Sossusvlei is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most famous and well known sight in all of Namibia.
Located in the heart of the Namib desert, Sossusvlei is essentially an enormous salt and clay pan which is surrounded by some of the highest sand dunes in the entire world – some of these dunes are more than 300m tall!
The name ‘Sossusvlei’ is colloquially used to describe this small pocket of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, which includes several other famous sand dunes and the fossilised trees of Deadvlei.
We actually drove a little bit farther than Sossusvlei the night before our visit in order to get to our accommodation. While our accommodation was lovely, for this kind of visit, it wasn’t ideal.
Basically, there are two sets of gates that you’ll need to pass through in order to get to the dunes, the outer and inner gates. The inner gates open to visitors much earlier (and stay open much later) and thus allow you to explore the dunes with less people around, but in order to make the most of this, you need to be staying at one of the accommodations actually within the National Park (Sesriem Campsite is the way to go if you are on a budget) – which is much easier said than done.
I started planning our trip to Namibia in February, almost nine months before we were due to visit in September, and literally everything was booked! All the campsites had long since been booked up, as had all the blow out luxury accommodation.
In fact, I was lucky to find availability anywhere! Most places seemed to be almost completely booked up, so I ended up taking the only vacancy I could find – the Namib Desert Lodge.
This lodge ended up being far more lovely than I ever could have imagined, but it is located a good hours drive away from Sossusvlei, and it meant that we had to enter the park at the standard opening times like everyone else. Granted, this is not the end of the world, but it certainly would have been lovely to see Sossusvlei at sunrise or sunset.
Travel Tip: Plan as far in advance as you possibly can and you might just snag some accommodation within the park!
The outer gates open at dawn, which meant that you need to get up seriously early. This is quite hard to do when camping as it gets freezing cold overnight, but the lure of the dunes managed to get us up and about (relatively) on time.
Driving from the Namib Desert Lodge to the outer gates took around 45 minutes, which was much longer than Google had expected – largely in part due to the rather hazardous driving conditions.
It should be been apparent, but we somehow failed to foresee that driving on unsealed roads before dawn could be a little bit dangerous, especially when there are quite a few more vehicles on the road than you typically encounter in Namibia. We spent the entire drive behind other vehicles which meant that we couldn’t see much more than seemingly endless dust clouds! It meant that Dan couldn’t exactly drive at the speed we would normally do, and it definitely took us a little longer than we had hoped.
We arrived to the gate pretty much right as it opened, but there was a small line up of cars ahead of us. However, it didn’t take long to get through!
It is worth noting that you must pay for a permit when you enter this gate. All the information I read said that this must be paid upon entry, but in our experience we were turned away from the permit office and told instead to simply pay before we exited.
The cost for entrance is very affordable. We paid $80 Namibian Dollars per person and $10 for our car – which totaled around $17 AUD for two people with a car.
From the permit office, it is around 60km to the gateway to the dunes. If you have a 4wd, at is at this final gateway point that you should reduce your tyre pressure to around 150-160kpa, but it is worth noting that even if you have an adequate vehicle, you should still only proceed onto the sand if you are experienced and competent with a 4wd vehicle. Once you start driving, the most important thing is that you simply mustn’t stop! Engage low gear and no matter what, just keep on driving!
If you do not have a 4×4 or if you do not feel safe to traverse the hazardous road to Sossusvlei, then you can access one of the many shuttles that wait at this point to bring people to and from the dunes for $150 NAD ($15 AUD) return.
Eventually, we made it to Sossusvlei! We saw so many more people at these dunes than at any other tourist attraction in all of Namibia (I genuinely was left wondering how we hadn’t seen any of these people) but the dunes are so wonderful that they make braving the crowds well worth it.
It took us about 10 minutes to walk from our car to the access point (most of which I did in bare feet) and we were very quickly met with the otherworldly and amazing views of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.
The trees of Deadvlei are a stunning contrast to the white clay pans below and the burnt orange sand behind, and it isn’t hard to see why Deadvlei is of particularly high interest to photographers and travellers from all over the globe. These trees are thought to be anywhere from 500-700 years old but because of drought they have long since died. Ordinarily, when a tree dies it would decompose and return to the earth, but these trees have been unable to do this due to their location in such a tremendously inhospitable environment. Many of the trees are coloured black, not because this is their natural colour, but because they have literally been burnt and charred by the sun.
I could have spent hours walking around Deadvlei, but unfortunately, you kind of have a time limit when visiting these dunes. We arrived very early in the morning, not so much to see the sunrise, but purely to avoid being in the sun during the hottest time of the day, which at Sossusvlei, is almost all day long.
So, we decided to start heading up the most highest and famous sand dune – Big Daddy – before the heat became too much. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to do this before exploring Deadvlei, and for anyone visiting this region, I’d highly recommend going up first to minimise your exhaustion.
We ended up running a little bit out of time. We made it around 3/4 of the way up and then the sand started getting really hot, really quick! Now, I will be the first to admit that I was not exactly dressed appropriately for trekking up and down sand dunes. Donning a maxi dress and my Birkenstocks wasn’t exactly ideal, but after wearing nothing but pants and plain t-shirts I simply wanted to wear a pretty dress! Now, the issue did not end up being with my dress, but with my footwear. While I will go to my grave proclaiming my love of Birkenstocks, I will admit that closed toed shoes are much more appropriate in this kind of environment.
Furthermore, I definitely underestimated just how quickly the sun would warm up the sand, and honestly, the fact that I didn’t end up with actual burns on my feet is a small miracle!
So no, we didn’t reach the tippy top of Big Daddy, but we still did get to appreciate the undeniable magic of Sossusvlei, and even got a few killer shots in the process!
Sossusvlei was everything I’d hoped for, and so much more. Normally I hate the crowds and busy-ness of popular tourist attractions, but Sossusvlei is so special that they don’t matter in the slightest.
Getting to Sossusvlei: Driving from Namib Desert Lodge takes close to two hours, if you can book early and nab accommodation within the gates of the park – do it!
Namib Desert Lodge: This lodge is reasonably priced and a wonderful place to chill out after a tiring morning in the sun, its only drawback is its distance from Sossusvlei. Click here to learn more!
4×4 Vehicle Hire: Fully equipped 4×4 vehicles are available to rent from many companies in RSA and Namibia – we rented a Toyota Hilux from South Africa 4×4 for around $155 AUD per day, which is quite common pricing during peak season
Camera: Images captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 in conjunction with M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 and M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lenses
Remember: Drive safely and carefully when heading to Sossusvlei! Don’t let your desire to beat the crowds (and heat) cause you to take risks on the road