Day 272: Dune Roamin’

Sun. 12th May 2013

Probably the best sand dunes in the worldWhen we left Cape Town, we did so at the same time as another tour following essentially the same route but are camping rather than staying in hotels / lodges. We are discovering that there are some advantages of the camping tour. In particular, they are able to stay overnight much closer to some of the sights and attractions and so spend less time having an ‘African massage’ as well as getting to the sights consistently ahead of us.

Sunrise over the African plainsToday we are going to see the sand dunes as Sossusvlei which, if Carlsberg were marketing them, are “probably the biggest sand dunes in the world”. We have (another) early start (on the road at 5am) but we are still only going to see the sun rise from the park entrance and not from the dunes. You need to be a camper for that so that you can camp overnight in the park. It is full on dark when we set off but the sky gradually lightens and we start to see animal shapes in the gloom on either side of the road.

The dunes go on and onWe are heading for Dune 45 – depending on where you read it, this is either the 45th dune in the park and/or is 45km from the park entrance. Either way, it is one of the must see attractions in Namibia. Now that it is light, we can see that we are driving along a dried up river valley and that to both left and right are what look on first sight to be hills but, on further study, we realise are sand dunes. It is easy to spot when we have arrived at Dune 45 as there are a handful of other cars – including Nina, Janis’ sister and transport for the campers.

There isn't much growing hereThe dunes are seriously impressive. Dune 45 is 175m high and towers above the cars and desolate landscape. ‘Big Daddy’, visible in the distance, is supposedly twice as high. The sand is a rusty red colour – literally, in this case as it is rich in iron. On some of the nearby dunes, black streaks can be seen from unoxidised iron. I’m sure that one of the Windows XP background pictures is of the burnt red dunes contrasted against the bright blue sky – and now we are seeing it for real. Despite the constant stream of sand blowing off the crest of the dunes, they don’t move – they are neither closer to nor further from the sea than they were thousands of years ago. Janet will explain why tomorrow.

Its a long way downWe get to climb the dunes and we walk up along the ridge of the dune, our feet sinking into the soft sand. It is hard going working against both gradient and sand, though, on balance, our legs are glad of the exercise after spending so much time in Janis. The sand is slightly firmer and less steep on the windward side and when dislodged down the leeward side it seems to flow like water. If you fall you are unlikely to get hurt as it will be a slow tumble down the sand – you’ll spend the rest of the day trying to remove sand from clothes and crevices but nothing worse than that (probably!)

The view from the topThe dunes stretch ever onWe pause at the top to take in the scenery. We have seen some surreal but photogenic sights on our trip and this is right up there with them. More red dunes roll into the distance, the vista is a duo-chrome of burnt red and blue. The river valley, that we have driven down seems arid and dead. It’s hard to believe that there is life here but Zenzo assures us that there is an entire ecosystem adapted to life in the desert and for whom rain is a major problem as it seals up the ground trapping burrowed animals and cutting off their air supply.

When we finally get tired of the view and head back down, breakfast is ready and waiting for us – and vice versa! Sitting in the shade provided by Janis, Dune 45 looms over us. Surely, just one more photo? What about this angle or that juxtaposition. And so it goes on…

The DeadvleiOlly exploring the DeadvleiRefreshed, we head further into the park where we transfer to a 4×4 which takes us to the start of the 1km walk to the Deadvlei or Dead Flats. This area used to be a riverbed until the river was cut off by the dunes forming across the river – first downstream and then upstream – sealing off the flow of water. Now the ground is the colour and hardness of baked clay – probably because that is what it is. The stumps of dead trees stand where there was once water. And all around are the sand dunes. Zenzo believes that the trees are hundreds of thousands of years old.

DeadvleiSossusvlei - at least some of the trees are aliveOn the way back to Janis, the 4×4 stops briefly at Sossusvlei. This is the new ephemeral lake, upstream of Deadvlei, that forms whenever there is rain in the mountains. In its current, dry state, it is much less photogenic than Deadvlei though when it rains the plants all burst into life and it forms a little green oasis. By now it is midday and the temperature is in the mid to high thirties and the sun is beating down. We are lucky to be doing this in winter – in summer it can touch 50C here.

In the Sesriem CanyonOn our way back to Hammerstein, we stop near the entrance of the park to walk into the Sesriem Canyon. This is much smaller than the Fish River Canyon we visited the other day (indeed sesriem is Afrikaans for six belts which is the length of rope needed to be able to pull buckets of water out of the river. The big plus, though is that (unlike Fish River) it is an easy walk down to the bottom of the canyon and to gaze up at the strange formations of the canyon walls. The rock seems to be a clay based aggregate dotted with pebbles and stones which as it has eroded forms irregular flowing shapes. It is significantly cooler at the bottom of the canyon and we enjoy a short respite from the heat.

Springboks springingAfter our early start, we are happy at the prospect of an early return to the lodge at Hammerstein and a dip in the (cold) pool or a cold beer. We aren’t finished with our photogenic sights though. The lodge runs an animal rescue centre for big cats who have been orphaned or abandoned and can’t be returned to the wild as they don’t have the hunting skills. Whilst we don’t approve of wild animals in cages, we can see the case for the centre and the opportunity to see cheetahs and a leopard up close is irresistible and so I sign up for a “cat walk”.

I'm having a rest!First we see a pair of caracals, Romeo and Juliet, these are members of the Lynx family. We see them having a rest under a couple of bushes as they are nocturnal hunters in the wild. The white stripes under their eyes apparently reflects moonlight and helps them to see. Isla, our guide, explains that they can jump 3m vertically from a standing start and this helps them to hunt birds.

Lisa walks awayIn the next compound is Lisa, the leopard. She is a beauty – though rather shy and not that keen on having her photo taken. Whilst caracals and the cheetahs are tame (ish) and we can go in the compound to see them up close, adult leopards are never tame and all we can do is admire Lisa from the other side of the fence. As she walks away from us you get both a sense of grace and of power. If you met her in a bad mood in the wild, it wouldn’t end well.

Oscar (or is it Wilde?)Finally, we go in the compound to meet Oscar and Wilde, Hammerstein’s two cheetahs. Cheetahs are similar in size to leopards but not as powerfully built and their spots are solid dots, whereas Lisa’s dots have a white centre. Oscar and Wilde are curious about us and very happy to see Isla and so they come over to investigate – nice and steadily rather than at their top speed of 120km/h. Maybe I should have been nervous but instead I was fascinated by these two overgrown pussycats purring loudly as they came over to see us. I don’t suppose I’ll get another opportunity to see a cheetah so close up (and in the wild, I wouldn’t want to) so the camera is clicking away. Being daylight hunters, cheetahs have black stripes under their eyes for exactly the same reason as American Football players – to act as sunglasses by cutting down the sunlight reflecting off their cheeks.

Me? I'm a pussycat!The end of an amazing dayWhat a day it has been. Four amazing sights packed into a single day. No wonder that we took 281 photos during the day of which we rated 3 at 5* and 32 at 4* (or that this blog post is longer than normal). Even at sunset there is one more photo to be taken. Of course we wanted to see the wildlife when we came to Africa but the sand dunes in Sossusvlei were one of our big reasons for wanting to come to Namibia. Sossusvlei hasn’t let us down. As Fiona commented on one of our earlier blog posts – “what a wonderful world”!

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One Response to Day 272: Dune Roamin’

  1. Stacey Hansen says:

    Very jealous! Your photos are stunning.

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