Anthony Ham
Australia AU

Anthony is a photographer and writer for travel magazines and Lonely Planet, including the guides to Kenya and Botswana & Namibia.

Categories: African Hotspots, Namibia

Perfectly formed sand dunes press up against a deserted stretch of coast, and inland for as far as the eye can see. Sand consumes shipwreck skeletons more than a kilometre from the ocean. Wildlife thrives in a land almost completely devoid of water. Not only is the Namib Desert one of the world’s most beautiful deserts, it’s also a place of mystery which conceals its secrets well.

 

The World’s Oldest Desert

Namib desert

It’s easy to imagine that the world has always been just as we found it. Take the Sahara, for example, which just 12,000 years ago, was a mixture of green savannah grasslands and forests. It was inhabited by the kinds of charismatic African mega-fauna that makes us all want to go on safari. Not so the Namib Desert. The Namib has been dry for at least 55 million years, and possibly as many as 80 million. While it may not be the world’s largest desert, it is almost certainly the oldest. Parts of the Namib rival South America’s Atacama Desert as the driest place on Earth. Some parts average just 2mm/0.08in of rain a year.

 

A Strange Climate

Nevelbank in de Namib desert

It catches travellers every time. As you drive from Namibia’s interior to the sand-dune coast, the blast of cold air and rolling mists can be deeply unsettling, even otherworldly. It’s a strange sensation, peering out to sea through the fog from high on a sand dune and feeling suddenly cold. The Namib Desert experiences around 180 days of fog every year. This is thanks to cold air from the offshore Benguela Current crashing up against the hot air from arid inland.

 

The Skeleton Coast

Ship remains in Skeleton Coast National Park

No one knows how many ships foundered along Namibia’s arid shore. The ocean and constantly moving sand dunes have conspired to make many of them disappear. Those that remain serve as reminders of the elemental force that controls everything along this coast. So powerful are the sand dunes that their relentless march has reclaimed land from the sea. Some shipwrecks once washed by waves are, less than a century later, almost a mile inland. Take the Eduard Bohlen, which sank off Walvis Bay in 1909 but now lies marooned only 1km/0.6mi away from the sea. Or the Otavi, a cargo ship that ran aground further south in 1945. It now sits atop a sand dune at one of the highest points anywhere along this coast.

 

A Once-Forbidden Land

Old rail track in Kolmanskop, Namibia

Not that long ago, it wasn’t just the swirling fog that concealed much of the desert from view. Until 2009, the Sperrgebiet region, now a 16,000km2/6,177mi2 national park known as Tsau Khaeb, was off-limits. It was a secretive place of abandoned diamond mines, treacherous sand seas and all manner of rumours. These days, it’s still only for the adventurous. However, its secrets are coming to light, including the discovery of ghostly former mining towns previously swallowed by the sands. And appearances can be deceptive. Despite its horizons being filled with sand seemingly to eternity, the park has been recognized as one of 25 outstanding global ‘hotspots’ of unique biodiversity. There’s everything here from the threatened desert rain frog to one of Africa’s only populations of wild horses.

 

Desert-Adapted Lions

Desert-Adapted Lions in Namib Desert

Even when there were more than a million lions in Africa, they never managed to survive in the Sahara Desert. And yet, against all odds, a small population of desert lions exist in the Namib Desert. The lions somehow eke out an existence along the beaches, sand dunes and barren mountains of the Kunene region of the northern Namib Desert. The lions of the Namib nearly fell extinct during the 1980s. And setbacks still occur. Of the five males featured in the recent National Geographic film Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib, four have since been killed. But the population has made a remarkable recovery, with 180 to 200 lions thought to survive.

 

Damaraland Elephants

Damaraland Elephant, Namibia

Few first-time visitors to Namibia know that elephants survive in the Namib Desert. Even fewer can explain how that can possibly be. That the world’s largest land mammal can survive in one of the driest places on the planet is indeed a miracle. These desert-adapted giants are slimmer than their savannah brethren, and their feet are wider – the animal kingdom’s version of soft-sand 4WD tyres. Poachers nearly wiped out the population during the 1990s, and it remains imperilled. Accurate figures are difficult to come by but as many as 600, and as few as 100, are thought to remain.

 

Black Rhinos

Black rhino in Namib desert

As for lions and elephants, so, too, for rhinos. Save the Rhino Trust claims that Damaraland is home to Africa’s largest population of free-ranging black rhino. This is remarkable as Damaraland is a barren region of treeless mountains, sand dunes and gravel plains. Poaching remains a concern, but for now the population survives. Better still, a small number of high-end Damaraland lodges offer the chance to go rhino tracking as part of their conservation-meets-tourism programs.

 

Welwitschia Plants

Welwitschia Plant

Animals don’t have it all their own way when it comes to unusual ways of thriving. By trapping and storing water in their pores on the rare occasions that it rains, the rather unlovely welwitschias are able to survive…for up to 2,000 years. Most that you’ll see are a mere 1,000 years old. Welwitschias are especially prevalent in the desert east of Swakopmund in Dorob National Park, where the Khan and Swakop rivers converge.

 

Epic Sand Dunes

Sand dunes in Namib Naukluft National Park, namibia

One up-close look at the sand dunes of the Namib Desert is enough to make most travellers understand that these sand dunes are really big. But consider this: Some dunes here are 300m/328yd high and stretch more than 32km/20mi long! The only longer sand dunes recorded on earth are in China’s Badain Jaran Desert… But these are mere grains of sand when compared to the overall size of the Namib. It is 80,000km2/30,888mi2, stretching over 2,000km/1,242mi from top (Angola) to bottom (South Africa). The Namib rarely extends more than 200km/124mi inland from the coast.

 

Toto’s Africa

Sound installation playing Toto's Africa for eternity in the Namib desert

The Namib Desert has always attracted not just explorers and adventurers, but also eccentrics and those who would seek to otherwise leave their mark long after they’ve gone. Take the Namibian–German artist Max Siedentopf who, in 2019, installed an art installation in a secret Namib location. This artwork includes six solar-powered speakers attached to an MP3 player, also powered by the sun. For as long as it works, Toto’s 1982 hit song ‘Africa’ will play from the as-yet-undisclosed location. Let us know if you find it. And please turn it off.

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