Sperrgebiet National Park

T he Sperrgebiet National Park was proclaimed in 2008. While it is still largely undeveloped and much of it remains inaccessible to visitors, a small section of this wild landscape can be explored with a tour group, accompanied by an official of the MET.

The Sperrgebiet (forbidden territory) covers 26 000 km2 of globally important semi-desert. It forms part of the Succulent Karoo biome that extends into South Africa. With its profusion of succulent species, unrivalled anywhere else on the planet in terms of endemism and quantity, conservation scientists have classified this area as one of the world’s top 25 Biodiversity Hotspots. To qualify for hot-spot status, an area must contain at least 1 500 endemic vascular plants (0.5% of the planet’s total) and must have lost at least 70% of its original habitat. Prior to the establishment of the Sperrgebiet National Park, a mere 11% of the surviving Succulent Karoo, which is home to 2 439 endemic plants, was in protected areas. Now, following the proclamation of the park, 90% of this zone is protected.

Concessionaires with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) take visitors from !Nami≠nûs into the northern extremity of the park where they can admire the colossal 55-metre-high Bogenfels rock arch; the modern diamond mine and the mysterious ghost town at Elizabeth Bay; the ghost town of Pomona (noteworthy for enduring the highest average wind speeds in Southern Africa); and Märchental – the famous ‘Fairy Tale Valley’ – where diamonds were once so common they could be picked up in handfuls from the surface as they lay gleaming in the light of the moon.

Activities further south include kayaking down the Orange River to observe the birds and animals that frequent this internationally renowned Ramsar Wetland Site and viewing the wealth of succulents, some growing as tall as trees and many putting on a spectacular floral display after winter rains.

Because the Sperrgebiet, due to its diamond wealth, has been off limits to the public for close to a century, the habitat is largely untouched and pristine, making a visit to the park a truly unique wilderness experience.

A permit issued by the Namibian Police is required to enter this area. These permits are arranged by tour operators who take visitors into
the Sperrgebiet.

Northern Sperrgebiet concession

The Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) has given tour operators such as Uri Adventures/Topnaar 4×4 (a joint venture) and Coastway Tours concessions to conduct a limited number of trips annually along the stretch of coastline between Sylvia Hill northwards to Sandwich Harbour in the wilderness section of the Namib-Naukluft Park. Participants drive in their own vehicles and are accompanied throughout the trip by a tour guide in the leading vehicle and an assistant driving at the rear of the convoy with the kitchen equipment and food for the tour on board. A MET representative assists the tour when deemed necessary. Points of interest include Saddle Hill, Koichab Pan, Sylvia Hill, Conception Bay, Langewand, the wreck of the Eduard Bohlen, Fischersbrunn and Sandwich Harbour.

A permit is needed to enter the Sperrgebiet National Park. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk
Bogenfels rock arch. Photo ©Marita van Rooyen

Ancient shipwreck discovered

In April 2008 a shipwreck was discovered along the southern Sperrgebiet coast with priceless treasure in the form of glittering gold coins and hundreds of almost mint-condition silver pieces. Other artefacts retrieved were fifty ivory tusks, thousands of Portuguese and Spanish gold and silver coins minted in late 1400 and early 1500, and pewterware. Astrolabes were the only navigational tools found on the wreck. Astrolabes were used to determine how far north or south you have sailed, although what doomed this ship still remains a mystery. In all likelihood it ran aground due to bad weather, as this stretch of coast is notorious for fierce, disorienting storms. Unofficial estimates are that the gold coins alone are worth N$16 million.

The origin of this find remains a mystery, although informed sources speculate the ship could have been one of a fleet of four, small, fast Portuguese ships – led by Bartholomeu Diaz in the 15th and 17th centuries – that came to grief during a storm off the Cape of Good Hope in May 1500.

Diaz’s caravel was part of a fleet of a dozen ships that set sail from Portugal in the first half of 1500 under the stewardship of the legendary sailor Pedro Alvarez Cabral, who stumbled on Brazil after becoming lost at sea.

The discovery was made inside Namdeb’s Mining Area 1, which is accessible only with permits issued jointly by the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Government’s Protective Resources Unit. Namibian heritage laws on such discoveries automatically give ownership of the treasure to Government.

A maritime and mining museum for Oranjemund is in the pipeline to display, among others, the artefacts found on the wreck.

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