The Journey to Dead Vlei

Trip Start Sep 17, 2007
Trip End Oct 08, 2008

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Flag of Namibia  ,
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Getting around is pretty difficult in Namibia.  Distances are vast and desolate and public transportation is almost non-existent.  I suppose it figures that in an enormous desert with a population of only 2 million people, public transport is a little difficult.  So we could have rented a car or taken a budget camping trip.  Gas cost about $6 a gallon, so I don't think renting a car would have been any cheaper.  We signed up for a three-day camping trip to the dunes at Sussosvlei.  It was a splurge, but the dunes were the main reason we were in Namibia in the first place. 

Everything is a day from Windhoek, so the three-day tour to the dunes was actually a one-day tour to the dunes with two days of driving.  But it was a pretty drive at least.

We were in one of the overland trucks that you see zooming around the continent and booking out hostels (jerks).  It looked like a moving van with giant windows in the side.  But it had everything the Gabriel and Caleb (our guides) needed for the three day trip.  We stopped for lunch along the side of the road.  The guides pulled out folding chairs for everyone, a table, basins for washing, and a place to wash your hands.  They pulled out all the food and cutting boards so that we could help with the vegetables.  We sat down to a delicious meal of ham and cheese sandwiches, then quickly washed and put away everything.  It was a very efficient routine. 

The scrub around Windhoek changed to foothills, then mountains.  At one point we came over a pass and found ourselves looking at a herd of kudu, who were looking back, equally surprised.  The mountains gave way to flat, rolling plains with springbok and the beautiful gemsbok (oryx).  We stopped at Solitaire for some homemade apple pie, then continued on to our campsite.

We set up our tents then relaxed by the freezing pool and played with the dogs until dinner, which was spaghetti bolognaise.  We talked with a South African girl from Soweto, which is where we'll be ending our trip in about a month.  The stars were magical. 
The next morning we were up at 5:30 (very cold) and zooming towards the entrance to the park.  We had to wait in a line of trucks until the ranger opened the gate as the sun emerged from below the horizon.  Then we zoomed down the paved road in a convoy in a race against the sun.  It's a real pity that the light at sunrise and sunset can't be appreciated unless you book the expensive spots inside the gate.  Everyone else is basically excluded.  We did catch a glimpse of the landscape as we raced towards Dune 45.  The slanting light cast half of each dune in inky-black shadow while turning the other half a brilliant red.  The wind caused this dividing line to twist and curve like a snake.  It was incredibly beautiful but only lasted for about 20 minutes after the sun appeared.  This was the time it took us to reach dune 45, our first stop.  We therefore weren't able to photograph the effect, so you'll have to see for yourself.  Dune 45 is the most easily accessible of the great dunes, and therefore a first stop on the road to Dead Vlei.  I'm sure there was a time that this place was wonderfully deserted.  However, tourism is the fastest growing industry in Nambia and it shows.  By the time we pulled into Dune 45 the parking lot was full and there was a line of people trekking up the dune.  We joined the train.

Most people gave up well before the top, so the crowds did thin out towards the top.  The views and the colors were incredible.  The road went down an old riverbed and the dunes rose up along either side.  The harsh light would cast intricate shapes on the soft-looking sand.  You could see the tracks of desert beetles and what appeared to be a small, hopping rodent.  On the back side the dune was anchored with grasses.  We circled around and came back to the parking lot to join everyone else for breakfast. Then we continued on towards the end of the river bed.

We parked 5km from Sussosvlei and Dead Vlei.  We had to hike across relatively flat ground to our destination.  We even got a ride back.  People still complained. 

The dunes around here were soft and silky, but the great thing about this place was the contrast between the brilliant green trees and the red dunes.  The entire valley evidently retained some water, because there was plenty of vegetation.  We wandered along, looking at strange plants and stranger animals.  We saw a variety of beetles.  Some of these guys have extra-long legs that they use to hold themselves above the boiling sand.  The 7mm difference is enough to lower the temperature drastically.  We also saw a few lizards and other members of our group saw a snake.  Off to our left we saw "Daddy," I believe the biggest permanent sand dune in the world at over 400 meters high.  On the right was "Mommy," also huge.  It takes a few hours to climb those dunes, but you have to start early or it's too hot.  Finally, we climbed up towards Big Daddy and got our first view of Dead Vlei.

Dead Vlei (and Sussosvlei for that matter) are dried up river beds that lost a source of water when the river or the dunes shifted.  This creates a patch of white, dry, and cracked mud amid the dunes.  Dead Vlei had enough water to support a grove of trees, and when the water dried up, all the trees died.  The whole area was turned into a desolate waste with the dried-up skeletons of trees sticking up out of the white mud with the red dunes all around.  I thought this was a relatively recent event, but I found out the water had dried up more than 900 years ago.  These trees were practically fossils. 

The landscape is otherworldly.  Defying all comprehension, the group took one look and headed for the car, while I walked out onto the pan.  The surface is a brilliant white, the black skeletons of the trees twist and turn like fingers reaching above the red dune walls towards the brilliant blue sky.  I took pictures until my battery died (it does that a lot).  This is the first time since the robbery that I wished I had my old camera with me again.  I could have stayed there a lot longer, but the group had left long ago. 

We hopped in a 4WD for the ride back, stopped for five seconds to see Sussosvlei (another dry patch), then headed back to base camp for lunch.  In the afternoon we headed out to Sesriem Canyon, which reminded me of the Siq in Petra.  By this point we were putting our memory card in another camera to take some pictures. 

Dinner that night was lamb chops, salad, potatoes, corn, and bread, and it was incredible.  The next morning we began the long drive back to Windhoek.

I'm really glad I got to see the dunes, but this is one place I'd like to spend a lot more time, preferably at sunrise with a car and a big camera.  But it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places we have seen on this trip.

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