By Jana-Mari Smith
Photographs © Christie Keulder
In the midst of the noisy buzz of our modern lives, the vast sea of shifting sand dunes in the oldest desert in the world offers one of the last remaining, authentic and untouched places to find solitude and serenity on this planet.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe the massive Namib erg or Sand Sea without using an abundant amount of adjectives.
Majestic, towering, grandiose, sublime, monumental, overwhelming, mind blowing, magnificent and breath-taking. The powerful vista of the Namib Sand Sea would awaken an abundance of synonym head-scratches.
Even as a born and bred Namibian, I can attest that every time I come face to face with the undulating accumulation of sand rising against the clear blue Namibian sky, my mind does a flip turn.
Stress and worry is suddenly replaced with a feeling of awe at the sight of the formidable sand sea stretching as far as they eye can see, which have adorned our coastline for millions of years.
The Southern Namib Sand Sea lies within the Namib-Naukluft Park south of the Kuiseb River in central Namibia. In June this year, Namibia will find out whether this pristine and evolutionary unique environment will be accepted as a World Heritage Site.
The Namib sand sea has been protected nationally for more than 50 years, which has ensured that the area, and it’s strange and unique life forms, remain relatively unscathed from human destruction.
Surprisingly, this hyper arid area is home to about 300 species of life forms, of which more than 50 % are estimated to be endemic to the area. The daily bombardment of fog from the cold Benguella current in the abutting Atlantic ocean has caused these life forms to take on rare behavior in order to survive on the little water, within this very hot, and very cold, sandy landscape.
The Southern Namib Sand Sea covers 30 777 square kilometres. The entire Namib sand sea covers around 35 000 square kilometres. Within this vast sea of sand, sun and wind, dunes rising as high as 250 metres (some claim they are as high as 300 metres) stand.
A global tourist hotspot, scientists have deemed the Namib Sand Sea the oldest desert in the world. It is one of the greatest moving sand sea’s on the planet and represents a vast variety of dune types: including barchan, longitudinal, lee, fore, lunette, parabolic/linguoid, acle star and transverse dunes.
Interestingly, the Namib Sand Sea is composed of two dune systems that have been superimposed on top of one another. One – a consolidated dune system that is estimated to be around 21 million years old. The young dunes have been active for around 5 million years.
Some of the most popular attractions here include Sossusvlei, Sesriem Canyon and the dune belt south of Walvis Bay where intrepid and adventurous travelers can visit Sandwich harbour.
The Namib sand sea has attracted a closer look from a host of scientists, who have identified this biome as a prime example of how evolution has shaped some of the most bizarre interactions between animals and plants depended on the very environmental conditions such as sand, water and wind, which shaped this undulating ripple of sand dunes that stretch along the entire Namibian coast.
A globally unique aspect of the hyper arid Namib desert is the fact that the fog belt extends into the furthest fringes of the sand sea (which stretches around 80 to 120 kilometres inland), providing a critical source of water for the species that have scratched out a rather sandy, windy and sunny life for themselves.
In a report submitted to UNESCO as part of the motivation letter to have the Namib sea declared a world heritage site, the authors of the report noted that this area is “an outstanding example of the scenic, geomorphological, ecological and evolutionary consequence of wind-driven processes interacting with geology and ecology”.
In the UNESCO report, the Namib Sand Sea is described as consisting of “vast panoramas of majestic (there is that word again) dune-scapes, strikingly crystallised in sharply silhouetted forms continually transformed with wind and time … This beauty is enhanced by the exceptional visibilt8y resulting from the virtual absence of moisture, dust and atmospheric pollution in this hyper-arid climate revealing remarkable clarity of landscape features by day and the dazzling Southern Hemisphere sky at night”.
Sand sea facts:
- China’s Badain Jaran Sand Sea features the tallest dunes on Earth.
- The three main dune types are – Crescent (also Barchan or transverse dunes), linear and star dunes.
- About 75 % of dunes in the Namib sand sea are linear dune complexes, while about 14 % are crescentic (mostly barchans) and 9% star dunes.
- The Namib desert biota is globally recognised as a prime example to explain the evolutionary, physiological, behavioral and ecological processes associated with desert ecosystems world-wide
- More than 80 % of the invertebrate animals are believed to be endemic to the Namib erg.
- It is estimated that the barchan dunes travel approximately 50 metres per year.
- The two superimposed young and old dune systems were both formed by sand transported over a distance of more than 1 000 kilometres from their source from eastern southern Africa
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