The reasons for travel are pretty universal: the desire to explore new corners of the world, to have an adventure or for bragging rights. The red sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia check all those boxes and make for a trip that will inspire FOMO in all your Instagram followers.
Namibia is a small country on the the southwest coast of Africa. It gained independence from South Africa in 1990 but still ties its currency to the South Africa Rand (both Namibian dollars and Rand are accepted interchangeably). Also like South Africa, the primary industries are mining and agriculture, though more recently it has drawn film productions seeking a stark desert landscape in a cheap and politically stable environment. The most recent and high profile film to showcase the otherworldly landscape of this southern African gem is Mad Max Fury Road. That barren post-apocalyptic terrain exists, though with a lot more modern amenities and a lot less silver spray painted dune buggy racers. Those sand dunes developed over millions of years and now sit in the largest conservation area of Namibia, the Namib-Naukluft National Park.
Because Sossusvlei is one of the largest tourist attractions in Namibia, there are a variety of options when it comes to how to experience these unique vistas. For the more independent traveler, there are camp grounds and RV parks located just outside of the entrance to the main dunes. If you want an upgrade but still have an independent streak, there are lodges that provide mildly luxurious safari tents (nice beds and hot showers) but still allow self catering, which is nice if you want to braai. And there are also luxury accommodations for a truly indulgent experience.
However fancy you decide to opt for with your sleeping arrangements, remember that there are no luxury short cuts when hiking up a sand dune. The most iconic dune is most likely Dune 45, which you’ve probably already seen without realizing it. Used as preprogramed art in Windows 97, this dune is one of the most photographed in the world and a relatively easy hike. Get there early, as the sun is rising, to capture the striking contrast of light and check back in later in the day to see how the shifting angle of the sun morphs the colors of the dune. The dune is 85 meters high, with a gentle incline and soft sand paths that are accessible for all ages and abilities.
But the true prize is found in the climb to the top of Big Daddy. Coming in at a whopping 325 meters, this is the tallest dune in the park and truly unforgettable experience. The scale is hard to gauge from the ground but the wall of red sand is stunning. A winding path leads you to the top, which is really just the point at which you decide you’d like to go down as the dunes undulate and transition into each other almost seamlessly. From the base of the salt pan to the highest height, expect between a 90 to 120 minute hike, depending on your ability and the weather conditions. Even in winter temperatures can reach into the 80s during the day, with Namibia getting about 300 sunny days a year as well. The wind on the dune can also be challenging to deal with, so expect to find sand just about everywhere you can think.
Once you’ve made it to the top of Big Daddy, taken enough photos to make your friends jealous and paused to take in the mind boggling view, you get to experience possibly the best part. Any way you choose, the route down the side of a monster sand dune will bring a smile to your face. You can choose to slide down on your butt, roll down like a barrel or march down tilted at a 45 degree angle, held in place by shifting sands that suck at your feet and give you a sense of what it must be like to walk on the moon.
Some other great things to see and photograph around the area are include the Deadvlie, a salt pan filled with blackened trees that Big Daddy surrounds; Sesriem Canyon, carved from the Tsauchab River over millions of year; and wildlife sightings, including native springbok and gemsbok as well as a nearby cheetah reserve and rehab center. And the best way to end the day is grab a beer or bottle of wine and watch Namibia offer one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. And settle in as the night darkens to reveal more stars than you thought could fit in one sky.