Sossusvlei is a clay pan set amid monstrous piles of sand known as star dunes that reach the height of a 70-storey skyscraper and rank among the tallest dunes on earth. A deathly white against red sands, the pan is the endpoint of a usually dry river, the Tsauchab, in the interior of the Great Sand Sea.
The rivercourse rises south of the Naukluft mountains in the Great Escarpment. It penetrates the sand sea for some 55km before it finally peters out about the same distance from the Atlantic. Until dunes stopped it in its tracks 60 000 years ago, the Tsauchab reached the sea, as ephemeral rivers still do in the northern half of the Namib. Sand-locked pans to the west were endpoints before Sossusvlei.
The dunes in the vicinity of Sossusvlei get to be as high as 220m. They look even higher when their base rests on an elevated surface such as a river terrace. Indeed one of them that lies beside the Tsauchab rises 325m above the valley floor.
Once a decade or so rainfall over the escarpment is sufficient to bring the river down in flood and fill the pan. On such occasions the mirror images of dunes and gnarled trees around the pan are reflected in the water.
Sossusvlei is the biggest of four pans in the vicinity. In one of them, Dead Vlei, big camelthorn trees, dead for want of water, still stand erect. They grew in that place until about 900 years ago when the sand sea finally blocked the occasional floods.
Nara bushes that grow in !Nara Vlei sometimes still get water, but the amphitheatre-like Hidden Vlei -- like Dead Vlei -- lies parched behind dunes.
Wildlife is not prolific in the vicinity, but gemsbok, springbok, ostriches and lappetfaced vultures (Torgos tracheliotus) are sometimes seen.
A road runs along the Tsauchab valley for about 60km with dunes in myriad hues of red massed on both sides. Access to the valley is from Sesriem, where the river forms a narrow gorge, with pools of water at the bottom.
It is the only place where the sand sea is accessible to sedan cars. The road ends 4 km short of Sossusvlei, but 4 x 4 vehicles can go further. Alternatively it is safe to walk.
In the days of sail a mountain on the eastern horizon, inland from the featureless shore of the land that would become Namibia, served as a landmark of sorts for mariners on voyages of discovery. If they had been able to approach it with the light of the setting sun behind them, they would have witnessed its granite slopes turning a fiery red. The local people called it Des or Burning Mountain.
The highest mountain in Namibia, now named the Brandberg, it once also glowed with fire from within. It was an active volcano until granite magma filled and finally plugged its vent some 133-132 million years ago, even as Africa was being formed as an entity apart from the Gondwana supercontinent.
Over time the cone was eroded away, but the granite core remained behind as a mountain massif, a nearly circular inselberg with a diameter of 25km x 21km. The highest of its many peaks, Kstein (King's Rock), has an elevation of 2 573 m above sea level.
With the escarpment reduced to a peneplain in its vicinity, the Brandberg stands quite alone in the inner Namib, south of the Ugab rivercourse and some 80km from the Atlantic coast. It rises 1,8km above the peneplain, high enough to change the local climate. Its mean rainfall is possibly 200mm per year, about double that of the desert below. Uniquely so far north in the Namib, a good part of it falls in winter.
Desert and semi-desert plants grow on the massif, but savannah species are widely distributed. In fact the upper Brandberg is the only part of southern Africa classified as a high-altitude savannah "outlier". The grass and trees mostly grow in the sandy basins of ravines as much of the mountain is too rocky for plants to take root.
The only acacia endemic to the Namib, the Brandberg acacia (A. montis-usti), grows in the general vicinity of the mountain. It is a small tree or shrub, shaped like an upside-down broom, usually with several stems.
Wildlife is thin on the ground, but the array of species endemic to Namibia is the richest in the country, with 51% of the endemic reptiles and 53% of the endemic mammals represented. The mammals are mostly small and inconspicuous.
Hartmann's mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae), klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) and chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) are present, while the birdlife includes Namibian specials such as Rüppell's parrot (Poicephalus rueppellii) and the rosyfaced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis).
The "White Lady"
The legendary "White Lady of the Brandberg", one of some 45 000 figures painted in prehistoric times at a thousand sites in the mountain massif, is part of a frieze in a rock overhang in the Tsisab Ravine.
The central figures in the frieze were once thought to represent people from Ancient Egypt or Minoan Crete, but it is now generally accepted that indigenous people, in all probability San hunter-gatherers, were both the authors and subjects of the paintings.
The exact age of the paintings is unknown as they do not lend themselves to either carbon or archaeological dating. A method of dating known as chromatographic analysis, which measures the protein left in paint from egg white or other organic matter used to bind the pigments, determined only that the "White Lady" figure is at least 1 800 years old. After that length of time no proteins remain.
Three out of every 20 rock paintings in Namibia fall into the same age category. Most of the rock art dated thusfar was painted between 1 500 and 400 years ago.
Apart from the "White Lady" site, another 17 sites with rock art are located in the Tsisab Ravine alone. With limited shelter from the elements, the paintings are weathered and rather faint, but clearly visible in the right light.
One of the oldest rivers in Africa and the largest in southern Africa after the Zambezi, the Orange forms the border between Namibia and South Africa for almost a third of its length. Like the River Nile, it is a perennial river that runs through hot, arid landscapes.
It flows across the subcontinent from alpine pastures and snow fields near the east coast to absolute desert on the west coast where it enters the Atlantic.
The river rises near Mont-aux-Sources, the highest peak in the Drakensberg range, in the distant kingdom of Lesotho. Its basin drains a million square kilometres in four countries. The river is 2 300km long and the last 670km of it, below the Augrabies Falls, forms the common border.
The Lower Orange runs between the south-western Namib and the Richtersveld, biodiversity hotspots that lie within the Succulent Karoo biome. It is a winter-rainfall area that supports the halfmens and rare aloes such as the bastard quiver tree (Aloe pillansii) and maiden's quiver tree (A. ramosissima).
Flowering vygies, mesembs, and stone plants, lithops, grow in rich profusion.
The Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park straddles the river. Its 6 000km² contains the Richtersveld National Park on the South African side and Ai-Ais Hot Springs, the Fish River Canyon and the Huns Mountains on the Namibian side.
The only settlements of note on the Lower Orange are at the border posts, Noordoewer and Vioolsdrif, and the diamond-mining towns of Oranjemund and Alexander Bay near the river mouth.
Downstream from the border posts, the Orange is wide and flat with hardly any gradient until it loops sharply to the north and rushes down a succession of rapids to a broad alluvial plain, where it once again slows down. Further on mountainous terrain rises steeply on both banks.
The Orange is not orange, of course, but brown from the silt in it. It was named in 1779 after the House of Orange, the rulers of the Netherlands, the country which at the time occupied the Cape of Good Hope. The indigenous people, Khoekhoe pastoralists, called it the !Gariep. The name simply means "the river" or possibly "great (or big) river".
In fact it is the only river, in that part of Africa, that flows all year round. The others, without exception, are ephemeral.
Vegetation on the riverbanks forms a thin green line through the wilderness. The evergreen trees include the buffalo thorn (Ziziphus mucronata), Cape willow (Salix mucronata), ebony (Euclea pseudobenus), narrow-leaved spikethorn (Maytenus linearis), sweet thorn (Acacia karroo), white karee (Rhus pendulina) and wild tamarisk (Tamarix usneoides). Grasses are sparse as they depend on local rain and floods for growth.
Quiver trees (Aloe dichotoma) and milkbushes (Euphorbia virosa) grow on rocky slopes away from the river.
In the early days the Orange supported abundant wildlife. Towards the end of the 18th century a wanderer recorded that he "saw in one afternoon four large herds of elephants going from the river thickets to the plain; personally I had not thought that there were so many elephants in the whole world." He also came across hippopotamus, buffalo, giraffe and rhinoceros. None of them are left.
Small antelope such as klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) and steenbok (Raphicerus campestris) remain. On the wildest stretches of the river, gemsbok and mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) are sometimes seen.
The birdlife on the river includes the African darter (Anhinga rufa), African fish eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer), Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus), reed and white-breasted cormorants (Phalacrocorax africanus and P. carbo) and herons such as the blackheaded (Ardea melanocephala) and goliath (A. goliath).
The coast ......