The Oldest Desert in the World

Horses grazing in Namibia. (Photograph by Marcus  Westberg)

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 sea, 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 “area where there is nothing” — a description that holds true with the sandy expanse comprising some 15 percent of Namibia’s most and 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.

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

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.

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

Galloping across the plains

Charging across the Namib Naukluft National Park‘s rocky plains on horseback is a breathtaking way to see the desert. Setting out from the stables at Desert Homestead, we rode along a broad valley enclosed by mountains, which cast lengthening shadows across the gently swaying grasses as we passed herds of desert-dwelling springbok and heard the call of a brown hyena at dusk.

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 pink in the setting sun. When darkness fell, the Milky Way stretched across the 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

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

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

From a bird’s-eye view, the desert seems endless and the patterns created by constantly shifting sand really pop. 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 as Cape fur seals look on from the lonely shore.

Despite its emptiness, the Namib’s stark beauty instantly captivates. The desert, made up of more than 6.5 million hectares of rolling dunes and gravels plains, is full of contrasts, but none are so startling as the shimmering white pans set against the fiery 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.

The Oldest Desert in the World Africa , Big Daddy , Cape fur seals , Desert Homestead , Horseback Riding , Kate Westberg , Life Through a Lens , Marcus Westberg , Milky Way , Namib Desert , Namib Naukluft National Park , namibia , Scenic Air Namibia , Sossusvlei , springbok , Swakopmund

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