Immense, magnificent sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see in colours from deep red to bright white. They hide surreal landscapes of dead trees and parched, cracked earth - a photographer's paradise.
We arrived in Windhoek early afternoon and picked up our 4x4 - not without a little difficulty as we refused to take Budget's first offering which had broken canopy locks and so no security! The drive into Windhoek was easy and we found the Olive Grove, where we were staying for one night, without any problem. After a good meal at the Olive Grove Exclusive next door we had a very good night's sleep.
The following day we were given a message that Budget had forgotten to give us a folder of documents so we were delayed half an hour while we waited for them to be delivered, time we used to go and get very large plastic containers of water.
I was very apprehensive about driving on the gravel roads. Out of WIndhoek there is a good stretch of tarmac road leading south, enlivened by packs of baboons on the roadside. Soon enough, however, we turned off to head towards Sossusvlei and almost immediately the tarmac gave way to gravel.
As it happens this was one of the worst stretches we drove on. As complete novices we were rapidly revising the amount of time it was going to take us to get to Hoodia Desert Lodge, our next stop in Sossusvlei. The D854 was very ridged and stoney - they're all stoney but the degree of ridging depends on how recently they have been graded. One driving method, which makes for a more comfortable ride, is to go quite fast, within the speed limit, but the chances of losing control or bursting a tyre rise.
To begin with the landscape was quite flat, then hummocky hills began to appear and, later, mountains. Often there were telegraph poles lining the road with cables looping between them.
The Olive Grove had made us a packed lunch so we didn't have to stop and after over five hours of careful driving we reached our destination, Hoodia Desert Lodge, greeted with cold, wet flannels and a cool drink by the very friendly owner.
We loved Hoodia. It has only twelve "cabins" strung out in a well-spaced line either side of reception and the restaurant. We were in 9 and it was lovely to get in and take showers - me outside, Andrew inside. I loved the outside shower but placed a strategic wrap, anchored with stones, over one of the windows through which I could see the next cabin!
Each has a shady area to sit outside with comfortable chairs; with not a sound to be heard except the rustlings of the bush it is very peaceful.
We sat outside for a while then went for a sundowner on the terrace - an excellent complimentary gin and tonic with home-made bread sticks.
A good meal, excellent merlot, lots of water to drink and an early night in preparation for our 4:45 am alarm to go ballooning!
On the walk back to the cabin we could see millions of stars and the Milky Way.
This morning we did something everyone tells you not to do - we drove in the dark! We had no choice really as we had to meet the balloon company at Sossusvlei Lodge inside the park. We could actually see quite well and kept a good eye out for animals - one stately oryx crossed the road in front of us, a magnificent creature.
We arrived in good time and were then driven a further 30km to the launch site. A pre-dawn start had us in the air for a brilliant balloon trip, over a dry river bed - though the river is still running about 40m underground - and on to the beautiful red dunes of Sossusvlei.
Unlike Cappadocia there were just two balloons flying and the skies were otherwise empty. We were in an eight-person basket which is great because everyone can get a corner and better views.
Sossusvlei lies in the southern part of the great Namib Desert, one of the oldest deserts on earth along with the Atacama Desert in Chile. These are the highest sand dunes on earth, many rising over 200m above the surrounding sea of sand, the highest here is Big Daddy at 325m. They get their reddish colour from iron oxides - the oldest dunes are the deepest colour.
The dunes are not totally devoid of life. There were quite a lot of grasses on the lower slopes of dunes and these are becoming more prevalent as the area gets more rain (during our last night in the area there was a huge thunderstorm!). Acacia trees are very hardy and we saw a number of oryx sheltering from the sun beneath their branches.
The dunes appeared an intense surreal red as the first rays of the sun struck them, turning orange as the sun rose higher in the sky.
We drifted steadily towards the dunes on a beautifully clear morning. Our pilot then announced we'd go play in the dunes for a while! This was great fun, ascending and descending to view the lovely grasses on the lower slopes and animal tracks in the sand.
We were a good hour in the air before being expertly landed on the back of the balloon trailer and whisked off for a champagne breakfast in the dunes.
It was a fantastic breakfast with juices, muesli/yoghourt/raspberry compote, salami, a dried zebra meat which is very dark and very good, cheeses, pancakes and sugar syrup, home-baked bread, lots of lovely jams, fresh croissants and pains au chocolat, coffee, teas and lots of champagne.
The whole operation is run by a father and son team with a very competent ground crew. The father had twenty years experience of ballooning. He came from the Congo, moved to Rwanda (a very intelligent choice he said!) and during a three day truce packed up his belongings and drove with his family to Sossusvlei. Here he started the first lodge with six beds and maybe 10% occupancy in the first two years.
He's a very entertaining man with a fund of stories such as the occasion when pot-smoking European Royal youngsters wanted to smoke in the balloons, needless to say it was not allowed. Four could not be stopped from smoking in a small aeroplane and the pilot had to fly with the windows open to stop himself getting dizzy!
It was a lovely, long, relaxed breakfast with bottle after bottle opened very theatrically with a machete.
We wandered part way up Dune One, the lower slopes with grasses but soon just a beautiful curve of orange-red sand.
After ballooning we headed back to Hoodia, arriving around 11 am in time to freshen up and head over to the small pool area. We settled ourselves in the shade, overlooking the bush, ordered toasted ham and cheese sandwiches and a beer and relaxed for a bit. We'd had a tiring two days travelling then a very early start today so we decided not to do anything strenuous for the rest of the day - tomorrow we had another early start for a full day exploring the dunes.
Later in the afternoon, after the intense heat had eased off a bit, I wandered off into the bush, close to the lodge, to have a look at the plantlife. I kept an eye out for snakes or any animals - the antelope I saw were shy and very wary of me.
Sadly there were a few bits of rubbish spoiling the landscape - I collected two plastic bottles and the broken neck of a glass bottle. Where I was walking was a dry river bed (one wet season the river had come up almost to the door of Hoodia!) so these could have come down river.
Everything was exceedingly dry. There were only the quiet noises of the bush to be heard, the rustling of the antelope as they made their way through the tall grasses. Very peaceful.
That evening we had oryx kebab for dinner - some was a bit chewy but excellent taste.
A 6:30 breakfast began our day which would be quite a long one. We headed off - six of us and our guide - to be at the park gates when they opened at sunrise. Once through the gate we pulled off the road to take photographs of a beautiful dawn.
It was rather cloudy to start with, which made lovely sunrise shots but was a bit disappointing at Dune One, which had no sun on it as we arrived. For us we had seen it yesterday but it was a shame for the others.
However, after a while the sun began to peep through the clouds and eventually came out fully so we were all happy - especially the very keen photographers.
We saw lots of springbok and ostriches, usually too far off to get a decent photograph, enjoying the unusually cool start to the day - there was even a flurry of rain at Dune One!
The colours are just fabulous. Depending on the light level and direction the sands appear anything from white through a classic sandy colour, deep oranges to intense brick red.
Eventually the "road" ran out and we were driving on packed sand with our very competent guide/driver Anyulla. We were very glad we didn't attempt it ourselves, having no experience of driving on sand. Anyulla told us that almost every day some tourist has to be rescued from his vehicle bogged down in the sand.
We parked and set off walking over the sand and climbed a small dune - not Big Daddy as it was rather late in the morning. The top of the dune overlooked Canyonvlei, an atmospheric white pan dotted with dead trees and backed by towering dunes - a wonderful sight. We then all ran down the dune - terrific fun, though your shoes do fill up with sand!
We returned to the car and very welcome cold drinks before driving to a shady acacia among the dunes for coffee. The tree was full of birds, mostly Cape Sparrows, after the meagre crumbs from our table.
Then a longish drive back through the park to our lunch spot.
We had a very leisurely, enjoyable meal with good companions and excellent food and drink. This was set out on tables, complete with tablecloth and proper cutlery. To one side was a canvas wash basin filled with hot water - nothing was lacking.
After lunch we visited Sesriem Canyon which is nice but not particularly impressive. We walked through from one end to about as far as it was possible to go.
Returning to Hoodia Desert Lodge we were already packed and just had to check out before leaving to spend our final night at Sossus Dune Lodge. This meant returning all the way back to Sesriem (and the park roads were in a bad state so not a comfortable drive!) then turning off to the Lodge which is the only one inside the park allowing residents to get a head start on visiting the dunes before the park gates open. As we had already accomplished everything we'd set out to do we were planning on simply leaving after breakfast the following day.
The lodge is in a good location with the dunes strung out along one side of a wide vista, mountains on the other, but we much preferred Hoodia Desert Lodge.
That night there was a tremendous thunderstorm - very unusual for the time of year - but it had passed over by the time we came to leave for our next destination in Namibia: Swakopmund.