Death in Deadvlei- Sossusvlei, Namibia’s Famous Dunes and Pan

I seem to find myself in the driest deserts of the world in the the hottest months of the year bearing the cruel temperatures and low tourist populations- August in Wadi Rum, Jordan and the Sahara Desert in Morocco, why would January in Sossusvlei, Namibia be any different?

Stunning photos of Sossusvlei’s steep orange dunes and contrast of the blue sky, the white pan scarcely covered with bare boney trees inspired me to make the journey. The excitement and anticipation grew as we got closer as well as the desire for a much needed break from the arid January heat.

Leading up to Sossusvlei, we were aware of the luxury lodges and glamping options, touting swimming pool markers and out of our budget camp fees. We turned into one of these oases and kindly asked the manager if we could swim in the pool if we patron the bar. He was friendly and had no problem considering it was slow season and only a single man sitting at the bar.  We changed into our swim costumes and plopped down, Uwe ordered a beer and I opted for a delightfully refreshing Savannah Dry Cider. 

The man sitting at the bar was a tour guide named Falco. We started a jovial conversation, and the pursuit to swim was forgotten with the music going, the drinks flowing and the cigarettes rolling.  The excited energy from being in a beautiful place with such good company made the Savannahs go down that much quicker. With the sun setting, we determined it was time to call it a day and find a place to camp. Falco recommended a bush camp further down the road and a plan was hatched to wake up early and catch the sunrise over the famous Dune 45.   

What unfolded was a different story.

We left the luxury camp, found a spot to call home for the night, parked, and retched out most of the Savannahs. An hour later I woke up lying crosswise in the back of the Land Rover, a tell-tale sign I was too drunk to make the bed and made the bed properly.  We woke up at 6 the following morning with the sun baking the inside of the car and carefully avoided the night’s barf as we fixed a hearty breakfast of biltong and eggs and an electrolyte infused water before driving into Soussesvlei National Park.  

Uwe had been to the park several years prior with a much smaller car, not the 4×4 beast we have now and parked in the lot. By this point it was after 9am and I was not in a headspace to make any decisions. He asked if 1 liter of water would be sufficient for the both of us and being that this was my first time there, I blindly trusted his judgment.

We started walking — 5 Km in soft sand and the day was already heating up.  Several SUV’s and a large safari style shuttle passed us and would you believe it, we walked to another parking lot!  With the cruelest hangover creeping in from the sugary ciders and cigarettes and Uwe telling me we need to ration the water, I was beginning to feel dehydrated and bitter. It was almost 11 and we hadn’t even started hiking up the orange dune.  

View from Second Parking Lot

Another 5km to the top of the dunes and the soft sand slid over the tops of my hiking boots, submerging my feet inside and out.  The shoes came off and every few hundred meters there were footprints leading down to Deadvlei. Each time Uwe would ask if I wanted to call it quits, but would then emphasize, “I think you should make it to the top, I know you can do it.”  I am flicking him off and have a sour face in most of our photos. 

Not pleased with the day

The tortured pace up the dune in the early-afternoon heat was worth the view. It was magnificent. My bright orange dunes, surrounded by clear blue sky and a white pan floor. We sat at the top taking in the sight and Uwe relinquishing the last remaining drops of water to me from the 1-litre bottle. 

It was 1pm and the sun was blazing.  We planned to run down the dune to the pan below. Uwe asked me to take his shoes with me, so he could run down the dune and I could film it.  I obliged, aware that I had been a terrible person the whole day.    

Uwe with his shoes before handing them off to me

Carrying both pairs of shoes I started running down the mountainous dune. FUCK!!!!! The sand was burning.  The further down, the hotter it was.  I ran as far as I could, then sunk my feet deep down into the silky grains for relief from the surface burn. But NO, IT WAS HOT ALL THE WAY THROUGH!  Uwe yelled down asking if it was hot and I screamed back emphatically “YES!” However, if I left his shoes on my path — he would never find them. 

In Deadvlei, assessing the burns and my frustrations

This dune had taken us nearly 2 hours to hike up- running down felt like an eternity in hell.  When I made it to the bottom I shook out my socks and had 2nd degree burn rings around my ankles. Settled at the bottom with camera ready, I signaled for him run. The dune is so high, a little man on the top is impossible to see.  He ran all the way down, a testament to his strong will and I made sure to film him — I owed him that. 

Feeling burnt, broken, and severely dehydrated, we explored Deadvlei, the famous pan recognizable for its skeletal trees.  Another incredible sight unappreciated that day, but grateful I took pictures to look back on.  Through the pan and back to the sand, we shuffled another 5 km in the soft sand. By 4pm, we had made it back to the lot. My head was throbbing and my joints rigid with dehydration. I A-lined it to the safari shuttle service we had seen in the morning, the place was empty most people had left before noon. I negotiated with the driver to take me back to our car while steadfast Uwe ran the last 5 km across the malleable earth.

By the time Uwe had made it back to the car I had cleaned off 2 liters of water and several Ibuprofens.  Sitting at a picnic table in the shade of a tree I made us a refreshing cucumber salad and my demands:  I want a site with a pool, a Lemon Icey, and never, ever under any circumstances offer me another Savannah Dry for the rest of our lives.

Deadvlei, hazy with heat

The lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t celebrate before the hike.
  2. Wake up early for the desert.
  3. Carry your own water.
  4. Never trust Uwe when he says it’s a short hike.
  5. Sugary ciders = relentless hangovers.
On Key

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