Namibia: Sossusvlei and Etosha
The coastal desert "Namib" in Southern Africa is often referred to as the world's oldest desert and it stretches for more than 2,000 kilometers along the Atlantic coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. In the heart of the Namib the Namib-Naukluft National Park is located, the largest game park in Africa and the fourth largest park in the world. The most famous and scenic attractions of the park are the red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, which are the tallest sand dunes in the world with an altitude up to 300 meters. "Sossus" is from Bushman and Nama origin for "gathering place of water", while "Vlei" is the Afrikaans word for a shallow depression filled with water. Basically "Sossusvlei" is only the name of the huge clay pan covered in a crust of salt-rich sand. But the name is also commonly used in an extended meaning to refer to the surrounding area of the high red dunes and the famous neighboring Dead Vlei. The clay pan itself is only filled with water after a heavy rainfall, which is a rare event in this area, in average every ten years.
The best time to visit Sossusvlei and the sand dunes is early in the morning at sunrise, the red color of the sand is very strong and bright, allowing wonderful photographic opportunities. The sand dunes of Sossusvlei are about 66km past the gate, which is located in the small settlement Sesriem, a main access point to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The gate to Sossusvlei opens at 5:00 in the morning. Since there are no accommodation facilities directly at the dunes, you have to stay in one of the lodges or camps around Sesriem. From the gate the drive to the sand dunes takes about an hour. You are certainly not the only visitor, so be sure to expect other cars or trucks waiting at the gate, especially in the high season around July to October. 45 km past the gate the Dune 45 is situated, also known as one of the most photographed dunes in the world. The dune is 80 meters high and it is not very steep, so that it can easily be climbed. If you start at 5:00 at the gate, you have all the time to reach the dune and climb up the dune before sunrise.
If possible you should take time for a guided tour, there is surprisingly plenty to see, and it is really interesting to get information about the desert flora and fauna of this area. To watch the sunset it is probably a good idea to visit Dead Vlei and the surrounded dunes. Dead Vlei is only reachable by 4x4, and from the parking area it is another 1km hike to the Dead Vlei area itself. Dead Vlei is a quite surrealistic clay pan and a favorite place for many photographers. The pan is filled by blackened, dead Camel Thorn trees, in contrast to the shiny white of the salty floor of the pan and the intense orange of the surrounding dunes. The remaining skeletons of the trees are dated between 600 and 700 years old.
Another highlight of Namibia is the Etosha National Park in the north. The park has a long history, it was established in 1907. At that time Namibia was a German colony known as "South West Africa". Etosha National Park is well-known for excellent game viewing and offers a spectacular wildlife: elephant, black and white rhinoceros, lions, leopards, cheetahs, large herds of springbok, zebra, wildebeest, and giraffe. All in all there are more than 110 species of mammals in the park. Etosha also hosts the endangered black rhino and unusual species like the black-faced impala.
The name "Etosha" means "place of dry water". The park is dominated by the large Etosha Pan. The Etosha pan is a roughly 130 km long mostly dry salt pan and is only filled by a thin layer of water after a heavy rain. The pan was once the biggest lake in the world. But the climate change dried up the feeder channels and transformed the vegetation from lush forest into the yellow grasslands as we can see them today.
There are several lodges and camps in the Park: Okaukuejo, Halali, Namutoni, Onkoshi and Dolomite Camp. Etosha's dry season (July - October) is certainly the best time for watching the wildlife and game drives. The park is only open from sunrise to sunset, outside of these hours, visitors either have to be in one of the camps or have to leave the park.