The Oldest Desert in the World – Crossing the Namib Desert.
The Namib Desert in Namibia is considered the world’s oldest desert. It covers more than 102,248 square miles (270,000 square kilometers) of the southwestern edge of the African continent. In this article , Nicolas Genoud of Geko Expeditions, brings us on a 7 day adventure across the dunes..
Nicolas and his partner Sandra have traveled the world since they were 15 years old. From Costa Rica to Botswana, from Russia to Madagascar, no continent escapes their thirst for discovery.
In 2003, Nicolas created Geko Expeditions which organizes and guides adventure trips whose common denominator is the discovery off the beaten track.
Since then, Geko has organized and guided numerous expeditions to various destinations, including more than 30 in the Sahara.
Here Nicolas bring us on along on one of his guided Namib expeditions.
Namib, this magical name has enthralled me since childhood. Namib “where there is nothing”. I dream of it often. This is the oldest desert in the world, it contains the highest dunes and borders the Atlantic Ocean. It’s Difficult to imagine a more hostile place on Earth … It is perhaps because man has no place there that that it is so fascinating to man.
We left the capital of Namibia , Windhoek, 5 days ago. Passing south along its border, touching in but never quite entering it. Today is the big day, when we begin our crossing of the Namib desert, from south to north, from Lüderitz to Swakopmund. We will travel for 7 days of crossing for about 800 km. Crossing the famous and long prohibited “Sperrgebiet”, the ‘forbidden mining area’, before crossing the now protected area of the Namib-Naukluft Nature Park. Access to the desert is severely controlled and limited. Only a handful of certified guides offer itineraries on the northern part of the national park. Geko Expeditions, which organizes and guides this expedition, has been exclusively authorized to enter the southern zone, that of the “Sperrgebiet”. This authorisation requires obtaining the approval of the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
Having Passed through the final checkpoint and had our papers checked (and been breathalysed) We start by deflating the tires of the Land Cruisers. 0.8 bars , they will go down to 0.6 on occasion in the most difficult passages.
We leave behind civilization and follow in convoy on a track that very quickly gives way to an immensity of virgin sand. The group consists of 8 Land Cruisers connected by VHF radio. The two guides take the lead while a logistic vehicle follows it. It’s important to drive in the tracks of the lead vehicle. It is strictly forbidden for the vehicles to create their own/multiple tracks. The Namibians make a point of preserving their desert. During this trip we do not cross or overtake a single vehicle during the 7 days of crossing.
Some basic techniques and principles are practiced early on the crossing . It’s important to understand at what speed to approach a dune ascent or descent how to manage momentum, the choice and the variation of acceleration and the actions to take in the case of an impending crash. There are many important techniques to learn . We conclude this introduction to desert driving by crossing some larger dunes, acclimatising for what lies ahead. Fortunately the level of difficulty as well as the size of the dunes are progressive. Its nice to try out some ‘human scale’ dunes before we encounter the monsters on day three.
We move in and out from the coast during the trip. Travelling along the coastline is very attractive as the sea is beautiful and there are numerous shipwrecks and interesting flora and fauna, however there is also an ever present mortal trap of becoming stuck between impassible dunes and a rising tide. At one point along the coast, a ghostly figure emerges. As we approach , it becomes sharper, it is the wreck of an immense cargo ship. The Frotamerica. it is a surreal vision.
This Brazilian bulk carrier ,200m long and 35’000 tons, ran aground in February 2013 while it was going to India to be dismantled. We had heard impressive tales of the removal of 139 tons of oil by 4x4s through the Namib, helping to avoid a major ecological catastrophe. The breach made in the bow to unload the barrels is still visible. Unfortunately the freighter still contains much waste that it is not planned to remove.
The seemingly perpetual mist covering the coastline and the many reefs make the Namib coast one of the most dangerous in Africa. Numerous wrecks testify to this. On our trip we passed the Frotamerica, Otavi, Shaunee or Eduard Bohlen. The latter lies more than 800 m from the shore, in the middle of the sandy sea. Impressive.
THE HOTTENTOTS BAY
We reach Hottentot Bay about 1 hour before sunset. From the top of a dune we witness one of the most beautiful spectacles we have seen so far. The ocean is adorned with metallic colors contrasting with the orange of the dunes. and a colony of flamingos flutters in the lagoon below,Magic.
The team set the camp behind the first big dune, sheltered from the wind. Our cook concocts delicious meals morning and evening. A WC tent and a shower tent are erected, we install wind breakers and a fire is lit in a brazier.
The following day, to avoid the cold and the humidity as much as to avoid the mist, we move away from the coast and we sink deep into the heart of the desert. The dunes here are higher and the driving becomes more technical. We haven’t yet reached the massive climbs and descents, but rather a succession of medium dunes and corridors.
We reach Saddle Hill in the middle of the morning. There is not much left of the miners’ camp. The roof of some barracks protrudes from the sand. Most of the camp in fact, has been swallowed up by the sand. Some prospecting tools remain here and there. The climate and the salt-spray has reduced all of the steel to the state of a brown leafy mildew. Surprisingly, wood and rubber have aged much better. We also find some heavy machines like bulldozers. They were transported in pieces and reassembled here in the 1940s. The history of prospecting mining in the Namib is exciting. It began at the beginning of the 20th century. The technology was rudimentary and human life had little value.
THE GREAT WALL
Driving across a succession of particularly pure and beautiful dunes, we rejoin the coast, further north. We are about halfway through our journey … We have just reached the Great Wall. We stop at the top of a massive dune that plunges into the ocean, 230m below. We are tiny lost in this immensity. You really feel like you’ve reached the edge of the world. 43 °. next day, we drive to the beach across a big drop to the ocean, using the slope as a giant slide. We try to time our arrival between two waves that lick the foot of the dune.
At low tide, we will be able to ride on a strip of sand ranging from 2 to 6 m wide between the foot of the dune and the ocean. The timing must be perfect, or else this strip would not be traversable.
THE GIANT DUNES
Eventually a series of stones block the way. So we go back towards the heart of Namib. We are approaching the much feared section, that of the giant dunes. Quickly, we approach a series of scary climbs and descents. The descents of 100 to 150m are all the more impressive as they stand in front of the equivalent climbs. At First, we say “Impossible”! Luckily, our south-north route avoids us taking the steepest slopes of the face. We go downhill.
It requires good technique and expert judgment and guidance to ensure that we will all manage to cross this zone. This is the most technical part of the trip. The trajectory is important.
The experience of the front vehicle becomes very important . Follwers observe. The vehicles all being heavy and somewhat lacking in necessary power, struggle at the beginning. Some areas of soft sand reveal themselves in mid-climb. A trap. We reverse once or twice. When we cannot get past a section, we reverse back up as high as possible, then we start again, going up a little higher up into the towering dunes each time. Eventually we all make it through.
After passing through a region of purple dunes of breathtaking beauty, we reach Sandwich Harbor for our last campsite. This site is magical. The water of an underground river that crosses the Namib collects here, creating a lagoon where a vegetation is dotted and where a number of birds are sheltered.
A serene and festive atmosphere prevails on this last camp out. We are all grateful for having lived a rare and magical experience, so far from our daily lives. The dream of child has come true and I must say that reality has far exceeded all my expectations.
As if to mark the end of the journey, the full moon comes to salute us, in a crystal clear sky that can only be seen in the desert. The jackals keep us company until the next day, where we enter Walvis Bay and return to civilization.
Geko Expeditons next tours of Namibia take place on 23.12.2017 and 06.01.2018
You can find more information on their website link below.
The Oldest Desert in the World – Crossing the Namib Desert