Sossusvlei and Our Expedition Up “Big Daddy”

The route seemed simple enough.  A walk across the flat, parched earth from where the shuttle 4×4 dropped us off to the base of “Big Daddy” the highest dune in the Namib Desert at 383 meters (or 1,256 feet for all you fellow Americans who, like us, are metrically challenged).  Then up a short climb to a ridge that would take us up over the back of a smaller dune and then the final push up Big Daddy proper.

As we set out across the cracked clay surface of a dried riverbed and approached the start of our sand “climb” I worried silently to myself that perhaps we had overestimated this expedition.  Standing near the base it somehow seemed a lot higher and farther than it had from the road.   Then as we started to ascend it became apparent that walking in deep sand is significantly more difficult than walking on pavement.  Who knew?  By the time we had gotten half way across the lower sand ridge it was pretty clear that we were in over our heads here.  I looked down at my half empty 500ml bottle of water then up into the retina burning sunshine and realized that we were woefully unprepared and would not make it to the top of Big Daddy.

Of course this is the kind of thing that happens when you forego the organized tour for the do-it-yourself option (without doing the proper research).  But in our defense, the shuttle driver saw what we had with us (small bottle of H2O in our hands and NO backpack possibly filled with more tiny bottles of water) and said nothing.  We even asked him if anyone actually climbs this thing as we did not see anyone else on it at that moment.  He just gestured loosely with his hand in the direction of Big Daddy and said “Up there.  Easy.”  Right. “Easy” in the same way that it is easy for a Sherpa to climb Everest without oxygen.  So now we, not being Sherpas, or whatever the Namibian equivalent is, had to come up with a plan B.

I looked over the side of the ridge and saw a nice, fun looking descent into a caldera-like bowl of sand.  It was surrounded on all sides by sand ridges, but I figured we’d go down this side and up the other and then make our way back towards the Dead Vlei where all the tour groups were (the average tour group, it turns out, does not climb Big Daddy, but either the smaller “Big Momma” or the much smaller “Dune 45”).

The descent down was fun and we laughed like school children frolicking in a playground.

But unfortunately I had underestimated the opposite ridge that now looked twice as high as the one we had come down.  The going was extremely slow and at one point I seriously feared that it would be too steep to climb out of and we would just spin our wheels in an avalanche of sand.  Exhausted we would consume the last of our water and die a miserable death incinerated by the blazing sun, nearly unrecognizable by the time anyone discovered our crispy bodies.

But by the grace of God we did make it out and to our great relief (and perhaps more to mine as expedition leader) the other side looked right down onto Dead Vlei where we could see the ant-like figures of tourists below.  Glancing back at the ridge we had just bailed from we saw a group of “climbers” who were obviously better prepared than we were (I can’t be sure, but I think they were wearing sand gaiters!) ascending slowly, but steadily up our intended line of Big Daddy.  My feelings were stuck somewhere between envy and “better them than me”.

The rest of the trip went without incident.

We descended into the Dead Vlei and spent about an hour wandering around this simple yet visually stunning landscape.

Even taking advantage of my $4 tripod and continuous photo feature on my camera.

Here is a couple minute video if you want to see our aborted Big Daddy climb attempt in live action.  Francesca and I play ourselves in this film.

Then we drove to the Sesriem Canyon – a huge break in the earth caused by shifting of tectonic plates…..

…… before heading back to our little oasis in the middle of the desert.

Where Franny cooked us some spaghetti on the outdoor stove in the kitchenette attached to our tented room.  Many hotels and resorts in Namibia have what are called “Self Catering” where you buy your own food and cook it in (our just outside) your room.

And enjoyed another beautiful sunset – seemingly par for the course in Africa.

The next morning we awoke early to make the five hour drive across the desert to Swakopmund.

While we had purchased a new spare tire in Sossusvlei it was the wrong size (all they had at the only service station) so we didn’t want to have to use it and therefore drove slowly adding another hour to the trip. And there was absolutely NO ONE on this road.  We saw perhaps one 4×4 tour truck pass us by every hour or so.

Francesca and I passed the time playing twenty questions (I told her she should really try to pick a person, place or thing for which/whom she knows the answers to potential questions), listening to music on our iPods (with car adapter) and finishing all three hours of the Malcolm Gladwell audiobook “Outliers” (an excellent read…er listen!).  I also taught Francesca how to drive stick shift (what better time that in a rental car on a flat road with no other cars around?) and I must say she picked it up extremely quickly.  Not that I thought she wouldn’t’.

Despite the lack of on road excitement there were two interesting stops.  One was the Tropic of Capricorn sign.  Francesca and I drove right past it as she tried to figure out that I was thinking of a person, place or thing called Nelson Mandela.  Then we looked at each other and said simultaneously “did that sign just say the “Tropic of Capricorn”?  We couldn’t remember exactly what that was, but we remembered learning something about it in elementary school (along with the Tropic of Cancer) so we went back to get a photo with it.  Hey, did you know that the Tropic of Capricorn is the most southerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at 12 noon?  For more on this amazing major circle of latitude click here.

The next one was this stop sign in the absolute middle of nowhere with absolutely no traffic and absolutely no intersection for about 300 km in either direction.  But, of course, being the law abiding citizens that we are (and so Francesca could practice her downshifting) we slowed to a stop.  One one thousand.  Two one thousand.  And…..step on the gas…..release the clutch….

Its time for a new poll:


Here are the results of the two previous polls;

1. “What country is the guy in the photo from?” from the blog posting “Waterworld

– Switzerland 38%

– United States 24%

– UK 13%

– New Zealand 12%

– Spain 13%

– France 0%

2. “What is your all time favorite place in the world?” from the “Bicycle Days In Budapest” posting.

– Tuscany, Italy 25%

and a Tie for second with each of the following cities at 13%

– Budapest, Hungary

– Machu Picchu, Peru

– Cape Town, South Africa

– Bangkok, Thailand

– Amsterdam, Holland

– Barcelona, Spain

– Sydney, Australia


4 Responses to “Sossusvlei and Our Expedition Up “Big Daddy””

  1. Those pictures near Big Daddy look like COMPLETE solitude. Wow! The colors of the sand contrasting with the blue sky and yellow sun. I have a friend in Namibia I promised I had to visit. Will have to do it.

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