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I Dream Africa

I Dream Africa

Welwitschia Drive & Living Stones


Welwitschia Drive and Living Stones

Welwitschia Mirabilis is the most famous Namibian plant. Most specimen are about 1000 years old, some even older. 1859 the "living fossil" was discovered by the Austrian botanist Dr. Welwitsch and named after him. The Welwitschia plant only grows two leaves, which over time get slightly shredded by the wind. The desert plant belongs to the succulents, i.e. is able to store water. It takes the water it needs for growing from the air. Welwitschias occur exclusively in the central part of the Namib, between 40 and 120 kilometers off the coast.

This unique plant can be found along the sign-posted Welwitschia Drive in the Namib Naukluft Park. Behind the steam engine "Martin Luther" you turn off the B2 on to the C28. After 17km turn left on the D1991. T After a short while you will come across the first of the 13 numbered stone beacons that indicate places of particular interest. The drive leads through the bizarre and bare Moon Landscape along the Swakop River. About 450 million years ago layers of soft stone were deposited here and over the ages the river eroded its bed in them. If you decide to stay over in the park, there are many camping sites to choose from, including one at the Welwitschia trail. A camping permit can also be obtained from the office.

A permit is required for the Welwitchia Drive. One can obtain tickets at the tourisms office in the Woermann Haus or at the petrol station next to the car dealership Kriess. The stretch is some 160 km long, and one should plan half a day for it.

At a first glance it would seem that the Namib Desert is a dry and barren region, but look again. The ground and stones are covered with a great variety of lichens. They depend for their survival on the mist that moves in from the sea over the desert at night and in the morning. Take note of the lichens that look like black fragments of dead plant material. They lie loose on the surface and tend to collect in furrows. If placed in water they unfold and change colour.

Along the way two kinds of drought resistant shrubs are predominant: The Dollar bush, name given because of its coin-like round leaves, and the Ink bush, with its fine leaves and spindly appearance. Both these kinds of plants are well adapted to an area which receives an average of less than 20 mm of rain a year, and then mostly in single downpours. Often there is no rain in the area at all for several years.

Here the tracks of an ox wagon trail, used decades ago, can still be seen where it leaves the present road. The route was called the "Baaiweg" as supplies were transported from the coast to the inland. These tracks are still visible today because the lichens that were destroyed by the routes are not yet fully reestablished. Lichens grow extremely slowly, less than 1 mm a year. It is therefore most important for the ecology in the area that travelers should keep to existing roads at all times.

The valleys of the Swakop River form a spectacular ''moon landscape''. It came into existence as the river cut through the softer surface deposits. These soft materials were laid down some 460 million years ago when the area's climate was wetter. In the background one can see the Rossing Mountain.

Because of the Namib's exceptional climate with its misty nights, the lichen fields here are more extensive than anywhere else in the world. Again one can see how many different kinds of lichens grow here. One may easily mistake certain lichen for soil, as it has the identical colour. Other lichens, such as those with orange or gray-green "tufts", are much easier to recognize. An important function of lichens is to fix and stabilize the soil.

From here one has another splendid view of the Swakop Valley landscape. In the foreground are furrows caused by erosion.

It comes as a surprise to find remnants of a human sojourn in this desolate landscape. On this spot South African troops made camp for a few days in 1915 during the First World War. Along with the broken bottles and rusted cans, one can also see the tracks of an early form of tracked vehicle. Please do not remove anything.

To explore the next few beacons on the trail, one must turn left at the T-junction. On the right there is a clear example of a black ridge of dolerite that snakes across the hills. Dolerite is a hard rock which weathers more slowly than the surrounding rock. This results in a thin band of black dolerite along the hill tops.

The route now takes one through a dolerite dyke. This is an example of igneous rocks, where molten lava penetrated into a crack in the older gray granitic rock and now forms the backbone of the ridge.

Compared with the desert plains the Swakop River valley has lush vegetation. The camel thorn, the anaboom and the tamarisk all grow here, and tap the river that flows deep underground. Picnic and camping sites are provided so that one can relax here in the shade. Note the parasite plants that grow on many of the trees. Their sticky seeds are spread by the great variety of birds which frequent the valley.
The Welwitschia mirabilis is unique to the Namib. It is in fact a coniferous dwarf tree that is related to the pine tree.

The last beacon on the trail is that of the abandoned Von Stryk mine. This small, hand excavated iron ore mine was worked during the 1950's, but it was not economically viable in the long run. The mine is still privately owned. The entire Namib Naukluft Park carries relics of prospectors and miners who operated here - mostly before 1965.

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