Namib Desert Mystique

Photo: Chloe Durr

Namib Desert Mystique

12 April 2021 | Tourism

There is something undeniably mystical about the Namib - a sand-sea saturated with colour, ear-popping silence and shimmering heat.

The Namib boasts the world’s tallest sand dunes, surprises with burnt mountain-vistas and surreal ship-wrecked coastlines, while being home to life-giving fog belts and craggy fossilized planes. Under this seemingly uninhabitable and lifeless façade, the Namib Desert is alive with bizarre desert-adapted phenomena that hide in the ancient sands of time.

The Namib Desert is every bit as “vast” as its name in the Nama-language suggests, extending 1600 kilometres along the Atlantic coast and comprising of a total area of 81000 km² spread across three countries. With so much land to cross it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the question, where to start. I tend to become lyrical about venturing off-the-beaten-track, but a self-drive adventure in the Namib Desert requires sound planning.


Messum Crater Trail

The Messum Crater 4x4 trail is roughly 250 kilometres long and accessed along the D2303 - which turn-off is found two kilometres north of the entrance to Cape Cross, along the C34 salt-surface road. It will take you on a treasure hunt through a section of the Dorob National Park, where some of the finest specimen of desert-adapted flora can be found.

The colour-changing sand and watery haze of mirages in the Mars-like Namib Desert landscape are so hypnotic that many of its tiny treasures can be overlooked. The colour change is the result of various mineral deposits found naturally in the sand. It does though play tricks with one’s eyes when looking out for minute desert-adapted flora in this area. This is especially true of the lichen that sporadically flanks the C34 gravel road, which leads to the Messum Crater’s area.


Lichen-Wonder

The Messum Crater’s area is home to some of the most intensely rich stretches of lichen in Namibia - especially noticeable at the turnoff to Cape Cross. Adapted to survive the harsh desert conditions and very low rainfall, lichens are able to survive on the mist from the Atlantic Ocean.

Namibia is home to over 100 species of lichen that differ in colour and form, depending on the organism. The green and luminous-orange lichen planes are found close to the coast. They are foliose in structure, but as you venture deeper into the Dorob you will find circulene splatters of tangerine-orange coloured lichen growing flat on the surface of quartz-rich basalt rock or encrusted on large planes of gypsum soil.

Lichen form an important part of the delicate ecosystem of the Namib and play a fundamental role in stabilizing the upper layer of soil in the area. Some of the lichen in these parts are believed to be over 1 000 years old, which is unimaginable considering how vulnerable they are as an organism. Lichens have an unbelievably slow growth-rate of only 1mm per year and despite the inhabitable conditions of the desert, vehicles pose the greatest threat to their existence. Venturing off track not only poses a threat to hectares of lichen, which take hundreds of years to regrow, but also to the delicate ecosystem of the Namib Desert as a whole.


“Take only memories leave only footprints”

The route continues inland through the Namib Desert and eventually to the Messum Crater. It is not an obvious crater, unless having a bird's eye view onto the area. The crater was created by a volcanic explosion 133 million years ago and has an inner diameter of around 14 kilometres the area measures roughly 18 x 25 kilometres. The rim offers views over the Namib, with the landscape punctuated by arcuate and dome-shaped mountains set against the distant backdrop of Namibia’s highest mountain, Brandberg. Make time to explore the hidden caves and experience the wilderness camping alternatives along the way!


Tweeblaarkanniedood

I have written about the famously ugly and prehistoric Welwitschia Mirabilis plant in the past. However, the group of impressively large specimen of the plant found in the Messum Crater are a mesmerizing display that makes other sightings pale in comparison.

Sometimes referred to as “living fossils” (the “Tweeblaarkanniedood” in the Afrikaans vernacular), the Welwitschia Mirabilis is Namibia’s national plant and is one of the world’s oldest and most extraordinary plants. They can become up to 2 000 years old. One of the many curiosities of the Welwitschia is that they only grow two leaves in their entire lifetime. The same two leaves grow continuously into a bundle over the years and eventually shred into ribbons, which give it the appearance of being multi-leaved.

Despite looking like a dried-up pile, the Welwitschia Mirabilis is an evolved desert-adapted survivor, endemic to the Namib Desert. The plant seen above ground is supported by an immense tap root underground. It goes without saying that the Welwitschia Mirabilis is one of the most bizarre fascinations of this mystically ancient environment.


Fairy Circles

It is a universal truth that man in the absence of convincing science turns to story-telling. The scientifically inexplicable “Fairy Circles” are endemic to the Namib Desert.

These peculiar, perfectly round, patches of bare soil, devoid of plant-life, surrounded by a circumference of vegetation, polka-dot the expansive Namib Desert planes. Theories about their existence revolve around geological, environmental and radioactive explanations, even on heavenly superstition. Ancient legend has it that they are ancestral footprints “left by the gods” or patches burnt into the soil by the fiery breath of a dragon. The most believable explanation is that they are the result of termite activity deep within the soil, but this theory too remains scientifically unconfirmed for now. Whatever the truth is, their existence only adds to the allure of the Namib Desert.

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