We lost ourselves in the rolling dunes of the Namib that sing a desert song of sun, wind and sky.
The world’s oldest desert is a place of space and silence that stretches across Namibia’s entire Atlantic coast. Rivers trying to reach the sea sink into the sand, dunes change shape in the desert winds and cold waves crash against the foggy shore. There is no respite from the relentless movement of sand, just dune after dune, and a stark beauty that left us lost for words.
Soaring above the dunes
The striking patterns of the Namib are best seen from above on a scenic flight over the desert. We took off in a 6-seater plane from the seaside town of Swakopmund, soaring across the gravel plains to the Kuiseb River, which marks the start of the desert sands. From here the dunes rolled out as far as we could see and disappeared towards the distant Atlantic Ocean.
We felt like seabirds as the high-winged Cessna swooped over the dunes and valleys of the sand sea. We flew across the desert to the star-shaped dunes at Sossusvlei, or the “place of no return”, where we would later climb Big Daddy to catch the sunrise. The colours shifted constantly, from pale grey to burnt orange and brick red, changing with the light and cloud shadows.
One dune after another fell away below us as we made our way across the desert to the windswept coastline. We looked down on disused diamond camps and shipwrecks stranded on the beach, left to rust away in the sea fog created by the Benguela current. Flamingos and pelicans filled the lagoon near Walvis Bay and soon after we came back into land at Swakopmund.
The sand dunes and gravel plains of the Skeleton Coast felt as though the desert would never end. With its barren coastline littered with whalebones and shipwrecks, the sense of emptiness was like nothing we had ever experienced before. This is where dunes meet the sea, where desert elephants walk and the sand moves in a never-ending dance with the wind.
At Cape Cross, we stopped to take in the spectacle of the world’s largest breeding colony of Cape fur seals. Sitting up on their flippers, the pups drowned out the sound of the waves with constant bleating, calling out to their mothers across the sand. Killer whales and copper sharks circle offshore and we saw signs of black-backed jackals and brown hyenas on the beach.
Other than seals, the only other wildlife we saw in the Skeleton Coast park were the seabirds. In the old days, sailors were cast ashore when their ships hit rocks or ran aground in the dense fog, walking into almost certain death in the dune sea. The beauty of this coastal desert is in the very desolation that caused Portuguese sailors to call it: “The Gates of Hell”.
Climbing up the sand
The towering dunes at Sossusvlei reach over 300 metres above the desert floor where the Tsauchab River comes to an end. We walked up the razor-sharp ridge of what is thought to be the tallest dune, Big Daddy, sinking into the sand with every step as the sun climbed higher in the sky. At the crest, we had spectacular views in every direction across the Namib-Naukluft park.
The name Namib comes from the local Nama language and roughly translates to “an area where there is nothing”. As far as wildlife is concerned, this couldn’t be further from the truth. All we had to do was look a little closer to see the tell-tale signs of life in the dunes – tracks in the sand revealed the presence of burrowing beetles, side-winding snakes and web-footed geckos.
We went down the dune the fast way, sliding down the side to the sun-baked pan of Dead Vlei, or “dead marsh”. Dotted across the pan, the skeletons of camel thorn trees have stood for 900 years, casting dark shadows across the parched clay. What struck us most at Sossusvlei was the startling contrast of this stark white pan with the orange dunes and cloudless sky.
Nothing prepared us for the sheer immensity and mind-blowing beauty of this 55 million year old desert. From up close and far away, the sand dunes of the Namib took our breath away at every turn, and the ever-changing landscape pulled at our heartstrings. Here was the solitude we had been searching for, the timeless sense of space to truly connect with nature.
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