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Namibia: Dawn at Deadvlei
by Bill Cain

Namibia: half silhouetted sand dune from hot air balloon, Sossusvlei (photo by B.Cain)A 4:00 am wakeup call is necessary in order to reach Deadvlei in time for sunrise. That’s the requirement from the Little Kulala Lodge at which I was staying just outside Sossusvlei in the Namib Naukluft National Park in central Namibia. An hour after sunrise and the magic of the low sun on the horizon has slipped away, and with it the unique photo opportunities that serious photographers from all over the world come to this corner of the Namib Desert to capture.

The literal translation of Sossusvlei means open place of nothingness, but in actuality, nothing could be further from the truth because the world’s oldest, highest and perhaps its most beautiful sand dunes are to be found here and have become Namibia’s signature attraction. Covering an area of over 4,300 square miles, it would take a life time to explore the thousands of dunes that have been shaping and shifting over the millennia. Fortunately, there are a several dozen or so that have been identified as some of the most unusual and awe-inspiring and they, along with the added attraction of Deadvlei, are also conveniently situated for the average tourist to see and explore in a day or two.

A group of several small but comfortable lodges have sprung up on the other side of the protected national park border and there’s an area within the park that can easily be driven with a four wheel drive vehicle. An ancient dry river bed about a half mile wide now provides an opportune 25-mile long finger of flat scrub, both sides of which are lined with some of the most wondrous and captivating naturally sculpted sand on the planet.

An attempt to number the most important dunes has ended, at least temporarily, with Dune # 45 which, for those on a tight schedule, can be seen relatively soon after beginning the drive down “dune alley”. At the other end where the road dissolves into the sand is “Big Daddy”, across from which is “Big Mama” – two of the more massive dunes, but neither of which is the highest. That distinction belongs to a dune topping off at 200 feet from the base where, unlike mountains, the dunes are measured. But, like mountains, they beg to be climbed, especially barefoot, and scaling any of the major dunes requires just as much strength and stamina. It takes a physically fit person 2-3 hours to tackle “Big Daddy” and the climb is more demanding than climbing a solid mountain of rock. For every three steps forward, the equivalent of one step backwards in the soft sand has to be anticipated. Routes can only be negotiated along the wind swept ridge lines, some of which sweep through several switchbacks, making the climbs much longer than they appear from the roadway. Going directly straight up a dune is virtually impossible, but running straight down, causing mini landslide in the process, is the fun reward after the tough ascent. Lest one thinks the beauty of the dunes is continually under assault from the constant barrage of foot traffic, one windy day is all that’s needed to restore the dunes to their original pristine condition.
 Most people flock to the dunes at sunrise when the low sun angle transforms them into a tantalizing combination of black scalloped shadows and deep red feminine sensuality. As the sun climbs in the sky, the shadows fade and the color hews shift. Even though the sand is all the same consistency, different light at various angles of view creates a medley of effects. From one midday vantage point, there can be creamy coffee-colored dunes to the right, burnt umber ones to the left and those with an orangey tangerine flavor straight ahead.

As captivating as the dunes are when experienced from up close at ground level, their collective grandeur and immense expanse is best appreciated from a bird’s eye view. Hot air balloon flights on most mornings drift up to twelve passengers each over an ocean of swirled sand, dwarfing the tiny chase vehicles below as they slalom between the dunes to keep up. The best aerial advantage, though, is from a light aircraft. I had the good fortune to have flown into and out of the region and, while the fly in came from the wrong direction for dune viewing, the flight out more than compensated as it ran the entire length of dune ally and the next 100 miles over a sea of undulating and abstract formations at low altitude.

Namibia Deadvlei Silhouettedtree, orange crescent dune, Sossusvlei (photo by B.Cain)Just before the end of dune ally, a short unmarked hike over a few small dunes leads the lucky, informed few to the dead place, or Deadvlei. It’s hard to imagine that an area so desolate and baron could be so enchantingly stunning. Tucked away in a valley surrounded by “Big Daddy” and other enormous dunes, a flat, dried out and bleached white pan, craquelured into a haphazard network of fissures, harbors several dozen dead acacia trees, their creepy, twisted branches resembling something out of a Sleepy Hollow story on Halloween. Some of the trees are estimated to be 500 – 800 years old, having been remarkably preserved for the centuries by the dry desert air. At the magic hour of dawn the trees are silhouetted and their juxtaposition against the layers of what are then apricot and lemon colored dunes with a powder blue sky can send a photographer into a state of nirvana.

After leaving Deadvlei with far too many photographs that I could ever hope to use, the balance of the day was spent frolicking among the dunes, watching a few intrepid fools trying to climb “Big Mama” in the oppressive midday heat and pic nicking under the shade of a live acacia tree. Returning to the lodge later that day, I knew that the next morning I’d be able to sleep in a bit. The wakeup call for sunrise at Dune # 45 wouldn’t be until 5:00 am.
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