African Namib desert

Namib desert
African Interesting Namib Desert Facts

Perfectly formed dunes press up against a deserted stretch of coast, and inland for as far as the eye can see. Sand consumes shipwreck skeletons more than a kilometer from the ocean. Wildlife thrives in a land almost completely devoid of water. Not only is the Namib Desert one of the world’s most beautiful deserts, it’s also a place of mystery that conceals its secrets well.

The World’s Oldest Desert

It’s easy to imagine that the world has always been just as we found it. Take the Sahara, for example, which just 12,000 years ago, was a mixture of green savannah grasslands and forests. It was inhabited by the kinds of charismatic African mega-fauna that makes us all want to go on safari. Not so the Namib Desert. The Namib has been dry for at least 55 million years, and possibly as many as 80 million. While it may not be the world’s largest desert, it is almost certainly the oldest. Parts of the Namib rival South America’s Atacama Desert as the driest place on Earth. Some parts average just 2mm/0.08in of rain a year.

A Strange Climate

It catches travelers every time. As you drive from Namibia’s interior to the sand-dune coast, the blast of cold air and rolling mists can be deeply unsettling, even otherworldly. It’s a strange sensation, peering out to sea through the fog from high on a sand dune and feeling suddenly cold. The Namib Desert experiences around 180 days of fog every year. This is thanks to cold air from the offshore Benguela Current crashing up against the hot air from arid inland.

The Skeleton Coast

No one knows how many ships foundered along Namibia’s arid shore. The ocean and constantly moving sand dunes have conspired to make many of them disappear. Those that remain serve as reminders of the elemental force that controls everything along this coast. So powerful are the sand dunes that their relentless march has reclaimed land from the sea. Some shipwrecks once washed by waves are, less than a century later, almost a mile inland. Take the Eduard Bohlen, which sank off Walvis Bay in 1909 but now lies marooned only 1km/0.6mi away from the sea. Or the Otavi, a cargo ship that ran aground further south in 1945. It now sits atop a sand dune at one of the highest points anywhere along this coast. 

A Once-Forbidden Land

Not that long ago, it wasn’t just the swirling fog that concealed much of the desert from view. Until 2009, the Sperrgebiet region, now a 16,000km2/6,177mi2 national park known as Tsau Khaeb, was off-limits. It was a secretive place of abandoned diamond mines, treacherous sand seas and all manner of rumours. These days, it’s still only for the adventurous. However, its secrets are coming to light, including the discovery of ghostly former mining towns previously swallowed by the sands. And appearances can be deceptive. Despite its horizons being filled with sand seemingly to eternity, the park has been recognized as one of 25 outstanding global ‘hotspots’ of unique biodiversity. There’s everything here from the threatened desert rain frog to one of Africa’s only populations of wild horses.

Desert-Adapted Lions

Even when there were more than a million lions in Africa, they never managed to survive in the Sahara Desert. And yet, against all odds, a small population of desert lions exist in the Namib Desert. The lions somehow eke out an existence along the beaches, sand dunes and barren mountains of the Kunene region of the northern Namib Desert. The lions of the Namib nearly fell extinct during the 1980s. And setbacks still occur. Of the five males featured in the recent National Geographic film Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib, four have since been killed. But the population has made a remarkable recovery, with 180 to 200 lions thought to survive. 

Damaraland Elephants