A Place of Extremes – North-western Namibia

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Text Conrad Brain | Main photograph Desert Lions. ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp _ Into Nature Productions.

North-western Namibia is characterised by westward-flowing ephemeral rivers. Each mostly dry linear watercourse has its own character, spirit and diversity of unusual life.

It is the deep sub-surface waters of these confined oases that maintain a plant life that is the critical base of all other life here.

The rivers transect some of the most spectacular and exposed geology to be seen anywhere, the extreme contrast of rock, barren plains and riparian forest defining the harshness, subtlety and blatant brutality of the north-western section of the Namib Desert.

The rivers all terminate at the cold Atlantic. Here another feature of the unusual Namib Desert adds to the extremes, as a cold coastal fog smothers the desert more often than not. Often snaking up the canyons and floodplains of the rivers, the haunting silence of the fog surrounds the ancient tree trunks and is the only moisture the coastal lichens are ever likely to imbibe. All life, both microscopic and enormous, have adapted over millennia to take advantage of this life-bringing fog.

Hoanib river

Hoanib river. Photo ©Marita van Rooyen

The largest of all, the desert-adapted elephants, take full advantage of the fog, not for imbibing, but as a passport for movement to those areas that can support the huge needs of these giants. Smaller invertebrates, some of the most adaptive animals on the earth, use the fog directly to maintain water balance, while some of the cold-blooded reptiles defy their body temperature regulations to expose themselves to this coastal fog and then suck condensation off their bodies. Lifeless rocks too, over millions of years, have been cracked and forged by the extreme temperature changes the fog and the subsequent searing heat as the moisture is burnt off by the advancing day.

Desert elephants, Namibia. Photo ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp _ Into Nature Productions.

Desert elephants, Namibia. Photo ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp _ Into Nature Productions.

Linear oases

The rivers also, some more than others, speak of the formation of our world as we know it. The volcanism that is our common link with Brazil through the Etendeka Group lavas remains spectacularly visible between the Huab and Hoanib rivers. This pile of lava and volcanic ash can be up to 1.8 km thick and over time has eroded, cracked, washed and decayed into a rugged natural fortress for our wildlife.

Black Rhino in north-west Namibia. Photo © Christie Keulder

Black Rhino in north-west Namibia. Photo © Christie Keulder

Black rhino now inhabit this daunting area as their home, and this population remains the largest and most critical group of free-ranging black rhino on planet Earth. Other wildlife too has learnt to live on these lava terraces, sometimes eating highly toxic plants and sniffing out sub-surface waters and drinking it mouthful by precious mouthful.

The rivers too, over their westward paths, experience an extreme climatic gradient of unique proportions. From catchments of relatively high rainfall to mouths and deltas of near zero rainfall, the coinciding vegetation changes are dramatic, and so too is the periodic flooding of the rivers.

Desert lion, Namibia. Photo ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp _ Into Nature Productions.

Desert lion, Namibia. Photo ©Will & Lianne Steenkamp _ Into Nature Productions.

Rain in the upper catchments occasionally sends a chocolate-brown wall of debris-filled water into the desert. In the desert areas, the flash floods can be totally unexpected, and if substantial enough, will push through the desert and empty into the Atlantic in spectacular fashion.

The Hoanib is one of the rivers forming a large inland floodplain that offers special conditions for an abundance of life and, more recently, has seen the re-development of a healthy predator-prey system with lion, cheetah, leopard and hyaena occupying the top of the pyramid.

A rare phenomenon

Just north of the floodplain and surrounded by dunes is an anomaly as unusual as the isolated dunes of the northern Namib sand sea themselves; a small oasis of fresh water that elephants reach by sliding down dune slipfaces. Filmed for the first time by legendary filmmakers Des and Jen Bartlett, the footage of this unusual and unexpected behaviour catapulted the Hoanib area to international fame.

Damaraland - North-west Namibia. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Damaraland – North-west Namibia. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

It seems appropriate, now that this area of extremes in all aspects forms part of a new and private exclusive concession, that a new and understated luxury camp operated 100% on solar power and designed to be part of and not separate to this land of extremes, has just opened – an opening to an environment where conditions of such extremes have forged you a glimpse into an ecosystem so unique you might just walk away feeling rather insignificant.

This article originally appeared in the Travel News Namibia 2014 Spring print edition.


Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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