It is quite an eerie experience when the silence is so profoundly deep that it roars in your ears. The vastness of space seems to swallow everything and you are left feeling tiny; insignificant against the towering walls of red sand that enclose the vast arena where you stand. Still and silent, the skeletons of trees long dead raise their boughs to the sky in a kind of preparation; a graceful slow dance with its movements in epochs rather than moments. Time slows.
This is the scene that presents itself when you explore the extraordinary Dead Vlei in Namibia’s Namib Naukluft National Park. Although it is one of the world’s most photographed places, every time that I visit I still feel that sense of wonder and amazement that I first did on seeing it some twenty years ago. If you time it right, it is also possible to stand on the hard encrusted surface completely alone without any other visitors. The trick is to timing it properly.
The Namib Naukluft Park is the large desert area north of Luderitz and south of Walvis Bay on Namibia’s desert coastline (south of Luderitz is the Sperregebiet desert and north of Walvis Bay is the Skeleton Coast). Encompassing a large portion of the Namib desert, the park is just shy of 50,000 square kilometres in size. It is ironically known for the rust red dunes that are caused by oxidation taking place in the iron rich sands. The desert is home to the world’s tallest sand dunes, some of which reach as high as 300m above ground level.
The area that most people associate with the Namib desert, as well as the park, is the corridor along which the ancient Sossus River flows. This has been colloquially named ‘Dune Alley’ and can be clearly seen from satellite imagery as a spear of white between ripples of red. The river is essentially blocked from continuing on to the ocean by the red dunes that close in on it around the marsh known as Sossusvlei. Periodically rains come down and the river flows strongly enough to flood the vlei (marsh). For most years though the vlei lies dry, cracked earth making impressive jigsaw puzzle patterns, with a ring of green acacia trees surviving thanks to their deep tap root systems.
Access to the corridor is very easy considering that there is a tarred road that runs all the way from the main gate at Sesriem through to a parking lot at the end of the hard gravel bed at the base of the dunes, and the beginning of the soft vlei sands. After the parking lot you either have to travel further on foot or with the aid of a four wheel drive vehicle that is capable of traversing soft deep sand in low range gears. The last few kilometres to Sossusvlei and the walking path to Dead Vlei are all driven on soft sand that inexperienced drivers invariably get bogged down in. Often one finds a group of vehicles stuck in the sand as drivers stop to help, only to find themselves also stuck in the sand. For this reason there is a tractor stationed at the parking lot where parks board officials help retrieve vehicles. There is also a tractor driven shuttle (as well as several smaller game viewer vehicles) that shunt guests to and from the Sossusvlei.
As a photographer though, the best way to see the area is in a four wheel drive vehicle. As long as you are confident of your driving abilities, getting to the parking area for Dead Vlei is relatively simple. From here it is then possible to set out on foot for the one kilometre walk to the Dead Vlei. This walk is predominantly over soft red sand that seems to swallow your feet, so it can feel like quite an arduous workout. Still, I have visited the Dead Vlei on numerous occasions with photographers aged all the way to their mid 80s. Just make sure to keep your pack light, wear a hat and sunscreen, keep plenty of water with you and take it slow. Finding the path is really simple most of the time as there are dozens of footprints heading towards the vlei.
Of course as a photographer you want to avoid the owners of the footprints that so conveniently mark the path to the Dead Vlei. This is where timing comes in. If, and only if, you stay at the Park’s tented lodge called Sossus Dune Lodge, you are able to get access to the dunes a full hour before the main gates open. If you wake early and are ready to go, often the park ranger will allow you to leave the lodge a few minutes earlier too. This means that it is theoretically possible to get to the dunes (a 60km drive followed by a 1km walk) before the sun rises! I say theoretically for the the simple reason that sometimes the ranger is late (usually not), sometimes you get a flat, perhaps you might get stuck. It is for this reason that I always recommend spending more than one day in the Namib Naukluft National Park if you are wanting to do any serious photography.
In the past it was possible to make an arrangement to see the Dead Vlei at night and photograph the trees under starlight. Unfortunately the extraordinary increase in tourists, some of which have little respect for the mores and graces of visiting sites like these, coupled to an incident a few year’s ago involving some photographers who had permission to be there and some tourists who did not, has meant that access to the dunes outside of the park’s gate times is nigh on impossible for most photographers. This is a shame, but it is still possible to catch the tail end of the evening if you stay in the right place and hustle when the time comes to get on the road to Sossusvlei.
If the lodge is a little pricey, or full (you need to plan this in advance, we book rooms for our workshops a full year in advance), then there is still the option to camp near the gate at the dedicated park campsite. Beyond this are a number of lodges and campsites, but all require you to wait at the gate for the opening time, which happens to be sunrise. Staying inside the park (at the lodge or the dedicated campsite gives the advantage of access to the park a full hour before sunrise).
Regardless of how you get there, standing among the fossilised acacia trees is an extraordinary experience. Some 500 years ago - or so it’s estimated - the dunes cut off the Dead Vlei from the rest of the Sossus River floodplain, leaving the trees to slowly die. Due to the extremely hot and dry conditions the trees essentially dried out, rather than rotting to dust. They stand now like dark and silent skeletons dotting the edge of the vlei where the last of the water must have stood centuries ago. Now the dry cracked earth only gets wet when there is the occasional storm that passes over, leaving the ground a muddy quagmire. The trees themselves form ghostly patterns, like ballet dancers fixed in position for eternity. It’s no surprise that some of the trees have even been given nicknames like, ‘the ballerina’ and ‘the dancers’.
Walking among the trees as a photographer you are likely to come across many of the same compositions that have already been created. With so many tourists every year, it’s impossible not to. This shouldn’t detract from the experience, or the opportunity for that matter of doing something new. Every time I return I find another reason to come back again. Whether it’s the way a shadow falls, or a new arrangement of the cracks in the soil, there is always something worth exploring with the lens. If you time it right to be the first one onto the vlei, or the last one to leave (only do this if you are staying at the lodge), then you are likely to have the amazing scene to yourself, so the earth can spin and you can feel tiny in the universe, and the silence can roar.
All images and text copyright Emil von Maltitz and Nature's Light