On a recent trip, Eben once again crossed the Koichab Pan, some 50km from Luderitz. The trip prompted reflections on the mysterious underground rivers that run under the vast rain-starved region.
The Namib is an immense space – 130 000 square kilometres of desert landscape that is, however, teeming with life. It contains all that is needed to sustain it, including water, food and shelter for its inhabitants.
The Namib stretches out over the Angolan, Namibian and South African lowlands that lie below altitudes of 1000m and get less than 100mm of rainfall a year – sometimes none at all.
Mention the Namib, and one automatically thinks of an area dominated by sand dunes, desert landscapes and open grasslands. Images of raging rivers certainly do not come to mind.
An interesting fact is that all rivers starting in Namibia are ephemeral, flowing only after heavy rains in their catchment areas. For most of the year, these internal rivers are dry, sandy channels. But don’t be fooled into thinking that life in these riverbeds is restricted to plants and insects.
The “real” rivers that form part of the Namibian borders – the Orange, Kunene, Kavango and Zambezi – all have their origins in the neighbouring countries of Angola, Zambia and SA. In the central Namib, rivers would rarely reach the sea as they would be blocked by sand dunes, as at Sossusvlei and Tsondabvlei, and in the case of the Kuiseb River. Alternatively, the riverbed would just absorb the water and store it underground in big aquifers – a kind of natural reservoir.
On a recent trip from Luderitz to Walvis Bay on the 4×4 trail, we once again crossed the Koichab Pan, which is not that well known to overlanders. It is situated some 50km from Luderitz on the edge of the Namib Sand Sea in the Koichab River Valley. The Koichab rises near Aus on the escarpment, in an area that receives an average of only 80mm of rain a year.
This harsh, dry, area with contrasting features presents the most beautiful landscape, really triggering one’s appreciation of the kaleidoscope of colours and the vast expanse. Underneath this pan there is an aquifer, 50km in length, 13km wide and approximately 50m deep. Water is drawn from here to supply the demands of Luderitz.
Farther north in the central Namib, the Kuiseb and Omaruru rivers offer big underground aquifers that supply most of the water for Walvis Bay, Swakopmund and Henties Bay, as well as several industries and mines in the region.
In the northern part of the Namibian Namib, one occasionally finds various “springs” and “swamps” in the dry riverbeds, with a water table so close to the surface that the wildlife and local inhabitants can dig shallow holes and get a fresh supply of clean water.
These special attributes of the Namib contribute to a unique mini eco-system in and along the rivers. Each of the rivers has its own character and offers a different experience. In most cases you can identify the particular river by just looking at a photograph.
The riverbeds of the northwest support a large variety of big game, the most famous being the desert-adapted elephants. Spectacular in their own right, these elephants share the riverbeds with black rhino, lion, leopard, cheetah and hyena, not to mention the large number of plains animals and smaller predators.
The largest west-flowing rivers in this region include the Omaruru, Ugab, Huab, Hoanib, Hoariseb and Khumib.
On our Damaraland and Kaokoland adventure tours, standard itineraries include parts of these rivers since the eco-regions stretch beyond the escarpment that forms the eastern border of the Namib. The tours do not focus on the “high lands” and most of our time is spent in the areas below the escarpment. However, the short time available on a tour to explore these areas does not do justice to this strange and exceptionally beautiful feature of the Namib and it is advisable to arrange a longer trip and spend more time to truly discover its secrets.
Although the northern area is at its most interesting during the rainy season (January to April) it is important to establish beforehand that the rivers are dry enough before embarking on a trail in and along them. Heavy downpours inland can cause rivers to flood unexpectedly.
It is best to do these excursions in the company of more than one vehicle and with experienced off-road enthusiasts, or as part of an organised commercial tour group.
The Rivers of the Namib can indeed provide the experience of a lifetime!