What to see & do
Sesriem is the gateway to this part of the park, and the hub of the area. This has the NWR office, where everybody stops to buy their entry permits and fill up with fuel and supplies of cold drinks. From here a short road leads left to Sesriem Canyon, and another heads straight on, through a second gate, towards Elim Dune, Sesriem's small airfield and Sossusvlei. Ballooning
Namib Sky Adventure Safaris run early morning ballooning trips over the desert – which are expensive but superb. You start from Sossusvlei Lodge, Kulala, or Mwisho, before dawn, and are driven to a take-off site, which varies with the winds and conditions.
The crew gradually unfurl the balloon, and inflate it with propane burners. When ready, everybody climbs into the basket, and it is inflated to take off. Gradually, the balloon sails higher over the surrounding dunes and mountains. Floating at wind-speed is travelling in still air – with only the occasional burst of gas interrupting the silence. It's an eerie experience, and an excellent platform for landscape photography.
Beneath the balloon a support vehicle follows as best it can, carrying a table, chairs and full supplies for a champagne breakfast – which is set up wherever the balloon lands. Eventually, everything is loaded on to the support vehicle and its trailer, and guests are returned to where they started, usually a little before midday.
Though a morning's ballooning costs US$250 per person, it is such an unusual and exhilarating experience that it is not only highly recommended, but also (arguably) quite good value. Sesriem Canyon
About 4km from Sesriem, following the signs left as you enter the gates, is Sesriem Canyon. This is a narrow fissure in the sandstone, 30m deep in places, carved by the Tsauchab River. It was used by the early settlers, who drew water from it by knotting together six lengths of hide rope (called riems). Hence it became known as ses riems.
For some of the year, the river's bed is marked by pools of blissfully cool water, reached via an easy path of steps cut into the rock. It's a place to swim and relax – perfect for the heat of the day. At other times, though, the water can be almost stagnant and definitely not a place to bathe. It's also worth following the watercourse 500m up-river from the steps, where you'll find it before it descends into the canyon – another great place to bathe at times.
Beware of flash floods in the canyon itself. Heavy rain in the Naukluft Mountains occasionally causes these, trapping and drowning visitors.Elim Dune
As you drive towards Sossusvlei, Elim Dune is about 5km from Sesriem. The turning off to the right is shortly after the entrance into the park, leading to a shady parking spot. It is the nearest sand-dune to Sesriem, and if you arrive late in the afternoon, then you may, like me, mistake it for a mountain.
From the parking spot you can climb it, though this takes longer than you might expect – allow at least an hour to get to the top. The views over plains towards the Naukluft Mountains on the east, and dune-crests to the west, are remarkable. It is especially worth the long climb at sunset, and conveniently close to the gates at Sesriem.Sossusvlei area
As of 1997, entry permits for Sossusvlei are limited, to protect the area. In theory, only a certain number of vehicles are allowed to start along the road during each of three periods in each day. The first is from sunrise, the second in the middle of the day, and the third in the afternoon. Until now, the number of visitors arriving has rarely exceeded the quota, but this may change as the area receives more visitors. Permits cost N$30 per adult, plus N$20 for a car. The road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei
After paying for your permit, continue southwest past Sesriem. The road is soon confined into a corridor, huge dunes on either side. Gradually, this narrows, becoming a few kilometres wide. This unique parting of the southern Namib's great sand-sea has probably been maintained over the millennia by the action of the Tsauchab River and the wind.
About 24km after leaving Sesriem, you cross the Tsauchab River. Although this seldom flows, note the green camelthorn, Acacia erioloba, which thrives here, clearly indicating permanent underground water.
Continuing westwards, the present course of the river is easy to spot parallel with the road. Look around for the many dead acacia trees that mark old courses of the river, now dried up. Some of these have been dated at over 500 years old.
Note that this road has always been fine, white gravel: photogenic, but very dusty (and easily driven in a normal 2WD car). Sadly, the dust from vehicles is thought to be harming the acacias, and other wildlife, so there are plans to tar the road in late 1998.
Along this final stretch of road are a few side-tracks leading to the feet of some of the dunes, numbered according to their distance along the road from the office. Dune 45, on the south side, is particularly photogenic. About 36km after crossing the Tsauchab, this road ends at the 2WD parking area.Parking (2WD parking area)
Here low sand-dunes apparently form a final barrier to the progress of the river or the road. There is a large group of acacias, which shade a couple of picnic tables. Nearby are a few toilets of dubious cleanliness.
As we go to press, new regulations mean that this is now as far as you can drive yourself. To reach Sossusvlei, you must now either walk or take the shuttle bus. Alternatively, if you are staying at a nearby lodge and taking one of their guided excursions, the guide will usually be able to drive into the old 4WD parking area.
The first pan is only about 500m over the sandbar, though it'll take an hour or more to cover the 5km to the farthest pan, Sossusvlei itself. Shuttle 4WDs are run by Hobas Shuttle and Tours from 08.00 until 16.00. The return trip costs N$80 per person; it is not yet clear whether or not you can still buy a single and then walk back. The driver will collect you from Sossusvlei or Dead Vlei at a pre-arranged time – if you don't want to be rushed, allow around two or three hours.Hidden Vlei
On the left of the (2WD) parking area, you'll see signs to Hidden Vlei – which is reached by climbing over the dunes. As at Dead Vlei, here you'll find old, dead acacia trees, which were deprived of water when the river changed course, but still stand to tell the tale.Dead Vlei
Like Hidden Vlei, but perhaps more accessible, Dead Vlei is an old pan with merely the skeletons of trees left – some over 500 years old. Many consider it to be more starkly beautiful than Sossusvlei.
From the (2WD) parking area, walk over the sandbar following the 4WD track that will lead you into the large main pan. Keep over to the left-hand side, and you'll soon find the old parking area for Dead Vlei, your start point for the 500m hike over the dunes into Dead Vlei. Sossusvlei and Nara Vlei
After about 4–5km the 4WD track bends round to the right, and ends in front of Sossusvlei. This is as far as the pans extend. Beyond here, only tall sand-dunes separate you from the Atlantic Ocean.
Most years, the ground here is a flat silvery-white pan of fine mud that has dried into a crazy-paving pattern. Upon this are huge sand mounds collected by nara bushes, and periodic feathery camelthorn trees, Acacia erioloba, drooping gracefully. All around the sinuous shapes of the Namib's (and some claims the world's) largest sand-dunes stretch up to 300m high. It's a stunning, surreal environment.
Perhaps once every decade, Namibia receives really torrential rain. Storms deluge the Naukluft's ravines and the Tsauchab sweeps out towards the Atlantic in a flash flood, surging into the desert and pausing only briefly to fill its canyon.
Floods so powerful are rare, and Sossusvlei can fill overnight. Though the Tsauchab will subside quickly, the vlei remains full. Miraculous lilies emerge to bloom, and the bright yellow devil thorn flowers (Tribulus species) carpet the water's edge. Surreal scenes reflect in the lake, as dragonflies hover above its polished surface. Birds arrive and luxuriant growth flourishes, making the most of this ephemeral treat.
These waters recede from most of the pan rapidly, concentrating in Sossusvlei, where they can remain for months. Whilst they are there, the area's birdlife changes radically, as waterbirds and waders will often arrive, along with opportunist insectivores. Meanwhile, less than a kilometre east, over a dune, the main pan is dry as dust, and looks as if it hasn't seen water in decades.