The Namib – our living desert that liberates your soul.
There is magic in every sunrise, in every setting sun and in every full moon rising. Nothing can match the feeling of total awe when waking up at the first light of dawn, just before sunrise, in time to see the moon drop through a layer of pink as it sinks behind an endless western horizon. The moon, the stars, the sun, the wind, the sand, the heat, the dust. Our living desert bestows upon a visitor all of these as moments to feel the solitude. To experience an exhilarating sense of total freedom. To be the first human making a footprint in the sand. Liberating.
Reaching the Namib Desert from the interior, the journey starts with all roads leading into the sunset. To the countless variations of an ancient land formed over millennia into spectacular vistas.
The central highland with its undulating landscape of mountains and valleys ends on an escarpment from where it drops down to the desert plains which eventually meet the ocean.
That breathtaking moment when you reach the top of Spreetshoogte Pass on the escarpment, not expecting what lies ahead and below, is awe inspiring. Beyond, as far as the eye can see, lies the oldest desert in the world. No matter how many times you already have been granted this visual privilege, regardless of season, weather or time of day, it always lifts the spirit and makes you wish to soar like the two resident eagles. Some vistas will always be unforgettable, an everlasting imprint on the eye and the soul.
Whichever the route leading from the central plateau to the desert and the sea, the overwhelming sense of space and the expanse of the land and sky is overpowering. A single gravel path meanders down and into the distance where it disappears into the horizon.
Remhoogte Pass past the Blässkranz tufa, or Gamsberg Pass before crossing the Kuiseb River which separates the sand from the rock and gravel – at the end is endless desert space. Further north the Us Pass and the Bosua, with its multitude of golden-stemmed Cyphostemma trees, lead to over 3 million hectares of vastness: the Namib Sand Sea, a World Heritage Site.
Buried within this living desert are the treasures of millennia of geological processes and more recently the cultural remnants of ancient people who moved across the plains a few hundred years ago. They briefly settled in and around the rocky outcrops and inselbergs dotted on the gravel plains. Their stone circles also survived the passing of time where the ocean meets the land and where to this day large colonies of seals are found, where jackal and hyena have a symbiotic relationship to stay alive. Where hundreds of thousands of migratory birds breed in the wetlands, pelicans survive on offshore islands, where whales and dolphins came back from near extinction and are sighted every so often in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Namibia’s 1,570 km of coast, from the northern to the southern border, is lined by this desert. And all of it, except the towns, is protected in national parks.
The Namib has the highest dunes and the deepest gorges, flat gravel plains, and wetlands full of birds and other life. Ephemeral rivers have left spectacular traces of flash floods over the ages. Following heavy seasonal inland rains they still rush westward unexpectedly. The dreamlike sensation of misty beaches and foggy mornings are in stark contrast to sun scorched moon-like landscapes and rock formations sculpted by the elements into otherworldly shapes further inland.
Nothing can prepare the uninitiated for the wonderment of a moonless night under the stars. Watching the constellations of the southern hemisphere move slowly across its celestial path it becomes evident why the Milky Way is named such. There is no light pollution to spoil the spectacle. The canopy of stars seems so close that tumbling into it feels like a surreal possibility.
To sleep under the full moon is an equally profound experience. Or not sleeping is closer to the truth when the desert is cloaked in monotone while every geographical feature is visible. It is night but it’s not. It is dark but it’s not. There is light but only a reflection of it. It is as if the animals on the plains and the insects, geckos and birds are just as mesmerised. Even the silence of the night has a different sound in moonlit nights.
Plants, animals and countless other living species have survived, evolved and thrived in the harsh desert conditions for millennia. Because of its extraordinary climate the living desert is the only place on earth where a multitude of these species occur and where they survive because the desert protects them.
Desert-adapted animals have the freedom to follow ancient migratory routes from the mountains to the plains in search of grazing and water. The ephemeral rivers which cut through the desert and then disappear in the sand, are a life-giving food source for gemsbok, springbok, zebra, giraffe, ostrich, elephant, jackal, duiker, steenbok, lion, leopard, hyena, warthog, baboon, badger and mongoose. This list of desert inhabitants is not nearly complete and the wonder of each of these creatures’ unique mechanism of survival makes for a journey of discovery.
Evidence of failed human development attempts in earlier years is still visible in places along the coast. Before the desert took back its own, or riches were found elsewhere. The remnants of such follies and endeavours have become sentimental relics worth visiting. If only to show that we humans still need to learn how to tread lightly. To utilise natural resources but maintain the ecological balance and preserve that which cannot ever be replaced.
The Namib is the oldest desert on earth: 43 million years, and at least 2 million in its present form. It stretches along the entire Namibian coast from the border with South Africa in the south to Angola in the north. At its narrowest it is 25 km in the Skeleton Coast section and at its widest 180 km in Namib-Naukluft National Park. The 3 million hectares in the heart of the Namib were proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012 because it is a “place on Earth with outstanding universal value to humanity to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.” 84% of this site is a sea of sand that protects 300 endemic desert-adapted species of animals, insects and plants. There is no place like this anywhere else on the planet.
Trees are not abundant in the Namib, except along ephemeral rivers and on the gravel plains where they persevere against all odds in such arid conditions. Moringa trees (in this photograph), their trunks gnarled by the harsh environment, grow in picturesque settings on the gravel plains and in the mountains of Namib-Naukluft National Park. Camel thorn trees endure the heat and drought thanks to their deep roots and often serve as nesting sites for lappet-faced vultures. Plants in the desert have adapted to cope with the scorching heat of summer and long periods of time with little or no rain. Each precious tree provides small eco-systems where many creatures survive.
It is almost unthinkable that this beautiful place was discovered little more than a hundred years ago, and became a popular tourist attraction only a few decades ago. There is something about the freedom to climb the high dunes, slide down the slip-face or wander about in the sand knowing that your footprint will probably be wiped away in no time as soon as the wind picks up, leaving the sand smooth and the area seeming like an undiscovered place again. Now one of the most visited natural attractions in Namibia, Sossusvlei is seldom deserted, but the overwhelming sense of space remains.
Namibia has 676 bird species. Some are endemic or near-endemic. To make the most of the sheer abundance of birds in different biomes, and to have the best chance to identify the endemics, join a tour with a well-versed birding expert. It will be no challenge to recognise flamingos, the graceful ballerinas along the Namibian coast. Watch them fly past in beautiful flocks or see tens of thousands of them feed in the wetlands of international importance – at the Walvis Bay Lagoon and Sandwich Harbour, two of Namibia’s Ramsar Sites. Flamingos breed in Etosha, also a Ramsar Site, the Nyae Nyae Pans in Khaudum and on the Sua Pans in Botswana when these pans have water. How they know when that happens is another miracle of nature.
Just south of the Walvis Bay salt pans (on this photograph) is Sandwich Harbour. The natural lagoon, once a harbour for whalers because of the fresh water spring that feeds one part of the wetland, forms part of Namibia’s Marine Reserve. Imagine a place that supports between 75 000 to 400 000 water birds, protects more than 50 species of birds and provides a perfect hide-away for fish to spawn. Take a day-trip from Walvis Bay, climb the highest dune and look down on a sanctuary for migratory sea and shore birds. Even better, take a scenic flight to see the beauty and magnitude of this natural phenomenon.
With golden grass on the gravel plains, growing against red dunes and at the foot of rocky outcrops, the Namib looks like golden maize fields after exceptional rains during so-called wet cycles in the desert. Animals that normally migrate further inland into the mountains to find better grazing and water sources stay in the desert in those times of plenty. Large herds of zebra, springbok and gemsbok move across the wide expanse of the Namib between the gravel plains and the sand, through the dry riverbeds and into the valleys below the escarpment.
Namibia is the first African country to have its entire coastline of 1,570 km protected in national parks. Combined, these parks would be the biggest park in Africa and the 6th largest in the world. The marine protected area along the coast covers one million hectares of the Atlantic Ocean, including small islands, islets and rocks. The Namib is a living desert thanks to the cold (14-20°C) nutrient-rich Benguela Current, which flows northward from Cape Point, and the fog that produces five times more moisture than rain in the central parts of the desert. Rain is less than 20 mm per year or nothing at all, but the fog moves in from the coast and deposits its life-giving moisture up to 50 kilometres inland.
The most photographed place in Namibia. Theatrical, dramatic, atmospheric, photogenic with red ochre dunes against blue skies, and skeletons of dead trees graphicly etched on the dry white clay of the pan. It is estimated that these trees grew there about 800 years ago and survived for three centuries before the climate changed, the desert became warmer and the water table dropped so low that all the trees died. What is left is the perfect backdrop for visitors to immortalise them in photos.