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Despite being Namibia's number-one tourist attraction, Sossusvlei still manages to feel isolated. Hiking through the dunes, which are part of the 32,000-sq-km sand sea that covers much of Western Namibia, is a sombre experience. The dunes, which reach as high as 325m, are part of one of the oldest and driest ecosystems on earth. However, the landscape here is constantly changing - wind forever alters the shape of the dunes while colours shift with the changing light. If possible, try to visit Sossusvlei at sunrise when the colours are at the peak of their brilliance.

The gateway to Sossusvlei is Sesriem (Six Thongs), named for the number of joined leather ox-wagon thongs necessary to draw water from the bottom of the nearby gorge.

Both Sesriem Canyon and Sossusvlei are open year-round between sunrise and sunset. If you want to witness the sunrise over Sossusvlei - as most people do - you must stay at or near Sesriem. Otherwise, you can't pass the gate early enough to reach Sossusvlei before sunrise.

SIGHTS Sesriem

The park headquarters, a small food shop, a petrol station, the camp site and the Sossusvlei Lodge are all found at Sesriem. All visitors headed for Sossusvlei must check in at the park office and secure a park entry permit (US$3.50 per person plus US$2.50 per vehicle).

The 2km-long and 30m-deep Sesriem Canyon, 4km south of the Sesriem headquarters, was carved by the Tsauchab River through the 15-million-year-old deposits of sand and gravel conglomerate. From the car park, you can hike upstream to the brackish pool at its head or downstream to the canyon mouth.

Dune 45

The most accessible of the red dunes along the Sossusvlei road is the 150m Dune 45, so called because it's 45km from Sesriem and 45 dunes from Sossusvlei. For tour groups, it's a popular sunrise and bush breakfast venue.

Sossusvlei & Around

Sossusvlei, a large ephemeral pan, is set amid red sand dunes that tower up to 200m above the valley floor and more than 300m over the underlying strata. This is the most accessible part of the 300km-long and 150km-wide sand sea that contains the world's highest, oldest and arguably most picturesque dunes. The pan rarely holds water, but when the Tsauchab River has gathered enough volume and momentum to push beyond the thirsty plains to the sand sea (as it did in 1997 and 2001), it's transformed into a verdant oasis.

A rugged 5km return walk from Sossusvlei takes you to Dead Vlei, which, despite its name, is even more impressive than its popular neighbour. Alternatively, from the 2WD car park, a rewarding 4km return hike marked by white-painted posts leads to Hidden Vlei, an unearthly dry vlei amid lonely dunes.

From Sesriem, take the 65km 2WD road to the 2WD car park; the last 4km to Sossusvlei requires 4WD, so visitors with lesser vehicles park at the 2WD car park and walk, hitch or take the Sossus 4WD Shuttle Service (US$3.50/6 one way/return). If you're walking, carry enough water for a hot sandy slog in the sun.

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