Remotely located in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, Sossusvlei is known for its spectacular orange sand dunes and ancient clay pans. This is one of those places that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Looking out over the dunes, you feel like you’re on another planet. In this guide, I explain, step-by-step, how to visit Sossusvlei independently and on a budget. No tour is required to make this trip. I also outline all of the landmarks and attractions in the area as well as list a couple of noteworthy places to visit along the way so you don’t miss anything on this once in a lifetime trip.
What is Sossusvlei?
Sossusvlei refers to an area in the Namib-Naukluft National Park in the Namib Desert in Southwestern Namibia. This part of Namibia contains some of the tallest and most impressive sand dunes in the world. The region is also the oldest desert in the world. The landscape is truly one of a kind.
Sossusvlei is the name of one particular clay and salt pan but often is used to refer to the surrounding area as well. This includes Deadvlei, Dune 45, and the nearby Big Daddy, and more. The entry to the area is located in the nearby town of Sesriem, Namibia.
How was Sossusvlei Formed?
A vlei is a small, shallow pool or marsh area that usually only contains water for part of the year. The vleis in the Sossusvlei area were formed by the flooding of the Tsauchab river. During heavy rainy seasons, water flows into the area and settles on the vlei. Originally, this was just a flat or low area in the desert where the water could collect. As the water flows in, it carries salt and clay along with it. When the water evaporates, the salt and clay residue is left behind. This residue has built up over thousands of years and forms the white salty crust.
These days, flooding in the area is a rare event. The river is usually dry and water only flows into Sossusvlei several times per decade.
Deadvlei is another pan located about 2 kilometers from Sossusvlei. At one time, this area was a desert oasis where acacia trees grew in the marshes that formed in the area during the rainy season. At some point, the river that supplied the vlei with water changed course and cut off the flow of water to the vlei. This most likely happened due to climate change several hundred years ago. The trees died and are preserved where they stood due to the high heat and low humidity in the area.
Deadvlei was, to me, the most beautiful and fascinating part of the area. It is also one of the most picturesque places that I have ever visited in all of my travels.
How to Get to Sossusvlei from Windhoek
Most trips to Sossusvlei start in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital city. To get there from nearby parts of Africa, you can follow my step-by-step bus guides:
From Windhoek, you have two options to travel to Sossusvlei
- Book a tour-This is the easiest and most stress-free way to visit Sossusvlei. The tour company will take care of everything including transportation, accommodation, park entry, and food. The drawback to this is that it’s expensive. Budget tours start around 6000 Namibian dollars or around 435 USD and go up from there. If you wait until you arrive in Windhoek and shop around a bit, you may be able to negotiate a bit better last-minute deal.
- Visit independently- This is the cheaper option. It requires that you rent a car and drive yourself out to Sossusvlei. The more people you have to split costs with, the cheaper it will be. For two people, expect to pay around 3000 Namibian dollars or 215 USD per person. As you can see, this method costs about half of what the organized tour costs. Below, I will explain, step-by-step, how to visit Sossusvlei independently.
How to Visit Sossusvlei Without a Tour
This trip takes a bit of planning. You have to consider car rental, accommodation, and food. Someone in your group needs to have a drivers license. You can make this trip in 2 days and one night without feeling too rushed. For a bit more relaxed pace, plan for 3 days.
Below, I will detail the absolute cheapest options for making this trip. If you prefer more comfort, you can easily upgrade to a larger vehicle, hotel accommodation, or better food.
Step 1: Rent a Car in Windhoek
The car rental is the most expensive part of the trip. The good news is that you can split this cost among everyone in your group. The more people you have, the less the car will cost per person.
You will need to rent the car for 3 days. After spending the first day driving there and the second day visiting Sossusvlei and the other sites in the area, you won’t arrive back in Windhoek until after the rental agencies have closed. If you rushed, you could probably make it back in time to return the car and only have to pay for 2 days of rental but you will have to miss out on some sites. I recommend you rent the car for 3 days with so there is no hurry.
You have several options for cars:
- Sedan- This is the cheapest option. A simple 2 wheel drive economy car with a manual transmission. It can hold 5 people including the driver. Rentals cost about 600 Namibian dollars per day or about 43 USD. This is the option I went with.
- SUV- These are slightly more expensive but hold more people and have more space for luggage. They are also a bit more comfortable because their suspension is designed for the type of terrain that you will encounter on the drive to Sossusvlei. Much of the trip is on dirt roads. Rental prices for SUVs start around 1200 Namibian dollars or 86 USD per day.
- 4X4- Many people will recommend a 4 wheel drive vehicle for this trip. It makes the drive a bit easier. The drawback is that a 4 wheel drive rental costs a bit more. Rental prices start around 1200 Namibian dollars or 86 USD per day.
You can find rental agencies all over the city. I rented a sedan from a place called Savana Car Hire. They are located at Trift Street 80, Southern Industrial, Windhoek, Namibia.
I don’t make any money recommending these guys. I just rented the car from them and had a good experience with their service. Other similar agencies can be found throughout Windhoek. I recommend you do a bit of research before choosing a company so you can get the best rate.
Do You Need a 4 Wheel Drive Vehicle to Visit Sossusvlei?
No, you don’t need a 4X4 to make this trip, even though everyone will tell you that you do. All of the roads are passable in a regular 2 wheel drive economy car. With that being said, some sections of the road are sandy and much of the trip takes you over gravel roads. The ride is rough at times. For a more comfortable ride, you may want to consider renting a 4 wheel drive vehicle if your budget is higher.
A Note About Tires:
Check Your Spare Tires Before you Leave Windhoek. The car we rented came equipped with two spares. Both were bald and cracking on the sidewall. We had a flat when we arrived at the campground in Sesriem and put on one of the spares. The spare tire blew out on our way back and was completely destroyed. Luckily the second spare got us back to Windhoek.
We were nervous that the rental agency would try to charge us for the destroyed tire when we returned the car. After showing them the condition of the tread, they agreed that it wasn’t our fault and apologized for renting us a car with unsafe tires. There was no extra charge for flat repair or the destroyed tire.
Step 2: Organize your Accommodation in Sossusvlei
You will be spending at least one night in Sesriem. Most people choose to camp as it is the cheapest option. For camping, you have four options:
- Sleep in your own tent- If you are traveling in Africa, you should be carrying a tent. It comes in handy often and saves you a lot of money along the way.
- Sleep in your vehicle- It’s not the most comfortable option, but it’s free. Remember to bring a blanket or you can just sleep in your clothes.
- Rent camping gear from the car rental agency- Most car rental places also rent camping gear. For just a few dollars per day, you can rent a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat. If you aren’t traveling with your own, this is still a pretty cheap option.
- Rent a vehicle with a camper- Most rental agencies offer 4X4s with rooftop tent campers installed. Rental prices start at around 1400 Namibian dollars or 100 USD per day for a vehicle equipped with a camper for 2 people.
Tip: One thing to consider when choosing accommodation in Sesriem is the park gates. There are two entry gates to Sossusvlei. If you stay within the first gate, you will be allowed to enter the park an hour before everyone who stays outside the gate. You will also be allowed to stay an hour longer as the outside gate closes first.
This means that you will get to enjoy the park during the best viewing times, sunrise and sunset. You will also arrive at each site slightly before the big crowd arrives. This is valuable as the park gets really crowded, especially during peak season. I recommend you pay a bit more to stay within the park gates if your budget allows.
Sesriem Campground Options
In Sesriem, there are two campgrounds to choose from. They are located right next to each other just outside the gates to Sossusvlei.
- Sesriem Camp- This one is located inside the first gate. Camping costs 350 Namibian dollars or about 25 USD per night. There is a maximum of 8 people per campsite. You can pay with cash or card. For more information and to make reservations, check out their website here.
- Sossus Oasis Camp Site- This one is located just outside the first gate. Camping costs 210 Namibian dollars or about 15 USD per night. They have a minimum of 2 people per campsite. You can pay in cash or by card at the service station. For more information and to make reservations, check out their website here.
I stayed at Sesriem Camp. I expected a very basic campsite in the desert, but it’s actually pretty luxurious for a campground. They have a big wooden building with a restaurant, full bar, small convenience shop, and common room. The bathrooms have hot showers. Each campsite comes equipped with a fire pit and water spigot. There is a pool in the center of the campground. Much of the site is shaded by camel thorn trees.
Tip- It gets cold in the desert at night. I slept with my jacket on and was still freezing. I probably had one of the worst nights sleep in my life here. Remember to bring a warm sleeping bag or blanket along with you. I could see my breath in the morning. It was that cold.
Hotels in Sesriem
If you prefer not to camp, several hotels are available but they are not for budget travelers.
- Sossusvlei Lodge- This is the most upscale hotel in the area. It is located just outside the gates to Sossusvlei near Sesriem Camp. I took a walk around this place and it was absolutely beautiful. It’s like an oasis in the desert.
- Desert Camp- Another great hotel option nearby. This one is slightly cheaper but gets the highest rating in the area.
Tip: Stay Up to View the Milky Way at Sossusvlei
Be sure to stay up until after dark to enjoy the night sky. There is almost no light pollution out in the Namib desert. You can clearly see the Milky Way and the Southern Cross. I had never seen a night sky so spectacular in my life. I think I was the last one to go to sleep in the whole campground because I was so impressed with the stars. Where I live, there is so much light pollution that sometimes I can’t see a single star. Seeing that sky alone was worth the trip out there.
Step 3: Plan your Meals
If you are on a budget, you’ll want to make a stop at a grocery store in Windhoek to stock up on food for the trip before you hit the road. There are no cooking facilities available to guests at the campsites so you’ll have to bring foods that are pre-prepared or require no cooking to eat. Count the number of meals that you will need and plan accordingly. I recommend you buy things like:
- Canned tuna
- Fruits and veggies
- Canned beans
- Dried meats
- Peanut butter
If your budget is less tight, all of the hotels and campgrounds have restaurants. During the drive, you will also pass through a few small towns where you can stop at restaurants, grocery stores, or gas stations for food. There are also small convenience shops at the campgrounds where you can buy snacks and basic foods, though prices will be higher.
Step 4: Plan your Route from Windhoek to Sossusvlei
The drive from Windhoek to Sesriem, where you will be camping, is about 333 kilometers or 207 miles. Roads for the first half of the drive are in excellent condition. The second half takes you over rough gravel and a bit of sand. Namibia is a very sparsely populated country so traffic is light once you get out of Windhoek. In Namibia, you drive on the left side of the road. The drive is a bit tricky. I recommend you look at the map before you leave Windhoek so you have an idea of the route in your head.
How to Drive from Windhoek to Sesriem
- From Windhoek, get on highway B1 going south and continue for about 100 kilometers or 62 miles until you reach the town of Rehoboth.
- Just past the town, take a right onto highway C24.
- Follow C24 west for about 38 kilometers or 23 miles.
- You will approach a fork in the road. Take a right onto highway D1261.
- Continue west on D1261 for about 58 kilometers or 36 miles.
- You will approach another fork in the road. Take a right onto highway D1275.
- Continue on D1275 for about 50 kilometers or 31 miles.
- The road will hit highway C14. Take a right.
- Follow C14 for about 10 kilometers or 6 miles until you reach the town of Solitare. This is a good place to stop for gas, rest, and use the bathroom.
- From Solitare, take a right off of highway C14 and onto highway C19.
- Follow C19 for 71 kilometers or 44 miles.
- Turn off on highway D826. Follow the road for about 12 kilometers or 7 miles.
- You will end up in the small town of Sesriem, where you will be staying for the night.
Once You Arrive in Sesriem
Depending on the time you left Windhoek, and the stops you made along the way, you may not arrive in Sesriem until after dark. I recommend you set up camp then spend the rest of the evening relaxing at the campsite. Have a few beers at the bar, enjoy a nice dinner, and get a good night sleep in preparation for the busy following day.
When I arrived in Sesriem, it was already getting dark. We noticed our tire getting flat just as we drove into our campsite. We ended up putting on the spare in the dark. Unfortunately, because of the soft sand, our car slipped off the jack stand just after we removed the flat tire. After a bit of digging and a lot of swearing, we were able to fit the jack under the car and jack it up enough to get the spare tire on. Needless to say, we needed some beers after that ordeal.
How to Drive from Sesriem to Sossusvlei
Sesriem is just outside the gate to the park. Try to wake up about an hour before sunrise so you have time to dress, shower, and be in your car at the gate by sunrise, when the gate opens.
There is only one road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei. You won’t get lost. The drive is about 60 kilometers or 37 miles.
Stops to Make Between Windhoek and Sesriem
To break up the long ride from Windhoek to Sesriem, you may want to stop and see a couple of sites along the way.
The Tropic of Capricorn
This stop will take you about 5-10 miles out of the way. It’s a unique place to stop for a picture in front of the sign and stretch your legs. The Tropic of Capricorn is a significant line of latitude on the globe. It is the furthest south point where the sun can shine directly overhead. Currently, it is about 23.44 degrees south of the equator. The exact latitude shifts slightly each year.
How to Visit the Tropic of Capricorn in Namibia
To visit the Tropic of Capricorn, continue south from Windhoek on highway B1. Instead of turning off on highway C24, just keep going for a few miles past the town of Rehoboth. You will see the sign on the left. There is a gravel turnoff where you can park.
After your visit, turn back the way you came for a few miles and turn left onto highway C24 just before reaching Rehoboth.
Relax and Enjoy a Piece of Pie in Solitaire
Solitaire is a quirky little town you pass through on your way to Sossusvlei. In the town, you will find a service station, restaurant, cafe, bakery, convenience store, restrooms, and a hotel. The cafe is famous for its apple pie. Near the entrance there a few old rusted out cars, trucks, and tractors sitting in the sand. Posing on one of the old vehicles is an excellent photo opportunity in the Namib Desert.
Most overland tours stop in Solitaire for a rest so the place can get pretty busy. This is a nice place to take a break from driving and get out of the sun for a while.
Driving and Parking at Sossusvlei
There is only one road that you will take through the whole park. You drive in and drive out the same way. The first 60 kilometers is paved and accessible with any vehicle. At the end of this road, there is a sand parking lot. This is called 2WD parking. This means that it is accessible by a 2 wheel drive vehicle.
The final 6 kilometers of road is deep sand. The parking lot at the end is called 4X4 parking. This is the road that will take you to all of the sites including Dead Vlei, Hidden Vlei, Big Daddy, Big Mama, and Sossusvlei. I will describe each site in detail below.
If you arrived in a 2 wheel drive car, you have four options to get to 4X4 parking:
- Pay for a shuttle ride through the last 6 kilometers- There is a shuttle running every 15 minutes or so between the 2WD parking and 4X4 parking. The cost is around 250 Namibian dollars or 18 USD, I believe.
- You can take your chances and try making the drive in your 2 wheel drive vehicle- If you are an experienced driver it is possible to make the drive. We did it. Lower your tire pressure to about 1.7 bar or 25 psi and keep driving until you reach the parking lot. Whatever you do, don’t stop in the middle of the sand or you will get stuck. If you do get stuck, you’re not stranded. Someone will stop and tow you out with their 4X4 vehicle. It would be embarrassing though.
- Hitchhike- This is probably frowned upon, but you could ask people with a 4 wheel drive to give you a ride. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Maybe offer some snacks in return.
- Walk- It’s 12 kilometers round trip. The walk is possible but it will be hot and sandy. Not worth it in my opinion. If you do attempt the walk, make sure you have plenty of water.
If you arrived in a 4 wheel drive vehicle, you should be able to drive to 4X4 parking pretty easily. You may want to consider lowering the pressure of your tires to 1.7 bar or 25 psi just to be safe. Before letting any air out, make sure you have a pump so you can fill them back up once you return to the main road.
Once you hit the deep sand, don’t stop moving until you reach the parking lot. Ask the rental agency for off-road driving tips before you leave with the car. They should be able to give you a good idea what to expect.
Remember, if you do get stuck, there are a lot of vehicles making this drive all day long. You won’t be stranded. Someone will be able to pull you out. The park gets pretty crowded even though the location is remote.
Top Sites to See in Sossusvlei
Sossusvlei actually only refers to one particular clay pan. The park is called Namib-Naukluft National Park. After you enter the second gate, you have about a 66 kilometer drive to Sossusvlei. Make the following stops on the way.
The name Dune 45 comes from the fact that the dune is about 45 kilometers from the park entry in Sesriem. The top of the dune is the most popular place to watch the sunrise. I recommend you drive directly here after you enter the park.
A small cracked sign indicates the turn into the Dune 45 parking area. You will have a short walk over the gravel to the base of the dune then the race against the sun begins. The goal is to reach the top to watch the sun rise over the Namib Desert. Dune 45 is about 170 meters tall. If you make it in time, the view is spectacular.
The climb isn’t too difficult. Anyone with a moderate level of fitness should be able to easily make the hike up to the top. The sand adds some difficulty but overall, the climb is doable.
Tip: If you are climbing dune 45 in the morning to catch the sunrise, consider making the climb barefoot. I love the feeling of the cool sand between my toes. As an added bonus, you won’t get sand in your shoes. If you’re climbing later in the day, the sun will heat the sand up to a point that it will burn your feet.
For me, Dead Vlei was the highlight of the trip. It is the most picturesque part of the whole park. To reach Dead Vlei, continue driving about 15 kilometers from Dune 45. There is a sand parking lot and a sign pointing toward the vlei. You’ll have to walk about 10-15 minutes into the desert to reach the vlei. You can’t see it from the parking lot.
Dead Vlei was once a desert oasis. The Tsauchab river would flood and fill the pan with water. Camelthorn trees grew in the pan. The climate changed and the area became more dry. As the surrounding dunes shifted, the vlei was cut off from water. The trees died and everything dried out. Hence the name, Dead Vlei.
The change in climate happened around 600-700 years ago. Many people call the trees petrified. This is not true. They don’t decompose simply because the desert is too dry. The trees intensity of the sun scorched the trees black.
Big Daddy, located next to Dead Vlei is the largest dune in the area. It reaches a height of 325 meters. It’s like a skyscraper in the desert. For a birds-eye view of the area, you can climb to the top of the dune and look down on the Dead Vlei pan. If you decide to make the climb, make sure you’re prepared. Bring plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen.
I’ll admit, I didn’t make the climb. The heat of the day was setting in and I was still recovering from hiking up Dune 45. I did enjoy watching others hiking up the side of the dune. From the ground, they looked like ants climbing an anthill.
Sossusvlei is a salt and clay pan which was created by the flooding of the Tsauchab river. Whenever the river flooded, salt and clay were deposited in the pan. These deposits built up over the years. These days, because the climate has changed, the river rarely floods. Sossusvlei is dry for most of the year. There are still a few trees and shrubs growing in the pan.
I found this to be the least interesting of the vleis in the area. If you are lucky and get to visit during a flood, it would be a very unique site to see. It is interesting to see plants growing in one of the driest deserts in the world.
The Sesriem Canyon is located just 4.5 kilometers from the Sossusvlei entry gate. It was created by the Tsauchab River flowing through the area over the course of several million years. Water can be found in the canyon year round.
There is a parking lot just outside of the canyon. You can hike down to the bottom and weave your way through. This is a good place to visit at the end of the day on your way back to camp because the walls of the canyon make for a shady walk out of the intense Namibian sun.
Hidden Vlei is the least visited of all of the vleis in the area. The only way to access it is a 4 kilometer walk from Sossusvlei. The route to the vlei is clearly marked by white signs.
This is another large dune located across from Big Daddy and Dead Vlei. It is slightly smaller. You can also hike up Big Mama.
Some dunes throughout the area have solidified over the years and turned into rock. This is another interesting geological site to see.
Tips for Visiting Sossusvlei
I’ll wrap things up by giving a few additional tips to make your visit to Sossusvlei a bit more smooth.
- Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting sandy- You will find sand everywhere for the next few days.
- Bring closed toe shoes- In the morning, you can walk over the cool sand barefoot or in sandals. After the sun comes up, the sand will quickly be heated up and become too hot to walk on without shoes.
- Bring plenty of water- After you enter the park, there is nowhere to buy water. The desert gets hot. You will be sweating a lot. Consider adding hydration salts to your water to help stay hydrated.
- Wear sunblock- The sun is very intense in the desert. You will burn quickly if you don’t stay covered up.
- Bring warm clothes to wear in the evening and early morning- Even though it’s hot during the day, the desert really cools off at night. I could see my breath when I got up in the morning. I nearly froze in the tent while camping. My biggest regret of the trip was not bringing a warmer jacket to sleep in.
- Pack a lunch and plenty of snacks- Once you enter the park, there is nowhere to get food unless you drive all the way back to camp.
- Take a rest- Walking around in the heat can get exhausting. Take a break in the shade or in your vehicle once in a while.
- Be careful with your belongings- Sand and electronics don’t mix well, for example.
- Take your time when driving- road conditions are bad for much of this trip. There is no need to race out there. Just drive carefully.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Sossusvlei
If you’re in Namibia, Sossusvlei is a must-see destination. It was one of my favorite places I have visited in all of my travels. Organizing your own trip from Windhoek can be done for less than $200 including transportation, food, accommodation, and park fees.
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