Sossusvlei is a salt and clay pan in the Namib desert, but is often used to describe the general area of Sossusvlei and Sesriem including other pans such as the nearby Deadvlei.
You can read more about some of the specific dunes, vleis and canyons you might want to visit on your trip to Sossusvlei below to help you plan your Namibia trip.
Sossusvlei is a depression in the heart of the Namib Desert. Sossusvlei will flood with water that flows along the Tsauchab river in good rainy seasons. After this rare occurance, and once the water evaporates it leaves a hard white crusted surface (a salt pan) for many years until there is enough water to push the river this far into the Namib desert again. The pan or 'vlei' is lined by some of the highest sand dunes in the world.
The best time to visit Sossusvlei is in the early morning before it gets too hot, and preferably for sunrise so that you can climb a dune and watch the colours and shadows change as the sun rises.
Deadvlei pre-dates Sossusvlei. Deadvlei is an area very close to Sossusvlei where many centuries ago the river used to settle into a small lake in the desert. Many bushes and trees used to grow in this vlei (pan) but then a sand dune blocked the rivers route and over a few dry years the dune grew big enough to divert any subsequent water into Sossusvlei.
Many of the spectacular photos you will have seen of Sossusvlei are actually taken in Deadvlei. The bushes and trees in Deadvlei died hundreds of years ago when the water dried up, but due to the exceptional dryness of the desert conditions the dried tree stumps remain to this day sticking out of the desert floor. Some of these remains are estimated to be one thousand years old!
Although a very rare occurrence, the pan at Deadvlei can still fill up with water from the Tsauchab River during periods of good rains. The flooding of Sossusvlei and Deadvlei in the middle of the desert is a spectacular sight to see.
If you want to see Deadvlei make sure you visit before you leave Sossusvlei and head back to your camp or lodge. It's a 1km, very hot walk through the dunes from the car park at Sossusvlei to Deadvlei so take plenty of water.
Dune 45 Sossuvlei Namibia
One of the most popular dunes to climb is Dune 45, so named because it is 45km from Sesriem gate. Dune 45 is a whopping 85 metres high and affords panoramic views (although it is still small when compared to the Big Daddy which is over 300 metres high!) Don't worry if you don't make it all the way to the top before sunrise however, even from half way up you will be afforded spectacular views of the sunrise over the Namib sand dunes.
Make sure to take shoes up the dune with you, the sand might be cool when you first climb Dune 45 but once the sun rises the sand becomes too hot to touch very quickly and you will be dancing around like a gecko trying to keep your feet cool!
Sesriem Canyon Namibia
As a result of erosion over many centuries, a narrow gorge of about one kilometre in length was formed about 30 to 40 metres deep. Early explorers had to tie six (ses) lengths of thongs (traditional leather belts) together to draw water from the pools in the canyon. Each of the thongs was made from a ream/riem of leather so this created the name "Sesriem" meaning "six-riems".
Sesriem Canyon forms part of the Tsauchab river but is usually dry riverbed as the water does not flow this far down the river. Sesriem Canyon does however flood every few years if the rains are good enough, more frequently than Sossuvlei, so you might just get lucky and be able to go swimming in the canyon.
Explore Sesriem Canyon from Sesriem Campsite, Sesriem Oshana, Sossus Dune Lodge or Dead Valley Lodge. If you are not staying at one of these camps or lodges then visit Sesriem Canyon as you leave the park after visiting Sossusvlei, it is situated very close to the park entrance.
Elim Dune is a high petrified dune which is the furthest inland dune in the park and the closest dune to the campsites and lodges at Sesriem.
Named after the farm located here before the formation of the National Park, Elim Dune is comparatively easy to climb due to the few tufts of grass and vegetation which help give the dune a firmer base.
Elim dune is perfect to climb for sunset views before returning to your campsite, room or luxury tent. Allow at least an hour to reach a good sunset viewpoint near the top of Elim Dune, dune climbing is exhausting but you will find the superb views of the surrounding desert and gravel plains changing colour as the sun sets are well worth the effort.
Booking Your Trip to Sossusvlei
For the best possible experience when visiting the Sossusvlei and Sesriem area try to book a camp site or lodge which is inside the Namib Naukluft park at Sossusvlei so you can get an early start into the dunes and be at Sossusvlei in time for sunrise. These camps and lodges are in high demand so book as early as possible, you may need to book as far as one year ahead for peak season dates.
Lodges inside the park at Sossusvlei
Campsites inside the park at Sossuvlei
Note that the Namib Naukluft Campsite is NOT at the same location as Sossusvlei, it is situated in a different section of the Namib Naukluft and has no access point to the dunes at Sossusvlei.