A desert realm that welcomes you to enter
by Hu Berry
Ask Nama-speaking people, whose ancestry stems from the desert, what the word ‘Namib’ means and they will refer to ‘Aboxan !hub’, including a tongue click, which they proudly say is ‘the Land of our Ancestors’.
If we turn to the Eurocentric perception of ‘desert’, it originates from the Latin ‘desertus’, meaning abandoned. Moreover, our encyclopaedia provides the literally and figuratively dry description of ‘uninhabited and uncultivated tract of land; desolate, waterless and treeless…..’. This misleading interpretation clashes with the indigenous people’s view and hardly does justice to the splendour of the Namib, which can be inhabited and cultivated, and has water and many large, shady trees.
To understand the Namib Desert better, be aware that it has many moods. These come in several forms: from numbing night chill to rock-cracking heat; drenching fog to desiccating dryness; windlessness to rasping sandstorms. Its wildlife, both plants and animals, reflect these auras. Vegetation can wither back to its roots when plants retract their resources into the root systems and appear lifeless. The animals, from tiny, spineless creatures to regal gemsbok, adapt with an array of strategies, which have evolved with the aeons it took for the desert to mature.
Remember too that where a sea of sand now stretches before you to the horizon, thick ice sheets once covered the surface when Africa’s parent mega-continent Gondwana lay across the South Pole. Continental drift towards the equator shattered Gondwana; ice fields melted and swamps teeming with dinosaurs took their place. In turn the swamps dried, the dinosaurs died and barrenness took hold. A mosaic of dry-wet phases followed, with the Namib as we know it establishing 10 million years ago when the Benguela Current began its northward sweep along south-western Africa. This event enabled fogbanks to develop when warm, moist Atlantic Ocean air condensed as it passed over the chill current, drifting inland. The pervading fog categorises the Namib as a cool, coastal desert in sharp contrast to its neighbour the Kalahari Desert, which is classified as a hot, inland desert.
The oldest desert
To put size into perspective, the Namib, although it is the oldest existing desert, is small in comparison to the Sahara, which is 10 times the area of Namibia and 30 times that of the Namib. Nonetheless, because of its omnipresent fog, the Namib is acknowledged as the most diverse desert in the world in respect of its plant and animal life. One out of every five species of life discovered to date in Namibia is endemic, meaning that they occur in this geographical region and nowhere else on earth. Many of them inhabit the Namib.
There is another attribute to this fascinating place. Its landscapes rank amongst the most inspiring to be found on our planet. Broadly speaking they cover four types, namely the dune fields or ‘sand sea’, undulating gravel plains, ephemeral riverbeds or linear oases of moisture and ‘inselbergs’ (German for island mountains). Each one is worth exploring, for it will reward you richly with experiences and opportunities to capture a kaleidoscope of colours on camera.
When you have sated your appetite for the big picture, turn your attention to the smaller world surrounding you. It holds a vitality of life that scuttles, creeps and crawls across the sand, over rocks and under bushes. Remain quiet, be still and a world of insects, reptiles, birds and mammals will bustle around you. Then explore the plants that make this life possible. They come in an amazing diversity of shapes and sizes, providing food and shelter for the fauna. At this point you realise that a desert comprises not only the non-living elements but includes the living environment. Now it becomes possible to describe the Namib as a living ecosystem where life is controlled by infrequent, isolated and largely unpredictable pulses of water.
The sand sea
For those who wish to delve deeper, the Namib’s landscapes with their attendant life offer a diversity that is remarkable and unique. The ‘sand sea’ warrants special attention, for it forms peoples’ popular perception of a desert. Its vastness covers 34 000 square kilometres, extending from the Kuiseb River southwards to Lüderitz. Beneath its geologically young sands lies an ancient desert that formed 65 million years ago and which became petrified following successive periods of moisture and dryness. These fossilised, red sandstone dunes are clearly visible in places at NamibRand Nature Reserve and at Namib Desert Lodge, both of which are in proximity to Sossusvlei.
The earlier Proto-Namib was a desert of note, with palaeo-dunes extending 220 metres beneath their present surface. There are few places in the world where you can view and photograph previous and present hyper-aridity in close communion.
Where does all this sand come from? It is a product of weathering and erosion, originating largely from sediments of South Africa’s hinterland, which are transported by the Orange River into the Atlantic Ocean. Carried in the Benguela’s north-flowing current, they are returned to the land by powerful wave action, which throws sediment onto remote beaches lining Namibia’s Diamond Coast. There it meets and is dried and driven inexorably inland by the omnipresent south-westerly wind. Nature tends to oxidise most of her mineral products and the desert sand is no exception. Beginning as pale, weathered quartz grains, the sand carries iron particles that slowly, very slowly, oxidise. Pallid shades change to deeper tones as the oldest dunes that are furthest inland turn red with rust.
At this point geologists differ drastically in their hypotheses. Pro-Namib supporters say it is only the sea’s sediments that create the dune fields – Pro-Kalahari proponents concede that a significant amount comes from the Atlantic but maintain that the eastern Namib’s sand stems from the red dunes of the Kalahari. They submit that the strongest winds blow from the north-east in winter and point to the highest dunes having their windward side facing north-east. Whatever the origin, you can experience the world’s highest dunes at Sossusvlei, where Dune 45 on the north-eastern side towers into the sky for 380 metres above the Tsauchab River that feeds the vlei.
The gravel plains
Next, travel the gravel plains and encounter what is arguably the largest gypsum surface in the world. Stretching for 10 000 square kilometres (1 million hectares) from the ‘sand sea’ northwards to the Swakop River, the Central Namib plain may demonstrate a complex chemical history that starts in the sea. Protagonists of this theory argue that the Benguela’s larder of plankton is constantly recycling. As it dies and drifts to the bottom of the seabed, decomposition bubbles foul-smelling hydrogen sulphide into the atmosphere. There it combines with oxygen to produce a very diluted sulphuric acid. Fog transfers this to the alkaline calcrete of the gravel plains.
The result is an exchange of molecules as acid and alkali mix to create gypsum, popularly known as plaster of paris. For you, the visitor, the magic in this mix is that it provides an ideal substrate for the growth of lichens that tint the desert floor with diverse tones when fog brings moisture.
The gypsum sheet ends abruptly at the Swakop riverbed where 80 million years of weathering and erosion have incised the surface into a series of canyons so inhospitable that the area is likened to the moon’s surface. View this panorama of bleakness from several lookout points of the Moon Landscape and remind yourself that the early earth’s surface was once at least a kilometre above where you are now standing. The components of water, wind, temperature, chemical and biological erosion have scoured its surface, transporting the debris into the ocean. Descend into the Swakop’s chasms and you enter a world where shrubs, bushes and trees form green thickets.
Isolated rocky mountains
North of the Namib-Naukluft Park, ‘inselbergs’ of sheer rock rise from the desert plains, inviting your exploration. Some of them, like the Spitzkoppe, often referred to as the Matterhorn of Namibia, never reached the surface but remained sub-volcanic as molten magma solidified and was exposed by gradual erosion of surrounding friable material. Uncovered after hundreds of millions of years, the main peak of the Spitzkoppe now soars 1 700 metres above the desert floor.
The neighbouring Erongo massif succeeded in erupting in true volcano style. For 20 million years earthquakes and lava flows belched molten rock and ash clouds from its core before subsiding into a so-called caldera or collapsed crater whose volcanic skeleton with its 40-kilometre diameter makes it the largest in the world. Further north the highest mountain in Namibia, the Brandberg, ascends nearly 2 600 metres at its highest peak, aptly named Königstein (German for King’s rock). The massive mountain surveys 450 square kilometres of collapsed crater, embellished with black streaking of iron and manganese known as ‘desert varnish’.
These inselbergs are home to an irreplaceable collection of ‘Bushman’ or San paintings and engravings, a reminder that these hunter-gatherers were the original inhabitants of the Namib some 6 000 years ago.
These are but a few of the paths you can follow through the Namib-Naukluft Park and the adjoining desert. Its moods are capricious and the harshness belies the fact that its surface is fragile and easily scarred by ignorant or uncaring visitors. Namibia’s desert realm welcomes you to enter, explore and appreciate its rugged splendour. The only requirement is that your visit leaves it unscarred and pristine. Your footprints soon fade from its surface, whereas off-road vehicle tracks and litter can remain for decades after your departure. Following this simple request will prove that you have come to terms with yourself, as well as with the Namib.
This article appeared in the June/July ‘08 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.