by Sven-Eric Kanzler
Soft, slightly reddish sand trickles onto the brown, sun-baked earth and piles up into a little cone. “This is where two generations of dunes meet,” our host Fritz Curschmann explains while the sand runs through his fingers as if through an hourglass. “It is the four-million-year-old dune of the young Namib and the 20-million-year-old dune of the ancient Namib, which has been compressed into sandstone long since.”
Suitably impressed we stand on the ‘fossilised’ dune of the oldest desert in the world – in Gondwana Namib Park, about 60 km north of Sesriem. We look around pensively. A sand-coloured plain extends right up to the greyish-blue mountains on the eastern horizon. Dark-green bands of seasonal river courses, lined by acacias, and endless reddish strings of dunes cross the plain, while in the west the picture is dominated by softly undulating dunes with patches of grass. Two totally different faces of the same desert…
Once again we realise just how varied the desert landscape in southern Namibia is. In Gondwana Kalahari Park in the south east we are captivated by the endless lines of red dunes, as straight as if drawn with a ruler. Yellow grass and green acacias grow on their slopes and in the dune valleys. In the vast plains of Gondwana Cañon Park, due south, we admire the bizarre quiver tree and, of course, the neighbouring Fish River Canyon. And in Gondwana Sperrgebiet Rand Park in the south west near Aus we marvel at the sea of flowers which envelop the plains in a dazzle of bright colours after recent light rains.
Once you have been to the four private nature reserves of the Gondwana Desert Collection you know that desert does not equal desert. Namibia consists of no less than four different desert systems, subdivided into several vegetation types: the Tree and Shrub Savannah (of which the Kalahari takes up a large portion), the Nama Karoo, the Succulent Karoo and the Namib.
But are they really deserts? The average annual rainfall in parts of the southern Kalahari, for example, may be more than 150 mm. While deserts are usually defined as areas with an average rainfall of less than 100 mm, this does not reflect the fact that there are considerable annual fluctuations in places. Temperatures and evaporation also play a role. Experts such as Chris Brown see the annual water deficit (the ratio between evaporation and rainfalls) as an increasingly important criterion. In the southern Kalahari the loss is twelve times the amount of rain; for the Nama Karoo the factor is about 15, for the Succulent Karoo and the Namib it is 25. Windhoek’s factor is eight. The borderline for desert regions is 10.
Based on this definition, most of Namibia and the entire south is desert. The Nama Karoo, which reaches into the north west like a narrow finger, marks the western border of the summer rainfall area (October to May); the Succulent Karoo in the south-western tip of the Namib is part of the winter-rainfall area. Moisture is also supplied by fogs rolling in from the cold Benguela Current at night, as they do along the entire coastal strip of the Namib. Together with differing amounts of rain, different landscapes and soils provide a multitude of living conditions. This explains the unusual variety of plants and animals, and the surprising number of endemic species.
Visiting the four private nature conservation areas of the Gondwana Desert Collection gives you a good idea of this amazing diversity. A route connecting Gondwana Kalahari Park (100 km2), Gond-wana Cañon Park (1 120 km2, Nama Karoo), Gondwana Sperrgebiet Rand Park (510 km2, Succulent Karoo) and Gondwana Namib Park (100 km2) takes the shape of a horseshoe. In each park guests are introduced to the larger and smaller miracles of the prevailing desert system.
Each park offers its own special attraction. In Gondwana Kalahari Park we watched vultures and marabou storks at a feeding place for scavenging birds. From Gondwana Cañon Park we went to see the Fish River Canyon, the second largest canyon on earth. Gondwana Sperrgebiet Rand Park is situated on the eastern edge of the Diamond Restricted Area and 20 km east of the pond at Garub, where we saw the Wild Horses of the Namib. And Gondwana Namib Park was our base for an excursion to the famous Sossusvlei, reputed to have the highest dunes in the world. Each park offers reasonably priced accommodation to suit every taste (Kalahari Anib Lodge; Cañon Lodge, Cañon Village, Cañon Road-house and Cañon Mountain Camp; Eagle’s Nest, Geisterschlucht Camp, Desert Horse Inn of Klein-Aus Vista; and Namib Desert Lodge).
The Gondwana Desert Collection is based on the initiative of a group of businessmen with a love for Namibia’s south. Their objective is to save the delicate ecosystems from human overexploitation. Nature was thrown off balance when Europeans started arriving in Namibia in the early 19th century: hunters wiped out many animal species in the south, followed by settlers who damaged the canopy cover with their small livestock. The Gondwana Desert Collection finances nature conservation and acquisitions of land with gentle tourism. At the same time jobs and career opportunities are created, which cannot be valued high enough when unemployment stands at 30 to 40 per cent.
The next day, when it is time to leave Gondwana Namib Park, we are determined to return during our next holiday in Namibia. We now look at the desert landscapes with different eyes because we want to do our bit to preserve these unique areas, and because we feel happy that by staying here we are rendering practical and useful aid to the people of this country.
This article appeared in the Feb/March ‘05 edition of Travel News Namibia.