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The main attraction of the southern region is the spectacular Sossusvlei, a clay pan formed when the shifting dunes of the Namib smothered the course of the Tsauchab River. Surrounded by majestic star-shaped dunes with curvaceous lines it is a photographer's dream.
The pan can be dry for up to a decade, but after heavy floods, it can hold water for up to a year. Nearby is the spectacular Dead Vlei with its pure white clay floor and dead camelthorn tree trunks reaching skywards.
Sesriem, the gateway to Sossusvlei, is named after a 30m deep canyon carved through layers of conglomerate by the Tsauchab River.
Namib Sand Nature reserve, 60 km south of Sesriem, is Namibia's largest private reserve. The many diverse landscapes are awe-inspiring and stark, representing virtually all facets of the Namib Desert.
For the connoisseur of scenery, atmosphere and the unusual, there is nothing quite like Sossusvlei and the Namib Desert. As a wilderness it is superb, a vast solitary place, harsh and primeval. Yet, it is a place where life has discovered that, even in its most austere mood, Nature still has compassion.
In creating an aeolian desert landscape such as the Namib and particularly the Sossusvlei area, without rain or surface water, Nature has relented. With a subtle alchemy, it has provided mists with which to sustain an astonishing number and variety of life-forms.
Even in so desolate a place as Sossusvlei, ruthlessness is softened by the winds which carry fragments of vegetation into the desert, providing the sustenance which enables a chain of life-forms to begin. The brooding stillness is somehow relieved by strange harmonies murmured by the breezes as they frolic amongst the sand dunes or play a melody, using as an instrument any chance rock, stick or rusting debris which can be made to vibrate and create a sound. Even though the solitude of the place is profound, human beings cannot feel alone.
Something intangible, indefinable and reflective reaches out to stir their thoughts and touch their soul. At night, through the crystal clearness of the air, the dome of the sky may be seen to blaze with light, and the Milky Way gleams like a rift in the mystery of space through which may be glimpsed the shining lights of paradise.
In the language of the Nama people Namib means a vast, open plain seemingly without end. In modern geographical terms, the name is applied to the entire arid coastal belt which varies in width from 80 km to 140 km. It extends from the sandveld at the northern end of the winter-rainfall region of the Cape to as far north as the area just past Mossamedes in Angola. This expanse has been conveniently divided by geographers into three parts.
In the south lies the transitional Namib, extending north to approximately the line formed by the main road from Aus to Luderitz. North of this road lies the middle Namib which the Namas call the Gobaba and in which the Sossusvlei area falls. This is the seemingly endless plains of the dune country, the sea of sand, the grandest part of the desert - 400 km long and 140 km wide which ends abruptly at the valley of the Kuiseb River. North of the river lies the northern Namib, the area of arid gravel plains.
The dune sea of the middle Namib arround Sossusvlei is the supreme desert. The dunes reach 275 m in height, with their nearest rivals in the empty quarter of Arabia only reaching 200 m. The Sossusvlei dunes are not only gigantic, but they are extremely beautiful, the older ones being tinted red by iron oxidation and minute fragments of garnets. The younger dunes are greyer in colour.
Where has all the sand come from which makes the mighty dunes of Sossusvlei? The birth date of the Namib was about 80 million years ago. Something happened during that time to alter the weather. Perhaps the Earth received a nudge from outer space resulting in a sudden change in the sea along the southwestern coast of Africa.
A powerful ocean current, a regular 'river of cold water' originating in the Antarctic, started to flow northwards up the coast. This cold stream (10°C to 20°C) is about 150 km wide and travels at about 3,5 knots an hour. The presence of this cold 'river', flowing close to the shoreline of Namibia, isolates the coast from the outer warm ocean. The prevailing westerly winds pick up moisture from the warm water but, in crossing the cold current, they are cooled. The winds are therefore unable to take up further moisture from such cold water, and the moisture they already carry is turned into a clammy mist by the sudden drop in temperature.
The mists roll over the coast and cover the Namib, causing some dampness due to condensation, but no proper rain. Any rain which does fall on the desert comes from the east coast - a long way off. Most of the moisture contained in such easterly winds is precipitated on the highlands of the interior. As these winds drop over the escarpment to the coastal regions, they warm up to an unpleasant extent, precipitation decreases, and they have a searing, dehydrating effect.
The Namib can obviously be capricious. It is at its most contrary in its support of life. By all the accepted notions of deserts, nothing should live there. A desert is usually defined as an area where potential evaporation is at least twice as great as the average precipitation. In the Namib it is approximately 200 times greater.
The potential evaporation averages 3 500 mm per year, while the average precipitation is only about 18 mm. Any liquid falling on the desert surface is therefore more than promptly snatched away like air into a vacuum. How then do so many creatures live there? The answer to most questions asked in the Namib is whispered by the winds.
Winds and the cold Benguela Current were the parents of the Sossusvlei dunes. Hills and mountains have been steadily reduced to dust by the incessant winds which wear down the rock, already weakened by expansion and contraction due to hot days and cold nights. Flooding rivers carry sand to the sea where waves wash it back on to the beach and the wind returns it to the desert. The dune sea around Sossusvlei lies in the area of greatest wind. Consequently, it has the most sand. The huge dunes are blown into parallel ridges and valleys which run north-south, totally covering a vast plain dissected by the dried-up remains of ancient stream valleys and marked by the skeletons of island-like hills.
Even though the winds perform this work of destruction and transformation, they also bring the means of life. The east wind carries on its hot breath fragments of vegetation from the escarpment. This detritus, desiccated and seemingly unappetising, is the staff of life to primitive creatures such as silver-fish, which feed on this matter where it is caught at the foot of the dunes. About 200 different species of beetles also feed on this substance and on the silver-fish. Scorpions, spiders, geckos, chameleons, crickets, wasps and lizards devour the silver-fish, beetles and one another. The strange little 5 cm-long golden moles consume everything they can catch. Side-winder snakes hunt through the sand, climbing the dunes with their peculiar sideways movement. Snake-eating eagles prey on the snakes, and jackals eat everything.
It is said that in the Nama language Kuiseb means a gorge. The name appears to describe the steep canyon through which the river finds a way from the interior highlands to the coastal terrace of the amib. There is not another river in the world quite like the Kuiseb, for nature has allocated to it several important tasks, each of considerable interest to man.
The Kuiseb only flows very intermittently on the surface. However, this occasional surface flow is of vast importance, for the river constantly has to confront the great sand dunes of the south. The dunes inexorably attempt to cross the river. Their inclination is to press northwards on to the gravel plains, but the river stubbornly blocks their march. The periodic surface floods carry the encroaching sand down towards the sea. Only at the delta of the river, where surface water seldom reaches the sea except during uncommon floods, do the dunes make progress. Through this one weak spot in the Kuiseb they force a passage and advance triumphantly up the coast until they reach the Swakop River which finally blocks them.
The spectacle of the great red dunes towering over the meandering valley of the Kuiseb is awesome. The sand constantly infiltrates, furtively trickling over edges or suddenly tumbling down like a minor landslide from a more aggressive and pushy dune. It seems inevitable that the dry river course must be overwhelmed. Only rains in the interior can provide it with the strength to resist and sweep away the forceful sands.
The Kuiseb has been aptly described as a linear oasis. In complete contrast to the dunes of the south and the plains of the north, its banks and course are covered in handsome trees and rich plant life. Giraffe acacias, wild figs and tamarisk trees flourish along the Kuiseb and it is a great home for the nara melon. These cucumber-like little melons provide most forms of life with food. The Topnaars, a mini nation about 200 strong under a chief named Esau Kooitjie, live along the Kuiseb.
An important research duty of the Namib scientists is to monitor the level of the subterranean water. With vast quantities now being pumped out to supply Walvis Bay, Swakopmund and the mining areas such as Rossing, the possible depletion of the water could cause a lowering of the established water-table, with several disastrous consequences. Apart from the withering of trees and vegetation and life becoming insupportable in the valley, the river's struggle with the sand dunes could be drastically weakened. Once across the Kuiseb, the dunes would inexorably invade the gravel plains, and the consequences of such a change are difficult to visualise. It is vital that a balance be maintained and only as much water removed as can be replenished by the inland rains.
In 1968 the Naukluft farm was purchased and proclaimed as a sanctuary for Hartmann's mountain zebra. After an ecological survey in 1970 most of the Naukluft Mountain massif was purchased from various private owners. Land west of the Naukluft was added to provide a corridor for the annual migration of gemsbok between the dune country and the mountains.
In 1979 most of Diamond Area 2 south of the Kuiseb River, including Sesriem and Sossusvlei, was ceded for conservation. This area, unoccupied state land, the Namib Desert Park and the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park were consolidated to form the 23 340 square km Namib-Naukluft Park.
Exploring Sossusvlei is a vintage experience for the connoisseur of travel, colour, atmosphere and scenery. The gravel roads are adequate and signposted.