It’s best to think of Sesriem not as a town but as a gateway to the Namib-Naukluft National Park and Sossusvlei. Now, let me be clear, I don’t mean that metaphorically or symbolically; Sesriem is literally no more than the gate to the park, a petrol station (which admittedly does sell basic provisions and maps for your onward journey) and a number of unconnected hotels and campsites. After an overnight in Windhoek Sesriem is usually the first port of call for anyone touring Namibia by car and is approximately a 4.5 hour drive (333km) in the dry season from the Capital.
I wouldn’t recommend driving to Sesriem from Windhoek in anything smaller than an SUV. Once you turn off of the B1 south of Windhoek on to the C24 (and then the D1261) the road gets tougher and tougher (even in the dry season) until you reach Solitaire. You would likely have no problems in something smaller but the ride wouldn’t be as enjoyable on the gravel roads and you might encounter a couple of hair raising ditch/water crossings (what I would like to call ‘squeaky bum’ moments for the driver).
Make sure you leave Windhoek with enough time to arrive at Solitaire (the main town before the Sesriem turnoff) an hour or two before sunset. The sunset drive from Solitaire to Sesriem is a spectacular one across a lunar-esque landscape where you are likely to see Wildebeest, Springbok, Zebra and Giraffe roaming and the moon seems unusually close. I found it particularly rewarding to have ‘Circle of Life’ blaring from our radio as we drove the last 20km to Sesriem
If your sole purpose is to visit the Namib-Naukluft (including any of the sites below) then Sesriem is your best bet for accommodation, especially if you plan to be in the park around sunrise. Although there’s plenty of accommodation on the route from Solitaire all the way to Sesriem unless you get up at an ungodly hour of the morning (and seriously, who wants that on holiday) then by the time you arrive at the park gate in Sesriem there’s likely to be a queue of cars waiting for the gate to open akin to arriving at Space Mountain at Disneyland five minutes too late (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration).
The closest hotel accommodation to the gate is Sossusvlei Lodge. Once you roll out of the hotel driveway you’re at the gate, which means that you’re highly likely to be one of the first in line when the gate opens to the park. There are also a number of other lodges and campsites in the surrounding area within 10 minutes of the gate.
If you arrive at the park gate at first light you can also enter the park without waiting to pay park fees on entrance and can pay on exit which speeds the whole process up. It also provides a valid excuse to stop for a Savannah Dry Cider (passengers not drivers) at the conveniently placed bar next to the ticket office. Just remember to take you driving license with you in to the park as the traffic police tend to card you on the way out. In fact, we had to play a game of musical chairs in the car as my wife had left her license at the hotel that morning and they made her get out and swap seats.
Once you’re inside the park it’s about an hour’s drive to the Deadvlei 2×4 car park. It’ll be tempting to stop at some of the other dunes (as many others do….rookies) for photos but my advice would be to keep driving so that you get to Deadvlei as early possible. That way you will get the best photos in the morning light and do the 20 minute walk to Deadvlei from the 4×4 car park whilst the heat is still bearable. There will be plenty of time to come back for photos at the other dunes on the return journey.
The last few hundred meters of track to the Deadvlei 4×4 carpark is deep sand (really deep). If you do not have a 4×4 or are not used to driving in deep sand then park in the 2×4 car park and pay to take one of the 4×4 shuttles the rest of the way. I know what you’re thinking right now…’I can drive it’….so did the other five 2×4 drivers we saw getting towed out of deep sand 50m past the 2×4 car park. Probably best not risk it!
Sossusvlei, Deadvlei and Hiddenvlei: In case you were wondering a vlei, in Afrikaans, is a marsh (if you weren’t wondering then sorry about that). In actual fact all three vleis are salt and clay pans surrounded by high red sand dunes and they are one of the key tourist attractions in Namibia. Most notably they’re a photographers dream; the contrast of the dead blackened camel thorn trees against the red dunes and white pan floor provides a postcard picture every time. The surrounding dunes are also (with some hard graft – I swear it nearly killed me) scalable and are fairly entertaining to run down. All three vleis are accessible by 1-2km walks from the 4×4 car park at the end of the park road. Remember to take water!
Dune 45 and Big Daddy: Dune 45 stands 45km from Seserim on the road to Sossusvlei (clever name, right?!). It’s one of the more popular dunes to climb and stands at a daunting 85m high. Having climbed the dunes in Deadvlei in the morning I politely declined killing myself climbing Dune 45, but if you plan on giving it go I’d recommend: doing it in socks (unless you fancy tipping a sandbox full of sand out of your shoes); walk in the footsteps of those in front of you (most of your energy is lost in digging your feet into the sand as you climb); and definitely protect your camera – that sand gets everywhere and I’m fed of of having to pay to have my camera professionally cleaned because of one tiny grain of send on the lens that won’t seem to disappear (rant over)!! At 325m high Big Daddy is the biggest dune in the Sossusvlei area and is located between Sossusvlei and Deadvlei. I’d love to be able to say ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ but unfortunately that would be a complete fabrication. A dune too far for my fitness levels I’m afraid. Instead I stayed at the bottom and watched others enjoying themselves much like my mum at every theme park we’ve ever visited.
Sesriem Canyon: Sesriem canyon is located about 4.5km from the park gate and is the perfect place to avoid recreating your favorite scenes from 127 hours! It’s not quite up to the standards of the Grand Canyon but it is truly gorges……(who doesn’t love a good ‘dad’ joke)
Other activities: In the hotels in and around Sesriem you can sign up for a number of different activities to suit all budgets from hot air ballooning on the expensive side (and a very early morning start) to sundowner ‘safaris’ to quad biking. There’s pretty much something to suit every taste. Alternatively you can relax around the pool, slap on the olive oil, and go and tasty shade of red in the desert sun.