Three Dunes and A Canyon


This blog entry about the events of Monday, April 05, 2004 was originally posted on April 14, 2004.

DAY 170:  Sossusvlei (pronounced sue-zoo-flay), which I call “The Big Soufflé,” is not a big poofy pastry that deflates at the sound of loud crash in a classic MGM cartoon.  It is a huge picturesque 75-meter red sand dune, the most accessible via 4x4 amidst a red sand sea of dunes as high as almost 300 meters tall.  Sossusvlei is quite a celebrity, appearing in numerous commercials and films worldwide.  Chances are if you’ve seen a shot of a sand dune from Namibia, you’ve seen Sossusvlei.

This big famous sandy soufflé is one of the reasons to go out to the middle of the Namib Desert, particularly at sunrise — which is why most of the Sesriem campground was awake by 4 a.m.  Sossusvlei lies 65 km. away in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, whose gates opened at 4:30.  Between 4:00 and 4:20, our Chameleon Safaris team of four got ready for departure.  We picked up the two Stellenbosch girls who asked for a ride the night before.  With them was a third:  Nina, the first-generation Afrikaans-American Colorado State student from Mt. Kisco, NY that was studying abroad at the University of Stellenbosch for six months.  The three of them sat in the back of our big 4x4 truck in the darkness as we approached the gate guard.  Samora only had a permit for the original four of us.

“If you are quiet, this will be a lot faster,” he told the girls in the back.  It also helped that Samora and the guard shared the same tribal language.  After small talk that ended in some sort of a joke, he and the guard shared a laugh.  As we drove through the gateway, the rest of us laughed along; we had successfully smuggled in the three girls.

“Put your seat belts on.  There are many potholes here,” Samora instructed the passengers.  With our American and Dutch contraband in the back, we raced down the 45-km. tarred road which did in fact have many potholes.  At times it was just easier to cruise on the dirt and gravel shoulder.  There were several vehicles ahead of us, but Samora, like a rally sport race car driver, sped across the Namib desert at 130 km/hr, eventually bringing us in second position, right after his mentor Chico in the big Chameleon overlander truck about one kilometer ahead.  The mentor held the pole position until the 45-km. mark, where we both stopped.  At the parking area at the 45-km. mark was the first accessible dune for vehicles that didn’t have four-wheel drive.  This dune at the 45-km. mark, simply named Dune 45, was where the Stellenbosch girls got off — minus Nina who would come with us to Sossusvlei.

There were twenty kilometers to go and time was running out.  If there was anything I’d learned about sunsets, it was that the moon rose immediately afterwards — the opposite must be true as well.  The moon was setting fast, giving us less than an hour before the coming of the sun.

At the 60-km. mark, the tarred road ended, forcing those without a 4x4 to park and hike the last five kilometers to Sossusvlei.  Samora kicked on the four-wheel drive and we made it over the sand to the base of the big famous dune.

“Ah, The Big Soufflé,” I proclaimed.  We were the first team to arrive.

The sky was starting to lighten with the coming of dawn and we head on foot up the 75-meter-high dune.  With the exception of Karen and her dodgy knee, we made it to the top after huffing and puffing, and sat on top before the first ray of sun gleemed over the horizon.  As Earth’s closest star continued to wake up to start a new day, the colors of the dunes shifted from pink to orange.  Nina forgot her camera in the early morning dash, so I took photos for the two of us — before the hordes of oncoming tourists ruined the mood.

A SAFARI TRADITION WITH SAMORA is when you are atop a dune, you are to roll something down the side of the hill and race it down.  That something this morning was Nina’s water bottle, which was released by Samora with a head start.  The four of us ran down like racing ostriches on the moon, each step lower and feeling lighter than the one before.  Samora beat the water bottle to the bottom.

After a picnic breakfast of yogurt, bread and “Eet Sum Mor”-brand biscuits, we drove to Dead Vlei, the site of trees that have been dead for centuries (picture above), standing in another dried up pan of calcium deposits.  Dead Vlei is flanked by a huge 285-meter-tall sand dune, which Samora said was called simply, “Crazy Dune” because you’d be absolutely crazy to climb it. 

“Is it really called Crazy Dune?” I asked Samora, hoping to get a more historically or geologically-significant name for it.

“Some call it ‘Big Daddy,’” he replied.  “Either Crazy Dune or Big Daddy.”

“Big Daddy” was over three time the size of “The Big Soufflé” and was the highest dune in the area.  Looking at it, it really would take a crazy person to scale it.

Enter Erik R. Trinidad.

“How about this?” Samora started a proposition.  “You go up that way and up the ridge to the top.  We [he and Nina] will take a short-cut [walking the flat plan before going uphill] that way.  We will see who gets there first.”

“You down?” Nina egged me on.


I started my approach up the ridge of a smaller dune — let’s call it “Small Daddy” — which connected to the bigger one if I just walked up the dune ridge.  The other two started their leisurely walk across the pan. 

Getting to the top of “Small Daddy” was short and sweet since I had footsteps to follow in that packed the sand it like a staircase.  Hiking the ridge wasn’t as easy though; sand kept sliding, making it no walk in the park, or the pan for that matter.  I learned the easiest way to hike it was by stepping sideways so more surface of your sole packs in the ridge.  Plus, it helped to lean towards the darker side of the dune; the sunny side was heating up with the sun, making the sand looser, causing sand slides.  Not that any of these techniques helped the occasional grasshopper I’d find on the ridge.

By the time I got to the dip which morphed Small Daddy with Big Daddy, Samora and Nina had crossed the pan, ascended a small dune and stopped.  Later I found out that Nina simply couldn’t go any farther and they just sat to see just how crazy I could be.

Hiking up the ridge of Crazy Dune was hard work; every step up took me half a step back.  Using a breathing technique I learned from marathon-runner Irish Sean in Cape Town (two short nasal inhales and two short oral exhales), I managed to keep my endurance without getting winded.  Good thing too because as soon as the sun crossed the other side of the sky, both sides of the dune would have become unstable.

Alone, I managed to make it to the peak in about an hour — meaning if there was a LensCrafters there and i called ahead, my glasses would have been done upon arrival.  At the top, I looked around and just enjoyed the view.  Without people or even a slight breeze, I enjoyed the moment of pure silence — it really sounds like absolutely nothing.

With the natural endorphin rush from the feeling of accomplishment up there, I noticed that not too far away from me was an even higher peak not visible from the base.  After walking over, I found a loose branch and brought it over to the visible peak to plant in the sand like an explorer at the end of his conquest.  I heard Nina and Samora applauding from below and later I found out that Ben saw the whole thing through his binoculars.

WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN and going down was definitely the more fun of the two.  Without a sandboard, food tray or garbage can lid, I had nothing to slide down so I had no choice but to just run down.  It took me about a minute to rush down what took me about an hour to climb.  I zoomed down the slope, a slave of gravity, making big “S”-curves in the sand at such a great acceleration that when I got to the bottom, on-lookers thought that I was sandboarding from afar.

After taking photos of the dead camelthorn trees of Dead Vlei (1 2 3 hi-res photos at 1632x1224), we hopped back in the 4x4 and headed back to Dune 45 to say we were there and take a group photo of our Chameleon quartet.  Tired of dune climbing, I wasn’t planning on doing Dune 45, but rather than wait around for Nina to go up and down, I just joined her. 

“Crazy tourists,” Samora said to me before saying his trite quote that he got from the 1980s comedy mockumentary The Gods Must Be Crazy:  “Aiyaiyaiyaiyaii…”

Dune 45 was a much easier climb since the footprints of the big sunrise crowd packed in the sand pretty good.  Nina and I made it to the top in about twenty minutes, took the obligatory “I did it” photos and head back down.

Nina was still separated from her Stellenbosch crew and joined us back at Campsite 19 for lunch while waiting.  Her schoolmates came about an hour later.  “Thanks for your hospitality,” she wished us before going on her way.

IF YOU’VE NOTICED THE TITLE OF THIS ENTRY, that’s three dunes down, one canyon to go.  That canyon was the nearby Sesriem Canyon, a 30-meter deep canyon carved out by flood waters and the Ice Age.  Hiking through it with one of the other Chameleon groups, we saw the caves, water pools, trees and impressive rock formations of the canyon — it looked like something out of the planet Tatooine in the Star Wars movies.

After joking about a nest-like bundle of sticks high above our heads formed by flood waters that Samora said was an ostrich nest (“Didn’t you know they could fly?”), he left us there in the canyon for sunset beers while he went to camp to start making our lamb curry dinner.  Ben and Karen stayed put to birdwatch while I went hiking towards the other side of the canyon, wary of horned adder snakes and scorpions.  I didn’t make it to the end before heading back the other way since it was getting dark and my beer was getting warm.

After dinner I was exhausted and just passed out by nine o’clock.  Having conquered three dunes and a canyon, I thought it was well-deserved.

Next entry: Need For Speed

Previous entry: Desert Run-Ins

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Comments for “Three Dunes and A Canyon”

  • Love the rock formation pick from the canyon.  Good on ya for climbing the big dune!

    Posted by Liz  on  04/14  at  02:21 PM

  • when you said high res…you mean HIGH res!  dead tree new bg!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/14  at  03:27 PM

  • I want a coffee table book of blog photos when you’re all done!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/14  at  08:07 PM

  • I’d buy that book!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/15  at  08:51 AM

  • I am placing Erik’s archive of South America photos on e-bay….who’s bidding?

    ......ok, not really…..

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/15  at  05:35 PM

  • I wonder if the poo pictures will make it into the coffee table book?  And the Peruvian ladies giving the middle finger?  haha

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/15  at  08:47 PM

  • Good on you Erik, Go BIG or go home!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/16  at  04:15 AM

  • Hey this is Sarah, one of the “contraband” Stellenbosch girls.  I remember hearing you had hiked to the top of the dune by deadvlei, and before I knew it was called crazy dune I thought to myself, wow, that guy’s crazy to hike up such a macdaddy.. esp. since it was like 40 degrees in direct sunlight.  it’s hard to put such a “lekker” experience into words, but you did it well. 
    happy travels!  smile

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/16  at  03:13 PM

  • SARAH FRASER:  Thanks!  Glad to have met you!  Pass the word around!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/16  at  06:07 PM

  • That coffee table book idea is a good one. Sounds to me like you may get two book deals out of this trip!

    Can I preorder mine on amazon yet?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/20  at  11:02 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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Next entry:
Need For Speed

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Desert Run-Ins


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