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Articles Blog

Walvis Bay, Namibia

Karyn Planett

The _____est Place On Earth

Welcome to the second least densely populated sovereign nation on earth — 2.1 million people dribbled into 318,696 square miles. Mongolia has 2.7 million people in 603,909 square miles. You do the math (OK, OK … it’s 5.03 per square mile versus 6.6 per square mile). Which means you’d better get along with your Namibian neighbors if you want to have any friends.

The Oldest Desert On Earth

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.

This place of no people is, however, home to a curious collection of animals, insects, and birds that adapted to this harsh environment and actually survives despite the sometimes-brutal conditions.            With rainfall so infrequent and unpredictable, those living in the Namib Desert have learned to rely on the life-giving fog that spreads inland from the Atlantic every three days thanks to the cool waters of the Benguela Current that washes past Namibia.

The Thirstiest Creatures On Earth

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. Also strange is the darkling beetle, which resembles something we know as a stinkbug. This fellow routinely sticks his head in the sand and his bottom toward the sky. 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. Clever little guy, this beetle. 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.

The Driest City On Earth?

There are a few who might claim this one. Suffice to say Walvis Bay averages less than 10mm of rainfall per year. Some years it gets no rainfall at all. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Landscaping your yard can be a challenge. But all of this accounts for Walvis Bay’s proximity to the highest sand dunes in the world. Dune 7 (they number them here) is a favorite tourist destination and the area is home to the extreme sport of sandboarding. If you’re considering it, contemplate a thirty mile an hour fall onto a giant emery board.

Walvis Bay is the first deepwater harbor for vessels rounding the Cape of Good Hope on their way to Europe, and the only one for hundreds of kilometers in either direction. As the most desirable stretch of the southwest African coast, it had a political history and chronology somewhat different from the rest of Namibia.

In the late 19th century, the UK annexed the area around Walvis Bay and combined it with the Cape Colony in South Africa in order to head off German interest in the region. The Germans got control of it for a while anyway during World War I, but it was retaken by South African forces before the end of the war. South Africa was given administrative control of all Southwest Africa after the war until 1990 when Southwest Africa became Namibia, that is except for Walvis Bay which wasn’t transferred to Namibia until 1994.

Humans weren’t the only ones who found Walvis Bay to be a handy comfort station while traversing the Southern African coastline. Just offshore is Bird Island, a man-made guano collector first built in 1930 by a German businessman who was inspired by a pile of rocks that had become a popular breeding ground for sea birds. The original platform has been expanded from 16 square meters to 17,000 square meters and yields 650 tons of guano annually.

Nearby Swakopmund is a German-built town and “port” sited to counter the British base at Walvis Bay. The town houses a museum, an aquarium, and from there you can access close by dunes and several types of high-adventure activities along the beaches.