The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.
The more vulnerable animals come out to drink in the light of day.

Sossusvlei

Africa, Namibia Comments Off
Apr 072012

When a friend of mine heard that we were going to Namibia she told me that Sossusvlei was one the most spectacular and bizarre places she had seen anywhere.  Having visited myself, I have to say that I agree!  Sossusvlei is an area in the Namib Desert that is known for its spectacular sand dunes and salt pans.  We visited Sossusvlei at the end of our 8-day safari.

After a full day and two nights soaking up the cool breezes in Swakopmund, we loaded up the jeep and headed back inland across some hot and desolate terrain.  Come to think of it, Namibia has quite a bit of land that could be classified as hot and empty!  Somewhere out in the middle of nowhere we found a nice sign clearly designating the Tropic of Capricorn so clearly a photo was necessary.

A bit further on we passed through the settlement (read: intersection) of Solitaire, Namibia which is home to Moose McGregor’s Desert Bakery.  Moose’s most famous creation was his apple pie which I have to say is quite good even though it wasn’t the pie shape I was expecting.  In addition to the bakery, the outfit houses a gas station and a small eatery.  The whole compound is littered with ancient cars which didn’t quite survive the rigors of Namibia.  You could have told me I was in one of those quirky little towns along Route 66 in the American Southwest.

The campground at nearby Sesriem was nice and spread out with ample room between us and the other campers.  The fact that the surrounding land isn’t teeming with lions means they can spread the operation out a bit more, I guess.  On the day of our arrival nothing specific was planned so we just pitched the tents and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the prairie.

The next morning it was rise-and-shine at the crack of dawn because the main thing to do at Sossusvlei is watch the sunrise over the dunes.  The park staff  open the gates to the park so that there is just barely enough time to drive the to the dunes and climb them prior to sunrise.

(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45

Dune 45, named because it is 45 kilometers into the park, is the focal point for all sunrise-seeking tourists.  When we arrived there was already a sizable throng of people plodding up the ridge of the dune.  If you haven’t climbed a dune before all you need to know is to stick to that razor-sharp ridge that runs up the center.  It is still not easy but it is much better than trying to scale the loose sand on the face of the dune (like we did in Mongolia).

After sunrise we drove to Deadvlei (literally “dead marsh”) which is an area in the dune field that was once fed by a nearby river.  At some point way back when, the dunes shifted and cut off the river that was flowing into this area.  The trees growing there died and their scorched remains are still standing hundreds of years later.

Before crossing Deadvlei itself we climbed one of the huge nearby dunes.  This dune is over 350m high and locals claim that it is one of the highest in the world.  Getting to the top was quite a workout but the views from the top were spectacular!  It was a good thing that we completed the climb in the mid-morning because it would have been way too hot in the middle of the day.

Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)

We descended straight down the steep face of the dune that faces Deadvlei.  This was one of those situations where the ascent took 90 minutes of sweaty determination whereas the descent took all of 2 or 3 minutes!

I think the photos from Deadvlei speak for themselves.  It’s a positively strange sight to take in.  The contrast between the blackened trees, hardened white mud, red dunes and azure sky is amazing.

By the time we finished poking around at Deadvlei the clock was creeping towards noon and the intense sun was starting to make it uncomfortable.  After a brief stop at at small canyon near the campground we retired to our shady campsite to pass the afternoon.  This was definitely one of the days where Amy and I regretted leaving our bathing suits behind in Windhoek as the campground had a pool!

We spent our last night of the safari doing what had become a familiar routine: cooking our dinner on the braai (Afrikaans for barbeque).   We stuffed some gems (small local squash) with onions and garlic and then roasted them on the coals of the fire.

On the last morning we again rose early to catch another sunrise from atop the dunes.  This time we elected to try for a less accessible dune to avoid the large crowds at Dune 45.  Chad dropped us along the road at the large dune due east of Dune 45.  It was about a mile from the road and was substantially higher than its more famous counterpart.  We missed the sunrise but did eventually make it all the way to the top!

Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

To me, one of the most amazing aspects of the dunes was the creatures that call them home.  We saw a wide variety of beetles, lizards and even a dune gerbil.  My favorite was the Namib Dune Geckos which I managed to spot on my evening walk to the bathhouse at the campground.  These geckos are specially adapted to survive in the dry environment and even have webbed feet for better maneuverability in loose sand.

Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)

Overall, Sossusvlei is stunning.  I would rank it up at the very top of all the natural sights I’ve seen and highly recommend it to anyone considering a visit to Africa.  The next post will be a short wrap-up post regarding our safari costs in Namibia.

Sossusvlei
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Some of the inhospitable terrain east of Swakopmund
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Knobbly Darkling Beetle (Physadesmia globosa)
Moose's famous apple pie
Moose’s famous apple pie
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Southern Masked-Weaver (Ploceus velatus)
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
Sunrise before climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
(Slightly) ahead of the tourist hordes climbing Dune 45
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Seed Beetle (Stips stali)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Racing Darkling Beetle (Onymacris plana)
Beetle tracks
Beetle tracks
You are going to need the 4WD here!
You are going to need the 4WD here!
A long climb to the top!
A long climb to the top!
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Wedge-snouted Lizards (Meroles cuneirostris)
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Trying to keep cool: two feet up, two feet down
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Deadvlei from above (the famous dead trees are the dark spots at the far end)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei)
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) - the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Namib Dune Gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) – the webbed feet are a special adaptation
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) - white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil
Dune Hairy-footed Gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis) – white spots behind the eyes distinguish him from the standard Hairy-footed Gerbil

Day 5

After visiting the cliffs in the morning we continued driving westward and eventually arrived at the Khongor sand dunes! They don’t stretch endlessly to the horizon but they are impressively tall.

Random dairy products on the roof
Random dairy products on the roof

Late in the evening the lady at the ger camp invited us in to her ger to sample some of the dairy products. This was the one moment in my envisioned Mongolia travel adventure that I had been fearing the most.

On the menu today was fermented camel milk. I tried a little and I have to say that it certainly isn’t my favorite beverage. Like buttermilk but runnier and with chunks. I also tried some Mongolian butter which is the congealed film that is collected off a boiling cauldron of mixed milks (goat, sheep and camel). The slightly crispy texture was appealing but it still had the pungent odor of everything else in the ger.

The sun setting behind the dunes made for some nice photos and made me late to the evening’s cooking class. Ultzi was showing the group how to make booz which are a traditional Mongolian dumpling. Normally they are filled with mutton and fat but tonight we were also made a vegetarian version. The simple flour & water dough was kneaded and rolled out on a small board and then everyone worked to form and stuff them. Lots of labor but they made for a delicious and filling dinner.

Minivan odometer at end of day 5: 1059km (157km today)

Day 6

Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad

We didn’t get in the van at all today! That was certainly nice for a change.  Ultzi pan-fried some of the leftover booz from last night and served those along with a nice cucumber tomato salad for breakfast. It was excellent – even better than the fresh booz. With bellies full of dumplings we headed out for our first go at camel riding.

Our mode of transportation for the day
Our mode of transportation for the day

One of the men who lives at the ger camp acted as our guide and he showed us the rope (there is only one on a camel) so to speak. Now, here in Mongolia you find camels of the bactrian variety. Bactrians have two humps as opposed to dromedaries which have a single hump. Dromedaries are the ones that you see hauling tourists around the pyramids in Egypt.

Getting on the camel was easy. There is a small saddle made of carpet between the two humps and you climb on them while they are laying down.

They weren’t nearly as stinky as we were expecting. All of us were saving our dirtiest of clothes for the camels but honestly they weren’t that bad. We cameled for about 90 minutes before arriving at a low spot in the long chain of sand dunes. We stopped for a bit and I taught myself how hard it is to climb a sand dune.

In the late afternoon we climbed the dunes next to the ger camp to catch a glimpse of the setting sun. It was much much harder than expected but the view from the top was well worth it.  Racing back down them was also good fun.

Later in the night the goat/sheep herd returned for the day and set up camp immediately next to our ger. The gas production of a herd of ~100 animals who have had a full day of grazing is impressive. Impressive in both the olfactory sense and aural sense. That was the evening (actually all night long) entertainment.

Having a break from the minivan was nice for a change.  But tomorrow is to be our longest day of driving yet!

Minivan odometer at end of day 6: 1059km (0km today)

Camel odometer at end of day 6: A positive, real number!

Mongolia Tour Days 5-6
We stopped here for a bathroom break
We stopped here for a bathroom break
The ger camp at the Khongoryn dunes
The ger camp at the Khongoryn dunes
The baby camels would cry out for their mother's each night
The baby camels would cry out for their mother’s each night
Random dairy products on the roof
Random dairy products on the roof
The booz (Mongolian dumplings) are served
The booz (Mongolian dumplings) are served
Wake-up call from our camp's friendly dog
Wake-up call from our camp’s friendly dog
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Leftover (pan-fried) booz for breakfast with a delicious tomato cucumber salad
Certainly the most interesting padlock I've ever come across. Handmade in Mongolia.
Certainly the most interesting padlock I’ve ever come across. Handmade in Mongolia.
Our mode of transportation for the day
Our mode of transportation for the day
Amy having her check-out ride
Amy having her check-out ride
Before we reached the top, my camel decided to take a break
Before we reached the top, my camel decided to take a break
Annoyed that they had to haul us up the sand dunes
Annoyed that they had to haul us up the sand dunes
No way around it: socks filled with sand
No way around it: socks filled with sand
Amy and Bonnie racing down the dune
Amy and Bonnie racing down the dune

Valle de la Luna

Chile Comments Off
May 122011

We enjoyed sleeping in on our second day in San Pedro.  The only tour we had lined up for the day was an evening excursion to some of the nearby rock formations.

Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte

The first stop on the tour was to Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) to see some nice canyons and sand dunes.  Some of the large sand dunes are formed against the stone cliffs.  We hiked a little ways along one of the stone cliffs and then walked/ran down the dunes barefoot.  The pictures don’t really convey the size of these dunes but I would say that they were close to 200ft tall!

After the dunes we walked down a narrow rock canyon and explored a small cave.  The rocks along the canyon walls make an eerie popping noise due to thermal expansion/contraction.  Another interesting spectacle in the canyon was the salt crystals that coat the walls.

The final stop on the tour was the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon) for sunset.  We hiked along a ridgeline to get a nice view of the mountains and the crazy colors made by the setting sun.

Valle de la Luna
Valle de la Muerte
Valle de la Muerte
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Walking/running/jumping down the dunes
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!
Not as clean as they were when the trip started!

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