Namibia's Sea of Sand
One of Namibia’s most well-known features are the iconic ocher dunes of the Namib’s Sea of Sand. Real fascination with this desert began in the 1960 when the first satellite images of the earth reached the world from outer space. One of the most curious features these early images revealed was the abrupt end of the sand sea on the southern edge of the Kuiseb River which features in our Namib Desert Safari. There is also an abrupt end to the southern part of the sand sea at the Koichab river - featured on our Wild Horses Safari.
A few ‘hiccups’ of sand do occur on the northern bank of the river between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund but the Kuiseb River runs just enough to stop the northward creeping dunes from crossing the river.
Image above shows the dramatic end to the sand sea just south of the Namib Desert Safari route.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007 - along with the rock engravings of Twyfelfontein, the sinuous dunes of the Namib are compelling subjects for photographers.
The supply of dune sand originates via the Orange River - Namibia’s border with South Africa. The sand is transported from the Drakensberg Mountains many thousands of kilometres away and deposited on the shores north of the Orange River. Carried north by the strong upwelling Benguela current, the sand is washed ashore and blown inland by the prevailing south westerly winds which blast this coastline.
Dune Types found in the Namib
On the coast, where sand supply is low, crescent-shaped Barchan dunes form. Able to move rapidly (up to 30 metres a year), these dunes are capable of consuming roads, railway lines and even buildings as is evident at Kolmanskop near Luderitz. We visit both Luderitz and Kolmanskop on our Wild Horses Safari.
Image left of Barchan dunes
Image right of Kolmanskop the ‘ghost town’ the desert is reclaiming.
As opposed to the smaller, more mobile - and so paler coastal dunes - the massive star-shaped inland dunes are the result of a large supply of sand due to multi-directional winds. Here the dunes are that iconic deep ochre colour - indicating the presence of Hematite or iron oxide. Sossusvlei, which we visit on our Namib Desert Safari has some fine examples of star-shaped dunes.
Further north still, the long linear dunes of the greater dune sea produce giant dune ridges like serried ranks of mountains. Formed by strong prevailing contrary winds from the north-east and south-west, the winds squeeze the dunes into ridges of several hundred km’s in length.
But eventually the dunes reach their nemesis, the Kuiseb River (see blog on Ephemeral Rivers).
Very little can survive or grow permanently on sand dunes, except for the sleeping giants of the dune sea - the monumental star dunes of the southern Namib. Image below of vegetated star dunes of the southern Namib. Here weaker winds are unable to move huge amounts of sand thus allowing vegetation to take hold in turn stabilising the dunes.
Adaptations for survival in this sea of sand abound - from behavioural to physiological adaptation - the fascinating creatures of the Namib never cease to astound in their ability to survive this harsh environment. Sand swimming - certain geckos and lizards - avoids exposure to predators, heat and aridity. The flattened bodies of Darkling beetles and shovel snouts of lizards, tubular nostrils and protective eyelids (image of Gecko below) ease life below the sand surface.
There is something indescribable about these overwhelmingly vast places that moves us in ways we cannot explain. The great psychologist C.G. Jung observed, on this first visit to Africa, that he had the remarkable certainly that he had seen it all before - the vast plains and endless vistas.
The deeper into Africa he went, the closer his identification with Africa grew….giving him his final confirmation of the collective unconscious in man. Is it this which captivates, intrigues and enchants - this forgotten primitive awakening…
“Travel for travel sake” said Jung, “is one thing; quite another is the far more difficult journey some of us are called upon to undertake into the unknown expanse of ourselves”.
Africa provokes what has been forgotten in us, awakening the sleeping giant within us…