Exploring Namibia’s Sand Dunes

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It’s 5:45 a.m., a little more than 30 minutes before dawn, and the sky over Sossusvlei is silvery blue and shot with stars. We’ve come to this part of Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft Park, one of Africa’s largest conservation areas, to experience the sand dunes, rated as among the world’s highest. “Big Daddy,” considered the region’s tallest dune and a favorite challenge for hikers, rises more than 1100-feet. As we wait, a jackal sashays in front of our van parked near a 300-foot high dune, part of the 47-mile long dune corridor that begins some 15 miles from the park’s entrance near the Sossus Dunes Lodge. Abenteuer Afrika Safari brings us here so early because this is the best time to sample the desert magic. Starting at first light and lasting for about two hours, the dunes change from inky purple to salmon and then to red as the slanting rays carve shadows, deepen contours and darken the ridgelines, transforming the dunes into a dramatic, undulating, out-sized sculpture.

Our guide also details the desert’s little wonders. He points out gerbil tracks, telling us that the straight lines were made by the critter’s tail as he paused to rest in the silky sand.

We learn to pick out the paw prints of an African wild cat as well as the train-like markings made by the six legs of the desert beetle as he scurries across the sand.

Despite visiting in June, Namibia’s winter, the temperature is 75-degrees. Instead of climbing Big Daddy, an hours-long task, Abenteuer’s guides suggest we take the easier trek across the base of dune 45 and into Dead Vlei. That’s fine with us.

This “vlei” or pan, once filled with water in the rainy season, has been cut off by sand dunes fashioned by wind currents. The river shifted and the acacia trees died. Their black trunks and twisted branches dot the pan, creating a dazzling contrast to the white limestone laced, dry bottom and the surrounding sea of red dunes.

The Namib’s desert dunes reach to Namibia’s coast near Swakopmund, about 310-miles away. In Swakopmund, Namibia’s eco-adventure headquarters, Abenteuer Afrika Safari hooks us up with Tommy’s Tours for a combination of dune riding and desert exploration.

Tommy drives his Land Rover up and over the sand mountains, jumping out to scoop up what looks like a random handful of soft crystals. When the sand slips through his fingers, he opens his palm to reveal a baby adder snake. Tommy places it on the slope and the snake twirls away from us sideways, making squiggly swirls in the dune.

Tommy reveals scorpions, spiders and chameleons, but our favorite find: the shovel-snouted, sand diving lizard. To show how firmly the critter bites down, Tommy dangles him from his finger and then from his earlobe like an earring. Dubbing this lizard “the Ferrari” of the desert, Tommy lets him go and we giggle as the lizard zooms along the dune in an almost comic-book like rush.

Abenteuer Afrika Safari specializes in custom tailored explorations of Namibia as well as Zambia, and Mozambique. South African Airways provides service from a number of U.S. and international gateways to Johannesburg and into Namibia.

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