Explore the Dunes of the Namib Desert

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In a world full of contrasts I had never seen before, I felt exhilarated and as minuscule as one of those millions of grains of sand.  Flying low, I could almost have touched the dunes, so it seemed. Just a Fata Morgana. Fata Morganas are mirages seen right above the horizon. Many a desert traveller has been deceived into seeing an oasis or waterhole, only to find out it was nothing but sand.

We had actually seen such a Fata Morgana a few days before, while driving through a flat area: in the distance, both of us and our guide were sure we saw the undulating sea moving at the horizon. That image lasted for quite a while as we kept on driving. But, there was no sea for miles around.

Halfway through our 2500-mile trip in Namibia, my husband and I arrived in the modern city of Swakopmund shortly after noon and headed straight to the Swakopmund airport. I had wondered why our adventure was scheduled for the early afternoon instead of in the early morning hours when the light would have been softer. It was because of the fog, but more about that later. Our flying object was a five-passenger high-wing Cessna 210. The wings of a high-wing plane are set on the top of the airplane, thus affording an unobstructed view of the scenery below. Make sure you select this aircraft type, if you decide to fly over the desert.

Being a photographer, I carried a camera backpack, which our pilot wanted to store in the cargo compartment. “Oh no, please don’t,” I pleaded, “I have to have my bag with me as I will need all my lenses to capture the beautiful sights.” “You are lucky,” our pilot said, “as we have only four passengers today, you can have the two back seats to yourself.” Wonderful! Not only did I have more space than I needed, but I had also left and right views of the panorama. And so began my 2:10-hour fantastic experience.

As we took off at 2 p.m., the sun was radiant in a mild blue sky. It took only a few minutes to reach the dunes. None of us uttered a word; we were enthralled by and in awe of the stunning scenery! We were flying south of Swakopmund, almost to Sossusvlei, home to the famous red Dune 45. I had already been to this dune; this one is most impressive seen from the ground, especially early mornings or late afternoons, when the low sun bathes the dunes in colours ranging from golden to purple, and the fog paints abstract motives. But back to our flight.

Flying as high as 300 m. / 984 ft. and as low as 60 m. / 197 ft., I saw nothing but dunes and rock desert as far as the eye could see. It was overwhelming to see this endless desert. Namib Desert, home of the highest dunes in the world, the highest being Dune 7, reaching an incredible altitude of 383 m. / almost 1,257 ft. Some dunes were soft and rounded, others with sharp edges reaching into the sky; the blowing wind creating endless patterns of peaks, winding lines, dents, and even some craters. Their colour ranged from light golden near the coast to a fiery orange/red further inland. The more intense the colour, the higher the concentration of iron oxide coating the fine sand grains.

Shapes and colors. Sand dunes in the late afternoon sun.

A symphony of contrasts and a visual feast, suddenly this arid landscape of dunes and occasional rock formations was interrupted by serpentine lines of dark green vegetation, even some trees – most likely the ubiquitous acacias – an indication of underground rivers.

These rivers are usually dry most of the year, and even when they carry water, they don’t make it to the sea, but drain into closed basins called endorheic basins. The water in these bowls decreases through evaporation and seepage.

Later we came across salt and clay pans, dry flat surfaces covered by salt and other minerals – ancient lakes dried out in the course of time; their white colour a stark contrast to the surrounding colourful dunes and rocks.
One of the world’s oldest and largest, the Namib Desert has existed for some 43 million years, unchanged for the past 2 million. 1,243 miles long (2,000 km) and 124 wide (200 km), it extends from the Western Cape Province in South Africa, continues north along the South Atlantic Ocean coast in Namibia until it reaches into Angola. The word Namib comes from the Nama language and means “open space”. I have also heard Namib translated as “immense”. Certainly, both terms fittingly describe this region.

Namibia is firmly committed to nature conservation. It was the first country in Africa to incorporate the protection of the environment into the constitution. Communal conservancies have been developed throughout Namibia, where local communities are actively involved in the ownership and management of their natural resources and wildlife. This system has been very successful since people tend to be more committed when they have a personal stake in a cause. The Namib-Naukluft National Park (49,768 km2 / 19,216 sq. mi.), is the largest conservation area in southern Africa, running from Swakopmund south to Luderitz.

Next, our pilot flew us over Conception Bay on the Skeleton Coast; a long stretch of coast that acquired its name because of the many ships that sank and met an untimely end. It is here, where the scorching desert meets the frigid waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, that the icy waters of the Benguela current interact with the warm air, creating dense fog in the early morning that rolls far inland, pushed by the southwestern winds. The fog can last for hours and brings live-saving moisture to the sparse plants and creatures living in the desert.

Even though the desert seems void of life, it has a surprisingly diverse animal population such as the palmato gecko, the namaqua chameleon, the side winder snake, the shovel-snouted lizard, the golden mole, large scorpions, beetles, ants, spiders. These creatures tend to hide during the day in crevices, small holes, or burying themselves in the sand, to escape the brutal daytime heat. They surface in the evening to hunt for food, and the early morning fog provides all the moisture they need.

By nature, large desert animals – oryx or gemsbok, ostrich, wildebeest, and others – can only live where they have access to water holes. About a quarter of a mile inland, we saw the old shipwreck of the cargo ship Eduard Bohlen, stranded in September of 1909, now nearly buried in the sand. So far inland, I could only imagine what the landscape must have been back then. Over time, the desert must have encroached on the ocean.

Between Conception Bay and Sandwich Bay, we saw another shipwreck on the shore, just touching the desert. One of many relics of stormy nights. Further north, we flew over Walvis Bay, meaning “Whale Bay”, only about 35 km. / 22 miles from Swakopmund. If we had had another day in Swakopmund, we would have visited this town as it is a heaven for flamingos, pelicans, and seals that make their home in the surrounding inlets. But we did get to see two large flocks of flamingos huddled together in shallow waters. Interestingly, Walvis Bay’s coat of arms shows two flamingos, one pelican, and one whale.

Walvis Bay is a large industrial and commercial town of approx. 100,000 inhabitants. The Walvis Port, a large deepwater port with access to the main shipping routes, has become the gateway for landlocked countries in Africa, giving them easy access to the rest of the world.

Just outside of town is the Walvis Bay Salt Holding site, the largest producer of solar sea salt south of the Sahara. Besides industrial salt, they provide southern Africa with high-quality table salt. The evaporating sea water in the delimited lagoons created a spectacular kaleidoscope of colours, from aquamarine to purple to yellow with every nuance in between. Visible next to them were white salt hills in various stages of production/refinement.

Landing at the Swakopmund airport, it seemed we had been in the air for no more than an hour, while it was two hours and 10 minutes. The airfare was $300/person, and worth every cent. Swakopmund, on the South Atlantic coast, is a modern resort town with a population of over 44,000 people. It has excellent hotels and restaurants, wide streets, and upscale boutiques. Namibians, especially from the capital Windhoek, flock to this city.

A reservation well in advance is recommended for Christmas holidays. Being close to Windhoek, Swakopmund is the ideal place for a weekend trip. Swakopmund is also very popular with tourists, particularly from South Africa.
Swakopmund was founded in 1892 as the main port of German South West Africa, bringing wide-ranging commercial activities and prosperity to the region. The strong German influence is still present in well-preserved buildings, such as the Woermann House with its Damara Tower. The German magnate C. Woermann owned a trading company and the Woermann shipping line. Damara Tower was used to look out for ships on the ocean, and ox carts in the desert. While modern, Swakopmund retains a German colonial atmosphere, reflected in its promenades and half-timbered houses from the early 1900s.\

Happily tucking in for the night, both of us echoed the Australian author Robyn Davidson who said: I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space.

Words & Photographs: Renate Strub

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