Thursday, June 19, 2014

Namibian Sand Dunes

The view from high on Dune 7, a particularly accessible dune near the port town of Walvis Bay, south of Swakopmund.
(Click on images to view larger)

If you search for “Namibia” and look through the Images that Google conjures up, they are dominated by photographs of sand dunes and the Himba people. The Himba are historically from northern Namibia and southern Angola (which borders Namibia to the north), but groups of them have moved farther south partly because there are tourist dollars to be had.  They are photographed far out of proportion to their presence on the greater Namibian landscape, probably because the women are traditionally bare-breasted and coated with a mixture of deep red ochre and animal fat scented with fragrances like myrrh.  This look is a little surprising when encountered in an otherwise European town like Swakopmund (established by the Germans), where tourists sit at upscale sidewalk cafes sipping lattes. 

Dunes, on the other hand, occupy a huge area in Namibia, especially along the coast, where they extend from the South African border all the way into Angola and inland for varying distances depending on the strength of the prevailing wind.     

The most common images are from Sossuvlei, where ancient orange dunes colored by oxidized iron stand photogenically above dry pans (flat lake beds) and dead scraggly trees.  Sossuvlei, like the Snake River Overlook or the Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park or Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, is one of those places where, at sunrise, photographers take a number and queue up with their tripods to capture their version of an iconic scene. 

Still, I wanted to go there, but I didn’t have enough time after my hike in the Brandberg Mountains.

Instead, I drove east from Uis to the Skeleton Coast at Henties Bay and, after a short northward detour to see a very stinky seal colony at Cape Cross, drove south to the sprawling German tourist town of Swakopmund, just north of a vast dune field that famously extends right down to the Atlantic Ocean.  The ocean here is cooled by the Antarctic Benguela Current which causes chilly fog banks to roll up onto the dunes, providing a tiny amount of moisture for some of the creatures that live there—mostly insects but a few snakes, lizards, and mammals.  These dunes are part of the vast Namib-Naukluft National Park, and eventually the entire coast of Namibia will be parkland.    

Often in the winter, a notorious East Wind blows hard from the interior out to sea, bringing hot temperatures and dust storms.  The Swakop locals hate it, but for me it was interesting, and I hiked in the dunes in the hot howling wind and blowing sand, and it was not hard to imagine what it would be like to be lost in a vast desert in a sandstorm, even though my rental car was near and I was safely contained between a dirt highway to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  In the valleys between dunes, the wind was not strong, but at their crests you could hardly stand up. 

Caretaker's hut, near Dune 7.

A losing battle.  Attempts at planting greenery near Dune 7.

The view from Dune 7.

Picnic area at the base of Dune 7, with a local volleyball team preparing to train by running up and down the dunes to "help us jump better."  I could barely walk up the dune, even after a week of backpacking.

More remote dunes, southeast of Swakop.

A clay layer in the sand.

Flamingoes in a small pond near the coast.

Evening light.

The East Wind blows.

Blowing sand in a strong East Wind.

Dune patterns

Plants are rare but present in places.  These shrubs are called Dollar Bush (Zygophyllum stapffii for you botanists), because the leaves resemble dollar coins (for you economists).  

The view from a dune crest during an East Wind, which kept knocking me to my knees.  The sheltered pan below looks inviting.

Wind patterns.

Wind patterns.


  1. Thanks for the amazing images and travelogue Ken. This took me to another world.

    1. Thanks Darrow. Namibia is spectacular. I look forward to a longer trip there sometime!

  2. great dune photos! I especially like The East Wind Blows

  3. Thanks Hollis, I'm looking forward to your Laramide posts.