The Geology of the Sesriem Canyon

The Route to Sesriem Canyon Begins

I picked up my friend at the Windhoek airport then we spent the day in town. We left early the next morning to drive to Sesriem. Sesriem is not a destination in itself. The point of going there is because of its close proximity to Sossusvlei, Naukluft Mountains and the Sesriem Canyon.


Visit the giant sand dunes at Sossusvlei

There is an assortment of accommodation near Sesriem that are all within a reasonable drive of all of these attractions. We ended up staying near the foothills of the Naukluft mountains. From there, it was a 50 kilometer drive to the Sossusvlei and Sesriem Canyon entry points. This was an easy drive the next morning when we went to explore these areas.

Windhoek to Sesriem Canyon

The route to Sesriem from Windhoek starts out on C26. This is the same starting point as when I took the Gamsberg pass over to Swakopmund. Take C26 out of Windhoek but this time do not veer to the west. Keep going straight and branch off of C26 going south, then pass on the east side of the Gamsberg Mountain. Then continue until you reach C14 and go left towards Sesriem. Don’t turn right, that would bring you to Walvis Bay.

These directions are intentionally vague and you need to map it out yourself. I found the drive to be rather simple, but not nearly as scenic and exciting as either the Gamsberg or the Bosua Pass.

Naukluft Mountains Near Sesriem Canyon

After arriving at our accommodation we settled in and went out for a bit of exploring. In the desert Savannah surrounding our lodge, there were some dried up river beds. They are filled with water when it rains heavily enough up in the Naukluft Mountains.

Additionally, The Naukluft owes its name to the narrow (Afrikaans: nau) gorges (Afrikaans: kloof). The Naukluft Mountains have some great hiking options and I intend to pursue this on my next visit to Namibia.

Naukluft Mountains Photo Taken in Route to Sesriem Canyon

The Naukluft Mountains near Sesriem Canyon have lots of hiking and exploration potential for the more adventurous types. I would like to do more exploring here on my next visit to this area of Namibia.

Social Weaver Birds Around Sesriem Canyon

During our sunset adventure we got a closer look at some giant communal bird nests. The nests are constructed by the Social Weaver bird. These birds build giant nest compounds and live together socially, which is a rarity among birds. Their nests are considered to be one of the most spectacular structures built by any bird. The nests are quite common in Namibia, I saw them many times while traveling through the countryside. The Social Weaver is in the Passeridae bird species family and is native to southern Africa. It is found in Namibia, South Africa and Botswana.

Social weaver nest photo taken near Sesriem Canyon

The Social Weaver birds build large communal nests and live together communally. This is very rare among birds. We examined one of their large nests near our Sesriem Canyon accommodation.

The next morning we set out for the Sesriem Canyon and Sossusvlei. First thing to do is stop by the Ministry of Environment and Tourism office in Sesriem and pay the Sesriem Canyon entrance fee.

History of the Sesriem Canyon

The Sesriem Canyon was named by the first settlers to the area. They used 6 lengths of rope to scoop water out of the bottom of the canyon. The Afrikaans word for six lengths of rope is ses rieme.

Gamsberg Pass

Drive the Gamsberg Pass to Windhoek.

The sporadically flowing river at the base of the Sesriem Canyon is called the Tsauchab River. River flow level depends on climate conditions in the nearby Naukluft and Tsaris Mountains. During times of heavy rainfall the river flows more regularly. Hundreds of thousands of years ago it even flowed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. However, in modern times the river only flows sporadically after rainfall. Then it only continues about 65 kilometers into the desert before it permeates into the Sossusvlei.

Geology of the Sesriem Canyon

The geology of the Sesriem Canyon can be observed by descending into the canyon.  Inside the canyon, you can read the geological layers that have been incised through by the Tsauchab River.

Tsondab Sandstone at Sesriem Canyon

At the bottom of the canyon you can easily spot the fossilized sand of the Tsondab Sandstone Formation. This is the remains of a 200 meter thick sand desert that covered large parts of Namibia 20 million years ago.

It is fascinating that the sands of today’s Namib Desert (the oldest desert in the world) is actually sitting on the fossilized remains of a 20 million year old desert! The Tsondab Sandstone Formation is also exposed in other areas of Namibia.  You can also view it behind the airfield that you pass on the road to Sossusvlei.

Sesriem Canyon photo

A Sesriem Canyon hike down to the bottom of the canyon will reveal layers of finer grain fossilized sediment. The layers of finer sand indicate that these times were more arid. The river did not flow very frequently down from the mountains during this time.

Climate Volatility Created Sesriem Canyon

Namibia Geology

The Astounding Geology of Namibia

During the 20 million years since the Tsondab desert existed, the worlds climate has dramatically fluctuated. These climate changes also effected Namibia. The climate moved from extreme arid condition, such as exist today, back to wetter periods, and also ice ages. All of these occurrences effected the severity of the water flowing down from the nearby mountains and escarpment.

During periods of heavy rainfall lots of debris was washed down from the mountains and formed huge alluvial fans. The walls of the Sesriem Canyon have recorded all of these climate changes going back millions of years. Geologists can read the entire climate history of the region in this way. For example, layers of heavy conglomerate rock indicates periods of heavy rainfall. Evidence of periods of extreme arid conditions are seen by the smaller grained deposits such as the Tsondab Sandstone.

Sesriem Canyon photo

Near the top of the Sesriem Canyon, we see evidence of larger conglomerate rocks and pebbles. It indicates this time period was much wetter than present geological times.

Sesriem Canyon photos

Farther down the geology of the Sesriem Canyon reveals solidified finer grained mineral layers indicating times of extreme aridity.


Article Sources:

Namibia – Fascination of Geology
A Travel Handbook
Nicole Grunert