We woke up just prior to alarm clock, and packed for our hike in the sand dunes, including putting on appropriate footwear. It would have been nice to have packed up our boots and left them in Windhoek with the rest of the Kilimanjaro gear, but we knew we needed them for climbing around in the dunes. At breakfast, we were told for the first time that we would be going on balloon ride; this was a bit of a surprise given that we had heard nothing yesterday afternoon, nothing yesterday evening. Also problematic was that we were already packed for something else. Since we really wanted to see the dunes up close and were already packed for that, we told them we'd go tomorrow. But they told us that the weather would be no good tomorrow and that we had to go today; we were dubious. But because of their representation, we went on the balloon ride.

The balloons were close by, and were about halfway being inflated when we got there. While they were finishing up filling the balloons, we took some photos of the sunrise over the valley - the dunes (to the west) lit up a bright red color. The red comes from iron oxide in the sand, and the oldest dunes have the most iron. Since the sand in the dunes came from the coast and blew in from west to east, the oldest, reddest, and largest dunes are on the eastern edge, right near where we were staying. We had never been on a balloon before, so we didn't know quite what to expect. There were 16 people on each balloon, and each basket was segmented into four quadrants, with four people in each quadrant. We assume this was to prevent everyone from piling on one side and throwing off the equilibrium.

It was a bit hard to maneuver around, as once you were in place, you couldn't squeeze past the other people in your quadrant. Since we got in first in our quadrant, the other two people were on the outer edge, with us closer to the middle of the basket. It didn't end up being an issue, however, because the pilot made sure that the balloon slowly rotated so that we all had views to all directions. The ride was nice enough, and very peaceful (the pilot noted that it never seems windy because you're always moving the exact same speed as the wind), but we didn't get anywhere near dunes because prevailing winds were unkind. The preferred route would be to head southwest towards Sossusvlei, more or less following the paved road that ends there, but we had no winds heading that way, so we headed almost due north from where we took off, going right past our lodge, never getting any closer to the dunes to the west, and getting farther and farther away from the dunes to the south.

After landing, we hopped in a van and had a champagne breakfast near Sesriem Canyon, where Ambrosius had told us the night before we'd be going in the afternoon. There were no dunes near the canyon, so we were wondering how we were going to fit everything dune-related into a single drive the following morning. It seemed crazy that we had come all this way only to not visit the main tourist attraction. It would be like going to Paris but having your guide not take you to the Eiffel Tower until the day you were leaving for the airport. Anyway, the champagne breakfast was nice, with some tasty salami made from Kudu and Eland (two of the largest antelope in southern africa) and also some smoked Zebra. The meat was dark brown, almost black - and not striped.

On the drive back, we stopped for a minute to check out a small horned adder that was sunning to warm up. [The picture is zoomed, we weren't that close.] After hopping back in the car, one of the guests asked the driver about the weather being bad the next day (apparently they had been given the same story at Kulala) and the driver said "no, there's no problem with the weather tomorrow, we'll be heading out at the same time." Justin was livid, since we easily could have done the balloon ride and then headed straight to the airstrip the following day, whereas we couldn't take the extended trip into the dunes (as we would have been doing this morning), because the extended drive lasted until after lunch, and we'd be leaving before lunch the following day.

We got back to the hotel a little after 11, and Justin was intent on finding a manager, only no one seemed to be around, possibly because everyone (besides us!) was on the extended trip into the dunes. So we killed some time in the lobby, near the water hole. The "water hole" was artificial, with water pumped up from underground springs. There were a fair number of these around the area. It seemed weird to have artificial waterholes that were necessary for the survival of hundreds (if not thousands) of animals, but given that all of Southern California is supplied by artificial water, maybe not. While watching the oryx, springbok and ostriches come and go, Justin kept nodding off, while Crystal was reading her book. Eventually we got a hold of a manager, and told her that we wanted to go to the dunes this afternoon and also the next day. She said she'd do what she could. At lunch, we saw Ambrosius, and told him the same thing, including that we had seen Sesriem Canyon in the morning after the balloon ride. He also said he'd do what he could. He came back a little later and told us we'd be going out in a truck with the Americans in the afternoon, since they wanted to head down to the Dead Vlei to take some photos. Oh, the irony.

We left sometime between 3:30 and 4:00 with Cristoph (Ambrosius was still with the German couple), headed for the Dead Vlei, stopping here and there. Among other wildlife, we saw two groups of bat-eared foxes. There were five in each group, and they were headed towards one another, so from afar it looked like there was going to be a gang fight. [There wasn't.] As we went along the paved highway headed southwest, the dunes were immediately on our right, but then also started to be on our left as well. In front of the dunes on each side were a narrow band of trees and shrubs, which manage to stay alive from the water that flows the few times a year there is rain. The rainfall in the nearby mountains all flows into two rivers that meet up near Kulala and then flow into Sossusvlei, where they form a lake for a few days before drying up. The combined river (Tsauchab River) used to flow all the way to the ocean (about 35 miles or 55 kilometers to the west), but the dunes have long since blocked the path. Some of the dunes are named and are free for tourists to walk on. We passed Dune 45 (named for its 45 degree incline) on our left as we headed down the road.

At the end of the paved road, there was a large parking lot (which was mostly empty), and then a 4x4 road through the sand. By this point, the dunes that had been on both sides of the road had really closed in, starting not far from the road on each side. The driving was much slower now, and we headed to the end of the 4x4 road. At the end, there was another parking lot, and huge dunes on both sides. On the left side was "Big Daddy" and on the right was "Big Mama." We headed out with Cristoph to climb up Big Daddy, while the Americans (and their litany of photo equipment) went to Dead Vlei, just south of Big Daddy. Dead Vlei is a dried pan where Acacia trees used to live, but no longer, as water ran out. While Sossusvlei occasionally gets water in wet years, Dead Vlei does not.

We walked up Big Daddy for a bit, with Cristoph stopping us every now and then to explain something about the history of the area or how the dunes were formed. The short explanation is that the Orange River (which separates Namibia and South Africa) deposited lots of sand into the Atlantic Ocean, not too far south of Sossusvlei. All this sand was pushed northwards by the Benguela current to be dumped back onto the land by the surf. The coastal sand was then continuously blown farther inland by the wind. So over millions of years, 1000 foot dunes were formed. Big Daddy is the tallest of the dunes, at roughly 345 meters (1100 feet). Between the wind blowing directly into our face and our feet sinking every step, it was a tough walk. We were actually getting more tired than we had on Kilimanjaro. Once we got up a pretty good distance, we gazed around for a bit, then ran down the steep side onto Dead Vlei.

By this point, the sun was very low on the horizon, and numerous shadows had started to appear on the dunes. Also, the numerous dead Acacia trees were throwing very long shadows onto the white salt pan. Because of this, Dead Vlei at sunset is a popular spot for photographers. The issue is that you have to be quick, however, because you can't stay in the National Park past sunset, and since Dead Vlei is at the farthest end of the park, you need to allocate 45 minutes to get out - so basically, you have to take as many photos as you can 45-60 minutes before the sun sets. Cristoph told us that we had 15 minutes to walk around and take photos, and then we'd have to head back in a hurry. The Americans had already been there for awhile, taking photos. The guy saw Justin crouching into an awkward position to take a couple photos and asked what he was doing; Justin told him he was trying to hide in the shadows of the trees so that his own shadow wouldn't be in the photo. Justin walked off to a different area and a few minutes later saw the guy trying the same thing.

The drive back was on borrowed time, because the Americans couldn't walk back to the truck very fast with all their equipment. Aside from one short stop at Dune 45, the drive back was a straight shot. We set the cameras to shutter priority mode and set them at 1/1000 of a second, just to (hopefully) eliminate any blur from being in a moving vehicle. Even accounting for having been stuck with the Americans, the excursion was a very nice one, and was exactly what we had hoped we'd see and do in the Kulala area. When we got back we showered, as there was sand everywhere (it sticks to the suntan lotion). Then we went into the bar for a couple cocktails, and were sitting near a group of six American women from Southern California. From their conversation we could tell we'd be on the flight with them tomorrow; we commented we should pack some earplugs. [Seriously, why are Americans always the ones talking so loud?]

We talked Cristoph and Ambrosius about the plan for tomorrow, and determined we'd be with Ambrosius by ourselves. Dinner was very good, with Karoo Lamb, which coincidentally we had just been talking about. Lleweyln was a good bartender, making sure we never had an empty glass. After dinner there was some live music from the staff, which was really nice. We also struck up a conversation with 1 of the 6 American women, and had a nice long chat. They would be on our flight, but now we wouldn't be dreading it at all. At about 11pm we realized we were three sheets to the wind, and should probably get to sleep, as we didn't want to be hung over for the long flight the next day.