Sossusvlei is the main attraction of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. The word vlei is an Afrikaans word that means "pan" and Sossusvlei is a clay pan between large sand dunes. The name of the 'town' (i.e. petrol station) is Sesriem, also the name of a nearby canyon.
Deserts, though they are very harsh, are a delicate ecosystem with a surprising amount of life living around and underneath the dunes. Keep this in mind when roaming around and driving in the area.
The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world and stretches over 1,500 km from the Orange River in the south into Angola in the north. There is a wide range of landscapes in the Namib, from gravel, to rocky mountains to huge dunes in varying colours of sand. The sandy part of the Namib is a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Namib Sand Sea.
Sossusvlei is a mud pan created by the Tsauchab River that flows through the Namib every 5 to 10 years. Even in very wet years it does not reach the Atlantic Ocean but gets blocked by sand dunes, and then slowly evaporates. The clay that the Tsauchab deposits has created Sossusvlei and, centuries ago with a different river course, the Dead Vlei. Sossus means "place of no return" (note: there are other explanations, this is the one given by local guides), and a vlei is Afrikaans for 'clay pan'.
The mud from the river stacks up at Sossusvlei and after some 1000 years the river searches its way through the next row of dunes. This is how the place called Dead Vlei was created, here the river used to drain away many years ago. Because of the lack of water all the trees in this valley have died, so the meaning of "Dead Vlei" becomes clear.
What makes the sight of the Dead Vlei so remarkable is that there is not even moisture enough for normal decomposition to occur. So all the trees here, though dead, have been nearly perfectly preserved for centuries.
Sesriem is the better part of a day's drive from Windhoek. As you pass from the Great Escarpment down into the Namib Desert you need to choose a mountain pass. The easiest one from Windhoek is Remhoogte Pass, reachable via Rehoboth, the most spectacular one is Spreetshoogte Pass, the steepest in Namibia, forbidden for trucks and trailers. Spreetshoogte requires some nerves and some patience, do stay in first gear, or your brake disks might burn. On the way back (uphill), Bosua Pass (on the C26 between Windhoek and Walvis Bay) can be tricky without good ground clearance and tire grip, and Spreetshoogte might be a challenge for cars with little torque.
Sesriem is still some 65 kilometres (40 mi) from the Sossusvlei, and the gates open at sunrise and close at sunset. The only way to be at the dunes at sunrise is to stay at the Namibia Wildlife Resort accommodation (either the upmarket Sossus Dune Lodge or the Sesriem Campsite, both listed below) which are inside the gate. There are several private lodges that claim they are closer to Sossusvlei, but this is essentially a rip-off: While they might be geographically closer they have to pass the gate like everyone else.
Sossusvlei is inside Namib-Naukluft National Park so a permit is required to enter. Permits can be purchased at the park office just inside the gate at Sesriem.
The road from the accommodations in Sesriem to Sossusvlei is 65 km and tarred for all but the last 5 km. The road is well maintained, and driving is easy. Driving from the gate to the 4x2 parking area will take an hour. The last 5 km are through deep soft sand. For this last section you will need a 4x4 to drive it, but if you have no experience driving off-road this is probably not the track to gain some. Inexperienced tourists burying their rented car in the deep sand are a major entertainment for professional guides and locals alike! Alternatively, take one of the shuttles that regularly run between the end of the tarred road and Sossusvlei (for 150N$, kids free, September 2019). The shuttles have two stops, and Deadvlei and Sossusvlei. It may be possible to walk the 10km return between the carpark and Sossusvlei, but there are no facilities for walking, you would just be following the road.
Transport and guided tours to and from Sossusvlei are also provided by some of the lodges for their guests.
- Sesriem Canyon A small canyon just south of the petrol station. It's a nice place to watch the sunset, and you can easily climb down into the canyon and walk along the dry riverbed. The old Dutch name means the place where six thongs are required to get water, ses meaning six, and riem meaning thong.
- The Namib Desert All around, dunes ranging from 100m-450m, including some petrified dunes.
- Sossusveli and Dead Vlei in two valleys side-by-side in the Namib. One has living trees. The other is completely cut off from all water sources and the trees are just dead stumps.
- Wildlife isn't the main reason to come to Sossusvlei, but it isn't unusual to see springbok, gemsbok (oryx) and ostrich.
- Climb one of the dunes. The view from top is spectacular.
- Watch the sunrise. This sounds like a see activity, but is actually very much a do thing. Climb dune 45 (or any other) in the dark and then watch the sunrise in the world's oldest desert. Note that this is only possible if you stay in accommodation run by Namibia Wildlife Resorts. For all other visitors the gate only opens at sunrise. Dune 45 takes another 45 km to drive, that's where the name comes from, and about an hour to climb.
- Hike in the Namib. Hike from the end of the tarred road in to Sossusvlei. Get some nice close contact with dried mud flats, dunes, and the odd animal. Don't get lost.
There is a small general store at the Sesriem petrol station, offering light meals like sausage and hamburger. The NWR campsite has a bar, a shop, and a restaurant. The restaurant at the Sossus Dune Lodge is a must and is also accessible if you're not staying there.
There is a bar at the Sesriem campground where people hang out after a hard day of hiking in the desert.
There are a number of luxury resorts in the surrounding area but only from inside the park gate can Sossusvlei be reached at sunset:
- Sesriem Campsite, Sesriem (just past the park gate, behind the permit office), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Campsite run by Namibian Wildlife Resorts. There are 24 sites with a thorn tree for shade and a fire pit at each site. Showers and toilets are available at the two ablution blocks and there is a swimming pool. There is also a bar with a small menu and gift shop in the building with the permit office. Reservations are made through Namibian Wildlife Resorts or some travel agencies and are recommended during the busy season. N$490 per person (max 8 people per campsite). Namibians and SADC member citizens N$400 per campsite (4 people or less).
- Sossus Dune Lodge, Sesriem (take the road to Sesriem Canyon and turn right just before reaching the Canyon parking lot, follow this road to lodge's parking lot (about 4km from the park gate)), ☏ , email@example.com. Check-in: 2PM, check-out: 10AM. This is the upscale option if you want to stay inside the park, with 25 individual chalets set at the foot of a mountain. The chalets have a wood frame with canvas walls and a thatch roof, and a veranda for taking in the view. There is a restaurant, bar and gift shop on site and a swimming pool. Around N$3,000 pp. Guided tours to the dunes and drives in the park N$750. Reservations are made through Namibian Wildlife Resorts.
Don't get lost while wandering in the desert. And remember to drink plenty of water (as you should be doing throughout your time in Namibia, as it is a very dry country). All of the usual desert safety protocols apply.