Sossusvlei Safari Guide

safarigo   Namibia  

Star dunes with up to five crests rise 300m into the air and rank among the biggest in the world; the dune valleys are marked by vast clay pans where the Tsauchab River gave up its fight to reach the seam more than 60,000 years ago.

Besides the dunes and pans of Sossusvlei and Sesriem Canyon, a sideshow of activities and sights has developed around the region and there are plenty of game lodges that provide additional desert-adapted activities.

Sossusvlei is one of four pans in among the towering dunes, the others being Dead Vlei - so named because of the petrified camel thorn trees that survived for a few hundred years after the dunes blocked the river; !Nara Vlei - which has a number of endemic !Nara bushes eking an existence from the scarce water that occasionally makes it down from the Naukluft Mountains; and Hidden Vlei which is a barren amphitheatre some distance beyond Dead vlei.

To protect the fragile wilderness, only day trips are allowed into Sossusvlei. You can drive the 60km road lined with enormous iron-oxide dunes, precious gemsbok and gnarled acacia to within a few km of the pans and dunes in a 2WD.

If you don't fancy the extra hike you can get to within a short walk from the pans in a 4x4 and some judicious sand-track manoeuvres; or you can use the shuttle service. Beat the haze and the people by getting there at sunrise when the dunes are burnt sienna and the sky is almost too blue for your polariser.

Give yourself an hour at sunset to climb Elim Dune, which is about 5km from Sesriem and you'll probably want to stop and get some postcard shots along the way.

Sesriem Canyon is a narrow gorge 30m deep that is evidence of shallow seas and wet periods of days gone by with layers of round eroded pebbles embedded in the calcrete strata. The canyon is usually filled with pools of water good for a refreshing dip after the exhausting dunes.

Ballooning over the Great Sand Sea gives an excellent perspective of the expanse of dunes and the total silence - between flame-blasts - lends an eerie touch to this exhilarating experience.

Sossusvlei brings out the creative photographer in everyone - provided you beat the mid-day haze. Surreal shapes, colours, textures and landscapes are accentuated by the ancient trees and desert-adapted wildlife like gemsbok, springbok and ostrich.

Namib-Naukluft Park

The place where time stands still Scratch the surface of the the world's oldest desert and you may find little more than an endless expanse of parched plains and dunes with a few dry river beds and rocky mountain ranges cutting up the horizon.

Delve into the details of this 15-million-year-old wilderness area and you will find a fascinating world of plants, insects, animals and birds that have adapted and thrive in the only true desert biome in southern Africa.

At just under 50,000sq km, the Namib-Naukluft Park is one of the largest conservancies in Africa. The park is an amalgamation of several reserves and the landscape and habitats change dramatically from north to south and east to west.

Sossusvlei and Sesriem Canyon are synonymous with the park but there's a lot more to see and do that rewards a slow meander from one end to the other.

The Namib Desert supports a total of 650 plant species - a quarter of all Namibian flora - and a tenth of these are endemic to the desert. The welwitschia is an ancient tree that is a family, genus and species combined. Discover beetles with drain pipes, dancing lizards with double tanks, burrowing geckos, desert adders, pure-bred wild ostriches, water-carrying Namaqua sand grouse and meditating moles. Namib specials include Barlow's lark, Benguela long-billed lark, Damara tern, Dune lark, Gray's lark and Rüppell's korhaan.

Mammals in the park include Hartmann's mountain zebra, gemsbok, klipspringer, duiker, steenbok, leopard, baboon, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, African wild cat, caracal and aardwolf. All have adapted to the desert conditions.

The NamibRand in the south is one of the largest private reserves in Africa. Stretching south-west from Sesriem towards Betta the park covers 2,100sq km of desert dunes, vegetated valleys, vast plains and towering mountains.

Sossusvlei and Sesriem Canyon are the focal point of the park and there are many lodges and camping options in the area. The 60km drive into Sossusvlei from Sesriem takes you through towering dunes and grassy plains and ends on the edge of the Great Sand Sea with spectacular scenery and some of the world's tallest dunes.

Pros & Cons

Stunning desert scenery including red dunes at Sossusvlei
Encounters with desert-adapted wildlife in a pristine setting
Good walking options in the Naukluft mountains
Very hot and dry
Low animal densities and little variety

Wildlife & Animals

Namib-Naukluft is not really a wildlife destination. Visitors come here to see the desert environment. There are a variety of creatures present, although not all of them are easily seen. Oryx and springbok are most conspicuous; these desert-adapted antelope even inhabit the driest areas of the park. Closer to the rivers you can find klipspringer, steenbok and troops of desert-adapted baboons.

Wildlife Highlights

The Naukluft Mountains is a less visited section of the park. This area is more lush and home to additional species including the endemic Hartmann's mountain zebra. Smaller creatures include meerkat, yellow mongoose and Cape ground squirrel. Both spotted and brown hyena are present and you might well come across their distinctive white droppings.


Namib-Naukluft NP is a great birding destination with over 200 species recorded. The popular area of Sossusvlei is extremely dry and although there are some interesting species to be found, such as the dune lark, this is not a prime birding area. For excellent birding, head for the Naukluft Mountains where more species are present and easier to spot. Sandwich lagoon on the coast is great for Palearctic waders in the Wet season. Migrants are present from November to April.

Best Time to Visit

The Namib-Naukluft is one of Africa’s largest parks. It is home to the Sossusvlei area – an ocean of enormous red dunes and one of Namibia's main tourist attractions.The best time to visit Sossusvlei is autumn from March until May or spring from August to October. The cool air offers clearer skies and ideal photography conditions and temperatures are milder both day and night.

While autumn and spring may be the best times to visit Sossusvlei, the difference between the seasons in the Namib Desert is less pronounced than in the rest of the region. The area receives almost no rainfall for a start, the days are always clear and dry and the desert scenery, wildlife and activities retain their appeal all year round.

With less dramatic seasonal changes, the decision of when to visit Sossusvlei is often settled by deciding what else you want to do in Namibia or southern Africa. If you want to combine your Sossusvlei holiday with a safari in Etosha for example, you can safely choose the best time to visit Etosha and still get the most out of your Sossusveli holiday.

The trick to making the most of Sossusvlei regardless of season is an early morning. Rising early to get to the dunes gives you the clearest light, fewer visitors and the rest of the day to relax or enjoy other activities in the Namib like walking, nature drives, scenic sundowner outings or hot air ballooning.

If the desert has had rain the year you visit and Sossusvlei is your priority for your Namibia tour, then March and April are the best months. Even a brief spell of rain can transform the desert from a multitude of browns to a multitude of browns and greens. The result is something really spectacular.

While rain is unlikely to affect your Sossusvlei and Namib Desert experience, high temperatures in summer and hot dusty winds in winter might.

May to October – Dry Season

It is less hot in the middle of the day (except for October)
Best time for hiking in the Naukluft Mountains
Sossusvlei area gets quite busy at times
It is cold in the early morning
It is very dry and dusty and the sky can be hazy

November to April – Wet Season

The rain comes as a relief after a long dry period
Flowers brighten the desert scenery and the views tend to be clearer after rain
Excellent time for birding with migratory birds present
It tends to be oppressively hot
Occasional flash floods can restrict access to some areas
If visiting both Namib-Naukluft and Etosha; wildlife viewing in Etosha isn't as productive

Weather & Climate

Namib-Naukluft has a hot and extremely dry climate with very little rainfall. Temperatures can peak well above 38°C/100°F during summer (November to April), but nights can drop below freezing point in winter (October to April).

The altitude in the park varies widely; Sossusvlei is located at a low altitude and temperatures get very hot. The higher altitudes are mostly in the Naukluft Mountains section where it tends to be a bit cooler.

Dry Season – May to October

These are the coolest months bringing relief from the oppressive heat at other times of the year. There is almost no rain at all and it gets drier as the winter progresses.

May, June, July & August – It is sunny and totally dry. These are the coolest months and the average afternoon temperature is 23°C/73°F. Areas at lower altitude (such as Sossusvlei) can be substantially hotter. It is cold in the early morning, with temperatures of around 9°C/48°F.
September & October – It is still dry and sunny. This is the end of winter and temperatures increase to an average of 25°C/77°F, but can reach a peak of 38°C/100°F and above in low-altitude areas. Early mornings are less cold, at around 11°C/52°F.

Wet Season – November to April

The summer months are hot. Although daytime temperatures average 27°C/81°F, they frequently rise to 38°C/100°F and above in low-altitude areas of the park, including Sossusvlei. Early mornings average around 14°C/57°F. Summer corresponds with the Wet season, but rainfall is low.

November & December – It is very dry. When the first rain falls, it comes as a relief after a long dry winter. Afternoon temperatures are around 27°C/81°F. Areas at lower altitude (such as Sossusvlei) will be substantially hotter.
January, February & March – The only months with regular rain. It is still mostly dry and sunny. People need to be careful for flash floods in dry riverbeds during occasional storms. It usually cools down after rain and average daytime temperatures are around 28°C/82°F.
April – Rain decreases rapidly in April; there are less and less days with precipitation. The weather cools with average temperatures around 26°C/79°F.

Getting There

Namib-Naukluft National Park consists of different sections with different entry points. The park can be visited on an organized tour or independently, on a self-drive safari. The main routes to and within the park are open to normal 2WD cars. Permits are required for minor roads and a 4x4 vehicle is recommended.

Most people who visit the park come to see the Sossusvlei area, which is located about 360km/223mi from Windhoek by car and accessed through the Sesriem entry point.

The main point of entry into Namibia is Hosea Kutako International Airport (WDH) located 40km/25mi east of Windhoek. Both self-drive visitors and people who’ve booked an organized safari will usually start their trip by 4x4 in Windhoek.