Sossusvlei: A Walk in Namibia with a Japanese Guide

Dune 45

We drove through Namib Naukluft Park on the way to our desert walk from Sesriem (gateway to Sossusvlei).This southern region of Namibia is dry, nestled between two deserts: the Kalahari and the Namib. The area of the national park spans 50,000 square kilometers, and comprises one of the largest conservation areas in Africa.

Sossusvlei Dunes

The mountainous dunes of Sossusvlei are numbered from the sea inland, and are some of the highest in the world. These are the classic dunes that draw artists and photographers from around the world. There are many types of dunes as well. The Namib dunes shift with the winds giving them the designation “dynamic dunes.”  There are parabolic, linear, hump and even star dunes.  We visited one of the most photographed of all later in the afternoon: Dune 45. Beneath the dunes are low, flat pans of salt and clay. These drainage basins are each a little different from one another, but the surreal landscape is the major tourist draw for the area.


Flora and Fauna

Our Japanese guide for the area, Yuri, had been in Namibia 11 years.  She began as a tourist, but her fascination with the desert soon took hold and she jumped at the opportunity for work in this magical place.  She married a local man, and plans to stay.  She visits her family in Japan every year or so.  Her love of the desert is obvious, and there was no need for her apologies or worry we might not trust her knowledge since she isn’t local. She was great!  She pointed out a trap door spider who came up to pull his door closed when sand trickled inside.  There were beetles, a desert mouse and various plants pointed out as well.  Some dunes are stable enough for grasses to grow on them. The history of the place, and details about the desert were interesting, as was Yuri’s detailed analysis of tracks and markings left by different animals, including a chat on the difference between pee/poo left by the male vs. the female springbok! The variety of fauna and flora able to survive with such little water is amazing.

Dead Vlei

Origin of Sossusvlei

Yuri explained how the Sossusvlei got its name, which means more or less “the place where things get stuck and go no further.” Indigenous tribes believed in the moon . . . and that all good and all bad come from it. During exceptionally rainy seasons, water built up and got stuck in the pans, the sossusvlei, creating a temporary lake.  Under the moonlight, the tribes used to see shiny stones in the pans.  When foreigners came to collect these stones, which they called diamonds, they were thrown into the collected water lake, and went no further either. An interesting story. Strictly speaking, the term sossusvlei refers specifically to the flat pan that lies where the dunes come together, preventing the waters of the Tsauchab River from flowing any further. The biggest water in recent memory was in ’97 or ’98, and while the river recedes quickly, the water remained in the pans for over a year.  Flooding like this only happens once or so a decade. Eventually, the shifting sands and winds will divert any new water to a new low spot, and a new pans (vlei) will be created.  The current sossusvlei will become a dead-vlei.

Walking at Sossusvlei

Desert Hike

We took a hike through the area currently called Dead Vlei.  It was stark and lonely, but beautiful. Black, dead acacia trees stand in stark contrast against the white, salt pan and the red dunes in the background. We struggled through a strenuous climb to the top of a dune and sat to rest and look out over the expansive landscape before descending again to the flat lands below. We thanked Yuri for the energetic walk.  She was happy to chat in Japanese for a bit, since the few Japanese tourists who come through are always with their own guide.  She told me a bit more about her time in Namibia, her love for the desert, and for her family in Japan.  All of these passions were equally clear.

We left Yuri for a gorgeous sunset at Dune 45.  This dune was classic, just what your mind envisions of a desert dune.  The patterns and shadows cast in the late afternoon light were endlessly photogenic, but we put our cameras down to watch with dropped jaws as the sun went down over the desert.

Additional photos of this part of our overland trip through southern Africa can be seen HERE.

About the author

Traveling like turtles, slowly and deliberately, Tamara and Donny wander together with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust.