In the parched landscape of the Namib Desert, the golden-orange light of dawn starts by illuminating the very tips of the dead camelthorn trees that point skeletal branches at the lightening sky. It then moves down their trunks and onwards, just as it has done every morning of their 600-year existence, until it reaches the drought-crazed white surface of Dead Vlei. Then everything appears to speed up, as the sunlight pushes aside the shroud of shadow and sweeps across the pan of the former take. The contrast between the cracked white of Dead Vlei and the red sand dunes that surround it is stark. There is literally a hard line where one finishes and the other begins.
A vlei is a lake pan, and there are three in the Sossusvlei National Park. Although Dead Vlei is smaller than the more famous Sossusvlei that gave the park its name, it is more atmospheric and has a more impressive location. (The third is the even smaller Hidden Vlei)
Sossusvlei is part of the great Namib Desert from which Namibia takes its name. As public transport links to the park aren't good, takes its name. As public transport links to the park aren't good, travellers generally find it much easier to stay at one of the luxury camps that run their own transport into the park. If your budget won't stretch to this, cheaper accommodation is available near the park gate at Sesriem.
Driving across the desert terrain is difficult. There is a car park for four-wheeL-drive vehicles about 4 km away from Sossusvlei. However, drivers of two-wheel-drive vehicles must use a car park situated along a dirt track about 60 km from the park gate and take a shuttle bus to the four-wheeL-drive car park. It's then a hard, 20-minute uphill hike to Dead Vlei.
Despite the almost complete lack of water in the area - Sossusvlei was last flooded in 1997, but Dead Vlei has not flooded in living memory - you can still see some forms of life. Gawky ostriches stalk around, and oryx stand motionless in the heat haze, as if waiting for the day to cool before they deign to move. On a smaller scale, look down at the sand and you will often see the erratic trails of beetles.These creatures spend most of their time burrowed in the sand, and survive by tilting their bodies to catch the morning dew that sometimes sweeps in from the sea many kilometres away on the Atlantic coast, their heads down to catch and drink the condensation that forms on their hard shells.
The national park is also famous for its sand dunes, which are reputed to be the tallest in the world: Big Daddy, the tallest at Sossusvlei is over 300 metres high. The dunes are a deep red colour, which is especially intense when lit by the rising or setting sun. You should definitely try to climb at least one of the dunes, but make sure you take plenty of water with you, as it's a hot and draining experience. From the top you will have spectacular views of the desert, with endless series of dunes stretching out in front of you – a sight that is both humbling and awe-inspiring. While you are visiting Namibia you should aim to take in the Skeleton Coast, a desolate stretch of the Atlantic seaboard where shipwrecks, whale bones and even the occasional lion can be found on the beach.
Sossusvlei can be reached by road from the Namibian capital. Windhoek, or from Cape Town - a long drive across the South African border. Accommodation close to the park entrance at Sesriem is limited, but there are several luxury camps and lodges about an hour from the main park gate. The desert is best appreciated from the top of one of the dunes, but if you decide to climb one do make sure you take more water than you think you’ll need. Have plenty of cash, too - petrol stations in Namibia do not take credit cards.