The coastline of Namibia is well known for its sand, sea and hidden diamonds, yet a gem of a different kind lies visible to all those who visit its shores. The protected bays and lagoons found along the coast provide the ideal feeding ground and habitat for tens of thousands of seabirds, congregating there during the summer months.
Venturing into the Namib, south of Walvis Bay, past the lagoon area towards Sandwich Bay and Conception Bay, one finds one of the world’s prime birding hotspots. You can’t help but be impressed by the sheer numbers of seabirds that transform these areas into a hive of activity.
A great variety of species stop over here during their travels, ranging from the little stint to the great white pelican, all adding to the diversity. Thousands of flame-pink flamingos add a splash of colour, as inconspicuous waders dash along the water’s edge. Terns, seemingly in their millions, dot the sky with their pointed wings, and the Cape gannets rain down on the unsuspecting fish below. Black-necked grebes bob on the small swells, while Cape cormorants blacken the shoreline for kilometres at a time.
These spectacles, in addition to the chance to see the larger marine mammals such as the migrating southern right whales and humpback whales, or even the coastal scavengers like the black backed jackal and the elusive brown hyena, will leave an unforgettable impression on the visitor.
Entering the coastal strip of the “sand sea” on a 4×4 trip, one gets the chance to see pale chanting goshawks, jackal buzzards, and if chance would have it, the Namib desert’s own true endemic bird, the well camouflaged dune lark.
The ideal time to visit the area is from October to April, when the migrant birds have moved in from the northern hemisphere in their thousands. A large number of tourists and birders gather on the shores around Walvis Bay to experience the abundance of seabirds.
Other seasonal migrants that visit the coastline every year are a small group of para-gliders, led by Eki Maute and his partner, Cordula Cröniger, from Flugschule Achensee, one of Europe’s most respected para-gliding schools.
Making use of the westerly winds that create the necessary updraft off the steep face of the dune belt bordering the cold Atlantic, Eki and his gang of flyers make annual trips to Namibia to take advantage of the wonderful flying conditions. They normally come at the start of the year, when good conditions are more common, allowing the gliders to soar for hours at a time.
Eki explains that it is not only the perfect winds that attracts the gliders.
“Wind is found all over the world, but this,” he says, pointing towards the horizon, where the dunes touch the sea, “is a kind of beauty that can only be found here. That is why we come.”
The Langewand, a German word meaning long wall, is the term used to describe a continuous ridge of high dunes that descends to the shoreline, and where at high tide it is virtually impossible to pass along the beach. Stretching for kilometres, it is these locations that are highly sought after.
Gliding near the sea has its risks. Although the winds that come off the ocean are more stable and consistent than those inland, it is the sea itself that is the potential danger. Should the nylon glider fall into the water, it would very quickly become waterlogged, and could pull the pilot under in seconds.
Always taking safety into consideration, Eki briefs the pilots on the conditions and the specifics of the location, making sure they are able to land on a narrow strip of beach, or even on the steep face of the Langewand, should the tide be in. It is this element of danger that adds to the allure of sailing through the sky, high above the place where sand and sea meet.
The combination of breathtaking views, perfect flying conditions and the sheer desolation of the Namibian Desert where few have flown before, ensures that Eki and Cordula will return year after year.
From a 4×4 perspective, getting to the perfect launch spot on the Langewand with a team of para-gliders in tow is not an easy task. The ability to traverse the beach is governed by the tide, providing only an hour or two of travel time on either side of dead low.
The other option is to climb the coastal dune plateau. Being on the edge of the Namib, the sand is exceptionally soft, and climbing up the slopes to get to the ideal launching spot requires skill, effort and very capable vehicles. Avoiding massive slip-faces that stare down ominously and build a route that the convoy can follow is very time consuming, which tends to push the tour leader to make the decision to gain distance on the beach. Yet the ever-present danger of driving between the sea and the dunes at the Langewand (similar to the “Doodsakker” in Angola) should always be kept in mind.
This time around, nature again illustrated that one should take great care to avoid the area at high tide. The wreck of the Shawnee (1976), which lies at the very beginning of the Langewand, is normally covered by the dunes. But the sea had once again illustrated its power by scooping a massive load of sand from around the wreck, emphasising the fact that this is not the place to be at high tide!