Namib Desert (Namib Naukluft Park)

The Namib Desert „an area where there is nothing“ (Nama language).

One of the oldest and largest deserts, the Namib stretches inland from the Atlantic Ocean, covering large swathes of Namibia and parts of Angola and South Africa. This arid hotspot surprisingly supports a diverse number of plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Lying between a high inland plateau and the Atlantic Ocean, the Namib Desert extends along the coast of Namibia, merging with the Kaokoveld Desert into Angola in the north and south with the Karoo Desert in South Africa.

The desert basically consists of a relatively smooth platform of truncated bedrock of various types and ages. The platform rises gradually from the coast to about 900m at the foot of the Great Escarpment. The southern portion merges with the Kalahari on the plateau atop the escarpment. Scattered isolated mountains rise steeply and abruptly above the platform, and in the northern half several streams have carved deep steep-walled gorges into it.

In much of the southern half of the desert the platform is surmounted by a vast expanse of sand; yellow-gray near the coast and brick red inland which is derived from theOrange River and from other rivers that flow westward from the escarpment but never reach the sea.

The cool coastal desert extends for 1,900 km along the Atlantic coast from Namibe (formerly Moçâmedes) in Angola southward across Namibia to the Olifants River in the Western Cape province of South Africa. Inland it reaches 130 – 160km to the foot of the Great Escarpment.

The extreme southern coastal area consists of wind-scoured bedrock and a few rapidly moving crescent-shaped batchants (i.e., dunes convex to the wind). The northern third (the Kaokoveld region) consists of gravel plains and rock platforms occurring between scattered rugged mountains, interspersed with a few large dune fields.

The rare rains occur usually as short-lived torrential thunderstorms.

Six vegetational regions are found in the Namib:

(1) the coastal region, with highly succulent vegetation, which uses moisture derived from the fog

(2) the almost completely barren Outer Namib,

(3) the steppes of the Inner Namib, which in many years are barren but which in wet years are covered with short grasses, both annual and perennial

(4) the dunes of the Inner Namib, which produce a surprisingly rich flora of bushes and tall grasses

(5) the larger river channels, along which large trees, particularly acacias grow

(6) the southern winter rainfall area, where a succulent bush growth occurs.

There is also an extraordinary diversity of succulent plants. A curious Namib plant is the shrub-like tumboa, or welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis). The welwitschia can live for over 1,000 years and has only two gigantic leaves that sprawl over the surface of the ground from the crest of its huge root crown.

The plains and the dunes of the Inner Namib support large numbers of several varieties of antelope, especially gemsbok (oryx) and springbok, as well as ostriches and some zebras. Elephants, rhinos, lions, hyenas and jackals are found in the northern Namib, especially along the rivers that flow from the interior highlands to the Atlantic. The dunes of the Outer Namib provide habitats for various types of insects and reptiles, especially beetles, geckos and snakes but virtually no mammals. The shore area is densely populated by marine birds (notably flamingos, pelicans and in the southern part penguins) as well as a few jackals, some rodents and a few colonies of seals. Large quantities of guano are scraped annually from the rocks of several offshore islands.

A few San roamed the Namib until early in the 20th century, gathering whatever was edible along the shore, hunting in the Inner Namib, and often depending on the bitter juices of the tsama (tsamma) melon for water. A small number of Herero continue to herd cattle and goats from water hole to water hole in the desert part of the Kaokoveld, living in their traditional manner. A few Topnaar Nama JKhoekhoe graze their sheep and goats on the riverine vegetation along the Kuiseb River. A great part of the Namib is now totally unused and unoccupied, the aboriginal people having left to adopt new homes and new ways of life. A few areas, however, are productive in some way.

Much of the central and northern Namib has been set aside for recreation and conservation. The Namib Desert Park in the central area is a desert range for antelopes, zebras, and ostriches. A strip about 210 km in length along the coast northwest of Swakopmund constitutes the National West Coast Tourist Area; within it is the Cape Cross Seal Reserve, which protects a breeding area. Farther north is the Skeleton Coast National Park, where entry is restricted in order to preserve the fragile desert environment.

A vast area stretching from the Kuiseb River to the Orange River on the South African border and reaching inland some 80 miles (130 km) constitutes the Sperrgebiet (“Prohibited Area”), to which all entry was long restricted because of the possible presence of diamonds there. Diamonds are extracted from alluvial beds near the coast by large-scale equipment, chiefly in the area near the mouth of the Orange River.

There are four cities on the Namib coast:

  1. Swakopmund, the summer capital for Namibia and a popular coastal resort town, still retains much of the atmosphere from the days when South West Africa was a German colony.
  2. Walvis Bay, just to the south of Swakopmund, is a coastal enclave formerly belonging to South Africa that was transferred to Namibia in 1994. It is a modern port city with a mixed population.
  3. Lüderitz, a small town on a shallow, rock-strewn harbour, has a small trade with Walvis Bay and Cape Town and is the centre of a lobster industry.
  4. Oranjemund, a company town of the Namdeb Diamond Corp., is a base for large-scale diamond mining in the alluvial gravels along the southern coast.

The world’s oldest desert, the Namib Desert has existed for at least 55 million years, completely devoid of surface water but bisected by several dry riverbeds.

Desert Elephants

Namibia is home to a unique population of elephants that have adapted to the arid, and sometimes inhospitable, climate.

Found mostly in the Damaraland region in the northwest part of the country, 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 puts less pressure on their food and water sources.