Beyond Sossusvlei
Watching the sea fog spill over the sands of Sossusvlei, climbing curvaceous Dune 45 and marvelling at the skeleton trees on Dead Vlei, are the defining moments of many Namibian holidays. These are the better-known treasures of the Namib Naukluft. But the national park is one of the world’s largest, and its wonders stretch way beyond that small area. Here are ten of our favourite things to do....beyond  Sossusvlei.

 

Image 1 Take the Tok Tokkie Trail

The Tok Tokkie trail gives an opportunity to walk through the intriguing scenery of the NamibRand, a 180,000-hectare private reserve that borders the Namib Naukluft. You sleep and dine under the stars, giving the energy of the desert a chance to seep into your soul.


During the day, easy walking takes you through the varying terrain. Your knowledgeable guide will reveal the secret world of the desert which can’t be experienced while driving, pointing out desert-adapted plants, white lady spiders found by identifying their tunnels in the sand, tenebrionid beetles – the namesake of the trail, golden moles, endemic dune larks and the barking geckoes whose mating calls dominate the early evenings. With lunch enjoyed under a camelthorn tree laden with a huge sociable weaver nest and nights spent looking through a telescope at starry wonders, the three-day, two-night, 22km trail gives you a chance truly to savour desert delights.


• www.trailhopper.com

 

2 Feast your eyes on Sandwich Harbour
This emerald and blue natural lagoon lies elegantly on the coastline of the Namib Desert, on the northern border of the Namib-Naukluft Park. It is a marine sanctuary that supports more than 50,000 birds in the summer time, 20,000 in the winter, and is one of the most important wetlands in southern Africa.


Sandwich Harbour consists of southern mudflats and a northern freshwater wetland. The northern section is fed by a freshwater aquifer below the Namib dunes that seeps into the wetland, and is bordered by a barrier beach that protects it from the crashing Atlantic Ocean. It is considered to be one of the most geomorphologically active areas along the entire Namib coast, changing and evolving continually, its sandbars and beaches shifting with storms and currents.
Historically, Sandwich Harbour was a commercial fishing and trading port, attractive for its fresh water, and supporting various enterprises including whaling, fish processing and guano collection. Evidence of human habitation and enterprise still remains. Shell middens from the earliest inhabitants, trade beads, ceramic fragments and remnants of construction lie scattered over the area as the shifting sands and winds absorb human history into the vast Namib Desert.


Today it is a jewel-box surrounded by ochre dunes. Green phragmite reeds poke their heads out of the sand amidst the tracks of black-backed jackal, and in the distance pink flamingo dot the water, adding brilliance to beauty.


• Guided trips to Sandwich Harbour leave from Walvis Bay and Swokopmund.

 

3 Drift above the dunes
Tessa Clements took a balloon ride while on honeymoon in the Namib Naukluft park.


“Where’s the seatbelt?” I nervously asked our pilot as I clambered into the basket.  The thought of hanging mid-air with nothing but a few inches of wicker beneath my feet didn’t fill me with much joy. However, take-off was surprisingly tranquil. And any fear soon lifted when I realised we were already nearly fifty feet above ground – I hadn’t even noticed we were moving. In contrast to the earlier buzz of activity as everyone prepared the balloon, time seemed to stand still as we floated over wind-swept crests of sand. A quietness hung in the air, with only an occasional surge of flames piercing the silence like an irregular heartbeat.


As we glided northwards, distant mountains punctuated the outskirts of the desert like a protective ring while miniature ostriches ran along the ground beneath us. The first rays of sunshine danced across the desert shorelines picking out the rich tapestry of deep red and orange dunes.


When it was finally time to land, heavy hearts gave way to grumbling bellies at the anticipation of a champagne breakfast. Dining al fresco on zebra, kudu and croissants proved to be the perfect end to the morning.
 

4 Search for a thousand-year-old beast

Witness the oldest giant specimen of an ancient fossil plant found only in the Namib Desert, writes Philip Dickson. The giant welwitschia is reputed to be over 1000 years old and, legend has it, so dangerous, that it has been caged in its own high-security compound with a viewing platform provided for the brave and curious.


Obtain a visitor’s permit with a rather wonky and faded hand-drawn map from the tourist information office in Swakopmund for just under two pounds and take the winding gravel road into the desert. The tranquil wilderness soon becomes eerily silent and empty, apart from the occasional glimpse of a family of ostriches scurrying away at high speed, or a lonely gemsbok striding across a distant sand dune. The 100 km circular route winds through barren rocky moon landscape where swathes of lichen fields are scattered along and around the lush Swakop River valley. Numerous small flowering welwitschias cling precariously on to life in the bare open flats, and then the road suddenly ends where the giant plant lives.


At first sight the giant welwitschia resembles a huge coiled beast at least 2m tall and 5m across, lurking rather menacingly behind the wire fencing. Could this be where a man-eating myth comes from?


Discovered in 1859 by the Austrian botanist of the same name, the Welwitschia mirabilis survives harsh desert conditions by absorbing and storing moisture from the sea-fogs as they roll in from the Atlantic Ocean. It produces only two strap-like leaves in its long lifetime, which can grow to more than 7m long, coiling around the plant in a labyrinth, becoming frayed and tattered by the searing desert winds.
 

5 Stop off for Solitaire strudel

The secluded settlement of Solitaire sits in the desert like a pot of gold at the rainbow’s end. A town where life’s pace is so slow even the tumbleweed, if there were any, would be prosecuted for speeding, writes Beccy Mair.

 

Trucks that have rusted gracefully into desert sands mark your arrival to this atmospheric little stop-off in the middle of nowhere. Solitaire is on the C19/C14 junction, just on the margins of the Namib Naukluft Park. It is en route to Sesriem from Windhoek and Swakopmund and consists of a fuel station, general dealers and Café Van Der Lee. Between them they offer roadside respite, refreshments, birdsong by the pool, books, traditional jewellery, souvenirs, toilets, a campsite and tyre repairs.


And they are all run by Moose, a charismatic gent whose baking is famous throughout Namibia. Your vehicle’s dust trail on the horizon is his signal to fill
the kettle, put bread in the oven for made-to-order sandwiches and perk up the coffee maker.


His monster portions of apple strudel are an unexpected taste-bud revelation in the heart and heat of Africa – thick pastry crusts loaded with generous layers of sticky sweet apple, crowned by a celebratory crumble crunch you’d be mad to miss. 

 

6 Stargaze

The Namib Naulkluft is reputedly one of the best places in the world to study the night sky because it is rarely cloudy and there is so little pollution. Danny Rosen, resident astronomer at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, reveals what he can see from his observatory on a clear, moonless night.


“Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge has taken steps to entirely shield all the lights at the lodge, so there is absolutely no light pollution. With the naked eye you can see the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, separate galaxies outside and far away from our home Milky Way.


And through a telescope I can almost take guests for a walk on the Moon, exploring its craters and mountains. The “oohs” and “ahhs” never cease upon a first glimpse of the rings of Saturn, or the cloud belts and moons of Jupiter.


Last night with a family from Germany and a couple from Nigeria we looked at the Great Red Spot, a hurricane-like storm, three times the size of the Earth, raging in the clouds on Jupiter. We also watched the shadow of Europa, one of Jupiter’s four big moons, move across the cloud tops of the planet - over six hundred million kilometers away.


I then moved the telescope around for a look at Alpha Centauri, one of the two stars, known as The Pointers, which point to the Southern Cross. Like the Southern Cross, these cannot be seen in the UK. To the naked eye Alpha Centauri is one brilliant blue-white star, one of the brightest in the sky. In the telescope, it is clearly seen as a double – two stars gravitationally bound and orbiting each other. The sight of the Southern Cross and The Pointers is enough reason alone to come to Namibia.” 

 

7 Explore Sesriem Canyon
Four kilometres from Sesriem Campsite, gateway to Sossusvlei and the world of apricot sand dunes, is Sesriem Canyon, a narrow gorge one kilometre long and thirty metres deep. Carved by the Tsauchab River over millions of years, the small canyon was an important stopping point for early pioneers, travellers and explorers, who paused at its edges to collect water from the depths. Tying together six ‘riems’, strips of raw-hide, they were able to draw precious water from the pools.


The river runs through the sedimentary layers of the canyon after good summer rains, leaving pools of cool water which slowly dry out in later months. Walking through the canyon, it is possible to feel the ghost of a river that periodically rushes down in flood, and has the force to chisel away rock walls. Pigeons and pale-winged starlings watch from above as you journey through time. By Beccy Mair
 

8 Wait for it to rain

Every so often it rains in the Namib Naukluft. Sometimes years go by without a drop, then it might rain three times in one year. When it comes, the water temporarily transforms the park.  Executive Director at the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, Joh Henschel, works in the heart of the Namib. He describes the phenomenon of rain in the desert.


“It begins with a sense of anticipation, in summer, that is a peculiar mixture of hope without expectation. Eyes scan the eastern escarpment for clouds, usually in vain. Distant rainfall changes the tune. Enormous clouds build up and hover temptingly above the ground. Insects buzz frantically and many birds flitter about; springbok disappear, heading to where the rain is already falling. However, the ground under our feet remains parched and cracked and somehow feels even drier than usual as our imagination plays games.


Then the rain comes, slowly at first but the pattering raindrops are pure music and the fragrance of freshly-wetted ground is deeply pleasing. We feel like singing, but then shy away from that as the serene, calm desert suddenly explodes into gushes of torrential rain, followed by jets of wind and lashings of lightning.  Streamlets flood, eroding, pooling and soaking into the thirsty earth. Insects are silenced, and springbok hunch their backs uncomfortably.
The thrill continues when the rain is over. Sunrays burst out of thinning clouds, illuminating a new world of damp, dark earth. The springbok break out in graceful leaps of celebration, and our feelings follow them.


 In a few days the landscape blushes with green grass, fattening succulents, and lilies that pop out of the sand.  Creatures erupt all over with a rush of tiny feet. Then, all too soon, the grass turns gold and the desert gradually ebbs to baldness. Rain becomes a distant memory.


Knowing what rainfall means in the Namib makes you appreciate it all the more. If you look closely, the desert’s parched landscape is vibrant with tenacious life that is remarkably adapted for waiting… for the next time it rains”. 
 

9 Take a wildlife safari

The Namib Naukluft’s shifting sand dunes and gravel plains receive between 15 and 100mm of rain per year. Yet, remarkably, life has adapted to survive, evolving to form its own unique ecosystem.


The cold Benguela current travelling from the Antarctic meets the onshore winds from the tropics, creating the condensation that is vital to sustain life in the Namib. Precious moisture comes from the fog moving in from the coast. Like pixies, creatures venture out at night when temperatures drop. Tracks seen in the crisp mornings may include dune-dwelling beetles, lizards, snakes, spiders and scorpions. Approximately two hundred species of tenebrionid beetles live in Namib sands. The fog-basking beetle derives moisture by condensing the Atlantic mist on its body, positioning itself so that water droplets run down into its mouth. The large dancing spider called the ‘white lady of the Namib’ lives in tunnels lined with spider silk under the honey sands. The golden mole swims through the sand surfacing at night to forage for insects. The shovel-snouted lizard has perfected a thermal dance to avoid its tail and feet spending too much time on the hot sand. And the translucent palmato gecko collects condensed fog droplets from its head with its long tongue.


The larger animals have also learnt Namib survival skills. The springbok can be seen grazing in the morning when the dew decorates the hardy desert plants while the oryx catches breezes on the top of dunes, shallow veins in its nose cooling its blood like the radiator system of a car. Black-backed jackal, brown hyena and ostrich are also familiar with the desert wisdom and roam the hostile environment.


Escaping the intense heat and withstanding extreme conditions, desert life emerges in the cool hours to sip the ocean mist, surviving against all odds. From the smallest of beetles to the proud oryx, life endures, magnificently.
 

10 Experience history

Exactly one hundred years ago, diamonds were discovered in dunes south of Walvis Bay. A rush of prospectors headed for some of the Namib’s most inhospitable areas, desperate to strike it rich.


Few did and today the sand-blown remnants of their settlements still litter the national park, ghostly reminders of the hardships these pioneers were willing to endure. A 4WD trip to the coastal area between Meob and Conception Bay (Diamond mining area No2) is a real privilege. The abandoned sieves and cartwheels are rapidly deteriorating and soon the Namib will shroud them completely in sand, forever burying the hopes they initially represented.

 

• For more information go to www.uriadventures.com
 

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