The coastline of Namibia is well known for its sand sea and hidden diamonds, yet a gem of a different kind lies visible to all those who frequent its shores. The protected bays and lagoons found along the coast provide the ideal feeding ground and habitat for tens of thousands of seabirds congregating here during the summer months.
Venturing into the Namib, south of Walvis Bay past the lagoon area towards Sandwich Bay & Conception Bay, one experiences some of the world’s prime birding hotspots. You can’t help but be impressed by the sheer numbers of seabirds that transform these areas into a hive of activity.
A great variety of species stop over here, ranging from the tiny Little Stint to the great White Pelican, all adding to the diversity. Thousands of flame pink flamingos add a splash of colour as inconspicuous waders dash along the waters edge. Terns, seemingly in their millions, litter the sky with their pointed wings, and the cape gannets rain down on the unsuspecting fish below. Black necked grebes bob monotonously on the small swells, while cape cormorants blacken the shoreline for kilometres at a time.
These, in addition to viewing the larger marine mammals such as the migrating southern right whales, humpback whales, or even the coastal scavengers like the black backed jackal and the elusive brown hyena, will leave an unforgettable impression on the coastal visitor. Entering the coastal strip of the sand sea on a 4×4 trip one gets the chance to see pale chanting goshawks, jackal buzzard, and if chance might have it, the Namib deserts own true endemic, the well camouflaged dune lark.
The ideal time to visit is from October to April, when the migrant birds have moved in from the northern hemisphere in their thousands and a large number of tourists and ‘birders’ gather around the shores of Walvis bay and surrounds to experience the abundance of seabirds.
Other seasonal migrants that visit the Namibian coast line are a small group of para-gliders, lead by Eki Maute and his partner Cordula Cröniger from Flugschule Achensee, one of Europes most respected Para-gliding schools.
Making use of the westerly winds that create the necessary updraft off the steep face of the dune belt bordering the cold Atlantic, Eki and his gang of acrobats make annual trips to Namibia to experience the coastal bliss. More so at the beginning of the year when these specific conditions are more common, allowing the gliders to soar for hours at a time.
Eki explains that it is not only the perfect wind conditions at this time of the year that attracts the gliders. ”Wind is found all over the world. But this,” he says pointing towards the horizon where the dunes touch the sea. ”This beauty can only be found here. That is why we are here”
The Langewand, a German word meaning long wall, is the term used to describe a continuous ridge of high dunes that descend on to the beach, and where at high tide, it is near impossible to pass. Stretching for kilometres, it is these locations that are highly sought after. Gliding near the sea has its risks. Although the wind conditions that come off the ocean are more stable and consistent than those inland, it is the sea itself that is the potential danger. Should the nylon glider fall in the water it very quickly becomes waterlogged and can pull the pilot under in seconds. Always taking safety in mind, Eki briefs the pilots on the conditions and the specifics of the location, making sure they are confident with being able to land on a narrow strip of beach, or on the steep face of the Langewand itself, should the tide be in. It is this element of danger that adds to the allure of sailing through the sky, high above where sand and sea meet.
The combination of breathtaking views and perfect flying conditions, the sheer desolation of gliding along the Namibian Desert where few have flown before, ensures that Eki and Cordula will return year after year as do the migrant waders, albeit for different reasons.
From the 4×4 perspective, getting to the perfect launch spot on the Langewand, with a team of para-gliders in tow is not a straightforward matter. Driving along the beach is governed by the tide, allowing only an hour or two on either side of dead low .The other option is to climb the coastal dune plateau. Being on the ‘edge’ of the Namib Sand Sea, the sand is exceptionally soft and climbing up the slopes to get to the ideal launching spot requires skill and effort and very capable vehicles. Avoiding massive slip faces that stare down ominously and creatively build a route that the convoy can follow is very time consuming, which tends to push the tour leader to make the decision to gain distance on the beach. Yet the ever present danger of driving on the beach between the sea and the dunes at the Langewand (similar to the “Doodsakker” in Angola), should always being kept in mind when taking a convoy of 4×4’s along.
This time round nature once again illustrated that one should take great care to be not in the area at high tide, the shipwrecked “Shawnee” (1976), which lies at the very beginning of the Langewand, is normally covered by the dunes. The sea has once again illustrated it’s force and took a massive load of sand out of the way within a short time emphasizing the fact that this would not be the place to be during high tide!