Life in the World’s Oldest Desert 55 million years of burning amber dunes

By Abi King | Africa

Sep 16

The World’s Oldest Desert, Namibia

Is there life in the desert? Before Namibia, the very word desert conjured up images of wastelands, a world of emptiness scorched into never-ending death and  smothered in sand. (It also triggered a paranoid rush to the dictionary: Desert. Dessert. Bah!)

So, with competing thoughts of torched land and crème brulée, I reached the eastern edge of the Namib Desert, a 55 million year old expanse of burning amber dunes.

Covering 32 000 square metres, the Namib Desert resembles a blood-red ocean of waves from the air. On and on and on they stretch, reaching north to the Skeleton Coast and southwest to the Forbidden Territories.

Namib Desert from the air - showing swirling sand dunes in Africa

The Namib Desert From the Air

Yet there are dunes within dunes and a whole kaleidoscope of deserts within the Namib Naukluft Park. There are golden-brown dunes and earthy dunes, breadcrumbed dunes with scratchy balls of bleached quill grass. There are stretches of dry mud and even landscape that would look at home in a Vegas gangster film.

A whole kaleidoscope of deserts within the Namib Naukluft Park

At ground level, the two million year old Sesriem Canyon sinks into the earth with a creamy, crumbly crust – and then of course there’s Sossusvlei.

While Namib means “open space,” an apt phrase that describes the whole country, Sossusvlei means something else: “Dead Valley.”

Sossusvlei means something else: “Dead Valley.”

So said our local guide, although I’ve heard others call it “The Point of No Return.” An ominous translation, either way.

As recently as 1000 years ago, water flowed, or at least trickled, through the depression at Sossusvlei. As the temperature rose, the valley beds dried out, forming a natural clay jigsaw that became the playground of photographers’ dreams.

“The trees have died,” says Chester, our local guide. “But without water, they cannot rot.”

Sossusvlei: the graveyard of trees in Namibia's Namib Desert, Africa

Graveyard of Trees in Sossusvlei, Namibia

The trees in question have bolt upright trunks with stubby branches coloured a dark chocolate brown – Cadbury trees on the milky surface of the valley. In the distance, oryx stare at us, tilting their spiral horns in disbelief at our trespass through this natural graveyard.

While the trees may be dead, there’s still plenty of life scurrying across the sand (and I’m not just talking about the tourists on Dune 45.)

Etched into the surface of the desert are signature tracks from oryx and springbok, squiggles from snakes and scratches from ostriches. A whitebait spider waits, camouflaged with the stone, while birds with orange eyes swoop to steal unguarded food.

By night, jackals howl and scratch outside the tent, crunching the bleached grass as they saunter past, while just before sunrise, engines roar and rage as their wheels get stuck in the sand.

oryx standing on the red sand dunes near Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert, Namibia, Africa

Oryx in the Namib Desert

The Namib Desert is a visual indulgence but an audio nightmare. Its temperatures blister the skin by day and freeze the soul by night.

“It is a beautiful place,” says our bush pilot. “But no-one stays for long.”

There’s plenty of life in this desert – but it’s still no place for humans.

Animal Tracks in the Namib Desert


About the Author

Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on

Jen Laceda September 16, 2010

I’m DYING to visit Namibia – the desert, Skeleton Coast, for safari! If only I can find a cheap airfare from Toronto. It’s around $3,000 to fly to Windhoek from here. So sad that I can’t afford it :( One day…I’ll find a way…

Sonya September 19, 2010

I’m fascinated by deserts. So this stunning post and photos really resonated with me. Thanks so much!

Suhasini September 19, 2010

I have never been to desert. I wish I should visit Namibia and write about the same in my travel blog. Btw, good informative post.

A unique travel blog

Donna Hull September 19, 2010

Ah, Dune 45. Two years ago, I was one of those tourists climbing that undulating mound of sand. I enjoyed your powerful description, especially the play on words between desert and dessert.

Jason September 23, 2010


Hauntingly beautiful place. Nice photos and a very interesting story.

“The trees have died,” says Chester, our local guide. “But without water, they cannot rot.”

Very ecocative quote.


Abi King September 26, 2010

Thanks to everyone for taking the time to comment.

@Jen – ouch! (Although it may be worth looking into flights into South Africa and then driving up? I know that SA flights from Europe are often much cheaper than the direct ones.)

@Donna – Good old Dune 45!

@Sonya, @Suhasini, @Jason – comments like this keep me going. Cheers!

Michael Hodson September 30, 2010

One of my favorite countries. Wish my pictures of Sossusvlei would have turned out as good as yours. They are great!

Leigh October 1, 2010

My first stop on a 2 1/2 week trip to Naimibia was Sossusvlei. It’s hard to believe something so barren can be so beautiful. Lovely photos. I found the rest of the country magical too. We rented a car and drove all over with no issues whatsoever. And The Cardboard Box company out of Namibia arranged all the details…perfectly.

Víctor October 14, 2010

Wow, just reading the article leaves your mouth dry! It’s weird because I’ve been to some desertic areas and none looked like this one.

Great post!

Eddie Tours November 3, 2010

Wow! this is beautiful. Namibia is renowned for its fantastic dunes, contrasting landscapes to offer a great holiday opportunity especially for more adventurous. Swakopmund and Etosha Pan are exceptional tourist splendors. I commend the author for this wonderful blog. It is pretty nice.

    Abi King November 3, 2010

    Thank you…although I’m not sure I agree with you about Swakopmund! Watch this space for an article on my impressions of this grey & windswept town ;)

Akila February 8, 2011

Abi, We loved Soussuvlei as well, and, we too, thought that Swakopmund was a bit dreary . . . though ATV racing was awesome there! The dunes were amongst the most impressive places we have ever been.

Angela March 2, 2011

So gorgeous, deserts are always fascinating, I am literally in love with endless sandy dunes. I’d love to visit Namibia’s desert, I’ll have to add it to my list :)

Abi King March 7, 2011

Haha! Glad to hear I’m not the only one to have found Swakopmund on the dreary side…although we didn’t get to race at all. On the plus side, Angela, I haven’t yet heard of anyone who was disappointed once they reached the Namib Desert..Enjoy!

Comments are closed