Visiting the Sossusvlei Sand Dunes: A Guide

  • Bunnik Tours
  • 18 Nov 22

Welcome to a scene straight out of a movie, of imposing red sand dunes against a cobalt blue sky.

Sossusvlei Sand Dunes, Namibia

Sossusvlei Sand Dunes, Namibia

In Namibia, the Sossusvlei sand dunes attract visitors from across the globe – while some are tempted by climbing the magnificent dunes, others can’t wait to capture the ever changing colours in the light. Read on to find out why visiting the Sossusvlei area in the Namib Desert is a must if you’re ever in Africa.




What is special about Sossusvlei?

Sossusvlei is one of Namibia’s most visited attractions and is famed for its vibrant ochre sand dunes – some of which are the tallest in the world. Found in the ancient Namib Desert, Sossusvlei is a large white salt and clay pan that sits at the foot of the towering red sand dunes surrounding it. The colour of the Sossusvlei sand dunes comes from the iron oxide that coats the sand, and as the dunes age, the brighter and more intense the red becomes. In fact, the sand in Sossusvlei is thought to be between 3 and 5 million years old!

The name Sossusvlei comes from Nama and Afrikaans and means ‘dead-end marsh.’ This is an appropriate name as the famous dunes prevent the Tsauchab River from flowing any further except in rare cases of particularly heavy rains where the pan will flood, temporarily creating a turquoise oasis.

A visit to this magnificent area isn’t complete without climbing the Sossusvlei sand dunes to admire the desert and claypans from above, and is all the more spectacular to experience as the sun rises.


Where is Sossusvlei located?

The Sossusvlei sand dunes are found within the expansive Namib-Naukluft National Park, situated in the Namib Desert in Namibia. While Sossusvlei specifically refers to the large salt and clay pan at the end of the Tsauchab River, Sossusvlei is often extended to include the surrounding sand dunes, Sesriem, Dead Vlei and other landmarks in the Namib Desert. This phenomenal desert has been in existence for some 55 million years and its current landscape has remained unchanged for the last 2 million years.


Sossusvlei Attractions

Big Daddy Dune

Sossusvlei sand dunes: Big Daddy Dune overlooking Deadvlei

Big Daddy Dune is the tallest dune in the Sossusvlei area, measuring in at a staggering 325 metres! Situated between Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei, Big Daddy dwarfs the surrounding dunes and takes about 1-2 hours of climbing just to reach the top. Thanks to the loose sand you’ll often find yourself slipping back, and many who tackle the climb end up going barefoot. Although Big Daddy is a challenging climb, we promise it’ll be worth it once you’re rewarded with the spectacular views over the peaks and troughs of the ochre sand sea, down to the stark white Dead Vlei. From the summit, head down to the dune to explore the striking landscape of Dead Vlei, and make sure to bring plenty of water!

Feeling adventurous? Climb Big Daddy on our Namibia & South Africa Adventure multi-activity tour.


Dune 45

Sossusvlei sand dunes: bright orange Dune 45

Dune 45 is one of Namibia’s most famous attractions and is named after its location at the 45km mark on the road from Sesriem gate to Sossusvlei. Standing at 170 metres tall, it’s easily accessible from the road – making it the perfect dune to visit without a 4x4 vehicle. While it may not be the tallest dune in Sossusvlei, the view from the top of Dune 45 will still take your breath away (and so will the climb up). As the lighting changes with the time of day, so does the colour of the undulating dunes, providing countless photo opportunities. It’s best to climb Dune 45 before sunrise, so you get to witness the changing of colours as the sun rises and avoid the hot sand and harsh sun you typically get during the day.


Dead Vlei

Sossusvlei sand dunes: Dead vlei

Descending to the base of Big Daddy, you’ll find yourself in the stark white clay pan of Dead Vlei, standing amongst the blackened skeletons of 900-year-old camel thorn trees. Dead Vlei, meaning ‘dead marsh’ was formed when the Tsauchab River flooded the area, creating pools of water for the camel thorn trees to grow. When the drought hit and the encroaching sand dunes blocked the river, the water disappeared, leaving behind the hard clay earth that still holds the dead trees firmly in place today. This eerily beautiful scene appears to be from another world and provides spectacular photo opportunities as the bright desert sun casts haunting shadows of the trees against the white clay floor.

Wander amongst the eerie dead trees in Dead Vlei on our Namibia small group tours.


Sesriem Canyon

Sossusvlei sand dunes: Two hikers walking through the Sesriem Canyon

Sesriem is a small settlement in the Namib Desert known for the Sesriem gate, which is the entrance to the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Found approximately 4.5km from Sesriem itself, the Sesriem Canyon is one of the most important attractions in Namibia and is one of the few places in the area that holds water year-round. This natural canyon was shaped by the Tsauchab River carving through sedimentary rock over millions of years, measuring about 1 km long and 30 metres deep. Hiking through the stunning rock formations of the Sesriem Canyon is a captivating experience, as you observe the passage of time etched into the canyon walls.


Sossusvlei sand dunes: quick facts

How high are the dunes at Sossusvlei?

The dunes at Sossusvlei are among the highest in the world, with many of them reaching over 200 metres. The tallest of these dunes, nicknamed Big Daddy, is about 325 metres high. The title for the tallest dune in the Namib Desert, however, goes to Dune 7 which reaches 388 metres in height!


What type of dunes are the Sossusvlei dunes?

The dunes around the Sossusvlei area are known as ‘star’ dunes for their ridges that resemble swirling stars from above. These dunes are shaped by wind from all directions and are the most mobile of all the sand dunes. Star dunes usually have 3 or more irregularly shaped arms and are generally taller than other types of sand dunes.


Do you need a 4x4 to go to Sossusvlei?

While you don’t need to have a 4WD to go to Sossusvlei, having one will allow you to drive the last 4km into the Sossusvlei pan. If you choose to go with a 2WD you can catch the shuttle from the Sesriem carpark or embark on the hour and a half walk from the carpark. This is just one reason visiting Sossusvlei as part of a small group tour is a great choice, because we’ll take care of the transport for you!


How was Sossusvlei formed?

The Namib Desert is the oldest desert in the world and has been carved into a fascinating landscape over millions of years with water and wind. The sand in Sossusvlei is thought to have come from the Kalahari between 3 and 5 million years ago, washing down the Orange River and out to sea before being deposited along the coast. The salt pan of Sossusvlei is now encrusted in salt-rich sand, shaped over time by the flooding of the Tsauchab River. Even now, the fine grains of sand are moving in the swirling winds, leaving Sossusvlei in a constant state of change.


See the Sossusvlei sand dunes yourself

From the staggering heights of Big Daddy Dune and the eerie scene of Dead Vlei, Sossusvlei is one of the most beautiful desert regions on the planet. Have we convinced you to add Sossusvlei to your bucket list? You can visit Sossusvlei on our Namibia & South Africa Adventure and our Namibia, Botswana & Victoria Falls small group tours. Book a tour online or get in touch with one of our Travel Specialists for more information!


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