The Star Dunes of Sossusvlei


After you arrive in Sesriem, the entrance to Namib-Naukluft National Park is easy to find. Don’t forget to stop by the park office and get your permit from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Once you have got your permit in hand you are ready to enter the park. There is plenty of time to visit both the Sesriem Canyon and Sossusvlei in the same day. If you don’t have a Sossusvlei map, don’t worry about it because the area is pretty easy to navigate. Sesriem Canyon is located about 5 kilometers south of the park office and the Sossusvlei is located about 65 kilometers west of the park office. The park entrance is gated and they do lock it up promptly at dusk. Be sure to exit the gate by then.

Sossusvlei Is A Hidden Treasure

Sossusvlei is one of the most popular attractions in Namibia and it is very easy to see why. The giant red sand dunes, wildlife and surrounding landscape are not of this world. Although the Sossusvlei is regarded as very popular with tourists we had the entire place to ourselves for the entire day, only passing a couple cars on the drive in. This suited us just fine, it was like finding a hidden treasure. It is always more precious if you don’t have to share with others.

Giant Red Sand Dunes

The towering red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei area are on average about 375 meters above the Tsauchab River Valley below. They about 200 meters above the surrounding sand filled valleys. The dunes get their red color from the iron oxide that thinly coats the outside of each sand grain. The red color actually comes from the rusting of the iron.

sossusvlei photosThe giant red sand dunes at Sossusvlei are most definitely the main attraction in this area and possibly in all of Namibia.

Star Dunes

The sand dunes of the Sossusvlei area are called “star dunes”. They are characterized by immobility due to the wind blowing in equal strength from several different directions. Their giant size is built up over time due to the wind blowing the sand in such manner that it accumulates near the crest of the dune, thus the dunes continue to grow. In a thousand years the giant sand dunes will most likely still be here in the same location and also will have grown larger if the environment remains the same.

Two Deserts In One

The present day Namib desert actually sits above the remains of an older desert that dates back 20 million years. That desert is now fossilized and forms the Tsondab Sandstone. This sandstone lies beneath most areas of the present day Namib desert.

This very sandstone also facilitates the long distance underground flows of the Tsauchab River. The water that seeps through the permeable riverbed at Sossusvlei is still able to reach the Atlantic ocean. It uses this sub surface passage way, by flowing over the Tsondab Sandstone Formation.

sossusvlei photosClimbing to the top of the largest sand dune neighboring Sossusvlei. Wow, what a view!

sossusvlei photos red sand dunes The view from the top of the giant red dune neighboring Sossusvlei. The weather that evening was serene. The next day when we returned,  the wind had begun blowing much harder and creating a sand storm environment. 

Clay Pan at Sossusvlei

The Sossusvlei is actually a clay pan that is formed at the end of the sporadically flowing Tsauchab River. When it reaches the farthest point that it is possible to flow, it sinks into the Namib desert. The pan itself is sometimes incorrectly designated as a salt pan.  If you have ever visited a salt pan such as the pan at Etosha National Park you will notice the distinct differences. Sossusvlei has large mud cracks that form as the water seeps away into the sand and leaves the clay minerals behind.

Sossusvlei photosDeep mud cracks form when the water seeps away into the desert.

Fossilized Footprints

Fossilized dinosaur footprints have been formed in similar clay pan environments long ago. The mud is imprinted when it is moist and then if it is left undisturbed long enough it will fossilize. In this way it can be preserved for future generations to observe.  Fossilized footprints of a modern man or antelope would also form under similar conditions. Then millions of years later they could be discovered as evidence of prehistoric life!

A River Flows Under the Desert

The Tsauchab River used to regularly flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean during wetter historical time periods. As I mentioned above, it is fascinating that the fresh water from the Tsauchab River still does make it all the way to the Atlantic. It flows out of the desert near Meob Bay in a fresh water underground river.

Sossusvlei photosThe birds eye view of Sossusvlei from the top of one of the neighboring sand dunes. The Sossusvlei is in itself an individual clay pan. It is also used to refer to the surrounding general area where there are still other remaining pans such as the Deadvlei. Many others must have been buried far beneath the giant dunes a long time ago. 

The Receding Underground River

The flow levels of these underground rivers are unfortunately receding as the climate becomes more arid. Also, the human population continues to draw down the water table in the surrounding areas. This is evidenced by the dead camelthorn trees that are visible from the road while traveling into the Sossusvlei. During wetter periods the underground water table was higher and kept the trees alive. However, with the receding water table many of the the trees have now died. There are only skeletons which add a very brilliant desert ambience to this area.

Photo dead camelthorn tree sossusvleiCamelthorn trees as seen while traveling into Sossusvlei. Many of the trees are now only skeletons due to the sinking and shifting pathways of the underground water levels. In previous years these trees were kept alive by the flows of the Tsauchab River.

Unique Wildlife of Sossusvlei Dunes

The wildlife in the area must of course be well adapted to surviving on very little water. The coastal fog from the Atlantic does make it into the Sossusvlei area. This provides some moisture that permits the survival of vegetation and animals. This desert life would otherwise perish without it. Animals that we encountered included ostrich, oryx (also known as the gemsbok), bat eared fox and also the springbok.

The Oryx

The Oryx are located in Southern Africa, East Africa and also in Arabia. They can survive for long periods of time without water and live in herds of up to 600 animals. However, we did not see any oryx herds of this great size near the Sossusvlei. The oryx we saw were traveling alone. Both the male and female oryx have the long horns. They can be ferocious fighters and have been known to kill lions!

oryxAn oryx, also known as a gemsbok, posing near some camelthorn trees as seen while traveling to Sossusvlei.

gemsbok Another large oryx spotted a few kilometers inside the park entrance at dusk. Although they are known to form herds of up to 600, we did not see them in groups this large, especially near Sossusvlei.

The bat eared fox

The bat eared fox is primarily an insectivore. Its habitat in Southern Africa ranges from Southern Angola and Zambia, through Namibia and into South Africa. Its main food source is the harvester termite but it will also eat beetles and mice if it can catch them. It uses its large ears and a fine sense of hearing to find its prey. It also uses its large ears to regulate its body temperature by using thermoregulation.

bat eared foxA small group of bat eared fox spotted at dusk inside Namib-Naukluft National Park.

The Winds of Sossusvlei

The winds of Sossusvlei have two effects. They can make travel and survival in the Namib Desert nearly impossible and also create infinite  beauty in a harsh desert environment. They do this by carving out the desert landscape. It is the wind that moves the sand and creates the giant star dunes that tower over this landscape. The wind also creates the finite details that add the finishing touches.

dead Camelthorn trees near sossusvleiOn our 2nd day in the park, the wind had picked up considerably and a lot of sand was blowing around. We were unable to return to Sossusvlei due to the windstorm that had picked up.

Sossusvlei photosThe strong desert winds also have a beautifying effect. These miniature sand ridges are carved in the landscape by the winds of Sossusvlei.

Sossusvlei photosWhen the sun is low on the horizon it paints giant sand dunes with brilliant ambient desert colors.


Article Sources:

Namibia – Fascination of Geology
A Travel Handbook
Nicole Grunert