Situated in the National West Coast Tourist Recreation Area, (NWCTRA) Henties Bay offers the nature lover an attractive but highly sensitive natural environment with diversified fauna and flora and many sites of specific interest.
Lichens are organisms that are completely sustained by fog and humid air. They occur as far inland as the fog belt stretches. Vast lichen fields occur mainly on the highly sensitive gypsum plains and are vital to the ecology of the Namib, as they provide food and shelter for many forms of wildlife. Because the brittle gypsum crust is easily broken and lichens are extremely slow growing, they are often destroyed by carelessly laid vehicle tracks. The latter leave long-lasting scars that are all too clearly visible over most of the Namib’s gravel plains today.
Vast lichen fields occur just north of Cape Cross and further inland on the way to the Messum Crater, where many different lichen species can be seen. It is best to view lichens early in the morning when they are still moist from the coastal fog. Later in the day, to bring out their vivid colours and make them soft and leathery to the touch, a little water can be sprinkled over them.
The Messum Crater, one of the volcanoes of the Etendeka period, dates back about 133 million years, and is of enormous geological value. Geological surveys have revealed that many of the volcanic rocks found in Brazil are identical to those found in the Messum Crater, thus supporting the theory of continental drift. It is believed that due to massive explosions of Messum, the magma chamber was emptied, resulting in a large depression (caldera) in the centre of the volcano. Sediments and lavas surrounding it were dragged downwards to dip in towards the depression, which is over 20 km in diameter.
Part of the massive crater can be viewed from a vantage point on top of a low hill, presenting breathtaking views of an awesome lunar landscape created by the stark contrast of the vast sandy surface of the crater bed and the dark ridges of black volcanic rock. The flora in the area is particularly interesting, a good example being the well-known Welwitschia mirabilis. Indeed, some of the best and biggest specimens in the Namib Desert grow amongst the hills of the Messum Crater. This plant is endemic to the Namib and occurs in a narrow belt from Swakop-mund northwards to Mossa-medes in Angola. Some specimens have been carbon-dated to be 1 000 to 1 500 years old, while the very large ones are thought to be as old as 2 000 years.
Various euphorbia species including Euphorbia virosa and E. damarana are found amongst the hills of the Messum Crater, as well as the versatile dollar bush, Zygophyllum stapfii, and several excellent specimens of Bushman’s candle, Sarcocaulon salmoniflorum and S. mossamedense, recognised by their resin-like bark and bright pink flowers.
Valuable archaeological findings were made in the area, following which an ancient Damara settlement was declared a national monument. Prehistoric rock art can also be viewed underneath the overhang of a rocky outcrop. An interesting sight is the Messum River Terraces, made up of paleo gravels that form surrealistic structures in the river walls.
The area is, however, extremeley sensitive. Visitors should stay on existing tracks at all times.
The Brandberg West Mountains, where the old worked-out Brandberg-West tin mine is situated, are of the most impressive examples of greywacke and mica schist. During the early separation of the continents about 900 million to 700 million years ago, an early sea was formed where the Namib Platform exists today. Over an extensive period of time, large inland river systems deposited sediments or muds in many layers deep into this ocean. These rhythmically layered deep-sea muds are called turbidites.
During collision of the continents about 100 million years later, the enormous horizontal pressures caused these deep-sea muds or turbidites to become folded and compressed. The Brandberg-West Mountains are a perfect example of this compression. In these areas most of the much younger Etendeka lavas (about 133 million years old), have been gradually removed by erosion, to the extent that in some places the much older schistose rocks, such as these mountains, have been laid bare.
In the so-called “Ugab Menhir” area, further to the south-west, are black turbidite rocks that also form part of the Damara sequence. They were deposited in the same way as the Brandberg-West mountains. Due to the collision of the continents, these deep-sea muds became compressed. Today they look as if they are lying on their sides.
Amidst these turbidite rocks a curious megalith, referred to as the Ugab Menhir (men meaning “stone” and hir meaning “long”), stands incongruously as a solitary rock in the stark desert landscape. The Menhir is about the height of a man.
Towards the Ugab River the turbidites were intruded by granite, which took on fascinating forms, due to chemical and physical weathering, resulting in toadstool and hollow ghostlike structures, referred to locally as the Petrified Ghosts. The hollows in the rocks often serve as shelters and nests for birds, such as owls, that can be spotted by the careful observer.
A wide variety of game can be seen on the desert plains and in the dry watercourses running towards the Ugab River through a myriad of dark turbidite rocks. Game such as steenbok, springbok, gemsbok, Hartmann’s mountain zebra and ostrich are commonly seen here.
In order to introduce these fascinating areas to tourists as well as preserve their sensitive ecological nature, the Henties Bay Tourist Association offers four 4×4 routes, negotiated with GPS-readings. This should enable tourists to find an easy way to travel through these areas while staying on the existing tracks without the risk of becoming lost and venturing across virgin land.
An alternative suggestion is for people to make use of the services of qualified tour guides. All possible steps are taken to make people aware of the sensitivity of the lichen fields and the Namib Desert environment. Visitors are requested not to leave the existing tracks and venture over virgin land, or to remove any plants or rocks from the desert. People are also alerted to the negative influence litter has on the desert. Not only does it create hazards for wildlife, but has long-lasting effects on the environment in general.
The peaceful, rustic town of Henties Bay is the ideal base from which these 4×4 routes can be undertaken.
The GPS-readings combined with information booklets on each trail can be obtained at a nominal fee from the Tourist Officer of the Henties Bay Municipality.
This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.