By Hugh Paxton, Environmental Journalist
The Namib-Naukluft is not only Namibia’s largest park (49 768 km2), but is currently also the second-largest protected area in Africa.
Poised to form the heart of the planned Namib-Skeleton Coast National Park, it has conserved the planet’s oldest living desert since the first protected conservation area was proclaimed in 1907 and is perhaps best known as being home to several of the country’s most famous tourist icons, namely Sossusvlei with its monumental dunes and the venerable, slow-growing and rather frazzled-looking Welwitschia mirabilis.
This said there is a lot more to this park than Martian dunes and geriatric members of the conifer family (welwitschias are generally accepted as being conifers, although the resemblance is not overwhelmingly apparent). And, more to the point, a lot that many visitors miss as they hurry to their ‘Sossusvlei at dawn’ experience.
This park has one of the most diverse ranges of habitats in Namibia.
The Naukluft (literally ‘narrow ravine’) section was initially proclaimed in 1966 to protect the population of Hartmann’s mountain zebra. This is the largest of Southern Africa’s three races of zebra and occurs only in western Namibia and southern Angola. Like other wildlife in the Naukluft, mountain zebra are not readily seen, although early mornings offer a good opportunity when they congregate to bask on eastern-facing slopes.
Over 200 bird species have been recorded in the park, and the Naukluft is particularly rich in this respect. Its crags and cliffs serve as sanctuary for raptors such as black eagle, black-breasted snake eagle, booted eagle and lanner falcon, and its pools support wetland species like African black duck and hamerkop (unlikely finds in a desert!). It also marks the most southerly range of many northern species, for example Rüppel’s parrot, rosy-faced lovebirds and Monteiro’s hornbill.
The Naukluft carries populations of klipspringer, springbok, gemsbok, leopard, and aardwolf and is also a haven for baboons, but game sighting in this section of the park is less predictable than in the north, due largely to the terrain. This latter is cha-racterised by formidable, weathered limestone and dolomite rock extrusions, and is dominated by the towering Naukluft massif. Riddled with gorges, this huge plateau is a fine honeycomb of tiny channels that effectively enables it to act as a ‘sponge’, absorbing and retaining water that slowly seeps downwards to feed the springs, rivers and pools for which the area is renowned.
Plains and coast
The northern section of the park is far less mountainous, although there are inselbergs famous for their aloes, and after spring rains, game such as ostrich, gemsbok, zebra and giraffe congregate in large numbers on the Ganab plains. Unlike their compatriots in the Naukluft, which have easy access to ample water, the baboons in the dry riverbeds wage a constant battle against thirst and drought. One individual baboon in the Kuiseb River was recorded as surviving 116 days without water. Black rhino, not seen in the Namib section of the park since the early 1970s when two were released (unsuccessfully), are once again reclaiming their ancestral territory. To commemorate the centenary of the park nine rhino were reintroduced and are currently being radio tracked and monitored.
The coast is key to the survival of many living components of the park. Sea fog that drifts almost nightly many kilometres inland is a crucial source of moisture nurturing the fragile lichen fields and other of the 400 species of plant life, which form the base of the food chain.
Namibia’s coastal waters are particularly well endowed with marine life and the Namib-Naukluft’s slice of ocean-front property is no exception. Cape fur seals and cetaceans are regular visitors and an estimated 500 fish species thrive in the nutrient-rich water of the Benguela Current.
The ornithological jewel in the park’s coastal crown is Sandwich Harbour. Lying 48 km south of Walvis Bay lagoon, this Ramsar site supports 50 000 wetland birds in summer, the number falling to circa 20 000 in winter. The site, which comprises a five-kilogram lagoon and mudflats protected from the ocean by a sandbar, is partially fuelled by an inland aquifer that discharges from beneath the huge apricot-hued coastal dunes nurturing an improbably green and vivid reed bed. Sandwich is the most geomorphologically active section of Namibia’s 1 570-kilometre long coastline – in layman’s terms it is a habitual shape shifter, constantly reinventing itself as the changing moods of the ocean currents, wind and sand dictate. The Sandwich you visit today will not be the same Sandwich you visit next time around, although the essentials – birds and beauty – will be the same.
The Namib is one of the most scientifically studied deserts in the world, playing host to the internationally respected desert research station at Gobabeb. Located on the Kuiseb where the 22 000-square-kilometre sand-dune sea meets the plains, it currently admits the public only on open days but plans to provide visitor accommodation in the near future.
This article has only skimmed the surface of one of Namibia’s grandest and most complex parks. There is a lot, lot more to it and Gobabeb is the place to go if you want to dig a little deeper into its busy ancient sands.
This article appeared in the 2009/10 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.