The Koichab Dunes: Namibia’s Secret Sand Dunes

by | Feb 9, 2023 | Namibia | 17 comments

Namibia is a giant desert, famous for its towering sand dunes. If you’re familiar with African travel then you’ve probably heard of the Sossusvlei dunes — which have become dune celebrities, thanks to Instagram — and maybe Walvis Bay’s Dune 7, the tallest dune in Namibia. But how about Namibia’s Koichab dunes…ever heard of those?

I hadn’t either.

Sunrise over the Koichab Dunes in Namibia
Sunrise over the Koichab sand dunes. Unlike other big dunes in Namibia, the Koichab dunes are dotted with tufts of grass. (Check out my very old blog post about the Walvis Bay dunes, which border the ocean. They look totally different.)

The Koichab dunes are magnificent and not too far from the town of Aus, which, despite being tiny, has decent tourist facilities. Koichab is also located inside the massive Namib-Naukluft National Park, and hence accessible to the public. But hardly anyone goes to Koichab because there is no tourism infrastructure around it — no signage, no real road, and (as I learned while researching this post) virtually no information on the internet. The only way to visit Koichab is to go with a local, and I was lucky enough to do just that.

Heather on Koichab dunes
Me on the dunes about halfway through our climb. We got pretty high up but nowhere near the top; climbing to the highest point would take hours. Each time we crested a ridge, there was was another, steeper ridge looming behind it (Photo: Thorsten Deckler).

My boyfriend, Thorsten, grew up in Aus — his grandparents had a farm there. When Thorsten was a little boy, his grandfather took him camping under the camel thorn trees in the dry riverbed at the foot of the Koichab dunes. He remembers how magical it was to climb up the dunes and feel like he was the only person to ever walk there. (He also remembers watching a tarantula run though the campfire and, to his grandmother’s horror, coming home from the trip covered in ticks. Eek.)

Camelthorn trees at Koichab
Eerie photo of some of those camel thorn trees, swarming with birds. The foot of the dunes is a dry riverbed and there is still water underground, quite close to the surface — hence the trees and grass.

Thorsten and I visited Aus last week and spent a lot of time with Thorsten’s old friend Andrew, who grew up on an adjoining farm. (More on that story in a future post.) Andrew knows this area intimately and also has a Toyota Land Cruiser; he was kind enough to wake up before dawn and take us to the dunes for sunrise.

Andrew on the dunes
Andrew‘s farm is the closest private land to Koichab and he has visited the dunes many times.

Visiting the Koichab Dunes

We planned to leave Aus at 5:00 a.m., to get to the dunes before the sun rose around 6:30. It’s ideal to get there well before the sun comes up, so you’re on the sand as the first light rays hit, and have plenty of time to climb up before the blistering heat descends. But Thorsten and I were slow leaving our hotel (we couldn’t find anyone awake to let us out of the parking lot) and got off to a late start. Andrew had to “put foot”, as the South Africans say, to get us there as close to sunrise as possible, and I’m so grateful he did.

Road to Koichab
On the “road” to Koichab at about 6 in the morning. The dunes stretch as far as the eye can see, seemingly infinite in both length and width. I have no idea how far away they actually were in this photo — it could have been 2 kilometers or 20.
Andrew driving
Bumpy sketch of Andrew putting foot on the way to the dunes, by @theThinking_Hand.

We finally reached the end of the road — a windmill and watering hole at the base of the dunes, the only sign of human existence for miles — flung open the car doors, and took off running up the sand in a race with the light. The sun had just risen but it was still hiding behind the dunes.

Thorsten, who climbs like a mountain goat, threw off his shoes and quickly sped ahead. I eventually took my shoes off too, praying not to encounter any snakes or tarantulas beneath the sand, and stopped periodically, panting, to shoot pictures.

Thorsten climbing the dunes
Climbing on sand is actually very hard. Thorsten excels at it.

I don’t think the Koichab dunes are as tall as the dunes in Sossusvlei or Walvis Bay (I’m actually not sure of their height, as Google can’t seem to tell me), and they certainly don’t have the same social media fame. But Koichab is special in a different way; these dunes are a Namibian secret. They offer a type of solitude that’s not easy to find in the post-2020 world.

Koichab dune
Another dune.
Thorsten climbing a steep dune
More dunes! We never got close to the top.
Andrew sitting on a dune
Andrew finally gave up on following us and sat down to enjoy the scenery. Can you spot the “road” cutting across the pan below?
Heather on Koichab
How to explain an experience like this? It felt like we were the only humans on earth.

I thought the good photography would be finished once the sun crested the dunes. But actually the show was just beginning, as the sharp light started to cast dramatic shadows over the sand.

Thorsten dunes

Thorsten and I romped around like children, laughing at our long, skinny doppelgängers.

Shadows over Koichab

Thorsten dancing on the dunes

Thorsten on the Koichab dunes

Heather dune jumpstagram

And then it started to get hot so we reluctantly climbed down (way easier than climbing up), where Andrew and his friend Owen were waiting for us at the watering hole.

Andrew on a windmill at Koichab
Andrew hanging out on top of the windmill.
Andrew on the windmill
I love these windmill pictures.

We drove along the dry riverbed for a while, spotting a few vultures and a lone oryx in the distance. As we headed out of the Koichab pan, a young jackal came out of its den to check us out. She sauntered right out into the road in front of us, peering up through the windshield. I don’t think she’d ever seen a car before.

Curious jackal
Curious little jackal.

Thanks to Andrew and Thorsten for showing me the Koichab magic.

Koichab in Namibia
More Namibia posts to come.


  1. Albert

    “Put foot” – haha. I never realized how unintentionally funny it sounds. Looks magical there.

  2. Nancy McDaniel

    wow, amazing story and your photos are just magnificent!

    • 2summers

      Thanks Nancy. I actually got a new camera while I was in the US and I was sooooooo glad to have it on this trip.

      • Fiver Löcker

        I’m glad the new camera is worth it. Stuart will be so happy.

  3. AutumnAshbough

    That’s pretty cool, even though I am not a huge fan of sand. Amazing light. And to feel like you are alone in this overpopulated world? Priceless.

    • 2summers

      This sand is unlike any other sand you’ve ever experienced. It feels like silk!

  4. Margaret Urban

    I saw on Instagram that you are having trouble adjusting to being back in the ‘real world’. I think one can question whether the natural world – as in the sand dunes – or the crowded hitech and often destructive ‘modern’ world – are or deserve to be real …

    • 2summers

      That is very true! It’s certainly a different kind of reality but real nonetheless.

      • Margaret Urban

        Guess it is fortunate that both are true!?!

  5. Anneliese Cianfanelli

    Excellent reporting and photos – thank you for sharing this rare experience with us

    • 2summers

      Thanks Annaliese!

  6. Peter joseph

    That was a great tour ofNamibia.


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