Namibia is a country of almost-superlatives. The second-least densely populated country in the world is also one of the newest, and is home to some of: the largest dunes, the darkest skies, the oldest cultures, the biggest conservation areas in Africa, the world's last rhinos and the most complex languages on the planet - to name but a few!
In this weekly blog series we explore some of Namibia's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.
Sossusvlei is surely Namibia's most iconic landscape. The rust-red dunes, bleached white pans and deep blue sky are instantly recognisable, and symbolise the country's vast, dry, uninhabited expanses. The dunes here are some of the highest in the world, and the tallest in this area - at a whopping 325m (1,066ft) - is the appropriately named Big Daddy.
The more popular - and widely photographed - Dune 45 is just 80m high, but people still like to climb the monster Big Daddy for two main reasons: firstly, because it overlooks the surreal landscape of Dead Vlei, a white pan filled with the dark fossils of camelthorn trees, and secondly because climbing Big Daddy gives you ultimate bragging rights.
Two adventurers climb a massive dune.
It's not for the faint-hearted. Climbers need to start early - and round here, early means waking at 4:30am. This allows time to reach the park gate when it opens at sunrise, and then make the 65km drive to Sossusvlei in a 4x4 over the soft sand. An early start also displays the dunes as their most picturesque. The rising sun causes one side to glow a fiery red, while the other is entirely in the shadows. It truly is a paradise for even the most amateur photographer. As the sun soars higher in the sky, the landscape appears to flatten as the shadows disappear.
If the early wake-up call has left you feeling dizzy, ascending Big Daddy's crest will really make your head spin! It takes an average of 50 minutes to reach the first plateau - which rewards adventurers with awesome dune panoramas, a peek down into Dead Vlei, and gorgeous photo opportunities.
Climbers take on Big Daddy
Continuting to the second peak requires stamina, bravery and an extremely large bottle of water. It takes at least another hour with the sun now high in the sky and not a spot of shade in sight! But of course, the views from the top are astounding, and if you reach the summit, you have truly conquered one of nature's harshest giants.
Now comes the reward - running down the soft sand of the slipface. Two hours of endurance to the top - five mintes of sheer pleasure bouncing down to the the bottom! The adrenaline rush will give you enough energy to take a stroll around Dead Vlei for some photos, before a well-earned lunch at a shady picnic spot.
Running down Big Daddy (left); Climbing Big Daddy offers an unusual view of Dead Vlei (right)
Big Daddy is the tallest dune in Sossusvlei but not in the Namib Desert - that honor belongs to the giant 383m Dune 7.
In the Nama language, "Sossus" means "a gathering place for water". "Vlei" is Afrikaans for "a shallow lake".
The dunes of the Namib were created by sand being carried on the wind from the coast. The wind in Sossusvlei itself blows from all directions meaning the dunes are known as "star" dunes - as they cause the sand to form a star shape with multiple "arms". This wind pattern also means that the dunes hardly move.
The sand here is five million years old. It is comprised mostly of tiny grains of coated in a thin layer of iron oxide, giving the Namib its distinctive red color.
An aerial view of the dunes at Sossusvlei gives a sense of scale
The park gate is just past Sesriem, and is open between sunrise and sunset. From here, the 65km drive to Sossusvlei takes about an hour.
At the base of Dune 45 - 45km from the gate - there is a small parking area and a dry toilet. Sossusvlei has a larger parking area with more toilets and a picnic area. There is no water here, so bring plenty.
The route beyond this parking area (another 4km to Sossusvlei) can only be covered in a 4WD vehicle. Alernatively, there is a 4WD transfer service, or you can walk.
The climate here is extreme, even in winter. Visitors should bring at least two litres of water, sunscreen, a sunhat, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirt. Be aware that the sun is also reflected upwards from the sand!
Read a local painter's perspective on Sossusvlei and see a photo gallery of the region.
Don't fancy scaling one of the world's highest dunes? Take a look at Gondwana Collection's 360 degree panorama of Sossusvlei instead!