By Chris McBeath

Namibia has many names. The bushman call it The Land God Made in Anger. Seafaring Portuguese named its coastline the Gates of Hell, likely for the hundreds of shipwrecks still wallowing in the shallow waters. And others speak of A Thirstland Wilderness. Intriguing, harsh, and beautiful, Namibia is all these things.

It is also a country of colossal contrasts. Wedged between two enormous deserts, the Kalahari in the east and the Namib in the West, Namibia also offers the wildlife rich swamplands and floodplains to the north and east, heading into Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Namibia’s sandscapes, though, steal the show.

The Dunes & Deadviei

Driving the endless hard-packed dirt roads through the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, is a lonely affair punctuated by swirling sands and monolithic granite slabs that catch the shadows with dark ferocity. This is Mad Maxx country. Rising up some 325 metres from the valley floor, are the gargantuan red dunes that completely transform the horizon, shape shifting as the harsh winds clip across their surface. Climbing Dune 45 is a pilgrimage for many, a place where the soft, undulating sand gets into your hair, up your nose, and stains your socks red.

Within this extraordinary landscape is Deadviei, a ‘dead marsh’ where the sun has seared the sand into a rock hard oasis, and scorched the trees black into a 1,000 year-old petrified forest. Where the burning desert extends fingerlike dunes into the crashing rollers of the Atlantic Ocean, UNESCO has named The Sand Sea a world heritage site. Explore the coast further, and the sands will take you to abandoned townships of departed diamond miners. Here, sand spills into open doorways, nestles beside broken chairs, and hides beneath tables in unruly piles. Kolmanskop is the best known. It lies beside land that has produced more than 100 million carats of diamonds. Little wonder that its hospital had the first X-ray machine in southern Africa, primarily for detecting gems hidden in the bodies of workers.

Sands Shifting for a New Economy

With mineral mining accounting for 25 per cent of the country’s income, there’s a lesser-known story to Namibia’s compelling sandscape.

First are the pipelines that carry water from saline centres by the sea across the desert to mining venues inland. New, above-ground routes are impacting migration patterns for wildlife, as well as their access to water. As in the rest of Africa, water is a desperate commodity.

An even more disturbing story is unfolding behind the pipelines: the completion of the world’s largest uranium pit-mine. Funded by China and operated largely by a Chinese workforce, (reportedly in excess of 4,500 in a country where unemployment is over 70%), the Husab Mine is akin to Rosswell’s Area 51 in terms of security and isolation. Add to this that the mine (and its toxic debris) is located in a national park, within a few kilometres of two critical life-supporting rivers, and the future of Namibia’s ancient sands looks tenuous.

A Survival Conundrum

Already, mining traffic is threatening the survival of what is considered the oldest living plant species in the world, the Welwitschia.

Found nowhere else on the planet, this hardy species survives along a 15km wide corridor that travels northwards into Angola. Many of these sprawling, untidy succulents are hundreds of years old, having survived droughts, sandstorms and untold temperature extremes. Propagating only when there is enough rain, often only once in a decade, scientists have been able to determine their age. One plant is allegedly 2,000 years old, germinating at the time of the Romans; another took root in 700 AD, during the T’ang Dynasty and Viking era.

As indomitable as the Welwitschia is, its health is failing, seemingly unable to withstand the incessant clouds of grit kicked up by convoys of multi-wheeled mining vehicles that crisscross the ambiguous desert moonscapes. The other concern is that new migrants will find commercial value in the plants’ medicinal properties, known to the local Herero people to cure liver and stomach ailments. For a species of such excruciatingly slow growth, this would surely mean their demise.

In Africa, the mining economy is a familiar story. In many countries, offshore investment, primarily from China, is building roads, airports and other much-needed infrastructure in large part to support mining operations as well as tourism. Namibia is certainly a jewel of the continent but the resource-rich sands could well be creating an ethical conundrum of survival.

PHOTOS: by Chris McBeath

  • Deadviei Couple
  • Deadviei
  • Climbing Dune 45
  • Dune Landscape
  • Welwitschia Drive
  • Welwitschia with Jay Sarro
  • Endless Road