Sossusvlei National Park Safari

Welcome to the world’s oldest desert at Sossusvlei National Park! Our Sossusvlei self drive safari adventure was an extraordinary mixture of exotic animals, desert landscape and potential danger. Indeed, Sossusvlei National Park safari is one of the most amazing attractions in Namibia and it is very easy to see why.

First off, lets set straight the Sossusvlei meaning. Sossusvlei is two words in one, as a result, it is sometimes called “Sossus Vlei” which means “dried up marsh”. However, Sossusvlei is used as a term to refer to the entire surrounding area. Although technically, it refers to a dried up watering hole, also known as a “pan”.

Enjoy the Sossusvlei Desert Oasis

Theoretically, Sossusvlei is very popular with tourists. However, Sossusvlei National Park is huge and the tourists are easy to avoid if you are doing the self tour. This is because the tourists travel in group and follow a very predictable itinerary.

As a result, we had the entire place to ourselves for the entire day. This includes in the evening which is the best time to be climbing the giant sand dunes around Sossusvlei pan. It was like finding a hidden treasure and it is always more precious if you can keep it for yourself.

Entrance to Sossusvlei National Park

After you arrive in Sesriem, the entrance to Sossusvlei National Park is easy to find. However, don’t forget to stop by the Namib-Naukluft National Park office and get your permit from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. Once you have got your permit in hand you are ready to enter the park. There is plenty of time to visit both the Sesriem Canyon and Sossusvlei Pan in the same day.

Unique “Star Sand Dune” Formations

The towering red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei National Park are on average about 375 meters above the Tsauchab River Valley below and about 200 meters above their surrounding sand filled valleys. Additionally, the dunes get their red color from the iron oxide that thinly coats the outside of each sand grain. The red color actually comes from the rusting of the iron.

Giant Red Star Sand Dunes
The giant red sand dunes at Sossusvlei National Park seen from the Tsauchab River Valley.

The Sossusvlei sand dunes located here are called “star dunes”. They are characterized by immobility due to the wind blowing in equal strength from several different directions. Their giant size is built up over time due to the wind blowing the sand in such manner that it accumulates near the crest of the dune, thus the dunes continue to grow indefinitely.

In a thousand years the giant sand dunes will most likely still be here in the same location and also will have grown larger if the environment remains the same.

Sossusvlei National Park Has Two Deserts in one

The present day Namib desert actually sits above the remains of an older desert that dates back 20 million years. That desert is now fossilized and forms the Tsondab Sandstone. This sandstone lies beneath most areas of the present day Namib desert.

The Tsondab Sandstone also facilitates the long distance underground flows of the Tsauchab River. The water that seeps through the permeable riverbed at Sossusvlei National Park is still able to reach the Atlantic ocean. This is because it uses this sub surface passage way, flowing over the sandstone formation.

Dead Camel Thorn Tree
The Tsauchab River flows underground beneath my feet.

Sossusvlei Pan has a Clay Base

The Sossusvlei Pan is actually a clay pan (not salt) that is formed at the end of the sporadically flowing Tsauchab River. When it reaches the farthest point that it is possible to flow, it sinks into the Namib desert.

The pan itself is sometimes incorrectly designated as a salt pan. If you have ever visited a Etosha salt pan you will notice the distinct differences. Sossusvlei has large mud cracks that form as the water seeps away into the sand and leaves the clay minerals behind.

Cracked Clay Surface of Sossusvlei Pan
Sossusvlei Pan is based in clay minerals which gives it a distinct nature.

Fossilized dinosaur footprints have been formed in similar clay pan environments long ago. The mud is imprinted when it is moist and then if it is left undisturbed long enough it will fossilize. In this manner, it can be preserved for future generations to observe.

Fossilized footprints of a modern man or antelope would also form under similar conditions. Then millions of years later they could be discovered as evidence of prehistoric life!

Sossusvlei Pan seen from Sand Dune
The bird’s eye view of Sossusvlei pan from the top of one of the neighboring sand dunes. The “Sossusvlei” is in itself an individual clay pan.
Serenity at Sossusvlei National Park
The view from the top of the giant red dune neighboring Sossusvlei pan.

Disappearing Rivers at Sossusvlei National Park

Historically, the Tsauchab River used to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean during wetter historical periods. However, in present day, it is only an illusion that the Tsauchab River stops flowing at Sossusvlei. Indeed, fresh water from the Tsauchab River still makes it all the way to the Atlantic Ocean using underground passage over the Tsondab Sandstone. Traces of fresh water have been found Meob Bay on the Namibia coastline.

Camel Thorn trees Sossusvlei National Park
Camel thorn trees Sossusvlei National Park

Many of the camel thorn trees are now only skeletons due to the sinking and shifting pathways of the underground water levels. In previous years, they were kept alive by the flows of the Tsauchab River.

The flow levels of these underground rivers are unfortunately receding as the climate becomes more arid. Also, the human population continues to draw down the water table in the surrounding areas. This is evidenced by the dead camel thorn trees that are visible from the road while traveling into the Sossusvlei pan.

During wetter periods the underground water table was higher and kept the trees alive. However, with the receding water table many of the trees have now died. There are only skeletons which add a very brilliant desert ambience to this area.

Camel Thorn Trees at Sossusvlei National Park
Camel thorn trees help form the unique desert landscape at Sossusvlei National Park.

Unique Wildlife Attraction at Sossusvlei National Park

The wildlife habitat provides very little water and the inhabitants must be well adapted to the arid environment. A primary source of moisture is coastal fog from the Atlantic which does drift into the area. As a result, this provides some moisture that permits the survival of vegetation and animals. This unique desert life would otherwise perish without it.

Animals that we encountered included ostrich, oryx (also known as the gemsbok), bat eared fox and also the ubiquitous springbok.

Common Springbok
The commonly seen springbok at Sossusvlei National Park.

The Oryx

The habitat of the Oryx can be found in Southern Africa, East Africa and also in Arabia. Additionally, they can survive for long periods of time without water and live in herds of up to 600 animals.

Oryx at Sossusvlei National park
An oryx, also known as a gemsbok, posing near some camel thorn trees inside Sossusvlei National Park.

The oryx we saw were solitary. However, they are majestic animals and both male and female oryx have the long horns. Additionally, they are known as ferocious fighters and have been known to kill lions.

Oryx Sossusvlei national park
Another large oryx spotted a few kilometers inside the park entrance at dusk.

The Bat Eared Fox

The bat eared fox is primarily an insectivore. Its habitat in Southern Africa ranges from Southern Angola and Zambia, through Namibia and into South Africa. Additionally, its main food source is the harvester termite. However, it will also eat beetles and mice if it can catch them.

Bat Eared Fox at Sossusvlei National park
A small group of bat eared fox spotted at dusk inside Sossusvlei National Park.

This unique animal uses its large ears and a fine sense of hearing to find its prey. Additionally, the large ears of the bat eared fox can be used for “thermoregulation”, a method of regulating body temperature.

Bat Eared Foxes
The bat eared fox quickly faded into the desert landscape, as if they knew the wind storm was coming.

The Harsh Winds at Sossusvlei National Park

The winds of Sossusvlei sand dunes have two effects. They can make travel and survival in the Namib Desert nearly impossible and also create infinite beauty in a harsh desert environment. They do this by carving out the desert landscape.

We had the opportunity to experience both of these extreme phenomenon during our visit to Sossusvlei National park. This is because on the first day, the weather was idyllic, however on the second day a sand storm had moved into the area and Sossusvlei pan had become inaccessible.

sandstorm sossusvlei national park
On our 2nd day in Sossusvlei National Park, the wind had picked up considerably and visibility was limited.

However, it is the wind that moves the sand and creates the giant Sossusvlei sand dunes that tower over this landscape. The wind also creates the finite details that add the finishing touches.

Sand formations around Sossusvlei pan
The strong desert winds also have a beautifying effect. These miniature sand ridges are carved in the landscape by the winds of Sossusvlei National Park.
Sand formations at Sossusvlei National Park
The sand dunes at Sossusvlei National Park are like a painter’s canvass.
Desert Solitude at Sossusvlei National Park
Desert solitude at Sossusvlei National Park.

Namibia – Fascination of Geology
A Travel Handbook
Nicole Grunert