June, 2017: Sossusvlei is Namibia’s biggest tourist attraction and rightly so. It’s a place famous for it’s towering red sand dunes which seem to extend on forever; an ethereal landscape which despite the hoards of 4×4’s and safari trucks, still gives a profound sense of solitude. The only minor issue with Sossusvlei are the rough as guts roads leading to it. Combine that with no lights in Bertha and minimal experience driving in sand, we were in for one special Sossusvlei adventure.
For the detail oriented among us, Sossusvlei is actually a relatively small and lonely salt pan in the Namib-Naukluf National Park. While only a small spot itself Sossusvlei is the name generally associated with the broader area of massive, stunning red sand dunes and salt pans. The main national park’s camp site for Sossusvlei is situated at a place called Sesriem. From Sesriem to Sossusvlei there is 60km of tarmac and then another 5-6km of a rather sandy, 4WD only track. This is where things get interesting. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the adventure.
Bertha’s Sossusvlei adventure: Maltahöhe mayhem
After leaving the Kgalagadi, we had intended to reach Sossusvlei in one day’s driving but Namibia’s roads had different ideas. We had barely left the tarmac just west of the dusty town of Maltahöhe when, as we were turning a fairly innocuous corner, Bertha’s shapely posterior suddenly and uncharacteristically fish tailed. At first I thought it was Fi’s lead foot but moments later we were very obviously leaning to one side. We pulled up and sure enough, our rear left tyre had completely blown out. Balls! The Sossusvlei adventure had started.
As Bertha lurched to a halt I suddenly had the unpleasant realisation that I didn’t even know if we had all the required tyre changing kit. I had vague ideas where the jack was but didn’t know if we had wheel spanners or if the jack would work. For the next thirty minutes we went to battle with Bertha, calling her all kinds of unsavoury names and coming up with skinned knuckles for my troubles. Eventually we were ready to go but where once the road ahead seemed full of adventure, it now just seemed a trap for Bertha’s ageing tyres. Now we had no spare tyre, hours of rocky roads still to go and fading light. With our tail between our legs, back to Maltahöhe we went in search of lodging for the night and hopefully another spare tyre.
Maltahöhe is a bit of a random, one street town stuck out in the middle of the desert. The kind of place where the pub is the main social hub, everyone knows everyone and the pace of life is slow. Being on the road to Sossusvlei though, there are a few different accommodation options but to start with we couldn’t find anywhere to pitch our tent. In the end it took a cold beer at the pub and a few phone calls from the publican to find us a spot. Whether it was the gruff but friendly locals or the icy cold Windhoek Lagers, but, with our tent pitched and directions to a few tyre options for the morning, Maltahohe suddenly seemed an infinitely better spot to stop for the night.
Bertha’s Sossusvlei adventure: the calm before the storm
The next morning, after spending a highly enjoyable evening at the Maltahöhe pub, we bought a surprisingly cheap spare tyre and were on our way. The country changed from undulating plains and rocky ridge lines to rugged gorges in a landscape which could easily have passed for a martian film set. The only constant was the dusty, corrugated road. By 1pm we were very glad to arrive at Sesriem.
After checking into the camp site we drove out into the national park amid shimmering mirages and the midday heat. A lonely stretch of tarmac wound it’s way out through desolate plains as the enormous red sand dunes grew ever bigger. Every now and then we would see the odd ostrich, springbok or gemsbok grazing in the distance. At first I thought we had dropped the ball by heading out in the heat of the day but as more cars passed us heading back to camp, I realised we would have the place to ourselves.
We pulled up at dune 45 for lunch before driving on to the end of the tarmac. And then we kept driving. Feeling confident in Bertha’s sand bashing credentials we charged out across the 4WD only track before coming to a stop at the Sossusvlei itself. One other couple was just leaving and suddenly it was just us. We spent the next few hours climbing dunes and taking in the majesty of the surrounding red sea of sand. As the sun sank to the horizon a pale and distant moon rose. All around for as far as our eyes could see there wasn’t another person. Waves of sand dunes grew ever redder as the afternoon wore on. It was nothing less than spectacular.
Bertha’s Sossusvlei adventure: the fun begins
Unfortunately as they say, all good things must come to an end. Around 4:30pm we climbed back in Bertha and started the return journey. With Johny Farnham cranking in our ears, and the wind in our hair we felt confident we had plenty of time to be back by the 6pm curfew. Or, so we thought. Whether it was over confidence or the after glow from our super relaxing afternoon, but about half way back to the tarmac, Bertha started struggling in the sand. Then we struggled some more. Then we stopped. We tried low gear but all Bertha could do was dig herself deeper into the sand. We were officially bogged!
Feeling decidedly embarrassed about being the only tourist bogged in the sand, I leapt out of Bertha, grabbed our shovel and started digging madly. We took turns flinging sand from around her tyres and under the axles. We dug and then put sand filled bags under our tyres. Bertha responded by ripping up the bags and digging herself deeper into the sand. We tried putting logs of wood under the tyres. Nothing. We lowered the pressure in our tyres even further. Nothing. Other 4WD’s zoomed past with a cheerful wave and all Bertha could do was get more stuck. And, as daylight waned and darkness came on we came to the helpful realisation that we had no headlights. Awesome!
This comedy of errors continued for at least an hour until a family of Russians pulled up to help us out. They got their rope out and we got our’s but even with the two connected they wouldn’t have been long enough. For them to stay on relatively hard ground and thus have a chance of pulling us out we needed at least 25 metres of rope and even with our powers combined we only had about 17. It wasn’t until we started trying to push Bertha out that Mr Russian pointed out that despite us having 4WD engaged our front wheels weren’t doing anything. Light bulb moment. We needed to lock the front wheels so that all our wheels would engage at once and turn at the same time. Finally, 1.5 hours after getting stuck and with us sweaty, more than a little sheepish and covered in sand, Bertha pulled herself out.
Bertha’s Sossusvlei adventure: the dark road home
Now we just had to drive the 60km back to camp in the dark with no lights. As the 6pm curfew came and went and the last vestiges of light disappeared we tentatively drove out into the dark. We tried holding one of our camp lights out the window but in the end just opted for moonlight. Thankfully it was a relatively full moon so as my eyes adjusted I could just make out the tarmac. After a while it was actually quite exhilarating to charging through this moonlit landscape with nothing but the wind in our ears. Still, we were quite relieved when a workmen’s vehicle returning to camp took pity on us and let us follow his headlights. We had pretty much had enough of our Sossusvlei adventure and were very happy to sit back at camp and crack a cold beer.
After the previous night’s adventures the following morning out at the dunes seemed rather tame. With no lights we couldn’t do the pre-dawn run with the rest of the hoards but still managed a beautiful sun rise out on the plains. We climbed dune 45 with a friendly Austrian and then made probably the best bacon and egg sarnie of all time at Sossusvlei. We wandered the desolate expanse of Dead vlei and took jump photos on the salt. And, best of all, we didn’t even get bogged on the way back.
Bertha’s Sossusvlei adventure: the fine print
- Being the country’s premier tourist attraction Sossessvlei can get rather busy in peak season so book ahead. Take care to book the actual National Park’s Sesriem campsite. That way, if you want to do dawn at the sand dunes you get an hour head start on everyone else. You also get an extra hour in the evening.
- We booked through madbookings.com which ended up being a bit of a debacle as they booked us into the wrong place 30km away. We got lucky and were able to sort it out at Sesriem but if possible avoid using them altogether. If you must book with madbookings.com ensure to fully read every email, every attachment and all the fine print.
- The camp site itself is well set up with a pretty cool looking lodge / reception / restaurant building / basic store. This then opens out onto the massively spread out camp site replete with swimming pool, powered (and non-powered) camp sites and hot water ablution blocks.
- There are two petrol stations at the camp. You can buy basic supplies at one of them plus also get your battered tyres fixed.
- While getting out to the dunes for sunrise is awesome we would also recommend being out there in the afternoon. By late morning most people start heading back to camp so from around 1pm – 4pm you’ll have the place to yourself. Sure it’s hot but it’s worth it.
- As the above might suggest, the 4WD only track to get out to Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei is rather sandy. If you’ve never driven in deep sand before and don’t fancy replicating our Sossusvlei adventure, lower your tyre pressure to 1-1.5 bar, engage 4WD and lock the hubs in your wheels. Hopefully if you do all this you won’t end up bogged