Walvis Bay had one of the shore excursions I was really looking forward to with anticipation: 4WD in the dunes of the Namib Desert.We sailed from Luderitz 240 nautical miles to Walvis Bay with the foghorn sounding all night, which does not make for a restful sleep! Fortunately the fog was lifting as we entered port and we were blessed with a beautiful day.
Walvis Bay is the only natural harbour of any size along the country’s coast. It was annexed by the British to prevent the Germans from getting the harbour as everyone was scrambling for pieces of Africa, and Britain needed a safe route around the Cape for British ships. Toward the end of the 19th century the country of Namibia was annexed by Germany, except for the enclave of Walvis Bay, which was taken in 1878 by the British for the Cape Colony. The nation was battled over by Germany, Britain and South Africa – especially once diamonds had been discovered near Luderitz – for many years. German control was lost after WWII and Britain finally transferred Walvis Bay to Namibia in 1990.
We were driven out of the port to a loading area where we climbed into 4X4 trucks; some held three passengers, some five, ours was seven. John and I, the driver, our friends Sally and Angelo and two Dutch fellows who had just come on board in Cape Town.It was a 55 mile drive to Sandwich Harbour, one of southern Africa’s richest and unique wetlands. Potable water seeps up from an underground aquifer and sustains freshwater vegetation at the base of the Namib Desert dunes. The area is a center of concentration for migratory shorebirds, waders and flamingoes. We saw a lone seal, lots of pelicans and flamingoes and a large Cormorant convention; not sure what they were watching and waiting for but they were intent about it.
The Namibia Salt Works was our first stop. There were huge dyked squares along the shoreline. The even temperatures and ocean breeze create a perfect combination to extract salt from sea water. To get the salt, they flood the squares with a shallow level of sea water and it evaporates in about two days, leaving behind the salt crystals. The salt works processes 50 million tons of sea water into 700,000 tons of solar sea salt annually. It is exported to Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa and Europe. They harvest the sea salt for the chemical industry, high quality table salt and refined sea salt. I liked the patterns in the sand left by the outgoing tide.
The tide was out so we drove out to Sandwich Harbour – which is really a bay where the main dune meets the ocean before continuing down the coast to Luderitz – along the shore, stopping to watch some fishermen casting their lines and looking very misty in the fog. To give us a taste of what was to come our drivers drove up and slid down one of the small dunes near the shore.
Once we arrived at Sandwich Harbour we had to leave the coast as the entire wetland is protected and no vehicles are allowed. While we were stopped at the edge of Sandwich Harbour people had a chance to climb the dunes. It was not an easy task. Notice the purplish spot on the right hand photo above. We came across areas like this as we drove out to Sandwich Harbour and later as we drove in the dunes. I asked our driver what made the sand pink and he told us it was garnets. Just like other rocks that wind up in the sea, the garnet stones are ground down in the ocean currents to a fine purple/pink sand that collects in small recessions on the side or top of dunes. I gathered some in a tissue and brought it home. The grains are so small it would be impossible to use the gemstones for anything but it is a nice souvenir to have. You don’t see garnet sand every day! Namib comes from the word Nama meaning ‘vast place.” The Namib Desert stretches 2,000 km (1200 miles) along the coasts of Angola, Namibia and South Africa and, at its widest point, goes 200 km (120 miles) inland to the edge of the Great Escarpment. Annual precipitation at the coast is 2 mm (0.79″) and at the higher elevation near the escarpment 200 mm (7.9″) which makes the Namib Desert the only true desert in Africa. It is estimated that the Namib has seen arid or semi-arid conditions for 55-80 million years, which would make it the oldest desert in the world.
The dunes are second largest in the world after the Badain Jaran Desert in China and reach heights of 300m (980’) and 32 km (20 miles) long. We drove up some VERY high dunes – hundreds of feet high, sped along the ridgeline of others and slid down the steep sides of some more. It was a total blast! Sally was sitting in the front beside our driver and she was not too sure about many of our descents. I think her hands were cemented to the dash bar.
It seemed to us that we were just aimlessly roaring around sand dunes but our drivers had a destination in mind. We eventually stopped in a large knoll and were told to go strolling where ever we liked. When we returned from our walks we were given flutes of champagne to drink while they finished getting everything ready for lunch. Within a half hour the drivers had erected tents, set up chairs, unfolded tables that were covered with linen tablecloths, and opened ice chests filled with platters of oysters, kalimari, meatballs, fish balls, eggs, cucumbers, pasta salad, bread and desert squares. What a feast in an amazing setting.
After we had eaten, a naturalist told us about the few plants and insects that survive in the harsh desert environment and the drivers packed everything back into the trucks.
The journey back to Walvis Bay was a trip up and down massively high dunes. The tide was in so we had to drive the dunes on the way back as there was no longer any shoreline. When we arrived back at the very first dune we had climbed we were told it was no longer safe to go down and our driver turned the truck around. Then he backed up, over the edge and went down the dune backwards! So much fun!! We returned to Walvis Bay at 3 o’clock. Sailaway was scheduled for four but another medical emergency delayed the ship by an hour. This was a fantastic day that capped a wonderful couple of weeks sailing around Africa. I had to pinch myself numerous times to believe I was really there and seeing all the amazing animals I had so longed to see. The entire voyage was surreal in many ways, but going to Africa was truly a dream come true.
The adventures continue for another two and half weeks. Next port of call: Jamestown, St. Helena, 1200 miles west of Africa, which meant two sea days before arriving at the island where the Emperor Napoleon was exiled after loosing the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.