Burnt orange hues, harsh crescent lines, graceful gemsbok galloping beside the road and a star-studded African sky make a trip to Sossusvlei, Namibia a truly awe-inspiring experience.
Located in the heart of the Namib Desert, the oldest in the world, and home to some of the world’s highest dunes, it should come as no surprise that this vast expanse of undulating sand is one of Namibia’s premier tourist attractions.
Yet, as we climbed the dunes for sunrise on our first morning, laying the first trail of footprints across perfectly rippled sand with just a handful of others for company, it really didn’t feel like it. Despite being a top tourist draw, there is a silence and a stillness here we rarely get to experience.
We did, however, visit in low season.
Drawing in nature lovers, photography enthusiasts and people ticking off entries on those ‘places you have to see to believe’ lists, the dunes of Sossusvlei are really quite special, particularly when viewed in the first light of the day.
In fact, waiting for the sun to rise over Deadvlei, when the dunes transform from indiscriminate mounds of sand to chiselled ribbons of flushed red and dancing shadows, was the highlight of our time in Namibia.
If you’re planning a trip to this part of the world, Sossusvlei should definitely be at the top of your list. This guide covers everything you need to know to visit Sossusvlei, including where to stay, the best things to do and buying your permits.
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Sesriem is the tiny village at the entrance to the Namib-Naukluft National Park and acts as the gateway to Sossusvlei.
The most important thing to note about accessing Sossusvlei’s dunes is the opening hours of the gates – the main gate which gives access to the National Park opens at sunrise and closes at sunset, the second inner gate just a few hundred metres further into the park opens and closes about an hour before and after sunrise and sunset giving those staying within its boundaries extra time in the park and the opportunity to view the dunes in the best light before most other visitors are able to arrive.
From the inner gate it is about 60km along a tarred road to reach a 2 wheel-drive parking area. From there, a very sandy track will take you to the final parking area and the trail to Deadvlei and the most popular dunes.
If you have a 4×4 (which we recommend for Namibia) and feel confident driving in sand, stop at the 2WD parking space and reduce your tyre pressure to 150 kPa before continuing on to the final parking area. This was recommended to us by our car rental company and we had no problems navigating the sand using their advice. Also, make sure that 4WD is engaged in a low gear and you should have no problems – just don’t stop driving.
We received a very thorough explanation of our car which made us confident in using the 4WD and which tyre pressure was best for which type of road. However, we saw others that had not been told, headed into the sand without 4WD properly engaged and ended up getting stuck 30 metres along. If you plan on driving this section and don’t have experience with a 4WD vehicle, make sure your rental agency explains it properly.
When we visited, there was one patch of road close to the final car park that was particularly bumpy and practically a sand pit. There is another stretch of road though and if you stick right on your way in (left on the way out) you should be able to avoid it.
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If you don’t have a 4×4 or are not comfortable driving through the sand stretches, safari shuttles can take you the rest of the way for around $150 (US$12) return. When we visited, these guys were ready and waiting at the inner gate and payed no attention to the national park speed limits meaning they were the first ones at the 2WD car park and ready to shuttle people the rest of the way in time to reach the dunes for sunrise.
All up, if you stick to the speed limit (which few people seem to do) it takes over an hour from the inner gate to the parking area so plan accordingly – including leaving enough time to get out of the park in the evening.
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Sunrise over the dunes was easily the highlight for us and what made our visit to Sossusvlei so memorable. Getting to the dunes in time though hinges entirely on having accommodation within the confines of the park which will give you early access to the dunes.
There are a plethora of beautiful lodges and camping sites around the Sesriem area, but only two options actually lie within the park boundaries and will allow you to access to the dune in time for sunrise. We stayed at the Sesriem campground and felt it was absolutely worth it to be the first and last ones at the dunes.
The Sesriem Campsite space has 24 shaded campsites each with a fire pit, powerpoint and tap, as well as an ablution block close to every site. There is also a restaurant, bar and shop on site. Campsites cost $200 (US$16) per person and entry permits to Sossusvlei can be purchased at the reception desk and must be paid for each night spent at the campground.
This campsite lies inside the main gate but you will be restricted by the opening times of the inner gate which are posted daily around the reception area. These are generally at least an hour before/after sunrise/sunset giving enough time to arrive and climb the dunes before first light.
When we visited, the campsite wasn’t nearly full but we have heard that in peak months it can be difficult to nab a spot here so if you’re planning your trip and travelling on a budget, try to get in early.
This beautiful Sossus Dune Lodge is the only accommodation completely in the park with individual chalets nestled up against the hills and expansive views over the plains and lower dunes. Guided walks and drives for sunrise and sunset are also offered.
With prices starting at $1,650 (US$133) per person in the low season and heading up to $3,830 (US$308) during the peak months, this place is perfect for those looking for that extra bit of luxury and the freedom to see the dunes at almost any hour. Though driving in the park at night is restricted.
Unsurprisingly, these two accommodation options are highly sought after and fill up well in advance. If you can’t get a reservation, you’ll find a number of beautiful options outside of the park.
Desert Quiver Camp features beautifully designed self-catering ‘desert’ chalets, each with a kitchenette, private terrace area and a stunning outlook over the ochre landscapes. With double rooms starting at around $1,850 (US$140) including breakfast, it’s also one of the better value options in Sesriem. Check rates and availability here.
TRIP INSPIRATION: CHECK OUT OUR SOSSUSVLEI PHOTO GALLERY.
As we mentioned above, sunrise here pretty much made our trip and we would highly recommend experiencing at least one from the top of the dune. Even if early mornings are not your thing, for this you’ll want to make an exception. You can thank us later!
For us Deadvlei and the dune just behind it was the ultimate place to soak up the magnificence of this place. The glistening white clay pan, the eerie talons of the grey trees and the tickled orange curves of the surrounding dunes meant we returned three times during our visit. What can we say – we loved it!
The trees scattered across the pan that draw photographers from far and wide are thought to be more than 500 years old, dead but unable to decompose in this dry inhospitable environment.
From the parking area many people follow the ridge of the small dune on the left and wait at the top for sunrise and we would recommend doing the same. When the sun is up, run down the dune face and soak up the surreal world between the trees of Deadvlei.
The highest dune in the area, although not in the desert, Big Daddy guy is a beast and towers over the surrounding dunes. We didn’t attempt the climb but we watched the silhouettes of others zigzagging their way to the top and going by the amount of time they stopped and started, it’s a seriously hard slog – even without the heat of the day. However, given the impressive views from where we sat above Deadvlei, from way up there they must be even more magnificent.
Dune 45 is another popular spot for sunrise as it is right off the tarred road and doesn’t require any fiddling with tyre pressure or sand pit driving. It’s also 20 km closer to the gate meaning you won’t have to wake up quite so early to get here in time for the first light.
This dune is near to (although not actually at) the 45 km mark. There is a sign pointing to the small parking area on the left on your way in.
Big Mama sits opposite Big Daddy and can also be climbed, while Hiddenvlei is about 2 km off the road and can be accessed from the 2WD parking area. Sesriem Canyon is also a popular spot and is near the campsite.
These maps are a useful guide to accessing the dunes in the area.
Buy Your Sossusvlei Entry Permit On Arrival |
There is a park entrance fee payable for each night you spend in the park or day visited. The cost is $80 (US$6.50) per person and $10 (US$0.80) per vehicle payable at the reception area inside the outer gate.
If you’re heading out for sunrise, it’s best to buy your permit the day before.
Sesriem Facilities are Somewhat Limited |
Sesriem is really tiny made of just a cluster of lodges around the park gate and a filling station with a small shop. Indeed, if this part of the desert had not ended up on the tourist map, it probably wouldn’t exist at all.
The shop here is rather limited so we would suggest picking up all your food and supplies at a supermarket before leaving Windhoek or Swakopmund as you’ll find a far better choice and prices. The filling station has an air compressor to pump up your tyres after any forays onto the sandy stretches of road.
Be Prepared For The Sun And Heat |
As we said, it can get bloody hot out there and walking up the dunes or even across the flat sand can be quite taxing. Bring plenty of water to drink on your way up the dunes and wear sun protection.
Keep To The Opening And Closing Times |
The strict closure times are in place for a reason so be sure to stick to them. After dark, patrols do check for visitors who have decided to buck the rules.
Don’t Walk The Dunes In Flip Flops |
In the early morning, the sand is cool and quite comfortable to walk on barefoot or in flip-flops. Returning in the afternoon though, on a day that reached 42 degrees, we found the sand to be, unsurprisingly, blisteringly hot. One girl we met had to abandon her walk across the sand because her feet were getting seriously scorched in the hot sand.
Don’t try to do it in flip-flops or sandals! If you come after midday, closed shoes are absolutely essential.
Hold On To Your Stuff In The Sand |
Wandering what the best part about sweating and sliding your way up the dunes really is? Running with childlike mirth right back down the face. Freya had the unfortunate incident though of landing gleefully at the bottom and reaching up for her sunnies only to realise they had fallen off some 40 metres back and were poking out neatly from the top of the dune.
Hold on to your stuff, especially if it’s on your head or in your pockets.
One of the first things we were told on arrival in Namibia – ignore the distance on the map.
With gravel surface making up the vast majority of Namibia’s road network, driving just a few hundred kilometres can easily take up most of your day.
Sossusvlei to Windhoek – 320 km | Allow at least 5 to 6 hours
Sossusvlei to Swakopmund – 344 km | Allow at least 5 to 6 hours.
Sossusvlei to Luderitz – 500 km | Allow 7 to 8 hours.
Most of the roads are unfenced and wildlife are free to roam wherever they please. We had birds roosting on the roads that were reluctant to be roused and zebras that galloped out of nowhere.
As always, obey the speed limits and avoid driving at night.