The Amazing Dunes of Namibia's Coast
Swakopmund and Walvis Bay
Another throw-back, I need to tell you all about the other amazing place we visited in Namibia- Swakopmund (say that 10 times fast). It is home to some of the most striking landscapes I’ve seen in my time on the continent.
This trip, like many others I’ve done, was a bit of a whirlwind. We met up with Leonard in Gobabis for a day (as I wrote about before), then had a day in the capital of Windhoek, and finally drove 4+ hours the next morning to get here by the late morning. We were going to have to leave again the next day to make the long (~900 mile) drive back to Gaborone over the next 2 days, so we needed to figure out something fast. Our options were limited but ended up deciding on a last minute driving tour of the dunes. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made on the continent.
The town itself was pretty, with some colorful buildings and wooden docks overlooking the water. I was surprised by how cold it was during the day. There’s a lot of moisture that drifts in from the cool ocean so it was only in the 70s, a stark contrast to the high 90s we’d been contending with everywhere else. We met our guide Gerrit, who was in his mid-late 30s and already seemed to have smoked enough to have a classic raspy “COPD voice” as we call it in medicine. He grew up driving the dunes basically since he could reach the pedals of a 4x4. It was amazing to have him share that experience with us.
Before heading to the dunes, he showed us a flamingo colony that hangs out outside town. They’re cool to see in zoos, but I’ve never seen them in such large numbers outside of that, so it was very cool to see. Most of them were lesser flamingos, though there were some greater flamingos as well. A large group of Caspian terns were also in close proximity to them. We saw a number of other birds in the salt purification plant, where they take salt from the ocean and purify it for human uses. There were also a number of interesting pink pools which were dominated by a particularly pretty bacterial species. While this isn’t actually how pink salt is created, I did think about it. We also passed some seals diving in and out of the crashing surf.
Flamingos, Pink Bacteria, and Diving Seals
Small Sand Mounds = Future Dunes
As you approach, you can see the huge dunes off in the distance, but you pass over flat land and a few bushes, some of which have begun to form hills of sand. I’m told this is how all the dunes start. Vegetation traps sand, which then forms into large mounds, and then layers of sand continue washing over it and are solidified there by the moisture from the air. Eventually they make the tremendous sights coming later.
Gerrit and his steed
When you first see the towering sand dunes ahead, you aren’t sure how the tour is going to continue. How are we supposed to get around them if they’re so big, so steep, and everywhere? Maybe we’ll just stay right on the coast? Nope. We won’t. This 1990 Toyota Land Cruiser with a skilled driver can do anything. It’s honestly a really hard thing to describe to you, even with photo and video evidence. But we’d accelerate to some degree before going up, then would tackle what must have been a 40 degree angle straight up a sand dune. You would just be recovering from that when you’d realize that you were approaching what looked distinctly like the end of the world, a straight line of sand beyond which your imagination was free to create anything it wanted. But the car wouldn’t turn- Gerrit would press on, going over the ledge and slowly making his way down the 40 degree sand dune as it creaked and moaned under our tires. The dunes themselves were gorgeous and worth the trip, but experiencing them in this very close way made the encounter with these monsters all the more special.
Another incredible part was after some intense dune driving, Gerrit took us down to the beach at the base of the dunes. Apparently it had once been the outlet of a water source, and that water source carried some of the gems representing Namibia’s mineral wealth. There were a mix of pieces of precious stones that could be found there, in addition to a seemingly uncharacteristic rock and seaweed, but the garnet was most striking; it turned the sand bright pink.
We finished the tour off with a couple more amazing dune climbs and views, then parked at the base of a dune and had oysters, other snacks, and drinks. They were very fresh and would have been good anywhere, but eating them in this environment with the black-backed jackals looking at you to share was next level.
Absolutely unbelievable place. It all felt straight out of a movie. I would go back to visit this place in a second. Before going I wasn’t sure how impressed I’d be because the sand dunes we have in Michigan are really quite incredible in some areas, but the height of these dunes, their barrenness, the beauty of the ocean below, and the colorful sand all added up to an incredible experience that I’ll always cherish.