Walvis Bay, Namibia

                                                           Welwitschia mirabilis (female tree with flowers)

February 18, 2010

Except for knowing the location of Namibia and the names of its deserts, we had no idea what to expect.  We docked at Walvis (pronounced Valvish) Bay in the morning, and headed out for our excursion on a 4x4 vehicle.  We figured we’d be in the vehicles all day, and that they would be open air vehicles, based on the admonitions to bring sunscreen.  Once out on the dock we discovered that the vehicles were actually mini-vans that held five passengers and had four-wheel drive.  Cushy!  Until we lost not only our air conditioning, but also the ability to open the front seat windows.  Nobody could figure out what was wrong, so they sent for another van, which met us at the end of our third stop.  Even then we ended up using open windows to cool our vehicle, which actually looked more like a truck with a camper shell, but was quite comfortable.  We also switched drivers because the one who brought the truck didn’t like automatic transmissions with four-wheel drive.  Goodbye Hennie, hello Wolfgang.  Actually the change was good because Wolfgang was a much better guide.  Our first stop was at the musical rocks, which apparently give out chime-like sounds when hit with another rock.

Our second stop was at a hillside that was covered with lichens.  They are either grayish, or look like black leaves when you see them at midday.  Early in the morning when the dew is present, or when one pours water on them, they transform into beautiful looking things, as pictured above left.  There were other kinds of lichens at the Musical Rocks, which were of totally different form and color. 

Finally, about three hours into the trip we got to the main point of the trip:  a visit to the Welwitschia plant (actually a tree), which grows only in parts of the Namib Desert.   It is the tree pictured at the top of this page.  That photo is of a female plant, while the linked photo show the male plant and this one shows the bug that pollinates them.  This tree grows mostly underground, and lives for up to 2000 years.  It has a very short trunk and a long tap root, along with a shallower root system.  Since the the area they grow in gets a whopping five millimeters of rain a year, the plant depends on the dew for it’s water supply.  It grows in diameter at a rate of 1/10 centimeter per year, so the female plant pictured is about 600 years old.  These trees actually have only two leaves, which end up getting split into multiple ribbons by the wind.  The leaves grow 12 centimeters per year, and pretty much stay the same length once they reach a certain size, because the ends die off as the leaves grow out from the center.  Welwitschia is the only plant that never loses its leaves.  Even though the leaves look more like the ones on flowering plants, the plants reproduce with cones, as a pine tree does.  Seeing this plant was the fulfillment of a dream for Susan, as she has wanted to see it since reading about it as a teenager.

Our next stop was a picnic area, where a simple but pleasant lunch awaited us.  While at that location we discovered that mistletoe grows even in the trees in the Namib Desert.

From our picnic we proceeded to Dune #7, which is one of the huge dunes near the coast (also the photo below).  It is 35 meters (about 115 feet) high, and we climbed it.  Susan made it about 3/4 of the way to the top; Harry made it up to the top of the ridge.  The sand was very, very fine, and we ended up with what seemed like enough sand in our shoes to create a miniature replica of the dune.  Not really, but the sand was literally everywhere and difficult to get rid of.  One treat while we were driving to the dune area was that we saw a couple of Klipspringers (small antelope) in the wild.  This picture shows the context in which we saw them.

Our last stop of the day prior to returning to the ship was another treat:  we went to a wetland where two species of flamingoes can be found, along with several other kinds of wading and sea birds.  Our guide told us that this wetland is on a flyway and that many birds from Siberia and Norway like to winter there.

In Namibia there is a huge German influence; there is also Dutch and English influence, the latter evidenced by the fact that they don’t drive on the right side of the road...  you can interpret this in any way you please.  Most of the residences we saw seemed to be surrounded by stucco walls, and there is lots of color.  Except for the lack of bars on the windows, the look of some areas is reminiscent of El Paso.  The desert looks somewhat like a moonscape in some places, but with a surprising amount of vegetation.  Parts of the desert are immense sand dunes.  There is a large pipeline running along one of the roads we drove on, which is a water line built by the Chinese only a year ago.  They have some nice paved roads and some rather rough unpaved roads.  Then there are some that appear to be unpaved, but are really made of hard-packed down gypsum soil.  It makes a really nice road surface, until it rains; then it becomes very slippery.  Given how little rain the area usually has, it is an economical way to build decent quality roads.  In addition, gypsum soil is good at letting water penetrate, and then retaining it so that the water does not evaporate.

By the time we got back to the ship we were very tired, but we’d had a good day with a unique excursion that we really enjoyed.

We also had an amazing post script to our desert adventure.  While we were eating our dinner, we saw a couple of marine creatures break the surface of the water.  That’s not completely outside our experience, but what came next was.  We saw a group of at least 25 creatures, which we thought were penguins, milling around on the surface of the water.  A few minutes later we saw three dolphins coming up out of the water.  Shortly after that we saw not one but two groups of the penguins in quick succession, engaged in the same behavior.  There are African penguins, and we decided that what we saw most likely was penguins based on head shape and the fact that we could not recall seeing any dorsal fins except on the three creatures we knew for certain were dolphins.  (The photo is not very good, but it will give you an idea of what we saw.)

One other post script (actually a pre-script if there is such a thing):  A couple of days out from Namibia, when we were still one thousand miles out to sea, while walking on deck we noticed a southern giant petrel flying back and forth over our wake, following at an interval close enough that the bird was quite recognizable.  There is a possibility that the bird followed us all the way from South America.  They spend most of their time gliding, so it would be possible to keep up with the ship without tiring.     

There are several additional pictures in the album.                             

                                                        Dune 7 (that’s Harry walking up it)

© Susan L. Stone 2015                   rovingstones@me.com