The Namib Desert is often referred to as the world's oldest desert and has been in existence for some 43 million years, remaining unchanged in its present form for the last 2 million years. The Namib is an immense expanse of relentlessly moving gravel plains and dunes of all shapes and sizes that stretch along the entire coastline. The most widespread and dominant type of desert sand dune are linear dunes, with crescent shaped dunes common along the coast and clusters of star dunes found in the eastern reaches of the sand sea.
The entire western section of Namibia is comprised of the Namib, which spreads beyond the borders of Namibia and flows into southern Angola and the northern Cape Province of South Africa. With ephemeral rivers flowing unexpectedly across an ancient landscape, its dunes, plains, rivers and a foggy coast have all become vital components to support an outstanding and fascinating array of bizarre desert flora and fauna.
Evidence of humans living in the Namib through time extends back to the early stone age era. But perhaps the most documented of mankind's existence can still be seen today in the many rock paintings, stone circles, tools and pottery that have been discovered over the centuries. The most famous rock paintings are at Brandberg and Twyfelfontein. The Topnaar are a well-known clan of long term residents of the Namib. More famous for living in the Namib-Naukluft Park, there are at least a dozen villages scattered along the lower Kuiseb River today.
A section of the central Namib Desert incorporates the Namib Naukluft Park, the largest park in Namibia and the 3rd largest on the African continent. The present day park is a combination of the Namib Desert Park and the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park as well as sections of the Diamond Area. The combined area is just under 50,000km², from Luderitz to the Swakop River some 400kms. Its main attractions are Sossusvlei, Sandwich Harbour and the Naukluft hiking and four wheel drive trails
The Naukluft Mountain section of the park was initially created as a sanctuary for the Hartmann's mountain zebra. There is also an interesting historical back story to the region as they were the base of Hendrik Witbooi, an important player in the history of Namibia. The celebrated freedom fighter terrorized German Colonizers at every opportunity from his well protected mountain strongholds. In recognition of his exploits, Hendrik is fondly remembered with portraits on Namibian bank notes, an honour he shares with the founding father of Namibia, Sam Nujoma.
The harsh environment of the park challenges man and mammal alike. Carnivores are no exception and 3 of the larger species, black-backed jackal, brown hyena and spotted hyena have adapted to life in the desert. Spotted hyena live in the central and eastern regions, travelling in small groups where gemsbok, mountain zebra and occasionally Namib feral horses are taken. Black-backed jackals often scout the beaches in large groups for marine carrion, Cape fur seal pups and breeding birds. Brown hyena search for smaller items of food, usually alone and also take seal pups, eat insects and fruit as well gemsbok and springbok carcasses. Mountain zebra, chacma baboons, kudu, klipspringer, Cape fox, gerbils, steenbok and a healthy population of leopard are also resident.
Reptiles such as lizards and geckos, the sand snake and the side-winding adder inhabit this long, narrow wilderness. Smaller still are the scorpions, spiders, fishmoths and beetles that have adapted over centuries to survive in the dune dynamics of the desert. Insects use a swimming motion to travel through the sand beneath the surface, others dig burrows whilst certain adaptations such as shovel-snouts, protective eyelids and tubular nostrils allow other lizards to live below the surface.
Hiking around Naukluft Mountains is a very rewarding wildlife experience. As the mountains themselves touch the southern limits of Damaraland and the northern extremes of the Karoo, several bird species such as Herero chat, Karoo lark, Karoo scrub robin, cinnamon-breasted warbler, lesser honeyguide, pearl-spotted owlet, rockrunner, black-headed canary and Monteiro's hornbill can be found here. Namaqua sandgrouse gather in the morning at waterholes in their hundreds, the Karoo eremomela can be seen along the hilly areas of the escarpment and water in the rivers attract amongst other the rosy-faced lovebird. The riverine forests of the Swakop and Kuiseb Rivers entice pririt batis, swallow-tailed bee-eater and long-billed crombec.
Sossusvlei in the Namib Desert is the one attraction that should not be missed while you are in Namibia; the dunes are amazing and even though this is a popular tourist destination it is still easy to gain a sense of solitude while climbing one of the dunes or walking to Dead or Hidden Vlei. The Namib Desert section of the Namib-Naukluft Park also includes the Swakop and Kuiseb River Canyons.
Vegetation and wildlife are seemingly scarce in any desert and this is one of the most harshest environments in Namibia. Wild flowers in the Namib Desert can be defined as growing in the following areas:-
The southern Namib - is characterized by winter rainfall and succulent plants falling into the northernmost extension of the Succulent Karoo biome of southern Africa, notably from the Orange River in the south and to the coastal town of Luderitz further north.
The central Namib - an area confined by the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the escarpment to the east, sandwiched between the Kuiseb River in the south and Huab River in the north. The central Namib provides a number of habitats for plants, notably expansive gravel and gypsum plains, rocky outcrops and dry river courses with associated drainage lines.
The northern Namib – is a very dry place with low and unpredictable ranges and amounts of rainfall varying from zero to over 100mm. Rain and the chances of it become less towards the coast. It is fog that provides reliable moisture and as with the central Namib area, a fog belt can stretch some 20 and 30 km inland and on occasions further inland.
Unique meteorological phenomenon distinguishes the Namib from all other deserts. In the southern Namib, continuous high wind speeds are channelled through valleys. They batter the landscape without respite, forcing the surface of the earth to become uncharacteristically dry. In particular, the Sperrgebiet experiences the highest wind speeds ever recorded on earth. Erratic annual rainfall compounds the regional aridity. Rain can only fall over the Namib Desert when warm, moist air is blown onto the eastern side of the African subcontinent by south-east trade winds. It is highly seasonal and coincides with weak South Atlantic anticyclone activity.
Coastal fog regulates the climatic extremes. Desert rainfall is sporadic and unpredictable. Fog isn't. It is a most reliable source of moisture and although the amount of water captured from a blanket of fog is relatively small, plants and animals have adapted to the amounts on offer. But like rain, it is life-giving. Over and above these constraints, the southern Namib is home to over 600 species of plants, the central Namib 400 species and some 1,000 species in the northern Namib. Despite being starved of water for most of the year, succulents and shrubs still survive in ridges and valley floors during periods of extremely windy conditions.
For people wanting to experience a sense of Namibia's vastness a few nights at one of the campsites at Kuiseb Bridge, Homeb, Mirabib, Bloedkoppie, Ganab, Vogelfederberg or Kriess-se-Russhould prove to be very exhilarating. All of these camp sites offer very basic facilities, and as they do not have receptions or shops a permit is required to visit them. On the coast Sandwich Harbour is a paradise for ornithologists and nature lovers visiting Namibia. The lagoon is fed by fresh water and is a sanctuary for large numbers of coastal birds. Sandwich Harbour is only accessible by four wheel drive vehicles due to the large Namib Desert sand-dunes that meet the Atlantic Ocean.
Visitors to Swakopmund should take time to visit the Welwitschia trail. This drive through the Namib Desert takes a few hours and visits the Moon Landscape, the Welwitschia Plains and the Namib desert oasis of Goanikontes. The route has several numbered beacons which identify areas of particular interest. Other notable tourist destinations in the Namib Desert include the Cape fur seal colony at Cape Cross, Fish River Canyon, the ghost town at Kolmanskop, Luderitz, the NamibRand Nature Reserve, the Orange River and the Skeleton Coast.