When they think of the Namib, most people see images of the dunes near Langstrand, Dune 7 or Dune 45 at Sossusvlei. However, those privileged enough to have ventured into the “Sand Sea” on the recent Uri Adventures tour experienced a different Namibia altogether.
The stark beauty, eerie tranquillity and isolation within the Namib dunes is a memorable experience. The “Sand Sea” is made up of a belt of dunes 320km long and about 120km wide. These spectacular linear and crescent-shaped dunes reach heights of 300m.
Tucked away in the arid, mountainous far north-western corner of Namibia is one of the country’s well hidden treasures — the Kunene. The name, meaning “on the right”, was given to Namibia’s northern most perennial river by the Otji-Herero nation on their migration into Namibia in the 1500s.
Nestled between ancient rocks that have twisted and folded over time, and scoured by boulders trapped in glacial flows millions of years ago, lie the banks of the Kunene River. The swirling waters have cut through a surreal twisting valley in a harsh landscape, creating high cliffs and roaring rapids.
With a catchment in the high rainfall area of the Angolan highlands, there is an almost constant supply of water that pours into the Atlantic. It is this magnificent river that prevents Namibia’s northern dune field from crossing over to the mountainous northern bank in Angola.
This massive dune field, although not as big as the Sand Sea south of the Kuiseb River, has a character all of its own. If it were not for the ephemeral Uniab and Hoanib rivers, which flow only after heavy rains, dissecting the dune belt and restricting the accumulation of sand, this labyrinth of slip faces would have its beginnings much farther south.
The area is host to an array of wildlife found only in a desert. From the endemic vegetarian desert plated lizard (Angolosaurus skoogi) to the bizarrely coloured Tennebrionid beetles, all are adapted to life in these unusually harsh conditions on unstable sands.
On this recent visit it once again came to mind that the Namib is far more than a geographic location thanks to its picturesque landscapes, desert creatures and plants which have mysteriously mastered the ability to survive. It is the vast vistas from horizon to horizon that dwarf the concept of awesomeness. This canvas encompasses extreme contrasts, rock and dust, fractures and interconnections, crags and flat plains, glaring brightness and mellow pastels, with pockets of diehard vegetation etched against barren plains with seemingly no vegetation at all.
This thirsty land is definitely not for the feeble, though several extraordinary oases give some respite. The waters of the perennial Kunene are, of course, unmatched, but dotted between the other erratic rivers are natural springs that feed narrow wetlands.
In the area south of the Kunene, running roughly parallel with the eastern border of the Skeleton Coast National Park, lie the Hartmann mountains, and later the Etendeka Plateau (Himba for “flat topped mountain”), formed by ancient lava fields during the disintegration of the Gondwana super continent. These ranges are neatly dissected by the westward flowing riverbeds of the Khumib, Hoarusib and Uniab rivers, among others.
Fed by springs, these seemingly dry riverbeds act as a lifeline between the barren coastal stretches and the more forgiving highlands, providing a secure habitat for the desert elephants, giraffe, lion, oryx, springbok and other hardy animals that frequent these river courses.
The elephants can go for days without water, surviving on moisture obtained from the vegetation they eat. Although not a different species or subspecies of other African elephants, they have larger feet, making it easier to walk through sand, and often live in small herds, which puts less pressure on food and water resources.
After good rains, the plains between the rivers and mountains are transformed into endless expanses of ‘lawns’, speckled with opportunistic grazers that in a few months will disappear into the Namibian ether.
In good years, the nomadic Himba tribes will move down from the highlands into these plains to graze their cattle in the green valleys. But the recent dry spell has left the kraals deserted, while the skeletal remains of animals litter the once fertile pastures. In these extremely remote areas, deep hand-dug pits are the only sources of life-giving water.
Nevertheless, the rivers did not disappoint us, even in this exceptionally dry period. The springs in the riverbeds created a wonderland in contrast to the barren plains.
Our route gave us the opportunity to cross some natural spring rivers and encounter a variety of animals, including the desert elephants, giraffe, oryx, springbok, ostrich, steenbokke and a wide variety of birdlife.
For us sand lovers, the highlight was not only the sheer pleasure of dune driving but also the incredible views along the Kunene River, with its massive pink dunes on one bank etched against the contrasting black rocks and desolate landscape on the Angolan side. It was sandtastic!