Mention the Namib and dunes and the immediate image brought to mind of the average person would depending on experience most probably be a picture of the dunes near Langstrand, Dune 7 or Dune 45 at Sosusvlei. For those privileged enough to have ventured into the NamibSandSea between Luderitz and Walvis Bay the pictures of endless and massive dunes is something that will never be forgotten. The beauty and tranquillity experienced in the dunes is a life changing experience.
The NamibSandSea is made up of a belt of sand dunes 320 km long and about 120 km wide. These spectacular linear and crescent-shaped dunes reach elevations of 300 m. The dunes march northwards, driven by prevailing southerly winds, and are then brought to an abrupt halt by the vegetation of the Kuiseb riverbed, which forms a wind barrier. To the north of the KuisebRiver, the dunes give way to the gravel plains of the Central Namib that is dotted with inselbergs of granite and limestone. Way up north, tucked away in the arid, mountainous far north western corner of Namibia is one of this country’s most well hidden treasures. The Kunene, a name given to Namibia’s northern most perennial river by the Otji-herero speaking nation on their descent into Namibia in the 1500s, which means ’on the right’
Nestled between ancient rocks that have twisted and folded over time, scoured by boulders that have been trapped in glacial flow millions of years ago, lie the banks of the KuneneRiver. A surreal twist in a harsh landscape, the swirling waters have cut through the land, creating high cliffs and roaring rapids. Its catchment area is situated in the high rainfall area of the Angolan highlands. There is an almost constant supply of water that pours into the cold Atlantic Ocean. It is this magnificent flow that prevents Namibia’s northernmost dune field from crossing over onto the mountainous north bank and into Angola.
This massive northern dune field, although not as big as the NamibSandSea south of the KuisebRiver, has a distinct character all of its own. If it were not for the ephemeral Uniab and Hoanib rivers, which only flow after heavy rains into their respective catchment areas, dissecting the dune belt and effectively restricting the accumulation of sand, this labyrinth of slip faces would have its beginnings much further south. The area is host to an array of unique wildlife that only a desert can offer, from the endemic vegetarian desert plated lizard Angolosaurus skoogi, to the bizarrely coloured Tennebrionid beetles, all carefully adapted to life in these unusually harsh conditions on the unstable sands.
In this area it once again came to my mind that the Namib is far more than a geographic location thanks to its picturesque landscapes, desert creatures and plants which mysteriously have mastered the ability to survive in this harsh environment. It’s unspeakably vista-rich in landscapes with horizons upon horizons, which dwarf the concept: awesome. It encompasses extreme contrasts, rock and dust, fractures and interconnections, crags and flat plains, glaring brightness and mellow pastel, punctuated with pockets of diehard vegetation etched against barren plains with seemingly no vegetation at all. This thirst land is definitely not for the faint of heart, though several extraordinary oases give respite. The waters of the perennial KuneneRiver are, of course, unmatchable, but in-between in the other Namib Rivers here and there springs feed narrow wetlands, laden with quenching water.
In the area south of the Kunene, running roughly parallel with the eastern border of the SkeletonCoastNational Park, lie the HartmanMountains, and later the Etendeka (Himba for ‘flat topped mountain’) Plateau, formed by ancient lava fields during the disintegration of the Gondwana Super Continent. These ranges are neatly dissected by the westward flowing riverbeds of the Khumib, Hoarusib and Uniab amongst others. Fed by fresh water springs, it is these seemingly dry riverbeds that act as a lifeline between the barren coastal stretches and the more forgiving highlands, providing a secure habitat for the desert elephants, giraffe, lion and other game that frequent these river courses. These “desert” elephants can go for days without drinking water, surviving on moisture obtained from the vegetation they eat. Although not a different species or subspecies than other African elephants, they have larger feet, making it easier to walk through sand, and often live in smaller herds, which put less pressure on their food and water sources.
Separated by these rivers are the vast plains of the Giribes and Ganias. After a season of good rains, endless expanses of grass cover these plains, speckled with opportunistic grazers that will in a few months disappear into the Namibian ether. The nomadic Himba tribe would also in good years move down into these plains from the highlands to graze their cattle in the green valleys. The recent drought has resulted in deserted kraals and the skeletal remains of malnourished animals litter the once fertile pastures. Deep, hand dug pits are now their only access to water in these extremely remote areas. But being as it may the rivers did not disappoint us, even in this exceptionally dry period, springs is the riverbeds gave us the opportunity to do ‘river crossings’ and created a ‘wonderland’ in contrast to the dry and barren plains alongside the rivers and we had the opportunity to experience a variety of animals, including the Desert elephants, Giraffe, Oryx, Steenbokkies and a wide variety of birdlife. This is home to a unique population of elephants that have adapted to the arid, and sometimes inhospitable, climate.
For us ‘Sand lovers’ the highlight was not only the sheer pleasure of dune driving but also the absolutely stunning views experienced along the Kunene with massive dunes on the one bank of the river edged against the contrasting black rocks and desolate landscape on the Angolan side. It was Sandtastic!