Nambia's stunning vistas

Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (From Africa, always something new), stated the Roman historian Pliny the Elder over 2,000 years ago. How true, even today!

Welwitschia trail 521 (photo credit: Irving Spitz)
Welwitschia trail 521
(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
Namibia is situated on the southwest coast of Africa and shares borders with Angola, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. This vast country has a surface area of 825,000 sq. km. and is twice the size of Germany. It’s named after the Nama people, who were among its first inhabitants. Formerly it was known as South West Africa.
Namibia can be divided into distinct topographical regions. The Namib Desert is a long, narrow coastal strip extending along the entire Atlantic coastline. East lies the central plateau, which is comprised of mountains and valleys. This gradually falls away to merge with the Kalahari Desert. Namibia consists mainly of desert and is one of the most arid countries in the world.
Crucial to the ecosystem is the cold Benguela current, which sweeps northward up Africa’s west coast from the icy Antarctic. The cold ocean cools the prevailing wind which then releases its moisture as fog on reaching warm land. The fog condenses, providing water essential to sustain desert flora and fauna.
The earliest known inhabitants were the San (Bushmen), who were hunter-gatherers. They appeared in the country about 15,000 years ago. Later they were joined by other African tribes, the Nama and the Damara. These three peoples speak the Khoesan language, characterized by clicking sounds, which is very distinct from the Bantu languages. Bantu-speaking people only migrated into this area in the 16th century.
The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese, who came by sea. European settlement only began in earnest in the 1800s. These immigrants came from South Africa and were mainly Afrikaners, but also included people of British and German descent.
The main deep-water port in Namibia is Walvis Bay, meaning Whale’s Bay. The port and its immediate surroundings were annexed by the British in 1878 to enable them to control movement of goods and people into the interior. In 1884, the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck proclaimed the rest of the country (excluding Walvis Bay) as a German protectorate.
The country was conquered by South African forces during the First World War, and under a 1920 League of Nations mandate South Africa was given the task of administering South West Africa, including Walvis Bay.
A protracted war between the occupying South African forces and SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) liberation movement started in 1966. In 1989, free elections were held, resulting in independence with SWAPO coming to power. Even after Namibian Independence, Walvis Bay remained under South African control and was restored to Namibia only in 1994.
SINCE THERE are only 2.4 million inhabitants, Namibia has one of the lowest population densities in the world with just over two people per
Approximately 100,000 Namibians of European descent live in Namibia. Over 90% speak Afrikaans, which is the lingua franca. The rest speak English or German. The official language is English. Namibia’s economy is based on agriculture, fishing, mining, food processing and tourism. It is a large producer of rough diamonds and other valuable gemstones as well as uranium oxide and additional minerals.
We recently spent 10 days exploring this vast country. The capital city, Windhoek, is regarded as one of the cleanest cities in Africa. Notable landmarks include the Lutheran Christus Kirche (Church of Christ), the old Fortress and Parliament Gardens. The city has large, wide avenues, many of which bear the names of thirdworld leaders (Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, for example).
Cheek by jowl with old buildings dating from the German occupation are modern skyscrapers. One notable building is the synagogue, built in 1924. In its heyday in the 1950s the city boasted a community of 400 Jews. Today, this has dwindled considerably to about 50, and there are only four Orthodox Jews left. Services are held on Friday night and Saturday with participation of the numerous Israelis who are in the country on business. South of the city is the huge national shrine, Heroes Acre, built in 2002 and dedicated to the memory of Africans who contributed to the long road to independence.
Leaving Windhoek, we traveled 250 km. by car north to Okonjima, home of the AfriCat foundation. The name Okonjima comes from the Herero language and means “place of the baboons.” AfriCat is a non-profit organization run by the Hanssen family, which is committed to the long-term conservation of Namibian carnivores, especially leopards and cheetahs. It has the largest cheetah and leopard rescue and release program in the world. Over 1,000 carnivores have been saved since 1993 and 86% have been released back into the wild. Visitors to Okonjima can observe these magnificent predators, many of which are “radio-collared,” from game-viewing vehicles. There is also excellent accommodation available in Okonjima’s lodges.
Farmers in the area were troubled by leopards preying on their livestock and killed these predators. Since leopards are territorial, AfriCat staff members made the observation that after loss of the dominant leopard, several others would move into the area, competing with each other. This resulted in a much greater loss of livestock. AfriCat concluded that it was far better to leave the original dominant leopard alone, and they now offer farmers a variety of effective farm-management techniques to better protect their livestock.
AfriCat is also involved in environmental education with the local population, guiding them toward a greater understanding of the natural world and the importance of wildlife conservation. It also supports an ongoing collaboration program with researchers and scientists. To control the cheetah population, it is experimenting with long-acting, reversible hormonal contraceptive release systems originally developed for humans.
The commonest wildlife one encounters while driving in Namibia is the gemsbok or oryx. The average adult weighs about 250 kg. Characteristic are the bold black-and-white facial markings with a grayish ochre coat. To adapt to the arid climate, the oryx allows its own body temperature to rise, to prevent loss of water through sweating. The hot blood is passed through a network of veins along their nasal passages. This has the effect of cooling the blood before it enters the brain. These animals also conserve water by concentrating their urine.
FROM OKONJIMA, we traveled west to Damaraland, which is in the central plateau. The area is named after the Damara people who originally inhabited this area. The main tourist attraction is at Twyfelfontein, which means “doubtful fountain” in the Afrikaans language. It was so named because the first white inhabitants, who purchased land in the area in the middle of the last century, did not believe that the water from the fountain was adequate to maintain much life.
Twyfelfontein is a world heritage site, famous for its Bushman rock engravings and paintings, which number about 2,500. These date from 300 BCE to the 19th century, although considerably older examples of this art exist in other areas of Namibia. Depicted prominently are animals including giraffes, lions, elephants and antelopes, especially the oryx, as well as fish. There are only a few representations of humans. It has been suggested that the many different footprint engravings served to instruct the youth. Engravings were also a medium to depict rituals. The circle with a dot is believed to represent a wish for rain. Various phallic symbols are also included in this group.
The central plateau also encompasses some of Namibia’s most dramatic natural landmarks, including the Brandberg (fire mountain) and Spitzkoppe (pointed hill), mountain ranges which seem to arise suddenly out of flat gravel plains. Both also have Bushman engravings. Spitzkoppe is especially noted for its beautiful cragged peaks.
We also visited the petrified trees which were uprooted some 200 million years ago and were then swept along rivers. Scattered among these trees is the ancient desert plant known as Welwitschia mirabilis.
First described by the Austrian botanist Friedrich Welwitsch in 1859, it is endemic to the Namib Desert and is not seen anywhere else in the world. Each plant has only two long, shredded-looking green and gray leaves, which emerge from a stubby base. Some of these plants are reputed to be 1,000 years old. The welwitschia and oryx are so characteristic of the country that they appear on Namibia’s national coat of arms.
Other fascinating geological sites in Damaraland include the organ pipes, which are perpendicular dolerite columns reputed to be 120 million years old situated at the bottom of a shallow gorge, as well as the impressive limestone rock, Vingerklip (finger rock), projecting upwards 35 meters, which was formed by erosion.
From the central plateau, we traveled across the Namib Desert to the coastal town of Swakopmund. By the time Germany proclaimed its protectorate over South West Africa, the port of Walvis Bay was already under British control. The Germans had to look elsewhere and selected Swakopmund.
This means “Mouth of the Swakop River.”
The site was chosen because it had access to the interior and had a fresh water supply. However, Swakopmund was far from ideal since there was no natural sheltered bay. An artificial harbor basin had to be created. However, within two years of its completion, the ocean currents began to deposit large amounts of silt and this artificial harbor had to be abandoned.
When South West Africa was taken over by South Africa, Swakopmund went into decline and Walvis Bay was developed as a port. Swakopmund thus became frozen in time, which contributes much to its allure and magic. The city possesses some of the best preserved collections of German colonial architecture, which today house museums, art galleries, libraries and hotels.
This city of 42,000 inhabitants is a popular beach resort with broad, well-laid-out streets. The only remnant of its role as a port is the lighthouse, which marked the harbor as well as serving to warn ships of the treacherous coast.
The city also boasts a museum of crystal, housing the largest known crystal cluster in the world, estimated to be 520 million years old and weighing almost 1,500 kg.
One of the most beautiful buildings, just out of the center of the town, is the old prison, which is frequently mistaken for a hotel or private mansion. Here, for the sum of $1.50, locals can hire a prison inmate for a day to do manual work in their home.
NORTH OF Swakopmund lies the Skeleton Coast, which extends all the way to Angola. It is so named because of all the shipwrecks scattered along the barren, uninviting coast. Some 50 km. north of Swakopmund is the small resort town of Hentie’s Bay. A little further north on the Skeleton Coast is Cape Cross, named after the first Portuguese navigator, Diego Cao, who landed here in 1525 and erected a cross.
This area is the largest Cape seal colony in the world, with over 250,000 seals occupying the rocky outcrop in the breeding season. On approaching, you are first greeted with a veritable cacophony of sounds emitted by these animals. Secondly, you are almost overwhelmed by the powerful stench of rotting fish. Nevertheless it is a magical and rare sight to observe thousands of seals basking and swimming in the ocean. Particularly noteworthy were the numerous mothers suckling their pups.
From Swakopmund, we traveled south, passing the settlement of Langstrand (Afrikaans for “Long Beach”), popularized by the film star Angelina Jolie, who stayed there prior to giving birth in the local hospital. A short distance away is Walvis Bay. This lacks the charm of Swakopmund and the main interest for tourists is the superb birdwatching in the lagoon.
Traveling further south there are salt pans with flocks of flamingoes. One of the major highlights of the trip was a visit to the almost inaccessible Sandwich Harbor. The name is a misnomer since this was never a harbor but a shallow lagoon. The open bay eventually became silted up over the years by sand.
Sandwich Harbor is bounded on one side by the ocean and on the other by towering, brilliantly colored dunes. The area is only accessible at low tide by 4WD vehicles, which have to negotiate the tortuous path in the soft sand between waves and dunes.
It was very exhilarating to drive up the dunes to see the fascinating views of the harbor far below. We were taken to this incredible spot by Pieter and Anna from Sunshine Tours. This area is a bird sanctuary with 34 different species including pelicans and flamingoes. Springbok, hyenas and jackals can also be seen in the surrounding dunes.
Sandwich Harbor is part of the Namib Naukluft nature reserve. One of the most interesting attractions here is the Welwitschia Trail. This scenic drive stops at a lookout point known as Moon Landscape. The various levels of earth and rocks were deposited 450 million years ago. Erosion has created this eerie landscape. There is a green oasis in the middle of this desert on the banks of the Swakop River, which flows through this area.
The Namib Naukluft nature reserve is most famous for its dramatic sand dunes, some being over 300 meters in height. These dunes are not inert piles of sand but constantly change their shape due to the prevailing winds. Depending on the time of the day and the prevailing light, the dunes are arrayed in spectacular colors of orange, red, pink, brown and gray. Their brilliant orange color develops over time as the iron in the sand becomes oxidized; the older the dune, the brighter the color.
The dunes were created about two million years ago by accumulation of sand. Most of this came from erosion in the catchment area of the Orange River, which forms the southern border between Namibia and South Africa. The sand is carried down the river into the Atlantic Ocean and is then blown north and east by the prevailing winds.
WE STAYED at &Beyond Sossusvlei Desert Lodge. Cradled against the ancient mountains, this must be among the most luxurious accommodation we have ever encountered. “Wow!” was our initial reaction at seeing the ten stone and glass desert villas spread out along the curve of the escarpment overlooking the stark but beautiful desert site.
Each air-conditioned suite features a private veranda, split-level bedroom and living room with fireplace. The villas are equipped with a star-viewing skylight. The chefs provide bush breakfasts, ample lunches and dune dinners in a dramatic desert location. In the evening, the resident astronomer reveals mysteries of the desert night sky through a large telescope.
Sessriem is the access point to Sossusvlei. Sessriem canyon is a narrow gorge in the sandstone carved by the Tsauchab River. The pools are replenished after good rains. The name comes from the early pioneers who used six lengths of thongs (sessriem) made from cattle or gemsbok hide to draw water from these pools with a bucket.
Sossusvlei is the most well-known dune. The word “Sossus” is derived from the Bushman language and means “the gathering place of water.” Vlei is an Afrikaans word meaning “a shallow lake.”
The Tsauchab River and its tributaries terminate at Sossusvlei. Its passage to the sea is blocked by the northward movement of the dunes. The Tsauchab is a dry river bed but on the rare occasions when Namibia receives considerable rains, the flooded river fills Sossusvlei. The water can remain here for some months, turning the vlei into a shallow glassy lake.
Another spectacular site is Deadvlei, a ghostly expanse of skeletons of ancient dried camel thorn trees. These punctuate the dried silvery white pan of mud and clay and make for a dramatic and eerie atmosphere. Carbon dating has revealed that the trees are 500 to 600 years old. Dune 45 is an equally striking and spectacular tourist attraction in the area.
One of the most fascinating experiences for the visitor to the Sossusvlei area is a ride in a hot-air balloon. The balloon sails high over the surrounding dunes and mountains. There is silence, only occasionally interrupted by a burst of propane gas.
The basket is a perfect platform from which to view the landscape. The tranquility of the flight gives unsurpassed views. The splendor of the desert is dramatically revealed as the balloon soars with the wind over sand dunes and mountains with the endless vistas of shadow and light. This represented a fitting climax to this exciting trip. ■
The author is an emeritus professor of medicine and an avid traveler and photographer. He writes reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art and history.