Although best known for its spectacularly-mountainous dunes, this national park offers so much more. It’s spread over almost 50,000 sq km, covering vast swathes of the Namib Desert and encapsulating a sea of sand, as well as mountains, canyons and desert-adapted wildlife. Here are a few things not to miss.
Sossusvlei: where waters flow and birds flock
Although it’s the name almost entirely associated with Namibia’s enthralling dunes, Sossusvlei is actually no dune at all – rather it’s a flat ephemeral pan. When rare torrents fall from the skies once a decade or so, the Tsauchab River pushes west into the heart of the Namib and fills this remote basin. The presence of water here, in an area known for its complete lack of it, attracts wildlife and a remarkable array of birds.
Once in Namib-Naukluft National Park, ask at the gate if there is water in Sossusvlei – if so, adjust your timings to allow for more time here to soak up the surreal aquatic environment and the life it brings to the desert (a picnic lunch here is a great idea after a morning of dune walking in the area). Of course, even when bone dry, Sossusvlei is a beautiful sight on its own, with towering red dunes climbing around it in all directions.
The Sossusvlei section of the park contains Namibia’s most photographed dunes, as well as Sesriem Canyon and several other enigmatic pans.
Sossusvlei sits at the end of a 69km access road from Sesriem, the last 4km of which is accessible only to 4WDs (shuttles run to the pan from the 2WD parking area at kilometer 65).
Deadvlei: where trees dead for centuries still stand guard
Like Sossusvlei, Deadvlei is a pan nestled amongst the dramatic orange dunes of the Namib near Sesriem. However, unlike its renowned neighbour, water hasn’t been seen here for hundreds of years. Most alluringly, dotting its bleached, cracked and bone-dry clay surface are skeletons of a forest from times long since past. Although not petrified, these ghostly characters still stand tall and proud as there is simply no moisture to aid in their decomposition. This Tim Burton-esque scene, hemmed in by the towering orange sands of Big Daddy, the area's tallest dune (325m), and blanketed by a cobalt blue sky, is simply one of Southern Africa’s greatest sights – it is not to be missed, and if time is tight, skip Sossusvlei instead.
It’s not possible to drive directly here, though it’s an easy 3km return walk from the 4WD parking area near the end of the 69km access road from the gate at Sesriem to Sossusvlei. Shuttles from the 2WD parking area can drop you at the access point.
Big Daddy: forget Dune 45, climb this monster instead
The most climbed (and photographed) mountain of sand in Namibia is Dune 45, aptly named as it sits 45km along the road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei. It’s stunning for sure, but much of its fame simply has to do with the fact that an access road has been pushed across the valley floor to its base, making it the least effort to get to. This means that there are typically large overland vehicles parked next to it, especially around sunrise and sunset, with dozens of people plodding up and down from its 170m summit during daylight hours.
Instead, aim your heights higher, way higher – to Big Daddy. At 325m it’s the largest dune in the area and provides unparalleled views across the desert landscape and directly down to Deadvlei. From the summit, it almost seems possible to see the cold Atlantic in the distance. Its hulk and more remote location also means it’s much less trodden on.
The climb is not only more of a challenge than Dune 45, but it also gives you several different routes to the top, which means you’re more likely to have the satisfying task of making fresh tracks on the way up.
Access to Big Daddy is via Deadvlei.
Sesriem Canyon: beat the midday heat with a shady hike and swim
Located just 4km inside the gate at Sesriem, this incredible Indiana Jones-like canyon is often completely overlooked – given the first thing people see upon arriving in the park is the mighty dunes piercing the distant horizon, it’s not surprising they are drawn straight past this subterranean wonder.
Some 30m deep, this narrow chasm was carved out of the 15-million-year-old golden sand and conglomerate rocks by the Tsauchab River millennia ago. Sesriem Canyon is always a remarkable place to beat the heat of the midday sun, with plenty of shade – and during some parts of the year there are some sweet natural swimming pools. It’s possible to hike 500m upstream from the access point, or 2.5km down to its lower end. Always check at the park office if there is a risk of flash flooding due to recent rains in the Naukluft Mountains.
Naukluft Mountains: for hikes and desert-adapted wildlife
Far from the soft curves and pencil-line crests of Namibia’s dunes, these dolomite mountains rise ruggedly above central Namib’s gravel plains. The high plateaus are cut dramatically by the ephemeral Tsauchab, Tsondab and Tsams rivers, which provide nourishment for desert wildlife such as mountain zebras, klipspringers, kudu and even leopards.
Within a few kilometres from the park office at Naukluft, there are two great day-hike options: the Waterkloof Trail, a 17km-loop that takes you through ravines, past natural swimming pools and along scenic ridges; and the challenging 11km Olive Trail, which has several steep climbs and requires you to use anchored cables to traverse a rock wall.
Not where, but how: take to the air
While the lofty vistas from the crests of mammoth dunes and mountain ridges are breathtaking for a number of reasons, one of course being the effort to reach them, a trip to the Namib-Naukluft National Park is not complete without an epic view from high in the sky. It’s here, whether in a hot air balloon or a light aircraft, that the scale of this park and desert becomes otherworldly.
Weather permitting, Namib Sky Balloon Safaris operate from the Sesriem area each morning at sunrise from mid-February to mid-January. Perhaps most rewarding of all are the Scenic Air (scenic-air.com) flights out of the coastal town of Swakopmund, which take you over all of the vast park’s landscapes at heights varying from a few hundred feet to several thousand. See the sea of sand truncated by the rocky Kuiseb Canyon, endless waves of linear dunes seemingly rolling out to the Atlantic and seal colonies gathered on the beaches.
Matt Phillips travelled to Namibia with Explore (explore.co.uk). With thanks to the Namibia Tourism Board (namibiatourism.com.na) and South African Airlines (flysaa.com). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.