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Salt Pans, Sand Dunes, and CamelThorn Trees


There was a time when I wouldn’t have considered a desert landscape very remarkable. That all changed in 2018 when as part of a trip to South Africa and Namibia, I visited the Namib Desert.

At more than forty million years old, the Namib is the oldest and driest desert in the world, its only precipitation deriving from the fogs that drift in from the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Despite its lack of precipitation, or perhaps because of it, the Namib contains some of the most spectacular desert scenery that you will see anywhere. 

The sand dunes in the Namib Naukluft Park are among the highest in the world. One of the more famous dunes, Big Daddy, overlooking the site of Dead Vlei, rises over 450 metres above the surrounding landscape.

Dead Vlei, meaning dead marsh, consists of a white clay pan, surrounded by reddish orange sand dunes with sun bleached camelthorn trees hundreds of years old. These elements, along with the bright blue sky make for splendid photographic opportunities. 

This area once received enough water to support Camelthorn trees, but eventually sand dunes diverted the Tsaushab River starving the trees of water. Camelthorn trees normally have a tap root system that reaches deep below the surface to access the water table. At Dead Vlei, a thick layer of lime deposit blocks the roots from accessing any water far below the surface. Although these trees have been dead for hundreds of years, they still stand erect since there isn’t enough moisture in the air to promote decay. Fogs from the Atlantic are sufficient enough, however, to support a bit of greenery.  

A bit further to the east of Dead Vlei is the site of Sossusvlei, “dead-end marsh.” Unlike Dead Vlei, the salt pan of Sossusvlei occasionally floods when heavy rains from the mountains to the east, flood the Tsaushab River creating a temporary lake in the salt pan below the sand dunes. This flooding provides enough moisture to support the growth of some dessert vegetation including camelthorn trees.

A climb up Hill 45 overlooking Sossusvlei, provides adventurers with outstanding views of other sand dunes as well as the flat salt pan at its base. Depending on the time of day and the light source, the sand can take on a yellow, orange or even a deep red appearance. Looking in one direction, the contrast between the bright sky, the red sand and the deep shadows give one view. Turning one hundred and eighty degrees to look in the opposite direction, the landscape takes on a completely different look. The two pictures below were taken within minutes of each other.

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