Proclaimed in 1979, the Namib-Naukluft Park is an amalgamation of several areas into one nature reserve. It is the largest conservation area in the country and home to one of Namibiaâ€™s top tourist attractions, the legendary Sossusvlei, a spectacular white pan surrounded by some of the highest sand dunes in the world.
Many visitors to Namibia say that no part of the desert is visually more dramatic than Sossusvlei with its monumentally high dunes. These gigantic star-shaped mountains of sand â€“ one of the largest was measured from the base as 325 metres high â€“ are a sought-after topic for artists and photographers. The warm tints of the sand contrast vividly with the dazzling white surfaces of the large deflationary clay pans at their bases. One of these, referred to as Dead Pan, is a large ghostly expanse of dried white clay, punctuated by skeletons of ancient camel-thorn trees, carbon-dated as being between 500 and 600 years old.
Sossusvleiâ€™s mountainous dunes lie at the end of an erosional trough formed by the Tsauchab River. They are shaped by strong multi-directional winds, primarily the southwester, and have three to five sinuous crests, which meet at the highest point to give them their characteristic star shapes.
Visitors are allowed access to Sossusvlei only between sunrise and sunset. The first 60 km of the road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei has a permanent surface and is suitable for sedan cars, whereas the last five-kilometre stretch of sandy track is negotiable by 4×4 vehicles only. A shuttle service is available for people who do not want to hike the last 5 km.
The permit office complex for entry to Sossusvlei and other destinations in this section of the park is at Sesriem. Four kilometres south from here is Sesriem Canyon, where the erosion of many centuries has incised a narrow gorge about 1 km in length. At the foot of the gorge, which plunges down 30â€“40 metres, are pools that become replenished after good rains. Sesriem derives its name from the time when early pioneers tied six lengths of rawhide thongs together to draw water from these pools.
To early inhabitants, the gorge was an important water source in an otherwise waterless area. Even during very dry times there is water in the upper reaches of the canyon, where the deep clefts reduce evaporation. The Tsauchab River flows through the Sesriem Canyon and continues down to Sossusvlei.
About 110 km west of Mariental on the C19 en route to Sossusvlei is the small town of MaltahÃ¶he, named by Hauptmann Henning von Burgsdorf, who supervised a police station of the German colonial administration there in 1895. He named the settlement after his wife, Malta.
About 35 km north of MaltahÃ¶he, on the farm Sandhof, lies an enormous salt pan that is usually bone dry, except in good rainy seasons. If the pan reaches a depth of over 15 cm, shoots break miraculously through the surface of the shallow water, seemingly out of nowhere, and burst into bloom. For hundreds of hectares, as far as the eye can see, a short-lived vista of iridescent amaryllis lilies appears in an ephemeral blaze of pink, purple and white. But, as soon as the flowers have formed, they wither, and an almost biblical horde of elephant beetles descends and devours them within the space of a few days. The single weekend in which the lily season falls, usually in January or February, is a hectic one for MaltahÃ¶he.
When on the way to attractions such as Sossusvlei and Sesriem, many visitors elect to stay in the MaltahÃ¶he Hotel, one of the oldest country hotels in Namibia.
The cemetery at Nomtsas, some 45 km north of MaltahÃ¶he, contains the graves of some German pioneers and is a national monument.