In the Namib-Naukluft National Park, in the central Namib Desert is a strange and alien landscape.
Found among towering red dunes is an area known as Sossusvlei. The dunes that surround the area are rich red and owe their red color to age, as over the thousands of years, the sand has literally rusted.
Sossusvlei itself is a salt/clay pan; a wide, flat, salt-covered expanse with a dense and compact layer of clay in the subsoil. When dry, Sossusvlei is hard and arid, and when wet, as it gets every 5-10 years when fed by the Tsauchab River, it becomes sticky and plastic. For the Tsauchab River the area is its final destination, and even in the wettest of years the river is simply soaked away into the salt/clay pan, giving the area its nickname, "place of no return." Altogether the blue sky, red dunes and white pans make a striking vision, reminiscent of movies such as "The Fall," "The Cell," and "Steel Dawn."
Near by is yet another "place of no return" this one even older, and much more dead than Sossusvlei. Known as Dead Vlei or "dead marsh" (Vlei being Afrikaans for a type of marsh) it is found among the tallest dunes in the world, reaching some 400 meters or 1,312 feet high, taller than the Empire State Building. The tallest of the dunes even has its own nickname, "Big Daddy." Dead Vlei was once like Sossusvlei, with the river draining into it and nourishing desert life and even trees, but no longer. Some 900 years ago the climate dried up, and dunes cut off Dead Vlei from the river.
It became so dry in Dead Vlei that not only did the trees die, but it became too dry for the trees to even decompose, and they simply scorched black in the sun, monuments to their own destruction. The trees, now over a 1000 years old (it is believed they were living for some 200 years before the climate shifted again), form a barren forest of ancient dead trees, frozen much as they were some 900 years ago.
Don't let the area fool you however, as it is not entirely without life. Salsola’ and clumps of ‘Nara’ stay alive by subsisting off of morning mists.
It is a long 70 km drive from the park gates to the dunes of Sossusvlei and Dead Vlei. One of the many reasons to go is to experience the sun rise (or sun set) over the huge red sand dunes of the Namib desert. The skies which are among the clearest on the planet provide striking visions of sunset, sunrise and the stars.