“Sandtastic” was the headline on an article by Jannie Herbst, the publishing editor of Leisure Wheels after he and his family joined a trip into the Namib in 2009. The Namib Desert is special and even today after more than 15 years of ‘adventure’ in the Namib it does not cease to fill me with excitement and awe. It is the kind of magic that is difficult to describe but every 4×4 enthusiast should experience it at least once in his life. During the current holiday season we did another Faces of the Namib trip and spend the ‘old-year’ / ‘new-year’ in the dunes. Crossing the sea of dunes on the way to Conception Bay in a convoy of 14 vehicles it was sheer excitement and awe-inspiring beauty. Not a road, gate, taxi, Ultra City, Steers or e-toll in sight, just the desert. To the un-initiated the desert might strike one as formless, empty, even hostile. The ever-changing scenes and kaleidoscopes are a photographers dream and offer, contradictory to general belief, a variety of life. Wherever you look in the Namib there’s a postcard.
Although the Namib is not as big and extensive as some other deserts (Gobi and Sahara) it is characterised by the various dunes and dune types found over the extent of the ‘Sand Sea’, in the central part of the Namib. They create a unique atmosphere of ‘sandscapes’, kaleidoscopes of colours and endless horizons. The Namib has all the dune types usually found in the larger deserts, amongst which are barchan dunes, linear dunes, hammock dunes and a host of other varieties. To the untrained eye the vast sand-sea seems to totally devoid of life but on closer inspection one finds a big variety of many kinds of animals and plants that have adapted to the environment through evolution. This has resulted in many extremely specialised and endemic species, that is, species that are found in the Namib only. The Namib Desert has no surface water but is bisected by ephemeral rivers that are normally dry and flow at irregular intervals, the most important of which is the Kuiseb River. On the rare occasions that this river does flow, its passage to the sea is blocked by sand dunes. Thick fogs are frequent along the coast and are the life-blood of the desert, providing enough moisture for a number of interesting, highly adapted animal species to survive.
Climatically, the Namib is a contradictory area: It is almost rainless, yet its air is normally at or near the saturation point, and fog is very common. Temperatures in the coastal area are mild at all seasons. Humidity is fairly high for most of the day. This coastal fog is the life-blood in the Namib and is an important factor contributing to the remarkably high diversity of animal life in this extremely arid environment. Due to the coastal fog, the Namib can be divided into three areas running from west to east. Closer to the coast an area which has thick fog on more than 180 days of the year with an annual rainfall in on average from 5 to 20mm and low air temperatures as a result of the cool air coming off the Benguela current. Daily and seasonal temperature changes are minimal. Centrally, up to about 50km inland the mean annual rainfall increases from 20mm to 50mm. Fog, while still important to desert organisms, occurs on only about 40 days in the year. Still further inland, fog is rare, and the mean annual rainfall increases from 50mm to a maximum of 85mm in places. Having mentioned all this, in reality the average is an average taken over years and you would find that for periods of anything up to 10 years or more very little or no rain would fall and then in a good year you could get a downpour of anything up to 500mm or more in one season, resulting in an transformation of the empty Namib plains into seemingly endless green grassy plains.
Starting the trip a Solitaire and entering the Namib-Naukluft park 35 km east of Solitaire the group ranged from seasoned Namib travellers to complete first timers in a variety of vehicles representing a good cross section of the 4×4’s available on the market. The first day, true to experience I heard the word “beautiful” and “awesome” at various occasions as the landscape started changing systematically from the pro-Namib’s gravel desert to the first small, reddish dunes separated by dune streets. To the first timers this was a first time we engaged low range and hit 4×4 territory. Somewhat insecure, nervous and very carefully they crossed these first sand-appetisers. Little did they know that this was only an appetiser, reaching and slipping down into the Kuiseb Canyon came as a big surprise. Not only because of the contrast between the red dunes on this side and the black moonscape across the way, but also the birds eye view over the lush green trees grow in the riverbed
But it did not stop there, crossing back into the dunes participants where then dumped into ‘deep water’, or should we rather say ‘high dunes’, the crossing of the dunes belts were all part of the days driving for the next two days. Many a participant gasped a “I can’t do it,” staring down a seemingly vertical slope. But ushered on, and reassured they causally touched on the accelerator and inched forward down the dune’s slip face, by the time we got closer to the coast they where going down 100 meter slip faces with great confidence and enjoying the dune roaring sounds. ”Fantastic!
Visiting the old Diamond settlement of Holsatia, where the elements have changed what used to be an active diamond field some 100 years ago, into literal junk heaps of rusting junks of steel, thousands of old bottles and decaying wooden structures. There are still beer mugs on the bar and pans on the stove; there are tools lying on the workers’ huts floors and sieves cast aside on the final day of panning. Of course people have visited before you but, because the wind blows sand over their footprints, you feel as if you are the first person to witness this piece of history. From here on you can’t stop yourself scouring the ground whenever you stop for some gem that was overlooked by those pioneers. We saw no diamonds, but every now and then we drove past patches of powdered maroon garnet and the occasional pile of tiny glasslike discs of mica – a reminder of the riches that lured the workers to make the then treacherous journey from Walvis Bay.
The desert never fails to surprise you and true to form by mid morning covered the convoy in fog so thick that we couldn’t see 20 metres in front of us. An eerie feeling driving ‘blind’ in the dunes!
Turning North, the dunes became steeper and taller resulting in a roller coaster ‘Grande finale’ experience, not only in dune driving but also in the scenery that opened up from the view points high up on the dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.