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Horses grazing in Namibia. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

The Oldest Desert in the World

Standing atop one of the tallest dunes on Earth, it felt as though the sand beneath our feet stretched into infinity. With its red dunes rolling endlessly into the ocean, the Namib is the oldest desert in the world — a sea of silica stretching along Namibia‘s entire Atlantic coast.

In the local Nàmá language, Namib means “an area where there is nothing” — a description that seems to hold true with this sandy expanse comprising some 15 percent of Namibia’s driest and most inhospitable landscapes. But this place is far from lifeless. Home to an astonishing amount of desert-adapted wildlife, the Namib Desert is an extraordinary place to explore from the air, on foot, and by horseback.

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The famous red dunes at Sossusvlei. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Climbing up the dunes

The horseshoe of huge red dunes at Sossusvlei — a sun-baked clay pan, or vlei — drew us into the heart of the Namib to scale its sandy peaks, some of which reach over 300 meters over the desert floor.

In the early morning we clambered up a nearby dune called Big Daddy as sunrise spread a golden glow across the desert and the orange-tinged dunes stood in sharp contrast against a cloudless blue sky. The impossibly steep slopes made it a struggle to reach the crest, but the dune-top views were spectacular and well worth the strenuous climb.

Galloping across the plains

Charging across the rocky plains of the Namib Naukluft National Park on horseback was a breathtaking way to see the desert. Setting out from the stables at Desert Homestead, we rode along a broad valley enclosed by the Nubib, Tsaris and Naukluft mountains, with distant views of the soaring red dunes at Sossusvlei. The rugged mountains rose majestically above the flat valley floor and cast lengthening shadows across the gently swaying grasses as we passed herds of desert-dwelling springbok and listened to the distant call of a brown hyena.

Stiff and saddle-sore by the end of the day, and looking forward to a hot bucket shower and a hearty meal, we slid off our horses just as the valley flushed a rosy pink and the first star of the evening hung over the dunes. Our tents were tucked into the side of a rock-strewn mountain, with a roaring fire and dinner set up on the sand. When darkness fell, the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon, casting a blanket of desert stars above our heads. Putting aside our fear of snakes and scorpions, we pulled out our camp beds from the safety of our tents and slept beneath a sparkling Namibian sky.

Soaring above the sand

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An aerial view of the Namib Desert. (Photograph by Marcus Westberg)

Gliding over the sea of sand gave us an eagle’s eye view of the rolling red dunes of the Namib. The desert seems endless from the air with its striking patterns created by the constantly shifting sand dunes. From the seaside town of Swakopmund, our two-hour Scenic Air flight took us over the star-shaped dunes surrounding Sossusvlei, formed over millions of years by winds from all directions. We flew above disused diamond camps and back along the desolate coastline, where shipwrecks shrouded in fog disintegrate slowly into the sand and Cape fur seals gather in their hundreds on the lonely shore.

Despite its emptiness, the desert scenery of the Namib has a stark beauty that instantly captivates the imagination. Made up of more than 6.5 million hectares of rolling dunes and gravels plains, the Namib is full of contrasts, but none are so startling as the shimmering white pans set against the vivid orange dunes at Sossusvlei. Lying along the dramatic coastline of the driest country south of the Sahara, the dune sea creates a sense of space and solitude that is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

Freelance photojournalists Marcus and Kate Westberg cover travel and conservation topics for Intelligent Travel, News Watch and other publications. See more of their work on their website, Life Through a Lens, and their Facebook page.

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