Namibia, A Road Trip – 6 – Sossusvlei, Dead Vlei
Backtracking from Wolwedans, we drove 70 kms towards the Namib Naukluft National Park. Just as we got to the gates, we stopped for fuel. The temperature was just high enough for us to indulge in some ice-creams! It was then that David Rogers (under whose aegis this photo-safari-road-trip was organized) realized that his camera bag was missing from the boot!
This was definitely a mystery because we knew it had been put in. A thorough search of the car did not reveal the bag. Someone recollected hearing a bit of a thud somewhere on the road. Might that have been the boot door banging shut? Was it left open when we left Wolwedans? Did the bag fall out?
Some hasty calls were made to the Wolwedans reception and the staff was requested to please drive down their road to check … But we were uncomfortable just waiting for them to call us back. We decided we would check in at the Sossuss Dunes Lodge, which was practically round the corner, and David would drive back with one of us to look for the missing bag. He was not very optimistic about finding it given that it was a public road, but decided to make the trip anyway!
It was very worrying that apart from the professional camera equipment, the bag also contained all his documents – passport, tickets, identity papers, etc. The monetary value aside, the sheer inconvenience and nuisance associated with losing such property is immense.
About an hour or so later, we got a call that half-way back to Wolwedans, David had found his bag. Lying right in the middle of the track!It was amazing how no one had seen it or picked it up! But considering how sparsely populated Namibia is, not to mention its reputation for safety and security, perhaps this was not so surprising! The intensity of his relief was comic, though perhaps, not so for David!Sossus Dunes Lodge is built inside the national park. This gives visitors the benefit of being able to drive in the park well before sunrise and fairly late into the evening. The chalets are built mainly of wood, canvas and thatch almost like the traditional African village rondavels.That afternoon we spent relaxing in the lodge after a simple lunch.
The original Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park was established in 1964. Over the next few years, it was extended to cover most of the farms near Naukluft mountain and then the Diamond Area 2 was added in 1979 which includes the wetland area around Sandwich Harbour. At around 50,000 sq kms, this is the fourth largest park in the world.
Roughly translated Sossus means “dead-end” or “no return” in Nama and Vlei is Afrikaans for “marsh”. The Tsauchab river rises in the Great Escarpment and traverses some 55 kms before it ends in a huge clay pan. Some 60,000 years ago, this river reached the Atlantic ocean. But around that time, the dunes moved in and blocked the course. This river mostly runs dry leaving Sossusvlei and the other surrounding Vleis also caked and cracked. About once in ten years, there is enough rain for the river to bring enough water to flood the pan.
The national park is also known for the Sesriem Canyon, a narrow gorge, 1 km long and 30 – 40 mts. deep. At the foot of the canyon are pools that become replenished after good rains. It is so named after early pioneers tied six lengths of rawhide thong to draw water from the pools.
Once David returned with the missing bag, some of us drove down the road, D872, towards Sossusvlei. This road runs from Sesriem some 60 kms along the Tsauchab valley. It ends about 4 kms short of Sossusvlei. Massive orange-red dunes rise on both sides of this road.
The sand is basically composed of grains of quartz mixed with heavy minerals like garnet, magnetite, ilmenite and a little mica. The depth of colour depends on the content of iron oxide – rust. The older the dune, the more “rusted” it appears. We stopped briefly to read an inscription about the Namib Sand Sea.There are four pans in the immediate vicinity of Sossusvlei. Nara Vlei named after the Nara Bushes that grow there still gets some water occasionally, Hidden Vlei that is much like an amphitheatre lies hidden behind dunes and Dead Vlei.
We set out early next morning with an idea of being at Dead Vlei before the sun rose over the dunes encircling the pan.
It took us about half an hour to walk from the parking lot and climb over dunes,before got our first glimpse of the vlei.A vlei formed periodically when the Tsauchab flooded. Camel thorn trees grew and flourished. About 900 years ago, the winds changed and the tall sand dunes we see today cut off the river. The vlei dried up completely and left the pan salt-bleached and white. The trees simply died. Because of the intense sunlight and heat, the wood blackened. The almost complete lack of humidity prevented them from decomposing. This fantastically colourful oasis became the “Dead Vlei”!While the sky above was already a brilliant blue, the pan itself was in deep shadow as were the shorter dunes.Slowly the sun rose over the dunes – a ray at a time came streaming into the Vlei until the glittering orb showed itself completely.Blinding though the sun rays were, we were completely mesmerised by this silent light show. Slowly the shadows on the dunes began lifting an inch at a time to reveal the glorious orange-red of the sand.The sunrays slowly crept downward towards the trees and the pan itself.The shifting shadows was like a dance of the ghosts of what must have been large green trees, now skeletons burnt black, yet holding stubbornly to the land they were born in.We walked around the vlei trying to force the beauty we saw into our cameras.Every gnarled tree stump seemed like a fantastic painting against the shadowy pink-orange-red.The texture of the ground vied for detail and intricacy with that of the treesThe broken branches and the salt encrusted sand added to the mystical charm of the landscape.The immense dunes made a mockery of our human need to conquer and our warped sense of self-worth and importanceEnsconced in this surreal graveyard are signs of new life – a few young camel thorn trees struggling to survive and on the western slopes, some Nara bushes showing green …We turned our backs, reluctantly, on this place of pure magic, stopping every few steps to take one more picture. And one more …Glancing at the ground briefly, it was almost shocking how the colours suddenly turned monochromatic.As we crested the first rise of the dunes we saw before us …This part of the vlei had obviously been cut off by the dune we had just climbed.
Walking away on the now warm sand, we saw signs of the little creatures of the desert and actually met one of themWe turned around for one last glimpse of this lovely land. That afternoon we spent on a “classroom session” with David.
In the evening, we drove back down the road and spent time at the little copse of trees near the parking lot at the end of the drive.The Vachellia Erioloba or the Camel Thorn or Giraffe Thorn tree is endemic to Namibia. It is so named because these animals can reach the upper branches for their succulent leaves. The pods can be used as a substitute for coffee. Though a protected species, the wood is in demand as it makes very good fuel.
That night, just before dinner we walked onto the deck of our chalet. We were sure that astrophotography was not an option. There was too much ambient light to reach out for the stars.But we did manage to capture the brilliance of the rising moon!Early next morning we drove out, this time stopping to photograph the dunes themselvesand the occasional oryx.The most famous dune on this route, though not the tallest, is Dune 45 that is so named as it stands at the 45 kms mark from Sesriem.
While the Namib is certainly a sand-sea, there is no dearth of life on it. From the few but lush treesand prickly bushes clinging to rippling sandto little beetles!It has left us with a thirst that only such a desert can create – a thirst to return again. And again.‘Namib’ means open space and the Namib Desert gave its name to the country – Namibia – “land of open spaces”. It is country well named. As we drove away towards Windhoek, civilisation, home and the routine of our daily lives, memories crowded our thoughts. The brilliant night skies. A friendly people. The stark white clay pan surrounded by towering red dunes, dotted with black skeletal trees crowned by a blue, blue sky.