Sossusvlei Budget Travel Guide

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Sossusvlei - the Desert Icon of Namibia

The striking red-orange dunes of Sossusvlei are synonymous with Namibia, defining this desert country more than any other feature.

Typifying the vast Namib Desert, Sossusvlei is Namibia's top travel destination - a real must-see in Southern Africa.

This is where countless famous images of Namibia's desert landscapes originate. Despite the popularity of its iconic dunes the Sossusvlei area retains a remote atmosphere, exuding a sense of solitude, space and timelessness. 

This isolated place has a profound impact on many - mesmerizing travellers with its massive scale, shifting shadows, sharp contrasts and vivid colours in all-encompassing silence. 

The name Sossusvlei actually refers to the large pan that is surrounded by red-orange dunes, but it is the dunes that are the main attraction rather than the typically dry pan. The pan seldom contains water, unlike a typical vlei (shallow body of water), but the Tsauchab River has flowed into the salt pan on the rare occasion, transforming the arid terrain into a shallow marsh sprouting vegetation, and attracting birds and desert dwelling animals.

Most of the time the pan is however a flat expanse of cracked clay, fringed with sparse vegetation and scattered with gnarled dead trees that juxtapose starkly with the pale earth, cloudless blue skies and ochre-dune surroundings.

The red-orange dunes around the barren pan are some of the tallest in the world, reaching over 300m high - creating a dramatic backdrop to the surreal-looking vlei. The ochre sands of these towering dunes are constantly shifted by the wind and elements reshaping the landscapes. The ever-shifting nature of the dunes adds to the captivating beauty of the continually transforming desert scenes. 

Highlights of Sossusvlei:

  • Climbing up over 150m high Dune 45 to watch sunrise over the Namib Desert 
  • Walking through the desert landscapes to Sossusvlei from the 2WD parking area
  • Dining al fresco under unbelievably starry skies, escaping the city lights and noise
  • Taking a hot air balloon ride over the expansive desert to soak up the scenery 
  • Spotting the striking-looking gemsbok and springbok roaming in the desert

Sossusvlei - the Dead End Marsh

Sossus means "place of no return" or "dead end" in Nama, the local Khoisan dialect spoken in Namibia. Vlei on the other hand means "marsh" (shallow pool of natural water) in Afrikaans, a Southern African language derived from Dutch. Put the two together - Sossus and vlei - and you get the Dead End Marsh that is Sossusvlei.

According to local people Sossusvlei is so called because the Tsauchab River never makes it to the Atlantic Ocean, drying up in the pan when it does manage to flow that far into the desert.

Animals & Plants - Life in the Desert

Hardy flora like camel thorn trees and desert adapted fauna is what you'll get in these dry parts. This is not a game viewing destination, so don't hold your breath for wildlife sightings and most certainly don't expect to see the ever-popular Big Five. Spotting the surprisingly rich diversity of often unusual animals and even the tenacious plants of the Namib is however a rewarding and striking experience in this otherwise barren land.

Creatures that survive in this arid area include predators (hyenas, jackals, foxes), unusual insects, reptiles (snakes, geckos, lizards), antelopes (gemsbok, springbok, kudu) and birds (ostriches, raptors).

Where are the Sossusvlei Dunes?

Sossusvlei is part of a seemingly endless sea of rolling sand dunes that stretch out over more than 30 000km² of Namibia. Located in the ancient Namib Desert, one of the oldest deserts on the planet, Sossusvlei is situated about five-hours drive southeast of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.

Sossusvlei falls within the Namib Desert section of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, a protected area covering some 50 000km² of desert and mountain ecosystems. The Namib-Naukluft Park, one of the largest national parks in the world, lies in the southwestern part of Namibia in Southern Africa. The Namib Desert itself stretches over 2 000 km, from the Gariep (Orange) River bordering with South Africa, through Namibia and into Angola in the north.

The Sossusvlei Dunes are situated about 70 km's from the nearest settlement - the one-road, desert town of Sesriem.

What's the Weather like?

At midday temperatures occasionally rise as high as 40°C (104°F), so be prepared for the heat in summer.

Sossusvlei is in the Namib Desert - it's predominantly hot, sunny and dry, but can get cool in the winter months (June/July), especially at night when temperatures can drop as low as 0°C (32°F). Moisture comes in as a fog off the Atlantic Ocean contributing towards the average annual rainfall of 106 mm, concentrated in January, February and March. This low rainfall is unreliable and when it does arrive it comes down in short, light showers. 

Highlights near Sossusvlei

If you're travelling to Sossusvlei these are some nearby attractions worth investigating:

  • Sesriem Canyon - ancient layers of sedimentary rock revealed in a narrow gorge dotted with shallow pools
  • Elim Dune - tall red sand dune north of Sesriem, accessibe by 2WD vehicle
  • Hidden Vlei - stark pan with an otherwordly feel, where dry trees contrast with pale earth, red dunes and blue skies
  • Dead Vlei - a clay pan with cracked-white earth, skeletal dead trees and red-dune surroundings
  • NamibRand Nature Reserve, Solitaire, Kuiseb Canyon, Naukluft Mountains
  • Southern Namibia - Fish River Canyon, Aus, Kolmanskop, Luderitz, Walvis Bay and Swakopmund

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