Covering an area of 81,000 sq km (31,274 sq mi), the Namib is a coastal desert. It runs along 2,000km of the south-western coast of the African continent. It crosses Angola, Namibia and South Africa. It is characterized by red sand dunes that can reach impressive heights. The Namib is considered to be particularly old, possibly the oldest desert in the world. It is thought that an arid climate began to dominate in the region approximately 55 million years ago.
The Namib is teeming with animals, including elephants, rhinos, Hartmann’s zebra, lions, gemsbok and the black-faced impala.
Diamonds are the most important mineral asset found in the Namib Desert. The entire region where the diamonds are situated has been declared a Prohibited Area, totally closed to public access.
The Namib Desert is extremely arid, some parts receiving only a few millimetres of rain in a whole year. The fog that rolls in from the sea in the morning is a vital source of water for many of the desert-dwelling animals and plants.
The Palmato gecko lives in the Namib Desert, one of the driest places on earth, so it needs all its ingenuity to pick up moisture where it can. When water obtained from its diet of insects proves insufficient, the lizard perches on a sand dune, waiting for the early-morning fog to condense as water droplets on its huge eyes and then licking it off with its long tongue. These lizards don’t have eyelids, so licking also serves to keep their eyes clean and moist.
Rather than using its eyes, like the gecko, the Fogstand beetle uses its rear end. It props itself up at an angle of 45°, and water condenses onto its hard wing-cases and rolls down into its mouth.
The greatest crime in a desert is to find water and keep silent about it.
As the sands of the desert are to the weary traveler, so are words to he who loveth silence.
A number of rare and interesting plants are present in the Namib Desert, such as the Welwitschia Mirabilis, which consists only of 2 leaves and a stem, and is estimated to reach up to 2000 years old. It can grow up to 2m tall, and 8m wide, and was referred to by Darwin as the ‘the platypus of the plant kingdom’.
The Welwitschia plant’s ability to survive is testified by its extraordinary age – some individual plants are believed to be up to 2,000 years old. Its roots burrow up to 30m below the ground in search of moisture, but it also absorbs water through the pores (stomata) on its huge frayed leaves. While the fog lingers, the stomata remain open, then close to stop evaporation in the heat of the day.
Another bizarre plant is the quiver tree, it gets its English common name from the San peoples' practice of hollowing out the tubular branches of Aloe dichotoma to form quivers for their arrow. It effectively severs its own branches in times of severe drought in order to save moisture loss through its leaves.
Namibia is home to a unique population of elephants that have adapted to the arid, and sometimes inhospitable, climate. These desert elephants can go for days without drinking water, surviving on moisture obtained from the vegetation they eat.
Although not a different species or subspecies than other African elephants, they have larger feet, making it easier to walk through sand, and often live in smaller herds, which puts less pressure on their food and water sources.
Temperatures in the Namib can reach as high as 60°C during the day and below 0°C at night.
The Namib is home to the highest sand dunes in the world some of which can reach over 390m and can be seen from space.
The word ‘Namib’ is of Nama origin, and means ‘open space’.
Whilst the Namib Desert is virtually rainless, its air is typically at or near to saturation point, and fog is very common.
The ships in this particular desert are actually ships. The heavy fogs that often blanket the coastal strip – the so-called Skeleton Coast – have long been a menace to shipping, and the carcasses of hundreds of vessels litter the coast.
Silting and encroachment of the desert into the sea have meant that many of the shipwrecks now lie up to 500m inland.
The Republic of Namibia was the first country in the world to include protection of the environment in its constitution.