OVER THE MOON
Text and photographs Ron Swilling
We’re going to the moon today!” Usually such an exclamation would turn heads and stop conversations, but when our guide Cleo Areseb casually uttered this statement, we just gulped it down with the swathe of intriguing landscape that was visible through the windows of our vehicle. We were, after all, on a Moon Landscape Tour on the outskirts of Swakopmund.
And, like many of the extraordinary sights in this remarkable country, the landscape in the Namib Desert constantly surprises. One of the greatest wonders revealed to us on the tour, is the ability of the tenacious flora and fauna not only to survive in this arid environment but also to exhibit a fragile loveliness.
We were all eagerly anticipating our visit to the hundreds-of-years-old welwitschia, which spreads its leather-like leaves in ripples of green waves around it, and never expected to be so absorbed and dazzled before we’d even reached the floral giants.
Our trip to the moon began alongside the ephemeral Swakop River, a verdant ribbon in the tawny expanse of the desert. Although only filling with water and flowing into the sea in years of exceptional rainfall, the underground water feeds the river vegetation and supplies water to the riverbank plots on which vegetables, olives and asparagus are cultivated.
Dorob National Park
The dune sea south of Swakopmund is thwarted by the river, leaving exploration of the curvaceous beauties for another day. We drove into the Dorob National Park, the central park in the Namib Desert, accompanied by the pocket of mist for which Swakop is well-known. Although often cause for much muttering, the mist bank is appreciated in the summer months when the rest of the country scorches under a vengeful Namibian sun. It is also valued for its life-giving properties. The hardy flora and fauna we were beginning to notice only exist because of this precious moisture that drifts in from the coast, thanks to the cold Benguela Current that flows up the south-western coastline of Africa to laze contentedly further north.
But, there were even more surprises once we had turned onto a 4×4 track weaving its way between rocky koppies, dollar bushes and tamarisk trees, and were given an official “Welcome to the moon!” by Cleo. The first was the opportunity for an impromptu musical recital on the dolerite rocks that jut out from the granite in dark dykes and tumble over the hills in musical stones. Our group lacked any musical ability but we amused ourselves for a while, clinking and clunking tunelessly on the rocks. We made our way back to the vehicle to continue past hills that looked like a ridge-back’s back, displaying a stony dolerite band on their crests. By the time we reached the prickly !nara bushes, whose melons are vital for desert life and sustain the Topnaar people in the Kuiseb River Delta, the Brazilian botanist on board was eagerly eyeing the many plant jewels and was ready to leap out of the window. Cleo stopped the vehicle just in time.
He then continued to show us his ‘garden’, with the enthusiasm of a gardener who has tilled the soil and lovingly watched his seedlings sprout and grow. He introduced us to ice-plants (also called ostrich lettuce) with droplets of water glistening like diamonds, Namib edelweiss with its tiny snow-white and pink blooms, tsamma melon flowers peeping delicately from the creeping stems, aloes, the euphorbia plant with its rod-like leaves and toxic milky latex, sweet-smelling commiphora, and lithops taking on the guise of pebbles on the waterless sand.
Drops of water sprinkled on lichens immediately coaxed them to life, while dollar-bush seedpods danced a quick jig in the palm of a hand as they contracted their wings into tight spheres.
Guide Cleo continued to have fun in his garden, showing us a chocolate mountain and a Matterhorn and an elephant skull in the rocks. He also used his excellent eyesight to spot klipspringer on the mountain ridges, springbok grazing across the desert plains, and a toktokkie beetle that was hastily trying to escape the vehicle on the track.
Namibia’s national plant
And, finally, after a drive into a small canyon, alongside marble-striped mountains and sand glistening with mica and feldspar, we arrived at the valley of welwitschias. They lived up to our expectations. These granddaddy plants demanded considerable respect, not only because they have mystified scientists for decades with their out-of-the box taxonomy, but also for their determination to grow and bloom in the desert, astounding us all with their resilience and singular appearance. The welwitschia, as we unanimously decided, is a suitably wonder-full national plant for an unusually fantastic country.
As we drove out of the canyon towards the Swakop River Oasis, past the original farm Goanikontes, the 1903 British gatepost to Walvis Bay and into the Namib-Naukluft Park and an area that can quite aptly be called ‘no-man’s land’, a shimmering of water appeared on the sand. “That’s the only water you’ll find in the desert,” Cleo chirped. The mirage glimmered invitingly. “Yes,” I thought, “he may be right. Maybe there isn’t water in the Namib except in special places and on rare occasions, but there definitely are many other treasures to be found in one of the oldest deserts on the planet.”
The last stretch of road took us to more views of the striking and otherworldly moon landscape before heading back to central Swakopmund and Earth.
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Contrary to its appearance, the Namib Desert is an extremely fragile environment. Tracks from vehicles not only wipe out populations of lichen and compact the soil, but remain on gravel plains for many decades. There are ox-wagon tracks in the vicinity left over a century ago that are still visible today. Vehicle tracks leave the desert landscape scarred and visually polluted.
Keep the sensitivity of the terrain in mind and travel with a responsible operator, or if you’re self-driving, be sure to stay on the existing tracks.
!Nara oases in the desert
This tenacious desert plant, reliant on underground water and ocean fog, becomes the centre around which hummock dunes form, which in turn become home to numerous small creatures. The spiny melons of this intriguing plant also support countless organisms, providing a food source for humans, jackals, gerbils, crickets and beetles.
Appearances are often deceptive in the desert where adaptations such as thorns reduce transpiration and offer protection, enabling this the plant to survive. !Nara bushes are found in the lower reaches of the ephemeral river courses and against the dunes in places where they are able to reach all the way down to the water table with their long tap roots.
A million to one
A slow-growing prehistoric species, with separate male and female plants, the welwitschia depends on perfect conditions for germination. The female plant produces up to 100 of the cone-like flowers in one season. The male plant produces an abundance of pollen, which is blown about by the dry autumn winds. The cones are often brightly coloured, the male cones orange to salmon pink, the female ones much larger and greenish yellow, banded with reddish brown.
In an area where the annual rainfall of 15 mm is not guaranteed, it is quite miraculous that these dwarfed trees can survive for 600 years or longer. A pocket of welwitschias may not see new plants for close to a century, making the germination of a seed a rare and significant event.
The welwitschia produces only two leaves in its lifetime, which grow very long and become shredded over time by the sun and the wind. The plant absorbs moisture from the life-giving fog (generated by the cold Benguela Current flowing from the Antarctic up the west coast of Africa and meeting the warm onshore winds from the interior), and from underground water. A protected plant, it is a Namib endemic that grows in isolated communities along the desert coastal strip from Namibe in southern Angola southwards to the Kuiseb River in Namibia.
The weird and wonderful welwitschia is Namibia’s national plant for good reason. It has befuddled scientists for decades as to where it fits in the plant kingdom. It is simply the only one of its kind. Considered a tree that has been dwarfed by the rigours of the desert, it is related to prehistoric flora known to us only through fossil records, giving rise to being referred to popularly as a ‘living fossil’. Supposedly related to the flora of the Jurassic period when gymnosperms were abundant, the plant is thought to have survived and adapted as the environment became more arid.
Eventually, after much bewilderment, scientists gave the plant its own taxonomic category, naming it Welwitschia mirabilis after Austrian botanist and naturalist, Friedrich Welwitsch, who fell to his knees in awe when he saw the remarkable plant whilst in southern Angola in 1859. He noted: ‘ … I am convinced that I saw the most beautiful and magnificent botanical wonder that tropical southern Africa can present.’
The word ‘mirabilis’ means miracle or wonderful.