stars amid breathtaking desert landscapes.
Perhaps most popular is a visit to the giant red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, the largest of which is aptly named “Big Daddy.” At 325 meters (1,066 feet), it is one of the tallest dunes is the world.
The name “Sossosvlei” roughy means “dead-end marsh.” Located in the Namib Desert, this area is a salt and clay pan that was shaped over time by drainage from a nearby river. The pan is dry most of the year, and it looks almost white due to the high concentration of salt. It is the most visited destination in Namibia, and a place that I was extremely excited to see.
Arriving in Namibia
The entry point by air for a visit to Namibia is the capital city of Windhoek. I arrived on a late evening flight from Johannesburg, and was not thrilled that another 45 minute taxi drive awaited me in order to get from the airport to town.
The next day, however, after a little rest, I was able to walk around and get acquainted with the city center. Windhoek itself is a modern place, with western-style infrastructure and a few skyscrapers. At night, you would be advised not to walk around, but during the day it felt fairly safe, at least by African standards. There is a popular shopping mall, and a new KFC so shiny and posh on the outside that it looks more like a BMW dealership than a fast food joint. I passed on the KFC and made a habit of eating lunch at Craft Cafe, a delightful terrace restaurant with fresh salads, sandwiches and homemade desserts.
In terms of accommodation, let me offer two excellent options for different budgets:
The Hilton: This modern, 5 star high-rise is one of the tallest buildings in Windhoek. The rooftop has a pool, sun deck and exquisite bar area that is famous for its sundowner cocktail hour. I stopped by one evening for the sunset and made it back the next day to use the fitness center. The Hilton also does a great brunch!
Chameleon Guest House: Part budget hostel, part mid-range guesthouse, the Chameleon is an oasis in Windhoek. It actually occupies a small compound. The dormitory style rooms are located on one side, and some nicer private rooms are on the other. In the middle area, there is a small swimming pool, great outside bar with billiards table, and some lounge chairs, TV room, and barbecue.
I stayed in a private room at the Chameleon Guest House for about $50-60 USD per night, breakfast included. It was a superb choice. My room was well furnished with a comfortable queen-sized bed, plenty of space, and en-suite bathroom. This place really is cool if you want to hang out and meet other people. There is a full-service travel staff on site, too, who can directly book all of your excursions in Namibia.
I booked a four day trip to Swakopmund and Sossusvlei/Dead Vlei. In retrospect, I wish I had arranged for a longer stay in the desert at Sossusvlei, because getting there and away takes a bit of time and the desert itself is quite beautiful (more on that below).
Swakopmund — A German Town in Africa
The first day I rode with a private driver to Swakopmund. This town feels completely out of place in Africa, as if all of the buildings were transported somehow from a village along the Rhine river. It was founded as a main harbor for German-South Africa in the late 1890s, and the architectural style is German colonial. A good portion of the inhabitants still speak German, the streets have German names, and visitors have no difficulty finding strudel at a local pub or brauhaus. Today, it is a beach resort town. The coast is lined with numerous large homes, presumably owned by Germans.
In the evening I met the rest of the group who would be joining me for the rest of the journey. In total we were seven, including our Namibian guide, two young American sisters from Ohio, a Japanese businessman, a married couple from Japan, and a guy traveling solo from Boston. We had dinner together in Swakopmund at Jetty 1905, a seafood restaurant located about a quarter-mile off shore, way out at the end of a long pier that stretches into the Atlantic Ocean.
Namib Desert and Sossusvlei
The next day we drove to Sesriem Canyon Desert Camp, a rustic paradise with 360 degree views over the desert landscape and surrounding mountains — truly amazing at sunset. The Japanese members of our group were serious photographers, and at dusk they were ready to capture all of the colors around us with their tripods and gigantic zoom lenses. The camp’s sleeping units are modern, permanent canvas structures with adobe style walls and modern en suite bathrooms. Each unit is stand-alone to give visitors a sense of privacy. The common areas include a large, fully stocked bar area with big screen television, small swimming pool, an outdoor eating area, BBQ and shared kitchen. Our guide prepared the group’s meals.
Big Daddy and Deadvlei
We woke before dawn the next morning and drove to Dune 45. After spending some time there for photos of the beautiful colors at sunrise, we drove to Big Daddy. Climbing to the top is much more difficult than many imagine, and about half of the members in our group didn’t make it. Be prepared for some intense heat. The desert sun is merciless. When visiting, be sure to wear something to cover your head, don’t forget to lap on the sunscreen, and bring plenty of water.
After reaching the top, we descended—running down —the dune to Dead Vlei. The name means “dead marsh,” owing to the fact that water no longer flows here. The clay floor has turned a near-white color, and there are skeletons of dead acacia trees scattered throughout the area. The trees have turned black due to the scorching sun, and they will not decompose because it is so dry here. Some of the trees are thought to be more than 900 years old! The black trees, white clay and surrounding red dunes create a landscape unlike anything you have ever seen before. Words alone do not give justice to Dead Vlei. This place is beautiful and surreal at the same time, like a scene out of a Salvador Dali painting.
After spending about an hour at Dead Vlei, we walked back to Sossusvlei and had a picnic lunch before returning to climb Dune 45.
Everyone was pretty exhausted when we arrived at the desert camp later that afternoon. Climbing sand dunes under the desert sun takes a toll. But it was definitely an experience that I will never forget.