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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
From Sossusvlei we returned to Windhoek via the spectacular Spreetshoogte Pass, reportedly the steepest pass in Namibia.
A Weekend at Isabis – February 2006
Isabis is a farm some 130 kms south-west of Windhoek in the Gamsberg region. Situated in the catchment area of the Gaub River, a tributary of the Kuiseb, the farm has dramatic scenery etched out by the towering gorges of the Gaub River Canyon and a conglomeration of granite outcrops of the Rooiberg.
The delightful campsite is quite special and isolated because the owner, Joachim Cranz, only allows one party of campers on his enormous farm at a time. Joachim sounded quite excited when he described their challenging 4×4 trail, but I was quick to assure him that we were more interested in birding and walking than the rough ride. What he didn’t tell me was that to get to the campsite we’d have to take on the rugged terrain anyway!
After paying our camping fees we headed across the flat grassy plain following the crudely painted signs to the campsite. We saw a snake eagle circling overhead and a couple of Northern Black Koorhaans crossing the dirt track as we approached. It seemed to augur well for the birdlife that lay in store for us.
The road was fairly innocuous to start with, but as we drove deeper into the farm, we descended into an enormous gorge and the route down became quite hair-raising. Hewn out of rough boulders, with hardly enough room to squeeze through, in places it barely resembled a road at all and Rob had to really concentrate as he put the car into 4×4 mode and negotiated the way down. I’m still not comfortable driving over rocks like that and have to admit that my heart was in my mouth most of the way. My vivid imagination had our tyres being shredded by the sharp rocks, so it was quite a relief when we finally made it to an area where the gorge leveled out a bit.
We eventually reached the campsite by crossing a river bed at the foot of a rocky hillside. The facilities, although quite primitive, were great – a table and chairs made out of flat rocks, an open flush toilet with views on three sides and best of all, a shower built into the cliff, with only a flimsy shoulder-height reed wall to preserve one’s modesty. I eyed the huge woodpile lying next to the braai area with more than a little suspicion, thinking it would make an ideal home for snakes!
No sooner had we unpacked the bakkie and opened up the rooftop tent when it started to rain softly. Alarmed, we realized that we were camping virtually in the river bed and if it rained heavily upstream, we could get washed away during the night. We’d heard horrific stories of people drowning in this way, and decided that we wouldn’t take a chance by staying in that lovely spot. Sadly we packed everything up again and made our way back across the river to higher ground a short way up the hill. This site wasn’t nearly as nice as the one next to the cliff, but we felt safer and soon settled down again. Fortunately the rain didn’t last very long so we were able to have a pleasant braai under the stars.
The next day as dawn smudged the morning sky and we were having a leisurely breakfast, we were joined by a little hare with cute long ears. A bit wary of us, it sat under a thorn tree a few metres away and kept an eye open for any movement from our side while it scanned the area for some food. As usually happens with birds, when we reached for a camera it took fright and disappeared into the bushes. These little encounters with nature add tremendous pleasure to a camping trip and we’re always delighted to be joined by the locals of the area.
After breakfast we took a short walk along the river bed to a road that lead up the hill. On the way I stepped on a rock and heard a hissing sound. Closer inspection revealed a horned adder that bid a hasty retreat while we tried to photograph him. Across the river was a rock with about five colourful Namibian Rock Agama’s basking in the early morning sunshine. Their bright orange heads lifted as we drew nearer and they vanished rapidly when they decided that we’d got too close for comfort. This time of day is so peaceful and with birdsong in the air, we enjoyed seeing and listening to nature greeting the new day.
The road rose steeply up the hill and as we made our way slowly up we heard the echoing cries of baboons warning each other of our presence. A couple of them were sitting harmlessly like sentinels on the rocks above us. We’ve encountered many baboons on our walks, but have never felt threatened by them even when they’ve been at their most vocal.
The road flattened out at last and a short way along we came across an empty reservoir and a rusty old windmill. Disappointingly, there weren’t many birds, so we decided to head back to camp and drive around the farm to a dam where we hoped to see some water birds.
Taking the same road that we’d walked along earlier, we soon came to a rather treacherous stretch that formed another part of the infamous 4×4 trail. I preferred to walk up the steep hill rather than listen to the torture going on underneath the vehicle. Rob, whose 4×4 skills were being nicely honed on this one, soon had the bakkie crunching slowly up the rocky road to the top of the hill.
Out of breath, I climbed back into the car only to discover that around the next corner it became even more scary as we descended down a dreadful section with a sheer drop on the right-hand side. Once again I opted to walk and told Rob to wait a while so that I could position myself to photograph his descent. Who knows, my fortune could have been made by getting one of those dramatic shots of a car actually going over the edge of a cliff! Just joking!!
The rest of the day was spent negotiating the various stretches of rocks, holes and boulders in the road. Admittedly it turned out to be quite fun and towards the end I even managed to remain in the car when the going got rough. We came across the dam after leveling out and driving for some time across the plains. As there were folks camping at the waters edge we figured that we’d driven onto the adjoining property, a farm called Hornkranz. If not, then Joachim was definitely not sticking to his one party rule on his land. It was very overgrown around the dam and there was no way we could get close to the water without walking through their camp. We decided not to disturb them and made our way back to our own campsite. It had been such a pleasant day, full of exciting driving and beautiful landscapes.
The next morning, before leaving, we walked down to the trickle of a river below us. Dozens of pale green butterflies were standing on the water’s edge with their wings folded up together. They looked like little yachts at anchor. Here and there bright orange dragon flies touched down gently on the pools of water. The scene was quite idyllic and I felt rather sad to be leaving the area. As we drove up the escarpment we were excited to see a pair of Kori Bustards ambling through the bush. They’re not as common here as up near Etosha so a sighting always gives one a bit of a buzz.
Instead of retracing our route coming here, we decided to drive back to Windhoek via the infamous Spreetshoogte Pass. After bidding our hosts farewell we turned right at the gate and headed towards Nauchas and Namibgrens Farm. Once past these, one turns on to the D1275 where a sign board screams out a big warning of the steep gradients ahead. Our route took us down the Pass, but before descending we stopped at the look-out point just below the crest, which gave us the most spectacular views of the panorama below. The good rains we’d had this season offered us green grass as far as the eye could see. It is probably the best vantage point in Namibia.
The descent was steep, the gradient being 1:4 to 1:6. Not something to be taken at speed and we were amused to see a couple of road signs saying 2 kph. We discovered on a second trip that someone had removed the 1 and the speed limit should have read 21 kph (still an odd number). The road drops several hundred meters in less than five kilometers, which gives one an idea of why this is regarded as the steepest pass in Namibia. At one point where it was really steep, the dirt road was paved to give a better grip. When we reached the bottom we agreed that it had been worth the trip just to experience the beauty of it all.
From there we drove to Solitaire, a hot and bustling outpost in the middle of nowhere. Solitaire is a halfway stop for folks on their way to and from Sossusvlei, so it’s quite busy in spite of its tiny size and remoteness. It comprises a garage, a restaurant and an inhospitable looking camping area. After filling up with diesel we headed for home without trying the apple tart at the restaurant which is supposed to be to die for.
We took the C14 from Solitaire, which goes via the Gaub Pass. Stopping at the bridge at the bottom of the Pass we saw the devastating effects of flash floods that had swept through there a few days before. Dead branches were washed up against the bridge and lay strewn on the river banks. This was obviously quite an unusual sight as many motorists stopped to take photos and walk down the damp river bed. We were approached by a friendly guy in a Jeep who recognized our Underberg numberplates and came over to say hello.
It started raining again when we resumed our journey and at one point beyond a very wet and muddy Rooisand, we came to a section in the road that was awash. Not wanting to risk being swept away, I walked slowly through it with a stick to test the depth and the strength of the flow before Rob drove across it. This truly was one of Namibia’s rainiest seasons for a long time and it was great to see the effects that all this water was having on the countryside.
Yet another brilliant weekend enjoying the outdoors of Namibia. This country really has so much to offer the tourist in the way of great experiences and great sights. We loved it!