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Articles Blog

The Namib Desert

Karyn Planett

Dunes and Buggies, Birds and Plants

The rugged shoreline of Namibia’s Atlantic Coast is bordered by a long swath of blowing dunes that covers an immense portion of this country’s land.  The Namib (meaning “place of no people”) Desert measures 800 miles in length, 60 miles in width, and runs the entire span of the country from Namibia’s northern frontier to her southern border with the Republic of South Africa.

Who Survives in this Desert Land?

Well, a curious collection of animals, insects, birds and hearty people has adapted to this harsh environment and actually survives despite the sometimes-brutal conditions.  As the terrain consists of not only miles of parched sand dunes but gravel plains as well, all living things welcome whatever moisture they can get.  Remember that no African country south of the Sahara Desert receives less rainfall than Namibia.

With rainfall so infrequent and unpredictable, those living in the Namib Desert have learned to rely on the life-giving humidity that shrouds their landscape.  Approximately every three days or so, a moisture-rich fog spreads inland from the Atlantic and drapes a mantle of dew across the dunes.  Scientists explain that this fog is linked to the cool waters of the Benguela Current that washes past Namibia.  This fog literally becomes the lifeblood of the Namib inhabitants. 

An odd assortment of desert reptiles actually drinks the moisture they collect from their bodies.  Others, such as the fat and furry golden mole, have a whitish coat that acts as a sun reflector, therefore little of the harsh heat is absorbed into his tiny body. And the spotted brown male sandgrouse may be the cleverest of them all.  He (or she as the case may be) soaks up fresh water in his unique belly feathers.  Once these feathers are saturated, our soggy friend can fly up to 60 miles to his nest where the baby sandgrouse drink from his dripping feathers.  To his offspring, he is rather like a flying water bottle.

Plants Adapt Too

There is a plant called the Welwitschia mirabilis, which is quite an oddity (not to mention a mouthful).  Discovered by the Austrian Fredrich Welwitsch—hence the name--this amazing plant can thrive in Namibia’s hostile environment for as long as two thousand years.  It survives by capturing moisture not through a long stem searching for water below ground but with a huge taproot that rises above the desert’s surface.

Their Greatest Threat

Fragile natural environments are often disturbed by man and by the sometimes-irreversible impact of “progress.”  The fact that Namibia has a population of fewer than one-and-one-half million people living in an area comparable to twice the size of California provides some hope for the protection of this unique habitat.  The Namibian government has set aside large tracts of land as nature preserves where such species as the Hartmann’s mountain zebra and the desert black rhino are protected.  

Then there’s the darkling beetle.  All this matters not one whit to this little fellow who greets another dawn with his head stuck firmly in the sand.  While in this unfortunate and unflattering position, the morning fog collects on his shiny black wing covers.  Gravity then forces this dew to trickle downward, right into his thirsty little mouth.  He knows not of the political winds that blow around his small dune in the Namib Desert.