Still rubbing the sleep out of our eyes, our first-coffee-of-the-day caffeine hit just starting to take effect, we pull up to the gate of Namibia's Namib-Naukluft National Park - Africa's largest nature reserve - in the early morning light.
We have just left our accommodation of the night before - the Sossusvlei Lodge in Sesriem - and done the less-than-a-minute's drive to the gate. It is a bright September morning, and there are not even a dozen cars ahead of us as we join the queue just as the gate opens, ready to make our way to the picturesque Deadvlei at Namibia's Sossusvlei. (Opening hours for the Namib Naukluft park are roughly sunrise to sunset, the gate opening at 7am when we visited in late-September).
Having arrived in Sesriem the day before, we had decided to visit the Sesriem Canyon, and at the same time we booked our entrance tickets back into the Namib-Naukluft park for the next day as well (permit fee of around £5pp). And so just a few minutes after 7am, we are let into the gate and we waste no more time setting off on the road to the Sossusvlei area, and our date with the wonders of the Deadvlei.
And here is one of the surprises of the trip. Having spent hours traversing Namibia on gravel roads of distinctly varying quality, here appears in the most incongruous of places - a beautifully kept tarred road!
It is about a 60km drive to the 2WD parking area for Sossusvlei, and we had planned an hour to drive it, but given the quality of the road we do it in about 40 minutes.
Many visitors to the Sossusvlei area stop off at Dune 45 (45kms from the gate, as the name implies) on the way, to climb it for some soft light photos of the surrounding dunes. We decide to head straight for the Deadvlei itself, in an effort to have as much time as possible to spend at the highlight of our Namibian road trip, before the temperatures become unbearable.
Arriving at the 2WD parking lot, we take the opportunity for a quick bathroom break. (Trust us, now is the time - the toilet options at the Sossusvlei 4WD parking area are distinctly dodgy!)
We pack enough water to last us in the arid Namibian heat, pay the cost of the shuttle (price about £8 per person return), and soon enough we are bounding along bouncily across the final 5 minutes of the journey.
This part of the route is very sandy, and though it poses no problem for the experienced shuttle drivers, we recommend thinking carefully before attempting this yourself - this one is for experienced 4x4 drivers only!
A 15 minute walk through what is already stunningly arresting scenery takes us to Deadvlei, and the culmination of our Namibian efforts.
And what a high point it is! It is hard to put into words just how striking the Sossusvlei landscape is. The desiccated camel thorn trees, the caramel desert sand beneath and the cloudless cobalt Namibian sky above, framed by some of the highest sand dunes in the world, all combine to create a landscape to take your breath away!
It doesn't take an expert in photography to bring these pictures to life, at Sossusvlei every point-and-click creates an image that is scintillating - no filter required.
2 mesmerising hours later, with a memory card full of memorable photos, the temperature starts to remind us that this remains a desert - the dry weather and Namibia's heat the reasons these dead trees have not yet succumbed to the ravages of time.
And so, filled with admiration for a landscape long-anticipated, and which did not disappoint, we make our way back to our car and bid farewell to Sossusvlei. From here it is a short drive to the next stop on our all-too-brief trip around this great country of Namibia: our 1-night stay at the impressive Desert Grace Lodge.