Tag Archives: Sossusvlei

Camel Thorn Trees – Stalwarts of the Desert

I have to confess that I am known to hug beautiful trees.  Not wanting to appear loopy, I usually first have a good look around to make sure that no-one is watching me!  Namibia, having such a sparse population and vast areas of wide open spaces, as well as many beautiful Camel Thorn trees (Acacia erioloba), has been the perfect place to indulge this little fetish of mine.  These wonderful trees are part of this African landscape and can be found throughout the drier parts of southern Africa.

The beautiful Camel Thorn tree

The hardy Camel Thorn (Kameeldoring as it is known in Afrikaans – and which actually translates to Giraffe Thorn) is an acacia, easily recognized by its amazingly gnarled bark, small leaves and the little grey velvety comma-shaped seed pods that it produces.  It also sports rather nasty thorns, typical of the acacia family.  When in bloom, small round yellow flowers adorn the trees.

Apparently I’m not the only one who loves them.  It must be the tree most favoured by animals and birds, not only for its food, but the deep shade that it offers in intensely hot areas like the game reserves.  Cattle, camels and small herbivores also enjoy eating the seed pods that drop onto the ground below.

Small herbivores enjoy the pods

The tree gets its name from giraffes that like to feed on the succulent leaves.  Their leathery tongues and lips pay no heed to the thorns as they feast on the foliage on the uppermost branches.

Giraffes don't mind the thorns

There’s no telling what you will see in a Camel Thorn tree.  We’ve been lucky enough to see it decorated by birds of every description, raptors with snakes, enormous communal socialable weavers nests, and even a leopard …

A comfortable bed for a leopard

and a beautiful Caracul having a comfortable snooze!

Where else should a caracul sleep?

The most famous Camel Thorn trees in Namibia have to be the ones found at Dead Vlei, the dry white pan surrounded by magnificent red dunes in the Sossusvlei area.  These dead trees, purported to be hundreds of years old, are a photographers delight and are featured in just about every book on Namibia.

Dead Vlei - Sossusvlei area

In Namibia most campsites are situated under Camel Thorns trees and as an added bonus, their wood is excellent for braais (barbeques).  No wonder I love them so much.  Oh, and by the way, please don’t let on about my secret fetish!

Sossusvlei

Sossusvlei is generally regarded as one of the most spectacular landscapes in Namibia. The ‘vlei’ itself is situated at the point where the Tsauchab River dams up at the foot of a spectacular series of sand dunes, its route to the sea blocked.  The sand that makes up these massive dunes, amongst the biggest in the world, was carried here by the east winds from central Namibia and owe their distinctive overall colour to the presence of iron oxide, with streaks of black contributed by magnetite and red by traces of garnet.

En route to Sossusvlei

En route to Sossusvlei

We have been to Sossusvlei several times, the most recent trips being with Jane’s son Mick (who set up this website for us – see lookatbowen.com), and we also included a visit to Sossusvlei in a short round trip from Windhoek with some friends, Duncan and Beryl, taking in the Kuiseb Canyon and Sesriem Canyon.

It is a leisurely drive on the gravel C26 from Windhoek to the Gamsberg Pass. From the top of the pass there are quite spectacular views of the Kuiseb River in the valley below and after a short stop we moved on to the Kuiseb Canyon.

Duncan & Beryl at the top of the Gamsberg Pass
Duncan & Beryl at the top of the Gamsberg Pass
The bridge over the Kuiseb River at Gamsberg
The bridge over the Kuiseb River at Gamsberg

The Kuiseb Canyon is carved by the Kuiseb River, and is well known as the area in which two German geologists, Henno Martin and Hermann Korn, lived for more than two years in order to avoid internment during World War II. Henno Martin’s book “The Sheltering Desert” gives a vivid account of this experience and is well worth reading.

The Kuiseb River seldom flows on the surface and even more seldom does it reach the sea, but it plays a very important role in preventing the northward march of the sand dunes.

Sesriem Canyon, on the Tsauchab River, gets its name from the days when the early travelers needed to draw water from the river in the canyon and, because of its depth, tied six leather thongs together, fastened a bucket to the end and lowered it to the pools below. In Afrikaans “ses” is six and “riem” is the name for the leather thongs; hence Sesriem.

Sesriem Canyon
Sesriem Canyon
Crossing a flooded road en route to Betesda
Crossing a flooded road en route to Betesda

Sesriem is the “gateway” to Sossusvlei in the Namib Naukluft National Park and there is a plethora of accommodation available in the area. We stayed at Betesda Lodge, which was very comfortable, albeit a little further from Sossusvlei than some of the alternatives. The following morning we left Betesda quite early for the short drive to Sossusvlei.

Some of the hills are startlingly beautiful
Some of the hills are startlingly beautiful

Located about 50km inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Sossusvlei and the neighbouring Deadvlei and Hidden Vlei lie at an altitude of between 550 and 560 metres above sea level, with the dunes around the vlei rising 80 to 110 metres above this. The highest dune in the area is thought to be Dune 7 (apparently the seventh dune after crossing the Tsauchab River, and not to be confused with the famous Dune 7 near Walvis Bay) at approximately 380 metres.

Dunes at Sossusvlei
Dunes at Sossusvlei

These dunes are called “Star Dunes” and are given their characteristic shapes by the winds that blow from different directions as the seasons change. The dunes are therefore fairly stable and are not moving in a particular direction under the influence of the wind.

Dunes & Gemsbok near Sossusvlei
Dunes & Gemsbok near Sossusvlei

Of particular delight to photographers  is the vlei close to Sossusvlei itself  known as Deadvlei, named after the eerie skeletal remains of ancient-looking Camelthorn trees found in the pan. Extremely photogenic, depictions of this moody spot can be found in almost every guide book or coffee table book on Namibia!

Dead vlei
Dead vlei
Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei
Jane & Mick at Sossusvlei
Jane & Mick at Sossusvlei

From Sossusvlei we returned to Windhoek via the spectacular Spreetshoogte Pass, reportedly the steepest pass in Namibia.

View from Spreetshoogte Pass
View from Spreetshoogte Pass