Namibia – a desert country



The red dunes at Sossusvlei towered above us, the tallest one reaching a height of about 275 m. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The rays of the setting sun lent an even deeper reddish hue to the dunes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




In the afternoon, my companions Ann-Christine and Hans Lomosse and I arrive at Sossusvlei, western Namibia. In Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch Boer settlers, vlei means ‘lake’. However, there is no sign of a lake anywhere. On the contrary, the earth is bone-dry. In this parched desert land, a lake is only present after ample rain.

The sun is already low, about to set behind huge, reddish dunes. We park our car and walk towards the dunes, which soon tower above us, the tallest reaching a height of about 275 m. Here and there, a lone acacia tree is testimony to the rain that occasionally falls in this area. Two gemsbok, or southern oryx (Oryx gazella), a large antelope the size of a horse, pass in front of a sand dune. One of them pauses for a long time, gazing intently at us before proceeding after its companion.

Tracks in the sand from beetles, scorpions, snakes, and lizards indicate that other wildlife is also present here. We hear a chuckling sound from the sky, emitted by flocks of pigeon-sized Namaqua sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua), passing over on their way to a waterhole. The belly feathers of the male are fluffy, making them ideal to suck up a great deal of water while he is drinking. Returning to his chicks, deep in the desert, they are able to quench their thirst in his moist belly feathers.

We trudge up a high dune, following a ridge, created by westerly winds, which blow sand up the dune and over the tip of it, where it whirls around, before gliding down the back side of the dune. The sand is soft, our feet sinking in at every step. Our shadows grow ever longer, while the rays of the setting sun lend an even deeper reddish hue to the dunes – indeed a lovely sight.



Two large gemsbok, or southern oryx, passed us in front of a huge sand dune. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Inhabited by various peoples
The dunes of Sossusvlei constitute a part of the huge Namib Desert, which takes up a large portion of western Namibia. The climate of this enormous country, which covers about 825,000 km2, is very dry, the greater part of it consisting of sandy deserts or rocky mountains with a sparse cover of trees and bushes.

The aboriginals of Namibia are the San – small, delicate people with apricot-coloured skin and frizzy ‘peppercorn’ hair. They lived here as hunter-gatherers for thousands of years. The Khoikhoi people arrived in Namibia about 4,000 years ago, and much later, various Bantu tribes migrated from the north and east into the country, bringing with them cattle and implements made of iron. Today, the largest ethnic group is the Ovambo, accounting for around half of the population, and other significant groups are Kavango, Herero, Damara, and Caprivi. The Himba are a distinctive group, living as herders in the Kaokoveld area. Many of them still wear animal skins as clothing, and the women adorn their hair and body with an ochre powder.

The first white settlers were the Boers, who emigrated here from Holland in the 18th Century. They dubbed the San ‘Bushmen’ and the Khoikhoi ‘Hottentots’. The Bantu peoples, as well as the Boers, killed many San and Khoikhoi to get their land, and a number of the survivors were kept as slaves. The remaining San fled into the inhospitable Kalahari Desert, in which they were able to continue their traditional way of living, a few of them still practising this age-old tradition.

In the 19th Century, many Germans emigrated here, and in 1894 Namibia became a German colony. During World War I, the South Africans – who, naturally, were allies of the British – invaded Namibia and expelled the German government. The area became a South African mandate, and independence was not obtained until 1990.

Today, the total population of this vast country is only about 2.5 million. Most are Bantu, only about 200,000 are whites, Khoikhoi, or San. The capital is Windhoek, a relatively small city with about 350,000 inhabitants. Official languages are English, German, and Afrikaans.



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Rock paintings are found in many parts of Namibia – artwork of the Khoikhoi and San peoples. This painting at Brandberg depicts men, hunting gemsbok. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
During World War I, the South Africans invaded Namibia and expelled the Germans. Remains from this invasion are still scattered in the Namib Desert. This picture shows rusted petrol cans and treads from a tank, all very well preserved in the dry air. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Cold current from Antarctica
The Namib Desert covers the western third of Namibia. This is the driest area in the country, receiving only about 20 mm of rain annually. A cold sea current, coming from Antarctica, runs north along the coast. The weather here is often cold, windy and foggy, and the annual mean temperature is as low as 13-17oC.

Along the coast are scattered breeding colonies of jackass penguin (Spheniscus demersus), white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), and various species of cormorant (Phalacrocorax). The huge sand flats of Walvis Bai (’Whale Bay’ in Afrikaans) is an important feeding area for many birds, especially waders and the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber).

The rocky coast at Cape Cross is home to a large colony of the Cape fur seal (Arctocephalus pusillus), the only breeding seal species in southern Africa. When the females are about to give birth, they come ashore, gathering in huge colonies. The stronger bull seals have already established territories, waiting for the females. Each bull will do his best to gather a harem of females, mating with each of them about a week after they have given birth to a single pup. Six weeks old, the pup leaves the colony, following its mother into the sea, but she will continue to suckle the pup for almost a year. Black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) and brown hyenas (Hyaena brunnea) often patrol the seal colony to eat dead pups – or to kill one, if its mother is not on the guard.



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Six weeks old, a Cape fur seal pup follows its mother into the sea, but will still suckle for almost a year. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The strangest tree in the world
Almost every morning, fog drifts from the sea into the Namib Desert, thus giving precious humidity to plants and animals. The Namib Desert beetle (Stenocarpa gracilipes), which belongs to the family Tenebrionidae, has a very peculiar way of drinking. On foggy mornings, it creeps to the top of a dune, pointing its rear end towards the sky. The fog settles as dew on its body, accumulating to water drops, which trickle down the body and into its mouth.

In this arid desert grows one of the strangest plants in the world, Welwitschia mirabilis – the sole surviving representative of an ancient family of cone-bearing plants, which are distantly related to conifers. In fact, Welwitschia is a tree, but most of its trunk is underground, the roots reaching for water 20 m or more below the desert surface. The black stem above the ground is only 1-1.5 m tall, but more than a metre wide, and flat as a plate. Each plant produces only two large leaves, but they continue growing throughout the life span of the plant, which may be as much as 2,000 years. The long leaves are torn and tattered by the fierce desert winds, giving the impression that there are many more than two leaves. The small flowers are situated between the leaves and the stem. They emit a foul smell, which attracts the flies that pollinate the flowers.

A strange species of lichen, Xanthomaculina convoluta, is found in this desert. It is not attached to stones or trees as most other lichens, but is blown about by the wind, getting nourishments from organic debris and from micro-organisms in the air.

The Namib Desert contains huge deposits of diamonds, especially around the coastal town of Lüderitz. Tourists are not allowed to enter the diamond areas, and numerous signs along the road inform you that trespassers will be fined. In their heyday, many inhabitants of the former diamond towns were immensely rich, spending some of their wealth to construct glorious mansions. Today, most of these towns are deserted and have become ghost towns, some of which are open to the public. It is indeed an eerie feeling to enter the empty houses, half full of sand, doors creaking on rusted hinges.



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
The small flowers of Welwitschia mirabilis are situated between the stem and the two huge leaves, and the fruits, which resemble small cones, are much visited by various species of bugs, seen in the bottom picture. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Unlike most other lichens, Xanthomaculina convoluta is not attached to stones or trees. Instead, it is blown about by the wind, getting nourishments from debris and from micro-organisms in the air. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Dollarbush (Zygophyllum stapfii) is common in the Namib Desert. It is aptly named, as its leaves resemble small coins. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Tourists are not allowed to enter the diamond areas, as you are informed by numerous signs – sometimes consisting of an empty oil drum. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Ghost town near Lüderitz. It is an eerie feeling to enter houses, half full of sand, their doors creaking on rusted hinges. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Besides diamonds, many types of semi-precious stones are found in Namibia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Rocks and quiver trees
Further east in Namibia, precipitation is higher, up to 350 mm annually. This is the farmland area of the country, home to the majority of the population. Much of this land is very hilly, covered in scrub forest. In this habitat lives Hartmann’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra ssp. hartmannae), which was almost hunted to extinction by the Boers. It is now strictly protected, and its number has risen to about 33,000 individuals. Other mammals in this area include the chacma baboon (Papio ursinus) and the Damara ground squirrel (Geosciurus princeps).

Rocks abound here, often showing fantastic shapes and amazing colours. Near the town of Keetmanshoop is a large area of rocks, which has been dubbed ‘The Devil’s Playground’ due to the weird formations here. Some rocks are balancing on top of other rocks.

The strange quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum), which grows to 6 m tall, abounds in this area. It is one out of 7 species of succulent shrubs and trees in the asphodel family (Asphodelaceae), distributed in arid areas of southern Africa, Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula. These plants were formerly included in the huge genus Aloe, but, following genetic studies, they were moved to a separate genus in 2013. The quiver tree is also known as kokerboom, Afrikaans for ’quiver tree’. Boers who settled in Namibia noticed that the San people used the bark of this tree to make quivers for their hunting arrows.

In the southern part of the country is Fish River Canyon, the deepest canyon in the world, popularly called ‘Africa’s Grand Canyon’. It is slightly deeper than its American cousin, but not as wide, and, therefore, not as impressive.



Hartmann’s mountain zebra is only found in Namibia and extreme south-western Angola. These pictures are from Daan Viljoen National Park. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Male Namibian rock agama (Agama planiceps), basking on a rocky outcrop. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
The Egyptian goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) is widespread and common in Africa. It often becomes remarkably tame, as this one, grazing in a camp ground in Daan Viljoen National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
My companion Hans Lomosse explores peculiar rock formations near Keetmanshoop, which have been dubbed ‘The Devil’s Playground’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
The kokerboom is abundant near Keetmanshoop. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Spitzkoppe (’Pointed Heads’ in Afrikaans) is another area, dominated by rocks. This rock has been eroded into thin flakes, somewhat resembling the layers of an onion, by alternating temperatures, rain, and wind. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
The aptly named bottle tree (Pachypodium lealii) thrives among the dry rocks of Spitzkoppe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The Hoba Meteorite, near Grootfontein, fell to the Earth about 80,000 years ago. This huge meteorite has a length of 3 m, weighing about 50 tonnes. It contains mainly ataxite, consisting of 82% iron and 16% nickel. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




The Kalahari Desert
The western part of the huge Kalahari Desert enters Namibia along the borders with Botswana and South Africa.

When the Boers arrived in South Africa, they noticed a species of antelope, which would often jump about, obviously for sheer pleasure. For this reason, they named it springbok (’jumping buck’). Its scientific name is Antidorcas marsupialis, derived from the Greek anti (‘opposite’) and dorcas (‘gazelle’), indicating that this animal is not a true gazelle, and from the Latin marsupium (‘pocket’), alluding to a pocket-like skin flap, which extends from the tail along the midline of the back. Springbok are sometimes seen performing what is called pronking, where an animal, on stiff legs, leaps several times into the air, sometimes as much as 2 m above the ground, with the back bowed and the white tail flap lifted.

Herds of springbok and gemsbok roam the river valleys of the Kalahari, occasionally falling prey to carnivores like lion (Panthera leo) and cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus). Among the smaller mammals in this desert, the suricate (Suricata suricatta) is especially conspicuous. This mongoose lives in family groups, and one member of the flock is always standing on its hind legs, keeping a lookout for enemies, such as eagles, kites, or jackals, while the rest of the group is searching for food like beetles, lizards, scorpions, and other small animals. Spotting an enemy, the sentry emits a shrill call, causing all members of the flock to rush for shelter. Other common species among the smaller mammals are yellow mongoose (Cynictis penicillata) and Cape ground squirrel (Xerus inauris).

Until about fifty years ago, bands of San people were roaming this desert as hunter-gatherers, collecting roots of wild plants and hunting game such as springbok, gemsbok, and southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. giraffa). Today, most of the Kalahari has been made into a national park, and the San people have been forced to settle in villages. In Botswana, a few have been able to practice their age-old traditional way of life.



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
The springbok (’jumping buck’) is aptly named (top). The lower picture shows a male about to quench his thirst at a waterhole, together with numerous ring-necked doves (Streptopelia capicola). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



After drinking at a waterhole in Kalahari National Park, this gemsbok is blowing water through its nostrils. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
This cheetah has dragged its prey, a springbok, into the shade of an acacia tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



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The suricate lives in family groups. A member of the flock is always standing on its hind legs, keeping a lookout for enemies like eagles, kites, or jackals. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika 2003
The yellow mongoose is another common mongoose in the Kalahari Desert. These two are grooming one another. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika 2003
Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Cape ground squirrels outside their den (top). While feeding, this squirrel is using its tail as an ‘umbrella’, giving protection from the fierce heat (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Etosha National Park
An even richer wildlife is found in Etosha National Park, situated around a large salt-lake, Etosha Pan, in the northern part of the country. This vast sanctuary, which covers an area of 22,270 km2, was established as a game reserve in 1907 by the German government.

A multitude of animals roam the grassland and the scrub forest around the pan, including springbok, lion, elephant (Loxodonta africana), Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga ssp. burchelli), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus ssp. taurinus), and greater kudu (Strepsiceros zambeziensis).

The plains zebra in Namibia was previously regarded as a distinct subspecies, antiquorum. However, recent studies have revealed that it is similar to Burchell’s zebra, subspecies burchelli, which was once considered extinct. As subspecies burchelli was described prior to antiquorum, the former name takes precedence. Thus, the plains zebras of Namibia are now called Equus quagga ssp. burchelli. Following the extermination of the quagga, ssp. quagga, in the late 1800s, Burchell’s zebra is now the least striped surviving subspecies.

Until recently, the greater kudu was called Tragelaphus strepsiceros. This species was widely distributed in eastern and southern Africa, divided into three subspecies: Cape, or Zambezi, greater kudu, ssp. strepsiceros, which was found from southern Kenya southwards through eastern Africa to South Africa, and thence westwards to southern Angola and Namibia; northern greater kudu, ssp. chora, which was distributed from Eritrea southwards to northern Kenya; and western greater kudu, ssp. cottoni, living in southern Chad and Sudan, and northern Central African Republic and South Sudan.

However, recent genetic research has caused the greater kudu to be placed in a separate genus, called Strepsiceros strepsiceros, with four subspecies: strepsiceros, which is restricted to southernmost South Africa, zambeziensis, which occupies the remaining area of the former strepsiceros, and finally chora and cottoni. Some authorities have upgraded these subspecies to full species.

Male kudus have impressive spiralled horns, and for this reason they have been much persecuted by trophy hunters.



Elephants, quenching their thirst at a waterhole in Etosha National Park. The sad fate of elephants is described on the page Animals – Mammals: Rise and fall of the mighty elephants. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Grazing Burchell’s zebras, illuminated by the evening sun, with black rain clouds looming on the horizon (top). Zebra mares are loving mothers (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



The greater kudu has impressive spiralled horns. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Birdlife in Etosha
Birds abound in Etosha. Southern ostriches (Struthio camelus ssp. australis) race across the dried-out salt pan, and white-quilled bustard (Afrotis afraoides) males strut about, emitting peculiar calls, amplified by the large air sack on their neck. African pygmy-falcons (Polihierax semitorquatus) are perched in acacia trees, scanning the surroundings for prey, and Rüppell’s parrots (Poicephalus rueppellii) call raucously from other trees.

Etosha is home to a small population of 60-80 blue cranes (Anthropoides paradisea), hundreds of kilometres away from their normal range in South Africa. Incidentally, this small, bluish-grey crane is the national bird of South Africa.

Various birds, including red-shouldered glossy-starling (Lamprotornis nitens) and southern yellow-billed hornbill (Tockus leucomelas), have become remarkably confiding in the park campsites, searching the ground – and sometimes tables – for titbits.



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
This male white-quilled bustard struts about, emitting peculiar calls, amplified by the large air sack on his neck. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
Etosha is home to a small population of about 80 blue cranes, hundreds of kilometres away from their normal range in South Africa. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Sydafrika-Namibia 1993
This red-shouldered glossy-starling is searching a camp table for titbits. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)



Southern yellow-billed hornbill has also become very confiding around campsites in Etosha. En collection of pictures, depicting this species and other hornbills, is found on the page Animals – Birds: Hornbills. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)




Bannister, A. & P. Johnson 1978. Namibia – Africa’s harsh paradise. C. Struik Publishers, Cape Town




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(Latest update October 2021)