Sossusvlei and Climbing Big Daddy - Namibia Weekend Adventures, Part 3
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
After our time in the Kalahari, we drove west towards the coast. For the rest of the weekend, we’d explore the Namib Desert and Sossusvlei, climbing the famous Big Daddy sand dune in the process.
A Stunning Drive and Isolated Camping in the NamibRand
From Bagatelle, our next campsite was a few hours west towards the Namib Desert. To get there, we’d have to drive along gravel roads through some of the most stunning mountain passes we’d ever seen - sweeping vistas, mountain brooks, and tons of oryx along the roads.
But, before actually arriving at our destination, a campsite in the middle of the NamibRand park (grasslands and mountains inland from the Namib Desert), we’d make a Michael-Scott-esque navigational mistake.
The NamibRand is huge. In an amateur play, we placed a GPS pin right in the middle of it, naively thinking it’d get us near our campsite. As we drove for hours - darkness approaching faster than either of us liked - we started to think we may have missed a turn.
We did. When we arrived at our GPS “destination,” we quickly realized that we were nowhere near the campsite. Fortunately, a couple drove by while we were on the side of the road - a fairly infrequent occurrence in the wilds of Namibia.
Recognizing our predicament, they pulled over and offered to help. And, they happened to have a local navigation app on a tablet showing all the unmarked trails and campsites not plotted on most maps. Digging a bit, we found our site - the NamibRand Family Hideout - and saw that we’d missed the turnoff by about 30 minutes.
Backtracking, we reached our turn and spent the next 20ish minutes driving along sand and gravel tracks up into the foothills of the NamibRand. Unlike our previous campsites, we’d be completely secluded here - no one around for miles.
While this isolation was slightly unnerving, it also made for an incredible experience. The site itself had a little hut with a bathroom and shower, and an outside slop sink, awning, and table made for a convenient braai set-up.
After doing our now-familiar arrival steps (pop the tent, get the fire going, break out the chairs, pour drinks, etc), we explored the area. Our little hut was tucked underneath the protection of some rolling dunes, with the mountains rising above us to the west.
Drinks in hand, we sat by the fire and watched the sun set over the mountains, with an unimaginable amount of stars gradually appearing in the night sky. Not bad.
Driving to Sossusvlei - and Some Tomato-Related Wisdom
The next morning, we packed up camp and started the couple hour drive due north to the focal point of our weekend adventures - Sossusvlei.
If you glance at a things-to-do-in-Namibia article, Sossusvlei will likely be at or near the top. Located in the barren Namib, Sossusvlei is the area where the Tsauchab River (dry on the surface except in the rainy season) empties among the desert’s massive dunes, creating an oasis-like expanse of rugged foliage.
We’d spend two nights in Sossusvlei, hitting as many of the incredible sites as possible. But, once again, we had to get there. This couple-hour trip led to another interesting experience - and a reminder of what a wise friend once told us (thanks, Zach!): Intelligence is knowing that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put them in a fruit salad…
Sesriem is the little crossroads town at the entrance to the Sossusvlei area of the Namib-Naukluft National Park - the last piece of civilization before heading into the Namib Desert. Low on gas, we pulled into a station to top off. As we rolled up to the pumps, a guy in overalls walked towards us from the station’s garage. Assuming he was offering some sort of tune-up, Chipp tried to head him off with an “all good.”
Mechanic, looking at our rear tire: “You sure about that?”
Chipp, seeing the tire completely shredded: “Guess not…”
Can Chipp change a tire? Yes. Is he good at it? No. Does he enjoy doing it? Absolutely not.
So, a few bucks to our new savior, and he had the tire swapped out with a spare in under 10 minutes.
Intelligence: Knowing how to change your own tire.
Wisdom: Opting to give someone a little cash to do it for you!
Sossusvlei Dunes Lodge and an Overview of the Area
During our two nights in the Namib, we’d stay at the Sossusvlei Dunes Lodge, an NWR-run lodge located just inside the national park’s Sesriem gate. While the broader area has tons of high-end, privately-run resorts, staying inside the park provides one key advantage: early morning access.
An absolute highlight of any visit to Sossusvlei is climbing the massive Big Daddy dune at sunrise (more on that below). But, the park gates don’t open until around 7am, meaning that people entering from outside miss this incredible first-light experience. For us, staying inside the park, we could get on the road for the hour-ish drive to Sossusvlei and the base of Big Daddy well before dawn.
Staying inside the park also provides convenient access to the area’s other highlights:
Sesriem Canyon: Located just inside the Sesriem Gate, this jagged canyon cuts through the desert rock just across from our lodge. With a real moon-scape feel, the canyon narrows to jumping distance while still dropping dozens of feet down into wide caves, deep pools, and lush vegetation.
Dune 45: To reach Sossusvlei itself, you drive along a 60ish-kilometer, paved road between towering dunes - roughly paralleling the dry bed of the Tsauchab River. At the 45-kilometer mark of this road, you hit [the aptly named] Dune 45, one of the most picturesque dunes in the area. (NOTE: Some people stop here before continuing on to Sossusvlei and the Big Daddy climb, but it’s far better to hit it on the way back, which lets you reach Big Daddy for the sunrise ascent).
Elin Dune: Entering the Namib-Naukluft National Park from Sesriem, Elin is the first dune of the Namib Desert, located a few miles inside the gate. This proximity makes Elin a perfect dune for “sundowners,” the local phrase for any outdoor cocktails around sunset. Late afternoon on our first full day, we parked at the base of this towering dune, carried a bucket of ice, some gin, and a few bottles of tonic mid-way up, and took in the sunset over the desert.
Climbing Big Daddy at Sunrise
At 325 meters, Big Daddy isn’t the highest dune in the Namib Desert - that title goes to Dune 7 (388 meters) just outside Walvis Bay. But, it is the highest in the Sossusvlei area, and Big Daddy - as the name suggests - is certainly the most iconic of the Namib’s countless dunes.
Towering over the blackened trees and salt flats of the Deadvlei pan, Big Daddy snakes its way up to a summit with 360-degree views of the Namib Desert. And, climbing this beast at sunrise has two clear advantages.
First, climbing at dawn, you avoid the desert’s midday heat, a necessity due to the exhausting nature of trodding uphill through sand. Second, when you arrive before sunrise, surrounded by massive dunes, you actually get to experience multiple sunrises. Through some quirk, making your way up and around these massive dunes, you’ll see the sunrise over a distant ridge, climb a bit more and watch the sun dip beneath a dune, then see it rise once more. Each one of these sunrises over the Namib’s red sand makes the early morning exhaustion worth it.
But, that’s jumping ahead a bit. We woke up around 4:45, grabbed some breakfast sandwiches from the lodge’s kitchen, and drove the 60 kilometers of paved road and final 5ish kilometers of sand track to reach Sossusvlei as the eastern sky just barely started brightening.
There on a Saturday, we assumed the parking area would already be packed with other early-morning adventurers. Nope. Turns out, this get-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn experience isn’t as “everyone’s doing it!” as we’d been told. Welp, we were there, and we were going to climb Big Daddy one way or the other.
From the parking area, we hiked a kilometer or so from the rugged vegetation of the dry-marsh-esque Sossusvlei to the base of Big Daddy. Fortunately, we could only see one false peak above us from the dune’s base - not all the way to the top (may have turned around if we could actually see the peak from the bottom…).
Shedding our shoes, we started to climb (NOTE: shoes become progressively heavier as they fill with sand, so the barefoot approach worked better for us). Oh man, this may’ve been one of the most physically exhausting things either of us had ever done. With every step forward, you sink back in the sand a half step, making this a truly challenging slog.
Honestly, if it weren’t for the next set of visitors getting there, we likely would still be climbing Big Daddy. But, as we slowly made our way up Big Daddy’s narrow, winding ridge, we saw a family of four in the distance. With each water break we took, the young girl in this group seemed to advance further beyond the rest of her party - and closer to us.
In Super Bad fashion, Chipp was pretty sure this young girl was the fastest kid alive. So, fueled by pride, we pushed forward, refusing to lose the race to the top to this girl who started the climb well after we did. Rational? Nope. But, it got us to the top!
“Skiing” into the Deadvlei Pan
Completely exhausted, we finally reached the top of the dune. With steep drop offs on both sides of the ridge, all we could do to not tumble was dig ourselves into the sand, legs straddling both sides. Suppressing bouts of vertigo, we took deep breaths and soaked in the surroundings. The sun was now high in the sky, giving us views over miles and miles of rolling dunes.
As we slowly recovered our wind, the fastest girl in the world reached the top. Chatting with her and, shortly thereafter, the rest of her family, we got the background - 12-year-old South African girl, soccer player, and apparently an Energizer Bunny of go, go, go energy. Thanks for pushing us!
After asking our new friends to take some pictures and returning the favor, we turned to the next challenge - descending. A couple hundred meters beneath the Big Daddy peak, the Deadvlei salt pan unfolds to the northwest - most of it still in the shadows following our early-morning climb.
You have two options to get down into Deadvlei. Option 1: retrace your steps along the Big Daddy ridge - long and not much fun. Option 2: “ski” your way straight down Big Daddy’s steep, northwestern face - fast and a ton of fun! Running down this dune, it truly feels like you're cutting through powder, with your feet sinking in at every “turn” and sand kicking up all around you.
In addition to the incredible views, this run down into Deadvlei makes the exhausting climb up Big Daddy well worth the effort.
Driving in Sand - and the Importance of Keeping Your Truck in Second Gear
After reaching the bottom, we took our time strolling back to the truck. Deadvlei truly is a unique place - bleached white, cracked surface punctuated by blackened trees - dead for thousands of years and preserved by the arid climate - all accentuated against the bright red background of towering Namib dunes.
We took pictures.
But, we also had a long drive in front of us - five hours back to Windhoek. Shaking off as much sand as possible - a somewhat futile effort coated in sweat and red sand - we hopped into our truck. Leaving Sossusvlei’s parking area, we’d have to navigate the 5-ish kilometers of soft sand before reaching paved roads.
On the way in, Chipp drove with utmost caution, not wanting to get the truck stuck in the deep sand. On the way out, he drove with, well, slightly less caution. Overly confident in his stick-shift, pick-up truck competence (coming from a guy who drove a Jetta for a decade…), he took off from the parking area, swerving around the first couple bends of the sandy track.
On the first straightaway - and in a particularly deep stretch of sand - Chipp shifted from second to third gear and… immediately stalled out in the sand. That didn’t work.
After a few minutes of progressively spinning the tires deeper and deeper into the sand, we caught a break. A guide - someone who clearly had a far better grasp of driving in sand than Chipp - drove by with his clients.
Seeing that we were stuck, he stopped and walked over to us. Surely laughing on the inside at these dumb Americans, he casually talked us through the next steps - drop it into low, straighten the tires, put it into first gear, and slam the peddle to the floor. Don’t shift gears or stop until you make it to the paved road!
With RPMs deep into the red and the engine sounding like it would drop off the bottom of the truck, we got some forward momentum and finally broke free. A few minutes later - the truck still in first gear - we made it to the pavement. We both breathed tremendous sighs of relief: A) we were no longer stuck in the Namib Desert, and B) the truck’s engine still seemed to be running!