Experience the best of the world’s oldest desert
This post will explain what you can do to experience the best of the captivating Namib Desert – by foot, by car and by plane. There are other spectacular things to see in Namibia, which I will probably write about in time, but right now, I’m focusing on how to explore the Namib Desert because that is what drew me to Namibia in the first place.
I love the Namib’s story. It is the oldest desert in the world and is one of the few places where the desert meets the sea. The Namib Desert was formed from eroded sandstone in South Africa and Lesotho, sand is carried into the Atlantic by the Orange river, and then pushed ashore by the fierce currents and wind. The idea of such relentless forces creating something so huge and beautiful is humbling to me.
At the coast the newer dunes are golden yellow and shift in shape; further inland, the oldest, more stable dunes have oxidised into a rich, dreamy apricot colour.
How I became obsessed by the Namib
Photos from the ISS that Astro Jeff posted on Twitter got me interested in Sossusvlei – this strange white scar through the red sand sea of the Namib. Then I found photos of Deadvlei on Instagram and started dreaming about going to this otherworldly place. After that, I started researching Namibia and convincing my husband to go with me on an epic road trip adventure around Namibia. Luckily (not least because I don’t know how to drive!) he said yes!
Our trip was amazing and the Namib Desert wound its way into my heart. I’ve always been a city girl (I live in one; I like visiting foreign cities), but these vast, ancient landscapes drew me in and stirred my soul in a way I can’t quite explain. It’s the place that I dream of returning to most in the world.
It is one of the most stunning landscapes I’ve seen and I love to reminisce about being there, so I’m delighted to be able to share my experience and tips with you.
First, a few Namib Desert facts
- ‘Namib’ means vast place – and it is well-named!
- The Namib Desert is located in Namibia (of course) and it encompasses all of Namibia’s coastline, including sand seas, gravel plains and mountainous areas
- At 55-80m years old, it is believed to be the oldest desert in the world
- With dunes over 300m tall, it has the 2nd largest dunes in the world (after Badain Jaran Desert in China)
- There are three national parks: Namib-Nakluft National Park, which contains the main sand sea including Sossusvlei; Skeleton Coast National Park, which stretches up the barren northern coast of Namibia; and Sperrgebiet National Park, which is largely off-limits to tourists.
- Despite being a desert, it is teeming with life, home to more endemic species than any other desert
OK, so here’s are 11 ways you can explore the Namib Desert
Sossusvlei is arguably the best place to explore the Namib Desert. It is probably the most famous attraction in Namibia and it is one of the things that makes the Namib Desert unique. It really is a one-of-a-kind destination.
Sossusvlei is a basin area, the last reaches of the Tsauchab River, which is an ephemeral river (meaning it flows only sometimes, with heavy rain). The Sossusvlei area was formed by pools and marshes that gathered amongst the dunes in heavy rain, but now, the majority of the time, the area is dry, the only sign of the water that used to be there is the cracked white clay floor and a few acacia trees.
It does still flood occasionally – and this happened in January 2021! It must have been a sight to see those huge dunes reflected in pools of water.
I recommend spending a couple of days here if your schedule allows it and, to make the most of your visit, you’ll probably want to stay nearby. There are several lodges, which offer comfortable accommodation in chalets. I stayed at Kulala Desert Lodge, which I chose primarily because it was within the gates of the Namib-Nakluft national park, where Sossusvlei is located. There are also campsites in the area.
Getting to Sossusvlei
Whilst what you do here will mainly be on foot, you will need a car to get into Sossuvlei. If you are not self-driving, which most travellers do in Namibia, you can book yourself a guided tour if you are staying at a nearby lodge. The price will vary depending on whether you do a full day or half a day, the size of the group and whether meals are included etc. I paid around £50 pp for a half-day tour, which included entry to the park, water and lunch. If you go without a guide, entry is N$150 per adult, plus, N$50 per car, which works out at about £20 for two people and one car.
The gate to the park opens at sunrise, and cars start lining up early to catch the first light. The drive is wonderful – you’ll see huge snaking sand dunes on either side of the road like ancient sentinels. You might spot hot air balloons in the dawn sky as you head in.
Funny story: when we went, there was some work being done on the 2-lane tarmac road and we were held at a traffic light. Now, for context, the traffic is only going one way. The road goes to Sossusvlei and nowhere else, and it has just opened, so there is no traffic coming the opposite way. So there’s this huge queue of impatient vehicles waiting for ages, like 45 minutes, while the other lane was entirely clear. I was just imagining the gorgeous early morning light on the dunes that we were missing – I was not a happy bunny!
Anyway, you can drive yourself to the car park at the end of the tarmac road. After that, the last stretch of road is sand, so only 4-wheel drive vehicles (and those who know how to drive on sand) go on in their own vehicle. But don’t worry, if you need it, there is a shuttle that will take you all the way into Sossusvlei.
Within the Sossusvlei area, there are several sights and activities; I’ll run through the main ones, which are attractions in their own right.
2. Dune 45
Climbing dunes is a wonderful thing to do at Sossusvlei – from the top, you’ll have breathtaking views!
If you want to try it but you’re not sure whether you’re fit enough for the really big dunes, Dune 45 is a good choice because it is relatively small, at 80m high. From the top, you’ll have 180-degree views of the vast Tsauchab corridor, and also into the sand sea to the south.
It is named Dune 45 because it is 45km from the Sesriem gate, so you will come across Dune 45 before you actually get to Sossusvlei, and it makes a great stop on the way. Alternatively, you could visit on the way out of the park.
Climbing the dune created a mix of sensations for me: the immediacy and effort of the climb combined with wonder at the scale and uniqueness of the landscape. Despite what these gloomy clouds suggest, the air was still, making it feel strange and dreamlike.
It is hard work climbing dunes because your feet slip back with each step. I would guess it took me 20 mins to climb to the top, but someone fit could do it much quicker. Sliding down the side to get to the bottom again took a mere minute (and was a lot of fun)!
3. Big Daddy
You can guess from its name that this is one of the big dunes! This epic star dune is right in the heart of the Sossusvlei area. At 325m high, it is not the biggest dune in Namibia (that is Dune 7), but it is a far greater challenge than Dune 45. But the rewards are also greater: from the top of Big Daddy, you can slide all the way down into the iconic Deadvlei itself. In fact, my guide tried to tell me this was the only way to get into Deadvlei, which was a white lie I didn’t fall for!
I have to confess, after climbing Dune 45, I didn’t attempt Big Daddy, but I did admire him from afar – maybe next time!
By the way, there’s also a spectacular dune called Big Momma, on the opposite side of Sossusvlei.
Deadvlei is probably the reason most people come to Sossusvlei. This striking, strange place has been the setting for several movies and music videos.
Deadvlei means ‘dead marsh’ and it is the most perfect and surreal of the clay pans in Sossusvlei: a big oblong of white clay, populated with twisted dead black trees and surrounded by huge red sand dunes (and the peak of Big Daddy at one end).
It takes about 45 mins to an hour to walk there from the Sossuvlei car park.
I couldn’t get enough of it. I wandered around taking hundreds of photos, trying to capture, to consume the spectacle of it. But I couldn’t quite satisfy myself. It was too big, too much, too dramatic. I only left because it was super hot in the midday sun and the rest of my party wanted to seek refreshments and shade.
I would love to go back and experience it as the sun comes up, to experience mist and shadows across the dunes and clay.
If there is one thing you do in the Sossusvlei area, this is it. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world like it.
5. NamibRand Nature Reserve
The NamibRand Nature Reserve is a private reserve to the east of the Namib-Nakluft National Park. You don’t get the spectacular dune formations like Sossusvlei, nor the big animals that you see on a wildlife safari in Etosha, like elephants, rhinos and lions.
However, it is still a great place to explore the Namib Desert because you do get a blissfully calm, quietly exhilarating experience amongst the stunningly beautiful plains, mountains and dunes of the reserve. And when you’re roaming the expansive landscape, you’ll often come across ostrich, oryx and zebra. It is also one of the most special places I’ve watched a sunset and a sunrise.
It’s a really special place to add to your road trip itinerary if you have time before or after Sossusvlei – and if your budget allows it (it is more luxurious and also pricier than other lodges).
Staying at the NamibRand
The Namibrand is a bit different to other places, as it is a private reserve. There are five lodges, all of which are in spectacular locations. Everything is included including all safari drives, and the staff look after guests really well.
I chose to stay at the most remote lodge: Boulders Safari Camp, at the foot of a massive pile of boulders in the middle of gravel plains, surrounded by mountains. That sounds kind of desolate, but it was stunning! While I was there I did three safari drives, all of which were stunning.
Getting to the NamibRand
There are two private roads to the Namibrand, depending on which lodge you book for, and both turn off the C27 road. In both cases, you drive to their office and leave your car there, then they will drive you across the sand dunes and plains to your lodge.
6. Sandwich Harbour
Exploring the Namib Desert at Sandwich Harbour was high up on my Namibia wishlist when I booked my trip. I’d seen dramatic photos on Instagram of this curved bay of giant yellow sand dunes – and I’d become a little obsessed about going to the place where the desert meets the sea.
Take a 4×4 tour into the coastal dunes
This place is south of Walvis Bay and only reachable by 4×4 tours – and only with a driver who knows the area because you won’t be driving on roads! The route involves first navigating the salt pans of Walvis Bay and then driving in the narrow strip between the towering yellow dunes and the ferocious Atlantic ocean. You won’t want to try this on your own and find out too late that the tide is coming in!
It was a really cool adventure – I loved driving between the dunes and the fierce surf, and I was fascinated by the colour of the sand – mainly yellowish, but sometimes streaked with purple! When we reached Sandwich Harbour, we took photos of the area and of the pelicans and we climbed one of the dunes.
Climbing dunes where the desert meets the sea
It was a visceral experience on the dunes: the sea was roaring, the wind was brutal, the air was full of sand. I realised these are the same forces that formed the whole Namib Desert in the first place: the sea dumping sand at the shore; the relentless wind pushing it inland for millions of years. It was pretty awe-inspiring to think of that.
It is worth noting that climbing the coastal dunes was harder than climbing dunes at Sossusvlei: they’re much steeper, so it’s a bit more like actual climbing. On the plus side, the surface of the sand is kind of crusty, so your feet slip backwards less with each step.
After we’d explored Sandwich Harbour, we drive up onto the sand dunes themselves and explored for a while, stopping for lunch in one of the hollow areas. The highlight for me was sliding down the steep side of a dune in the car – it was better than a fairground ride!
I highly recommend Turnstone Tours. I don’t get any sort of commission for linking to them – I just had a brilliant day with them and I am very happy to recommend them. My tour cost around £90 for a full day, including a picnic lunch; they picked me up from my guesthouse in Swakopmund, which was helpful.
7. Kolmanskop Ghost Town
Kolmanskop is a unique destination for anyone wanting to explore the Namib Desert. It is a deserted diamond mining town, once flush with diamond wealth, but abandoned in 1959. It is now slowly giving in to the relentless encroach of the desert. It is about 13km outside of Lüderitz in southern Namibia.
You can take a tour of the old town buildings and poke around empty houses, gradually being swallowed up by the dunes. It is really great for photographers, and I recommend allowing plenty of time to wander around after the organised tour.
Exploring the deserted houses is eerie, though. Sand has drifted into the corners and all signs of civilisation are missing, broken or disintegrating. There’s a brutal beauty in the decay, for sure. But of course, there’s also sadness and a sense of loss.
It is worth noting this is one of the few areas within the Sperrgebiet (meaning ‘forbidden zone’) National Park that is open to visitors, so a permit is needed (the price is the same as the other national parks: N$150 per adult and $N50 per car).
8. The Skeleton Coast
The Skeleton Coast is the most remote place you can explore the Namib Desert. The shifting sands and thick fog at the coastline are what gave the Skeleton Coast its notorious name: the combination of the two proving treacherous for sailors over the years, littering the coast with wrecks, most of which have been reclaimed by the unforgiving surf.
I highly recommend driving through the Skeleton Coast National Park if you’re on a road trip around Namibia. You have to sign in and out through manned gates, which bear a skull and crossbones for added drama (it costs the same as the other national parks). Knowing your name is on a list is reassuring because you wouldn’t want to break down out there and have no one know where you are!
Driving the Skeleton Coast
Driving in the foggy, post-apocalyptic-seeming wilderness, it felt like we were at the end of the earth. It was invigorating to experience the desolation and emptiness of that place.
The C34 was also a lovely road: it looks rough but unlike the majority of roads in Namibia, this one is compacted salt, which is hard and smooth, so much nicer to drive on than the corrugated gravel roads elsewhere.
In fact, my husband liked driving on it so much that we decided to change our route to spend more time on the Skeleton Coast, rather than turning off after Hentiesbaai towards Uis. Our impromptu decision made me a little nervous because there is barely any civilisation north of that turning point – and I didn’t know for sure that we’d have enough petrol (but luckily we did).
When we turned off onto the C39 heading inland, we could see a hint of blue sky in the distance – a sign that the apocalypse hadn’t happened after all; there was sunshine beyond the foggy microclimate of the skeleton coast.
One of the fascinating things about the Skeleton Coast in Namibia is the shipwrecks – and, planning the trip, I was determined to see some.
However, they’re sprinkled along a whole lot of coastline, and many get broken up or buried by the sea and the shifting sand – so they’re not as easy to see as I thought. We found two near the road north of Henties Bay, and tried to find another we had read about, but couldn’t find it (and almost got stuck in the sand looking for it).
The Zeila is the most obvious, and visible from the road about 18km south of Hentiesbaai (and there’s a track down to the shore): the Zeila, wrecked in 2008. It is caught forever in the relentless Atlantic waves, now home to lots of birds.
The second was harder to spot, although it is also close to the road because it is pretty small and there’s much less of it left – just the spine of the hull and some rusty engine parts. The South West Sea, wrecked in 1976. It is located approximately 160km north of the Zeila, on the C34 road. By the way, if you’re a shipwreck-hunter and want the coordinates, drop me a message.
10. Cape Cross Seal Reserve
I kept changing my mind about whether to include Cape Cross as one of the ways to enjoy the Namib Desert – but it is one of the main things you can do in the Skeleton Coast National Park, and it is fascinating, so let’s keep it in.
It is very impressive: a natural colony of seals numbering up to 100,000. You can get pretty close to them via a raised wooden walkway with a fence and the sight is amazing – seals as far as you can see, and more in the sea, braving the ferocious waves. Seals are wonderful animals: so agile in the water and comically lumbering on land.
They also smell bad. And they make a lot of noise. Growling, barking and crying. And when there are 100,000 of them in close quarters, the stench and the racket are overwhelming. It is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before or since.
But it is a phenomenal thing to see a colony this big, so this place makes the list. My top tip is to bring a scarf to wrap around your nose and mouth a few times. A standard Covid face mask won’t cut it!
If you’re driving the C34, Cape Cross is about 60km north of Henties Bay and costs N$150 per adult and $N50 per car entry.
11. Flying over the Namib
OK, my final item is, in my opinion, the most breath-taking way you can explore the Namib Desert. Taking a scenic flight over Namibia is the most exhilarating thing I’ve done in all my travels around the world.
Any kind of scenic flight is expensive – but if you do have the funds, I don’t think you’ll regret spending them on this. Namibia is stunning from the ground – but spectacular and breath-taking from the air.
I flew with Pleasure Flights & Safaris. There are different routes you can take, some for half a day – and I opted for the ‘Ultimate South’ option, which takes in the Sossusvlei, Fish River Canyon and the Sperrgebiet, stopping for fuel and lunch in Luderitz, where you can visit Kolmanskop. After lunch, the route takes you along the coast where you’ll see shipwrecks and the stunning, fluid coastal dunes.
Before I went to Namibia I’d been obsessed with the vast Namib sand sea, with its huge snaking sand dunes – and it was so exciting to see it from the air with my own eyes. I took so many photos (top tip: these planes are tiny, so it’s actually easier to take photos with a phone – all these photos from the plane were taken with an iPhone 8). If you like these images, check out my photo tour of Namibia from the air.
So that’s my list of the best ways to experience and explore the beguiling Namib Desert. As well as having a spectacular desert, Namibia is also one of the best places for safari in Africa and it is spectacular for road trips. The very last thing is to include some general practical info on Namibia.
When to visit Namibia
April to May and September to October are the best times to visit Namibia because they’re dry and warm. The dryness can make it easier to see wildlife as they gather at waterholes.
Namibia is wettest between December to February – and although it is unlikely to rain a lot, rain can cause localised floods.
What to pack for exploring the Namib Desert
- Walking boots. I wore Salomon boots, which I’d bought for the Inca trail, but were perfectly suitable for Namibia as well
- Loose cotton clothes that will help you stay cool on active, hot days – and in neutral colours, if you are also planning to go on a wildlife safari in Namibia
- Something warm for evenings, as the temperatures can drop a lot at night, especially if you do any night tours in open jeeps
- Sun hat & sunglasses
- Sun cream with a high SPF
- In addition, I found a cotton scarf very useful for a bit of extra sun protection and wind protection, variously (and for blocking out the smell of 100,000 seals)
- A good moisturiser and lip chapstick, as your skin may dry out
- Day pack for excursions
- Swimming costume – some lodges and dunes have pools, and you may welcome a dip in a pool after long days on the road or in the desert
- First aid kit
- Malaria tablets if you’re planning to visit the north of Namibia
- Camera with plenty of space or SD cards (120Mbs should be fast enough) to capture the beauty of this magnificent country.
- A zoom lens to capture wildlife – one going up to 200mm or 300mm will get you some great shots.
- Binoculars are also not a bad idea, for spotting wildlife from afar.
- Power bank for your phone if you do the all-day scenic flight – because you will take so many photos your phone battery will die!
Namibia started letting travellers into Namibia in September 2020, requiring them to register in advance and to show evidence of a recent negative test on arrival, according to the UK government website. Whether there are any restrictions about returning home from Namibia will depend on the rules in your own country.
For more info on the rules around Covid19 in Namibia, check out the Namibia Tourism site.
I hope this helps you if you’re considering a trip to Namibia!