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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and I romped around like children, laughing at our long, skinny doppelgängers.
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.
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.
Thanks to Andrew and Thorsten for showing me the Koichab magic.