Dead Vlei means dead marsh or lake. It is the name of an awe-inspiring white clay pan situated in the salt pan of Sossusvlei, in Namibia.
Science explains its existence one way, but this author can’t but help thinking of two gods fighting, one destroying the other and cursing the area to never give life again. Instead the victorious god put up walls in the form of the towering sand dunes surrounding Dead Vlei – while the forest of dead trees shows the power of the curse. For 900 years almost nothing has grown in this clay pan.
Of course that is just the imagination running wild; the science is a little more prosaic. Located in the Namib-Naukluft Park, this sandstone terrace is surrounded by the highest sand dunes in the world, some 350 meters in height; one closer to 400 meters is named “Big Daddy”.
The clay pan crust formed when the Tsauchab river would overflow and flood, and there were shallow pools that the camel thorn trees took advantage of to grow in (they like sandy soil so it was perfect).
Then came climate change, and this is an example of how severe the results can be. Nine hundred to a 1,000 years ago, drought hit the area. The dunes moved in towards the clay pan and cut off the river’s access to the vlei. The water down below dried up, cutting off the roots from their life-sustaining need, and the rainfall that normally gave subsistence was no more. The trees died, dried in situ, and then the sun came and scorched them, blackening the wood for all time. The dunes turned orange, the sand seemed to rust.
It is an unforgettable sight, this graveyard for 900-year-old trees. On occasion, a beetle can be seen, or a shrub that lives only on the mist from the morning dew, but otherwise this is a frozen death mask of a landscape. The trees in Dead Vlei are not petrified, they are simply dried to the bone.
Dead Vlei is not easy to get to. It is a 6 mile hike from the car park at the gates at Sesriem, and most people try to go very in early morning so they can get photos without the heat of the sun making it a miserable experience.
Right next door to Dead Vlei is the Soussevlei, which is what the Dead Vlei was like before its water access was cut off. Both places are truly worth a visit, but it is Dead Vlei which haunts our imagination.