by Nicolette Jacobi
Namibia’s most important wetland after the Ramsar site in the Kuiseb Delta, Sandwich Harbour is regarded as one of the top ten coastal wetlands in Africa. Hundreds of thousands of birds can be seen at the pristine coastal lagoon, which is Southern Africa’s only sheltered coastal wetland.
The first stock farmers of the area, the Topnaars, originally called the place Springwater (Anichab in the Nama language). When Portuguese explorers first came there, they called it Port d’Ilheo (point of the island). But the actual name is derived from a British whaling ship of the London-based company Samuel Enderby & Sons, the Sandwich, which operated along the Namibian Coast between 1785 and 1786.
In those years Sandwich Harbour was a thriving port of call. The harbour provided a natural deep-water anchorage. In addition, fresh water seeped from the base of the dunes, and Sandwich was regarded as a better place than Walvis Bay to anchor your vessel. In the mid-1880s a tra-ding station was set up from where cured fish, shark-liver oil, sealskins and guano were exported. In 1890 a meat-canning factory was established at Sandwich, but was abandoned in 1895 when the mouth of the lagoon became sanded up.
In the early 1900s guano exploitation started at the lagoon. Hundreds of tonnes of guano were ‘harvested’, ranging from 163 tonnes in 1937 to 707 tonnes in 1938, according to various sources. When the Second World War broke out, guano production was stopped.
Natural tidal lagoon
Nevertheless, it is not the history of Sandwich Harbour that attracts visitors to the surroundings. Scenically spectacular, Sandwich is a large natural tidal lagoon completely surrounded by towering ivory-coloured sand dunes. It is accessible only by 4×4, which adds to its allure.
“Visits to Sandwich Harbour are very dependent on the tide,” says one of the tour operators to this wetland. “The beauty of Sandwich Harbour is further enhanced by fresh water that seeps through the sand dunes to feed the lagoon. This water plays a fundamental role, as it feeds the plants on the shores of the lagoon, which in turn stabilise the dunes, preventing them from silting up the area.”
Naudé Dreyer of Sandwich Harbour 4×4 is no stranger to tourists who visit Walvis Bay. He has been presenting tours to Sandwich Harbour for about 15 years. He says the wildlife in Sandwich Harbour has adapted to surviving on the plants and fog. “Sandwich hosts a large variety of small reptiles and insects, such as the shovel-snouted lizard, palmato gecko (web-footed gecko) and fog-basking beetles. Larger animal sightings include springbok, ostrich, black-backed jackal and the elusive brown hyaena.”
A birder’s paradise
One of the major attractions of Sandwich Harbour is its birdlife. Large flocks of flamingos, pelicans, grebes and a wide variety of terns and waders are found here.
On average the area hosts about 70 000 birds, of which many are seasonally migratory. The most birds recorded in the area were 316 000 during a bird census in 2001. Sandwich Harbour is regarded as a crucial area for conservation, leading to the wetland and Walvis Bay Lagoon being declared as Ramsar sites in 1995.
Visitors to Sandwich Harbour should ensure that their camera batteries are fully charged, because it is a paradise for photographers. “A whole day can be spent shooting the panoramic scenery, which is constantly changing with the position of the sun. Few locations in the world can compete with the extreme contrasts of the desert meeting the ocean. Close up encounters with birds and other animals allow for stunning pictures and great memories,” says Naudé.
Due to its nutrient-rich water, the lagoon is also an important spawning ground for several species of fish. At the beginning of the year, kob start their spawning migration in the waters of the Skeleton Coast Park, where the main breeding stock lives. Then they migrate southwards to their main spawning grounds at Sandwich Harbour and Meob Bay. Sandwich is also described as a nursery for juvenile fish.
Sandwich Harbour keeps on changing its face. The northern freshwater wetland was about 1 km wide in the 1960s but has since decreased dramatically. Despite these changes, it is a magical place to visit.
Good to know
This article appeared in the Aug/ Sep 2011 edition of Travel News Namibia.