Climbing The Worlds Highest Sand Dunes – Sossusvlei Namibia
Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia, is home to a vast field of sand dunes, said to be the highest in the world. Dune 45, is not the highest. That honor goes to Big Daddy at 325m, however Dune 45 is by far the most popular for the pre-dawn climb.
As you drive through the park the dunes don't seem to be that impressive, until you edge closer and you realise that you are driving through a basin surrounded by rust colored sand for as far as your eye can see.
Here is how to visit and climb these massive sand dunes – If you can!
What is Sossusvlei and its Sand Dunes?
Sossus in the Nama language means “a gathering of water” & “Vlei” is Afrikaans means “a shallow lake”. Once you know this it is very clear that you are driving through what very much feels like a flood plain.
From all the information I've researched, this are has not been underwater for millions of years. However, coming from Australia and having seen the Diamantina river go from a 16km wide sandy flat to a raging torrent in a matter of 7-8 hours, I have to say it was a little unnerving for me.
Of course it's Namibia and the endless blue skies with not a cloud in sight did reassure me, however I did wonder if at any time a massive cyclone was to head down this coast, could this in fact turn into a shallow salt lake?
Obviously the millions of years as an arid or semi-arid environment means that just doesn't happen, but it is weird how your mind works. Mine in particular!
All About Dune 45
Dune 45, so named as it is 45km from the Sesruim Gate, is in the midst of this sea of sand and offers amazing views from the top. The only way to see these views of course is to climb the dune and starting out prior to dawn is the best way to do it.
The dune climb is tough.
Even though you are hiking up the spine, the sand is soft and loose and by the time you are half way up you are going two steps forward to one step back. I got to the top just prior to dawn but sitting with about 40 other people wasn't that appealing to me so I hiked back down about half way and sat on the edge of the dune to watch the sunrise.
There are varying reports as to how high Dune 45 is however Wikipedia tells me its 170 meters high.
The rust coloring of the sand is due to oxidization of the iron in the sand. The combination of the iron component and the garnet elements control the differing colors of the dunes. Basically the older the dune, the brighter red it is.
The Sossusvlei Namibian Sunrise From Dune 45
While the sunrise itself isn't super spectacular, the trick is to watch the environment around you. As the sun rises and the mauve of the sunrise morphs into a glowing golden hue, the dunes around you take on very different tones.
At this point, I realised that I was missing what were probably some amazing colors behind the dune I was perched on and quickly skated down to face back to the plain. In the shadow of the sunrise behind the dunes I managed to get some very surreal looking photos of the pink tinged dawn against the rust of the dunes.
!! – You do have to climb Dune 45 just prior to or at the dawn. Even in winter the sun scorches down onto the sand making it very hot and unbearable to be on by early-mid morning.
The height of the dune also makes it susceptible to very strong winds and the super fine sand particles can just sand blast you, not to mention get into your eyes if you are not careful. While you do it early to escape the heat, its also to escape the wind.
How to Get to Dune 45, Namibia
Dune 45 is about 380km from Swakopmund however this is Namibia and driving time isn't 1hr per 100km as it is in Australia. The best idea is to get yourself to Sesriem which is a jump off point for the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Dune 45 and Deadvlei, both in Sossusvlei.
Driving to Sesriem, Namibia
Driving is usually the best way to get around Namibia and car hire is pretty easy to find in Namibia. Be aware however that you will find you do have to pickup a car from either Swakopmund or Windhoek AND the car rental places are often closed all weekend. So you will have to plan around a Monday through Friday rental, or at the very least not plan to return your car over the weekend.
If you search and can't find any in Swakopmond, try Windhoek as it is bigger and is more common to find rental cars there. Usually you can get a car for around $75-$330 AUD per day as per the table below.
Update: Sept 2023 Prices
|Avg / Day AUD
|Small (VW Polo)
|Mid Size AWD (Rav4)
|Full Size 4WD (Hilux)
Flying to Sesriem
Alternatively you can fly from either Swakopmund or Windhoek to Sesriem airport, however it is worth knowing that you will still need to get the 75km from Sesrium airport to the town itself.
Westair flies once per day at 9am to Sesrium from Swakopmund (arriving at 9:40 am) and twice per day from Windhoek leaving at 10:30am and 3:50pm.
You hotel or lodge will usually be able to organise airport pickup and transfers for you, but check that they can before you book your flight. I have heard that some hotels will include transfers for stays or 3 nights or more.
Van Transfer to Sesriem from Windhoek or Swakopmund
I found this company that does transfers from either town on Trip Adviser, however once you get to the larger towns it is reasonably easy to find a company that does the transfers.
Where to Stay In Sesriem
Sesriem has camp sites and resorts so you should be able to find something to suit your budget. It is one place I would recommend you book though. It can get very busy in peak times. It is also not cheap compared with many other options around Namibia, mostly because of course you are a captive market in that area. Sesrium is a jump off point not only for Dune 45 but also for Dead Vlei.
Some Accommodation In Sesriem
Unless you want to self cater or camp, accommodation in Sesriem isn't cheap. There is limited availability and they do sell out quickly in the high season.
Desert Quiver Camp
Large nicely fitted out rooms. Amazing pool! From $147.50 USD per night for 2 guests
Desert Homestead Lodge
Great value from only $225 USD per night for 1 person. Dinner and breakfast is included!
Hoodia Desert Lodge
$399 USD (aprox) per night for 1 person. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included.
Dune 45 is about an hours drive from Sessriem and can be done in a standard car. To get to Dead Vlei further along this same road, you must have a 4wd.
Deadvlei is the area you see in photos with all the dead trees – that is the section that you need the 4wd for. Its very close but the road turns to sand after the Dune 45 carpark.
Overall you do need to remember that Dune 45 and Deadvlei are separate locations and you will need to drive between the two. There are carparks for both that cater to 2wd vehicles and transfers from the carpark into Deadvlei are available for a reasonable cost.
My post about Deadvlei has more info to help you.
Tours that visit Dune 45 & Sossusvlei
If you wanted to do a tour instead and leave the driving to someone else, Viator has a few tours available. Remember that to visit both of these sites you need to be up before the dawn so there are very few day trips available. You would have to leave too early so most of the tours that do the Dunes, Sossusvlei and Deadvlei are at least 2 days.
Remember to take your eyes off the sunrise and look out over the dunes behind you. The colors that are created in the shadow of the big dune during the sunrise are beautiful.
Meet Jenny, a passionate Australian travel blogger who has explored 103 countries to date. With over 30 years of travel experience, Jenny has a wealth of knowledge to share with her readers about the cultures, landscapes, and people she has encountered on her journeys. She's always battling unfashionably frizzy hair and you will never catch Jenny in anything but comfortable shoes. Learn more about Jenny and her travels.