Where The Rivers Ends….Does It Actually Begin?
Where the Rivers Ends – The Land of the Red Sand Dunes in Sossusveli, Namibia
Namibia is the least populated country on the continent of Africa. The long roads are lined with vast landscapes giving little notice to any civilization. Most people in Namibia live near the capitol of Windhoek or on the coast by the sea. The highlight of my travels in Namibia was a three day trip to see the famous red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, and here, Namibia’s number one tourist destination, did not disappoint.
We traveled nearly all day from the capitol city of Windhoek, mostly on unpaved roads and over three mountain passes, to reach our camp site in Sesriem. The landscape changed from semi-arid desert to dramatic rock cliff hills to open grass savannah. Late in the afternoon we stop in the small community of Solitaire where the land was dry and several varieties cactus flourished in the unrelenting heat.
On the way to the the lone gas station in Solitaire, there is an old car cemetery marking the entrance of this small settlement. The old cars and trucks are partially covered by the earth. On the outside of the general store there is a chalkboard which records the annual rainfall. We notice that 132 mm of rain has fallen to the earth so far this year. At the next shop we stop for a taste of the famous Solitaire Apple Strudel before heading onward to our camp.
once at camp we quickly set up our tents before heading out to watch the sunset before dinner. Our campground is the only campsite located inside the Namib-Naukluft Park gates. This park is known best for Namibia’s number one tourist attraction, the dunes at Sossusvlei. The dunes are part of the Namib desert and stretch 2000 km along the coast from the Oliphants River in South Africa to Angola. The dunes are comprised of 32,000 square kilometers of sand. The formation of the dunes started about five million years ago and were created from the sandstone off of South Africa’s Dragon Berg Mountain. The sand from the rocks flowed to the Atlantic Ocean from the Orange River. Then the current from the Atlantic Ocean pushed the sand onto the beaches in Namibia and the strong eastern wind blew the sand inland which eventually created dunes of Sossusvlei. These dunes are called Star Dunes, as the top of the dunes come together at a point. Winds from three directions blow together to create a point on the top of the sand.
Elim Dune was my first experience walking up the red sand. My feet sank down between the grains and left footprints in the pristine formation created by the east wind. At the top of the dune, we sat and watched the setting sun change the colors on the landscape. Some of the troop rolled down the hill like school children playing in the snow and they provided additional entertainment for the rest of us. The warm red sand stuck to their skin as they climbed back up the dune. All had smiles on their faces. Finally darkness overtook the sky and we turned on our flashlights to make our way back down the hill.
The next morning we woke up early to be on the road by five to catch the sunrise from the top of Dune 45. I loved to sit and watch the colors on the dunes change as the sun became more brilliant. As the sunlight increased, the dune became more orange in the daylight providing a very different show then in the previous evening when the landscape reflected the golden-pink sunset.
It was fun to jog down the side of the steep dune after the sunrise; And it was definitely two thousand times more quicker to jog down than the brutal hike to the top.
After breakfast we drove to the lot that would start our five kilometer hike further into the desert. Five in our group decided to skip the hike and have rangers drive them directly to see “Big Daddy”, the largest sand dune in the world. I actually preferred the hike. We were able to learn about the local plants and animals along the way. Though it could be difficult to walk in the sand, it was fun to watch the oryx and springbok run in the isolated dunes. It also was nice to have a bit of excise after the long ride from the previous day. The payoff for each climb was the decent off each mountain of sand. It was always fun to jog down the from the top.
It was amazing to watch the dunes get higher and more pronounced as we walked further through the valley where a river once flowed to where Big Daddy was located. Big Daddy is three hundred and twenty-five meters tall; The tallest in the world. Sossuveli name translates to mean “Where the River Ends”. This name is appropriate as this dune was near the end of an river bed which has been dried up from the desert heat more than 2,000 years ago. Beside the dune is a dried up lake appropriately named Dead Vlei or Dead Lake. The trees here have been dead for seven hundred years. It was here I saw my first mirage. I had to ask if that was really water out there. It looked so real.
By the time I had reached the lake bed I was quite thristy. I had finished more than two liters of water by half past ten in the morning. I thought that I had brought enough water but I had not. It was quite hot and I thought we had been out there hours longer than we actually were due to the extreme heat. I was so glad to find some water and shade once we made out way back to the parking lot where we would get a lift back to our vehicle.
The lift back was really fun. It was more like a large 4×4 dune buggy and I could tell the ranger loved to drive it in the sand. Upon returning we found the five who had chosen to ride in the ranger vehicle both ways to and from the main dunes. They already seemed well rested from their morning adventures.
I later found the swimming pool at Sesrim Camp was emerald green. I could not see six inches below the level of the water. In my life, I never thought I would ever enter such a body of water; But the camp was overwhelmingly hot and inside our tents was even hotter, so I thought I would take the risk. “What if there is a crocodile in the pool and we just can’t see it?” I asked before I entered the water. Then someone from my group replied, “Only an American would think that. It’s fine.” I entered only because there were others who had already taken the plunge even though I was sure I had heard news reports of alligators finding their way into pools in Florida.
At sunset we walked the Sesrim Canyon which is now dry but some years holds water in the rainy season. We were met with another amazing sunset to complete our day.
The long trip back to the capitol city was broken up by a “walk with the chetahs”. This was something that I did not know was included as part of the three day tour. It seemed like a dangerous thing to do especially when I realized that our guide was a gal under five foot with no weapon. Everyone was going and I was pretty sure I could outrun at least a couple of people in the group, so I went headed and signed the indemnity form.
The Nla’an ku se Namib Conservation Center is situated on a 500 hector enclosure and there mission is to research, attempt to rehabilitate and return carnivores to the wild. Tracking the chetah’s was easy since each wore a collar with a different radio frequency.
After we entered the gate our short statured guide bounced up on the hood of her jeep with what looked like an old “rabbit ear” tv antenna. She waved the antenna from right to left listening for the frequencies of her cats. She would get down and drive a little bit then she would jump up top her rig again. This happened several times before she decided that we were close enough to walk the rest of the way. I thought it was cheating to use the radio frequencies, but after yesterdays hike I was not one to complain.
We toke the short walk to where the first cat sat under a bush protecting her zebra meat staff brought into the enclosure a couple days ago. She was full and not moving, but I made sure that there was always one person closer to the chetah than me. I was glad she opened her eyes so I could take a picture.
Returning to the vehicle we drove a short distance before finding two more chetahs laying in the shade of a large tree right by the road. Close by them were two young male chetah’s. The male chetah’s looked a little scary like they were after something….. And they were.
“You get away from those girls.” Our guide yells to them as she slaps her hat and approaches the two males. They jump back like scared kittens. Then she looks back to us and explains that they are three years old and just started their sexual maturity. “They are two little teenage boys. But don’t worry they are not interested in us.” I spoke up, “I am pretty sure they are just interested in you.” She looked back to the chetahs. “Yes. You are right.” She smiles back. Meanwhile, the chetahs hunch up their backs and look over to our guide. I can tell they are scared of her. I feel more confident and have a picture taken closer to the cats.
My adventure in Namibia will be one I never will forget. I feel truly blessed to have witnesses a nature wonder of this world with so many amazing people. The chetah walk was an unexpected bonus.
Upon my return to the capitol, I met a friend from long ago. I had met Antoinette fifteen years ago when we both were traveling in France on a two week Contiki Tour. These tours were tailored for the eighteen to thirty-five year old crowd. That had been my first venture to Europe. Antoinette and I had lost touch, as I had with so many in our little group, but it seems that we were able to pick up right where we left off fifteen years ago.
It was fun reminiscing the past and reminding each other of the good times we experienced with fellow travelers on that trip. We promised each other to not let another fifteen years go by before meeting again. I know we were both left more curious about what happened to our other friends we met so long ago.
As I reflect on my trip to Sossusveli, I wonder… who on this trip will I see again in my future. I guess we will just have to wait and find out.