Text and photographs by Jana-Mari Smith
The four-wheel drive pick-up truck crests the dune and suddenly we are thrust forward into a 36-degree angle. It is no longer only the scenery that takes your breath away.
Slowly the experienced driver guides the bakkie over the crest of the dune and we skid easily down the slipface. In front of us there are no tracks – just sand that has been blown by the wind, the same pattern of movement that has existed here – in the Namib Desert – for thousands of years.
We are on our way to Sandwich Harbour in the Namib-Naukluft Park. The harbour is a natural tidal lagoon that is regarded as one of the top ten coastal wetlands in Africa. Thousands of birds can be seen here at different times of the year on their migratory routes. It is a veritable oasis in the deceivingly barren dune landscape.
What adds to the allure of Sandwich is that it is accessible by four-wheel drive only, as it is separated from the nearest town, Walvis Bay, by a massive salt-pan and a sea of Namib sand.
This journey to the harbour across 55 kilometres of coastal dunes makes it one of the most spectacular adventures a desert aficionado could possibly wish for.
We find ourselves in the experienced and capable hands of Mike Lloyd of Sand & Sea 4×4 Tours, which operates daily excursions from Walvis Bay to Sandwich Harbour.
After much driving up, cresting and sliding down slipfaces, Mike stops the Land Rover in a small amphitheatre of hard ground, encircled by dunes. The only sounds are of wind and sand – there is so much sand – shifting, shifting, ever shifting.
While standing on this gravel floor, surrounded by golden-brown sand, Mike suddenly scoops into a dune and holds out his hand. A small lizard is calmly perched on his outstretched palm. This is the much-photographed, flattened snouted shovel-snouted lizard (Meroles anchietae). This lizard has adapted in several ways to the hot conditions of the desert. It does a ‘thermal dance’ when the sand becomes too hot, in which it raises its front foot and opposite back foot at the same time, to allow for a little cooling. When it becomes unbearable on the gritty desert sand, it simply dives beneath the sand to the cooler sand below. Scientists say the lizard ‘swims’ beneath the sand.
For 10 years Mike has been negotiating the barren and unexpectedly plant- and animal-rich belt of dunes between Walvis Bay and Sandwich Harbour.
His knowledge soon becomes evident as he recounts which animals live here, what they feed on to survive and how they find precious fresh water.
After we’ve driven across the pink, purple and white salt-pans – 700 000 tonnes of salt are extracted from the rich Walvis Bay salt flats each year – we enter a thicket of reeds that towers more than two metres upwards, dwarfing the Land Rover. We spot a chanting goshawk hunting for prey amongst the verdant rushes.
A diverse variety of migrant Palaearctic shorebirds and seabirds makes a comfortable albeit challenging living amongst the dunes. Fresh water is available, although you have to search for it.
Jackals that roam here find fresh drinking water by digging in the soft sand. Mike tells us that the water here is very close to the surface. This is what made it possible for the Topnaars – the first known human inhabitants of the area – to lead a relatively comfortable life in the surroundings. He says the presence of these denizens of the desert is evidenced by the heaps of white mussel shells scattered around the plants. The Topnaars lived a good life here, he points out.
The !nara bushes dotting the landscape served as main meals as well as dessert. “When you see a !nara, you know there’s fresh water in the vicinity.”
Ironically it’s easy to spot the water source in this seemingly barren landscape.
Wherever you see a green patch, you can be assured there is water close by. Springbok – hundreds of them – live here. They are a common sight munching away serenely on the salty ganna or brack-bush.
Traversing this land soon puts you in a reflective frame of mind. At every turn, the eye sees an undulating sea of sand, mazes of hummock-duned valleys zigzagging ahead and dunes stretching hundreds of metres into the sky. The bright-blue auditorium, the beige-coloured sands – the simple, powerful contrast is calming.
It is difficult to describe what happens to you once the car sinks its tyres into the soft sand and starts moving up and down, up and down. You need to be experienced to drive here. Dunes are ever changing, shaped by the blustery winds originating from the cold Atlantic Ocean – a permanent feature on your right as you wend your way to the legendary wetland harbour.
Mike is constantly pointing out interesting features. His enthusiasm for the area is infectious, and his knowledge of it is remarkable.
Finally, from the crest of a high dune, Sandwich Harbour stretches out beneath us in all its splendour. It is one of the most visibly and actively evolving geomorphic areas along Namibia’s coast. While the natural harbour has shrunk drastically over the past few decades, the reed-encircled lagoon juxtapositioned between ivory-coloured mountains of cascading sand and the cold dark-blue and grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean is wondrous to behold in its untamed beauty and tantalising mystique.
DID YOU KNOW?
Contact Mike Sand and Sea 4X4 Tours – email@example.com – for bookings or on Facebook.