Africa Safari Story: Climbing Big Daddy Dune

We got in line at the Namib-Naukluft park gate at Sesriem at 7:00 a.m. to rush with the crowd to the end of the 60 km paved road where a shuttle runs visitors some 5 km farther out along a soft sand road to the Sossusvlei and Dead pans. This is a photography and scenery park, not a game park, and if the bulk of the road weren’t paved, wind and blowing sand would constantly obstruct views and hinder photos. This is a windy place; that’s why there are sand dunes!

We weren’t really rushing, but the heat and sun are strong incentives to get out to Sossusvlei early. Sossusvlei is a place to hike, whether up the dunes or out to pans, and that’s best done before the heat and sun become oppressive, which I have concluded is 2:00 p.m. Also, photography is better in morning light than midday light.

Park rangers, our guidebooks, and every other tourism advisor recommends hiking out to Sossusvlei then taking the shuttle back—if one wants to walk that distance at all. Most people book a round-trip shuttle and do all their walking out at the pans.

It makes sense given the heat, but, of course, that didn’t really suit us. Our goal was to get up high as early as possible to make use of the morning light, and walking out would delay the climb. But we also wanted to walk, so we opted to ride the shuttle out and walk back. Sun and heat be damned.

The shuttle driver and visitors within earshot thought we were nuts or deluded. An old, overweight German man double checked, “You’re really going to walk back?” He scowled and shook his head at our foolishness.

We were, of course, prepared: We had lots of water and snacks. We were covered in sunscreen as well as loose long sleeves and long pants. We had hats and sunglasses. We had a goal of being back to the car by 2:00 p.m. We ignored the nay sayers. They don’t know us.

The Sossusvlei pan used to be the big attraction but now Dead Pan has surpassed it as the favorite, or so it seems to me. I didn’t see anyone going to Sossusvlei; everyone went to Dead Pan.

Dead Pan with Acacia Bones, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Dead pan with acacia bones. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Dead Pan is a flat, white, dry, salt-and-clay pan with a few dry, dead bones of acacia trees. It’s quite stark and pretty without all the scrubby grass tufts other pans have.

Big Daddy Dune Flanking Dead Pan, Namib-Naukluft National Park

The highest peak on the left is Big Daddy. Click for a larger image. Use your back button to return here.

Ringing Dead Pan on one side is Big Daddy dune, some 330 meters high (1,000 feet). If it’s not the highest dune in the area, it’s one of them.

Climbing Big Daddy, Namib-Naukluft National Park

And they’re off!

We headed up the ridge of Big Daddy with everyone else from the earliest shuttles. We didn’t plan to climb the whole of Big Daddy, what with the universal concern for our plan to walk back to the car and our experience trudging breathlessly up Dune 7 in Walvis Bay. However, with lots of people traipsing up the dune, the sandy ridge steps were somewhat packed.

Ridge around Dead Pan, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Heavy traffic makes for a moderately packed trail.

The farther we went, the farther we decided to go.

I didn’t expect to see wildlife on the dune, but I was pleasantly surprised by this:

Shovel-snouted Lizard, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Shovel-snouted lizard. Clickable pic.

It’s a shovel-snouted lizard (good job, lizard namers!), and it’s endemic to the Namib Desert.

Such a funny little thing! The sand is, as you would guess, flipping hot. Look how this lizard is resting: on its belly with all four feet and its tail in the air. “Oooo . . . ah . . . ouch . . . it’s hot!” After a few seconds, it puts two feet and its tail down to get its belly off the blistering sand. Then it switches feet.

How crazy is that? What a life!

Setting Sights on Big Daddy, Namib-Naukluft National Park

What the heck, we might as well go for it. The peak is right there. Clickable pic.

We continued up the ridge. The going was all right, and soon we set our sights on getting to the peak for a 360-degree view of the area. To get to the final ridge walk, however, we had to scale the soft slip-face of the dune between two perpendicular ridges. Here, the sand was super soft and nearly impossible to climb. It felt worse than Dune 7. I’d step up 12 inches, but sink back down 10 when I put weight on that foot. The going was slow and difficult. It was also extremely steep. Switchbacks worked on Dune 7, but they weren’t so effective here. It was a lung-bursting, quad-burning scramble.

Big Daddy Slip-face Scramble, Namib-Naukluft National Park

The slip-face slope is between me and Mike the Photographer. Slippery that slip-face is, too. Great view, though, eh? Clickable pic.

At this point, we had the place to ourselves, which, as you know, we love. We figured—and hoped—this would happen. The other visitors had gone as far as they wanted, seen all they wanted, turned around, and taken the shuttle back. We, on the other hand, are gluttons at a feast. Five others climbed the Big Daddy peak well ahead of us, but they had raced down the face and walked back out Dead Pan already. Sossusvlei—the whole area—was ours!

Top of Slip Face, Big Daddy Dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Whew! Made it! See the peak? Clickable pic.

Once on the second ridge to the peak, the going continued to be slow. Few people walk this ridge, so it wasn’t packed like the lower one was. Twenty steps. Rest. Twenty steps. Rest. We’re not athletes, folks. We’re not even in good shape, having been riding around Africa, confined to our car. But we’re no strangers to such slogs, either. We knew we’d get there, and despite the looming inevitability of violent sun and heat, we didn’t rush. It was fun, even when it was hard.

On top of Big Daddy Dune, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Mike on top of the world. Clickable pic.

And then there was the payoff. We had an almost 360-degree view. One dune obstructed a tiny bit of the horizon.

View From Big Daddy, Namib-Naukluft National Park

The payoff. Clickable pic.

It was gorgeous! Enormous. Endless. Pristine. On-top-of-the-world views like this make my insides soar.

View of Dead Pan from Big Daddy, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Dead Pan from Big Daddy. Clickable pic.

We ate up the view and a snack.

Big Daddy Ridge, Namib-Naukluft National Park

The Big Daddy ridge. Dead Pan on the left, the pan we walked out on the right. Clickable pic.

And then we headed back down. We backtracked then dropped over to the pan on the back side (right, in the photo) rather than Dead Pan (left, in the photo). We still planned to walk back to the car, and this was the more direct route.

The Slope Down Big Daddy, Namib-Naukluft National Park

The dune slope we descended, and the pan we walked out. Clickable pic.

Getting down a dune is easy—and fun! Lead with your heels and take giant steps. And expect a shoe full of sand.

Salt and clay pan, Namib-Naukluft National Park

A salt-and-clay pan. Great cracked-mud pattern, no? Clickable pic.

We were down the dune and out the hard-baked pan in 30 minutes.

We didn’t want to follow the shuttle road back, but it was hard to get too far away from it. A shuttle driver with an empty vehicle spotted us and stopped to wait. We waved him on. I’m sure he, too, thought we were nuts.

When possible, we chose paths on clay patches rather than sand, but even the sand wasn’t too bad for walking. Only the churned-up, soft sand road was difficult to walk on. And there were trees along the way, so we had some shade to walk and rest in.

Gemsbok in the shade, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Gemsbok in the shade.

We’d planned to enjoy our apples under a shady tree, and when we came to several gemsbok and springbok hunkered under individual shade trees, we decided we’d found the perfect spot.

Jen's Shade, Namib-Naukluft National Park

My shade tree.

Mike found a shade tree for me.

Mike's Shade, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Mike’s shade tree. Hrmph.

Then found one for himself. Um . . . thanks, Mike.

As we hoped, the boks all got used to us and didn’t run off when we got up and carried on.

Ring toss gemsbok, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Ring toss gemsbok.

My favorite bok of the day: the ring-toss gemsbok. That’s a seed pod from a camel thorn tree that happens to be more ring shaped than toenail shaped. Score!

Last Car in the Lot, Namib-Naukluft National Park

Last ones back win! Clickable pic.

The rest of the walk was painless. We were tired, but the sun and heat hadn’t gotten to us. We were back at the car just at 2:00 p.m.

When we got to the campground, the neon sign said the temperature was 39 degrees Celcius—about 102 degrees Fahrenheit. That seemed about right.

Categories: Africa, Africa, Travel

2 replies »

  1. I feel like I’ve said this on my last few comments, but wow, those views are spectacular! OMG, those dunes! I am adding this to my bucket list. You are so far in the middle of nowhere, I am surprised by and curious about the other tourists. Who are they? Where are they from? Have you posted a map of where your travels have taken you? I need more information if I am going to ever get myself following in your footsteps.

  2. These were the dune pictures I wanted to show you, Amy. They are, indeed, spectacular dunes.

    We’re fairly close to the coast here, which means we’re not too far Out There, really. I’d guess the other tourists are South African and European. The fellow who scoffed at our plan to walk back to the car was German.

    We have not yet posted a map of our travels, but we’re told we can hook our GPS up to Google Earth and get an image that way, which I’d like to do. I will talk about the awesome map and GPS system we used, though, and I can list the place names in order so you can find them on a map and see our path.

    I’m so glad you’re enjoying this!