by Nicolette Jacobi
The Messum Crater is not like other craters in Namibia – it is composed of both intrusive and extrusive rocks. Between 132 and 135 million years old, Messum has a diameter of 18 km. It is indeed worth seeing!
It is said that Messum is a volcanic feature that forms part of the Goboboseb Mountains to the north-east. It dates from the Etendeka period and, according to geologists, was the source of many of the intrusive and quartz-like extrusive rocks found in the area today. In all likelihood, it was an important source of magma during that period.
The eruptions in the Etendeka region are said to have created one of the most extensive basalt areas on the African continent. Similar areas in Brazil have been linked to Namibia, and to where the Etendeka region ends in Angola. The crater was named after Captain W Messum, who was an explorer of the coastal regions of Southern Africa, which he surveyed from the ocean between 1846 and 1848. One of the other well-known places he reached during his exploration was the Brandberg, a feature he was hoping would carry his name.
Today tourists flock to the Messum area to experience the enormity of the surroundings. The easiest way to the crater is from the D2343 west of the Brandberg. Please ensure that you’re driving on a road that actually leads to the Messum Crater, as many of the tracks in the area meander through the very sensitive lichen fields of the Namib.
Only one half of the Messum Crater is found in the Dorob National Park. The other half falls in one of the conservancies bordering the park, the Tsiseb Conservancy. The Tsiseb Conservancy was registered in January 2001 and is home to the Brandberg Massif, Petrified Forest and White Lady rock painting.
Because an important feature such as the Messum Crater is shared by the Dorob National Park and Tsiseb Conservancy, an agreement was signed to enable the Tsiseb Conservancy to co-manage the Messum Crater and to ensure that the area in the conservancy is conserved along the same lines as the national park.
Wealth of lichen species
While driving to the Messum area you should, however, not overlook the lichen fields as an unremarkable feature that is simply there. More than 18 000- lichen species have been identified worldwide and Namibia hosts at least 100 different species. These are found from the coastal Namib and gravel plains of the desert to the Waterberg Plateau in central Namibia.
Scientists marvel at the composition of lichens. Rather than plants they are organisms that represent a mutualism between algae and fungi. The algae are the dominant partners, changing sunlight via chlorophyll into the nutrients the organisms need to survive. The fungi at the bottom, which form the biggest part of the organism, mainly provide support, as well as absorbing minerals from the earth to feed the algae.
People and the vehicles they drive represent the biggest threat to lichens. For every 32 kilometres a quad-bike drives across lichen fields, one hectare of the organisms is destroyed, while a four-wheel-drive vehicle will wipe out an entire hectare of these intriguing organisms every ten kilometres it travels. And it takes driving across the lichens only once to destroy them completely. Because their growth rate is exceedingly slow, only about 1 mm a year, it will take at least 100 years for them to re-grow. Moreover, lichen fields play an important role in stabilising the upper layer of the soil, thus augmenting the ecosystem in the Namib Desert.
So when you encounter lichen fields, refrain from leaving the tracks, but make a point of stopping to have a good look at them. Their colours are brighter on mornings when the skies are overcast and there has been moisture in the shape of coastal fog or a rare rain shower, causing the tiny organisms to absorb the water and unfurl, becoming soft and leathery to the touch. And when the lichens show their beautiful co-lours, you should take a closer look, so take a magnifying glass along. When the air is dry, sprinkle a little water on the lichens and watch them come to life.
Good to know
• Before leaving for the Messum Crater, gain background information on the area.
• Familiarise yourself with the different attractions in the surroundings and establish how to reach them before you leave.
• Plan your route accordingly and make sure of the distances you need to travel. This will also be helpful when planning how much food, water and fuel you need to take along. Try, however, to travel as lightly and with as few vehicles as possible.
• Tell someone where you are heading in case of an emergency.
• Make sure you have enough equipment to handle basic breakdowns. The road leading to the Messum Crater has sharp and protruding rocks that could damage your tyres.
• Travel with your GPS and keep on the existing tracks.
• From Henties Bay you travel northwards to Mile 100, turning off onto the D2303. Follow the road to the Messum River, and stay with the river until you reach the crater.
• You will need a permit to explore the surroundings of the Messum Crater. This you can obtain from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, free of charge.
This article appeared in the Aug/ Sep 2011 edition of Travel News Namibia.