The magnificent Namib Sand Sea
The Namib-Naukluft Park is the largest conservation area in Namibia and home to one of the country’s top tourist attractions, the legendary Sossusvlei – a spectacular white pan surrounded by some of the highest sand dunes in the world.
On 22 March 1907, German Governor Friedrich von Lindequist proclaimed three nature reserves, one of which was Game Reserve No 3 in the central Namib Desert. Renamed as the Namib Desert Park in 1962, this tract of scenically beautiful desert was amalgamated with the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park (proclaimed in 1968) and unoccupied state land in 1979, and proclaimed as the Namib- Naukluft Park. Portions of the Diamond Area as far south as the Aus/Lüderitz road were subsequently added, which virtually doubled its size to 49 768km2, making it the largest conservation area in Namibia, the fifth largest in Africa and one of the largest terrestrial parks in the world. The top attraction in the park and one of the country’s major tourist destinations, second only to Etosha National Park, is Sossusvlei, renowned for its spectacular, desiccated white pan surrounded by majestic star-shaped dunes with deep, warm hues, and close by, the eerie Deadvlei with its bleached skeletons of ancient camel-thorn trees. Other features in Namib-Naukluft Park areSesriem, the Welwitschia Trail, Sandwich Harbour, the Naukluft Mountains and the Kuiseb Canyon.
This section lies between the Swakop and Kuiseb river valleys. Ostrich, springbok and gemsbok are conspicuous, especially on the desert plains, while giraffe, blue wildebeest and warthog also occur here. Hartmann’s mountain zebra, klipspringer and baboon frequent the canyons of the Swakop and Kuiseb rivers, and leopard and spotted hyaena move in and out of the Kuiseb Canyon. Other species include black- backed jackal, bat-eared fox and ground squirrel. This section of the Namib also has a large Lappet-faced vulture population.
An intriguing host of small creatures have adapted to survive in the Namib dunes. The fog-basking beetle, Onymacris unguicularis, drinks water by positioning itself on the crest of a dune, dropping its head and extending its hind legs. Its back serves as a condensation surface for fog, which forms droplets and slides downwards towards its mouth. An intriguing ‘thermal dance’ is performed by the shovel-snouted lizard, Meroles anchietae, to cope with the extreme heat radiating from the dune surfaces.
The Gobabeb Training and Research Centre on the banks of the Kuiseb River has an international reputation for researching Namib ecology. Gobabeb is generally not open to the public, except on open days.
At Sandwich Harbour the light orange coloured dunes merge with the Atlantic Ocean, creating a lagoon of infinite beauty. The lagoon is a wetland of international importance and supports over 400,000 Palearctic and intra-African waders, cormorantsand significant numbers of Greater and Lesser Flamingoes. A permit must be obtained from the Ministry of Tourism and Environment offices in Swakopmund or Walvis Bay. A four- wheel drive vehicle is essential and the onward and return journey can only be undertaken during low tide.
Many visitors to Namibia say that no part of the desert is visually more dramatic than Sossusvlei with its monumentally high dunes. These gigantic star-shaped mountains of sand – one of the largest was measured from the base as 325 metres high – are a sought-after topic for artists and photographers. The warm tints of the sand contrast vividly with the dazzling white surfaces of the large deflationary clay pans at their bases. One of these, referred to as Dead Vlei, is a large ghostly expanse of dried white clay, punctuated by skeletons of ancient camel-thorn trees, carbon- dated as being between 500 and 600 years old.
Sossusvlei’s mountainous dunes lie at the end of an erosional trough formed by the Tsauchab River. They are shaped by strong multi- directional winds, primarily the southwester, and have three to five sinuous crests, which meet at the highest point to give them their characteristic star shapes.
Visitors are allowed access to Sossusvlei only between sunrise and sunset. The first 60 km of the road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei has a permanent surface and is suitable for sedan cars, whereas the last five-kilometre stretch of sandy track is negotiable by 4×4 vehicles only. A shuttle service is available for people who do not want to hike the last 5 km.
The permit office complex for entry to Sossusvlei and other destinations in this section of the park is at Sesriem. Four kilometres south from here is Sesriem Canyon, where the erosion of many centuries has incised a narrow gorge about 1 km in length. At the foot of the gorge, which plunges down 30–40 metres, are pools that become replenished after good rains. Sesriem derives its name from the time when early pioneers tied six lengths of rawhide thongs together to draw water from these pools.
To early inhabitants, the gorge was an important water source in an otherwise waterless area. Even during very dry times there is water in the upper reaches of the canyon, where the deep clefts reduce evaporation. The Tsauchab River flows through the Sesriem Canyon and continues down to Sossusvlei.
The Naukluft section of the park was created to serve as a sanctuary for Hartmann’s mountain zebra competing with livestock for grazing on farms. With its massive and varied rock formations, Naukluft is a geologist’s paradise. The intermittent layers of horizontally folded igneous rock, quartzite, dolomite and shale are impressive with their giant symmetrical patterns. Five different vegetation communities within the park ensure a wealth of tree and shrub species, and a variety of aloes. Animals found at Naukluft in addition to Hartmann’s mountain zebra are kudu, gemsbok, klipspringer, duiker, steenbok, leopard, baboon, black- backed jackal, bat-eared fox, African wildcat, caracal and aardwolf. Naukluft’s steep cliffs are nesting grounds for various cliff-breeding bird species, including Verreaux’s Eagles.
Permits for Namib-Naukluft
Permits for the Namib-Naukluft Park are available at the permit offices of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism in Swakopmund (064 40 4576), Walvis Bay (064 20 5971) and Windhoek (061 284 2111). Permits are also available at Sesriem.
About 110 km west of Mariental on the C19 en route to Sossusvlei is the small town of Maltahöhe, named by Hauptmann Henning von Burgsdorf, who supervised a police station of the German colonial administration there in 1895. He named the settlement after his wife, Malta.
About 35 km north of Maltahöhe, on the farm Sandhof, lies an enormous salt pan that is usually bone dry, except in good rainy seasons. If the pan reaches a depth of over 15 cm, shoots break miraculously through the surface of the shallow water, seemingly out of nowhere, and burst into bloom. For hundreds of hectares, as far as the eye can see, a short- lived vista of iridescent amaryllis lilies appears in an ephemeral blaze of pink, purple and white. But, as soon as the flowers have formed, they wither, and an almost biblical horde of elephant beetles descends and devours them within the space of a few days. The single weekend in which the lily season falls, usually in January or February, is a hectic one for Maltahöhe.
When on the way to attractions such as Sossusvlei and Sesriem, many visitors elect to stay in the Maltahöhe Hotel, one of the oldest country hotels in Namibia.
The cemetery at Nomtsas, some 45 km north of Maltahöhe, contains the graves of some German pioneers and is a national monument.
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An exclusive-use gate provides direct, early access to the renowned dunes of Sossusvlei and the evocative panoramas of Deadvlei. Float above the world’s oldest desert in a hot-air balloon. See the desert come alive on nature walks and drives. Or get your thrills on an e-bike or low-impact quad bike. Little Kulala effortlessly embraces its
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At the entry to Sossusvlei is Sesriem Canyon, where millennia of erosion have incised a narrow gorge about 1 km in length. At the foot of the gorge, which plunges down 30 to 40 metres, are pools that become replenished after good rains. Sesriem derives its name from the time when pioneers tied six lengths
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