Ex­plore Dunes of the Namib Desert

Nomad Africa Magazine - - Inside Issue11 - Words & Pho­to­graphs: RENATE STRUB

in a world full of con­trasts I had never seen be­fore, I felt ex­hil­a­rated and as mi­nus­cule as one of those mil­lions of grains of sand. Fly­ing low, I could al­most have touched the dunes, so it seemed. Just a Fata Mor­gana. Fata Mor­ganas are mi­rages seen right above the hori­zon. Many a desert trav­eller has been de­ceived into see­ing an oa­sis or wa­ter­hole, only to find out it was noth­ing but sand. We had ac­tu­ally seen such a Fata Mor­gana a few days be­fore, while driv­ing through a flat area: in the dis­tance, both of us and our guide were sure we saw the un­du­lat­ing sea mov­ing at the hori­zon. That im­age lasted for quite a while as we kept on driv­ing. But, there was no sea for miles around.

Half­way through our 2500-mile trip in Namibia, my hus­band and I ar­rived in the mod­ern city of Swakop­mund shortly af­ter noon and headed straight to the Swakop­mund air­port. I had won­dered why our ad­ven­ture was sched­uled for the early af­ter­noon in­stead of in the early morn­ing hours when the light would have been softer. It was be­cause of the fog, but more about that later. Our fly­ing ob­ject was a five-pas­sen­ger high­wing Cessna 210. The wings of a high­wing plane are set on the top of the air­plane, thus af­ford­ing an un­ob­structed view of the scenery be­low. Make sure you se­lect this air­craft type, if you de­cide to fly over the desert.

Be­ing a pho­tog­ra­pher, I car­ried a cam­era back­pack, which our pi­lot wanted to store in the cargo com­part­ment. "Oh no, please don't," I pleaded, "I have to have my bag with me as I will need all my lenses to cap­ture the beau­ti­ful sights." "You are lucky," our pi­lot said, "as we have only four pas­sen­gers to­day, you can have the two back seats to your­self." Won­der­ful! Not only did I have more space than I needed, but I had also left and right views of the panorama. And so be­gan my 2:10-hour fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence.

As we took off at 2 p.m., the sun was ra­di­ant in a mild blue sky. It took only a few min­utes to reach the dunes. None of us ut­tered a word; we were en­thralled by and in awe of the stun­ning scenery! We were fly­ing south of Swakop­mund, al­most to Sos­susvlei, home to the fa­mous red Dune 45. I had al­ready been to this dune; this one is most im­pres­sive seen from the ground, es­pe­cially early morn­ings or late after­noons, when the low sun bathes the dunes in colours rang­ing from golden to pur­ple, and the fog paints ab­stract mo­tives. But back to our flight.

Fly­ing as high as 300 m. / 984 ft. and as

See­ing the vast ex­panse and high dunes of the Namib Desert at ground level did not pre­pare me for the awe-in­spir­ing beauty of an air­borne ex­pe­ri­ence. The arid desert is in­ter­minable, un­for­giv­ing and in­hos­pitable. Yet, fly­ing as low as 60 m. / 197 ft., the dunes looked harm­less, al­most invit­ing. Look­ing down, I thought: were I to fall, I would surely land in a soft-feath­ered bed.

low as 60 m. / 197 ft., I saw noth­ing but dunes and rock desert as far as the eye could see. It was over­whelm­ing to see this end­less desert. Namib Desert, home of the high­est dunes in the world, the high­est be­ing Dune 7, reach­ing an in­cred­i­ble al­ti­tude of 383 m. / al­most 1,257 ft. Some dunes were soft and rounded, oth­ers with sharp edges reach­ing into the sky; the blow­ing wind cre­at­ing end­less pat­terns of peaks, wind­ing lines, dents, and even some craters. Their colour ranged from light golden near the coast to a fiery or­ange/red fur­ther in­land. The more in­tense the colour, the higher the con­cen­tra­tion of iron ox­ide coat­ing the fine sand grains.

A sym­phony of con­trasts and a vis­ual feast, sud­denly this arid land­scape of dunes and oc­ca­sional rock for­ma­tions was in­ter­rupted by ser­pen­tine lines of dark green veg­e­ta­tion, even some trees - most likely the ubiq­ui­tous aca­cias - an in­di­ca­tion of un­der­ground rivers.

These rivers are usu­ally dry most of the year, and even when they carry wa­ter, they don't make it to the sea, but drain into closed basins called en­dorheic basins. The wa­ter in these bowls de­creases through evap­o­ra­tion and seep­age.

Later we came across salt and clay pans, dry flat sur­faces cov­ered by salt and other min­er­als - an­cient lakes dried out in the course of time; their white colour a stark con­trast to the sur­round­ing colour­ful dunes and rocks.

One of the world's old­est and largest, the Namib Desert has ex­isted for some 43 mil­lion years, un­changed for the past 2 mil­lion. 1,243 miles long (2,000 km) and 124 wide (200 km), it ex­tends from the Western Cape Prov­ince in South Africa, con­tin­ues north along the South At­lantic Ocean coast in Namibia un­til it reaches into An­gola. The word Namib comes from the Nama lan­guage and means "open space". I have also heard Namib trans­lated as "im­mense". Cer­tainly, both terms fit­tingly de­scribe this re­gion. Namibia is firmly com­mit­ted to na­ture con­ser­va­tion. It was the first coun­try in Africa to in­cor­po­rate the pro­tec­tion of the en­vi­ron­ment into the con­sti­tu­tion. Com­mu­nal con­ser­van­cies have been de­vel­oped through­out Namibia, where lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties are ac­tively in­volved in the own­er­ship and man­age­ment of their nat­u­ral re­sources and wildlife. This sys­tem has been very suc­cess­ful since peo­ple tend to be more com­mit­ted when they have a per­sonal stake in a cause. The Namib-Nauk­luft Na­tional Park (49,768 km2 / 19,216 sq. mi.), is the largest con­ser­va­tion area in south­ern Africa, run­ning from Swakop­mund south to Luderitz. Next, our pi­lot flew us over Con­cep­tion Bay on the Skele­ton Coast; a long stretch of coast that ac­quired its name be­cause

of the many ships that sank and met an un­timely end. It is here, where the scorch­ing desert meets the frigid wa­ters of the South At­lantic Ocean, that the icy wa­ters of the Benguela cur­rent in­ter­act with the warm air, cre­at­ing dense fog in the early morn­ing that rolls far in­land, pushed by the south­west­ern winds. The fog can last for hours and brings livesav­ing mois­ture to the sparse plants and crea­tures liv­ing in the desert.

Even though the desert seems void of life, it has a sur­pris­ingly di­verse an­i­mal pop­u­la­tion such as the pal­mato gecko, the na­maqua chameleon, the side win­der snake, the shovel-snouted lizard, the golden mole, large scor­pi­ons, bee­tles, ants, spi­ders. These crea­tures tend to hide dur­ing the day in crevices, small holes, or bury­ing them­selves in the sand, to es­cape the bru­tal day­time heat. They sur­face in the evening to hunt for food, and the early morn­ing fog pro­vides all the mois­ture they need.

By na­ture, large desert an­i­mals - oryx or gems­bok, os­trich, wilde­beest, and oth­ers - can only live where they have ac­cess to wa­ter holes.

About a quar­ter of a mile in­land, we saw the old ship­wreck of the cargo ship Ed­uard Bohlen, stranded in Septem­ber of 1909, now nearly buried in the sand. So far in­land, I could only imag­ine what the land­scape must have been back then. Over time, the desert must have en­croached on the ocean.

Be­tween Con­cep­tion Bay and Sand­wich Bay, we saw an­other ship­wreck on the shore, just touch­ing the desert. One of many relics of stormy nights.

Fur­ther north, we flew over Walvis Bay, mean­ing "Whale Bay", only about 35 km. / 22 miles from Swakop­mund. If we had had an­other day in Swakop­mund, we would have vis­ited this town as it is a heaven for flamin­gos, pel­i­cans, and seals that make their home in the sur­round­ing in­lets. But we did get to see two large flocks of flamin­gos hud­dled to­gether in shal­low wa­ters. In­ter­est­ingly, Walvis Bay's coat of arms shows two flamin­gos, one pel­i­can, and one whale.

Walvis Bay is a large in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial town of ap­prox. 100,000 in­hab­i­tants. The Walvis Port, a large deep­wa­ter port with ac­cess to the main ship­ping routes, has be­come the gate­way for land­locked coun­tries in Africa, giv­ing them easy ac­cess to the rest of the world.

Just out­side of town is the Walvis Bay Salt Hold­ing site, the largest pro­ducer of so­lar sea salt south of the Sa­hara. Be­sides in­dus­trial salt, they pro­vide south­ern Africa with high-qual­ity ta­ble salt. The evap­o­rat­ing sea wa­ter in the de­lim­ited la­goons cre­ated a spec­tac­u­lar kalei­do­scope of colours, from aqua­ma­rine to pur­ple to yel­low with ev­ery nuance in be­tween. Vis­i­ble next to them were white salt hills in var­i­ous stages of pro­duc­tion/re­fine­ment.

Land­ing at the Swakop­mund air­port, it seemed we had been in the air for no more than an hour, while it was two hours and 10 min­utes. The air­fare was $300/per­son, and worth ev­ery cent. Swakop­mund, on the South At­lantic coast, is a mod­ern re­sort town with a pop­u­la­tion of over 44,000 peo­ple. It has ex­cel­lent ho­tels and restau­rants, wide streets, and up­scale bou­tiques. Namib­ians, es­pe­cially from the cap­i­tal Wind­hoek, flock to this city. A reser­va­tion well in ad­vance is rec­om­mended for Christ-

mas hol­i­days. Be­ing close to Wind­hoek, Swakop­mund is the ideal place for a week­end trip. Swakop­mund is also very pop­u­lar with tourists, par­tic­u­larly from South Africa.

Swakop­mund was founded in 1892 as the main port of Ger­man South West Africa, bring­ing wide-rang­ing com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties and pros­per­ity to the re­gion. The strong Ger­man in­flu­ence is still present in well-pre­served build­ings, such as the Wo­er­mann House with its Da­mara Tower. The Ger­man mag­nate C. Wo­er­mann owned a trad­ing com­pany and the Wo­er­mann ship­ping line. Da­mara Tower was used to look out for ships on the ocean, and ox carts in the desert. While mod­ern, Swakop­mund re­tains a Ger­man colo­nial at­mos­phere, re­flected in its prom­e­nades and half-tim­bered houses from the early 1900s.

Hap­pily tuck­ing in for the night, both of us echoed the Aus­tralian au­thor Robyn Davidson who said: I love the

One of the world's old­est and largest, the Namib Desert has ex­isted for some 43 mil­lion years, un­changed for the past 2 mil­lion. 1,243 miles long (2,000 km) and 124 wide (200 km), it ex­tends from the Western Cape Prov­ince in South Africa, con­tin­ues north along the South At­lantic Ocean coast in Namibia un­til it reaches into An­gola.

Above: My­self board­ing plane Cessna in Swakop­mund, Namibia. Swakop­mund was founded in 1892 as the main port of Ger­man South West Africa, bring­ing wide-rang­ing com­mer­cial ac­tiv­i­ties and pros­per­ity to the re­gion. Left: Ship­wreck of the Ed­uard Bohlen....

Salt in­dus­try in Malvis Bay. The Walvis Bay Salt Hold­ing site is the largest pro­ducer of so­lar sea salt south of the Sa­hara. Be­sides in­dus­trial salt, they pro­vide south­ern Africa with high-qual­ity ta­ble salt.

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