A Fascinating Journey into the Namib
About the Welwitschia Plains
The Welwitschia Plains represent the typical arid environment of Western Namibia and occupy a portion of the Namib desert’s hyper-arid reaches.
They lie between the Khan and Swakop Rivers, about 50km inland from the seaside town of Swakopmund, within the Namib Naukluft Park and it’s well worth planning a journey to take in the Welwitschia Plains Scenic Drive.
Significance of This Area
The Welwitschia Plains are a proposed UNESCO world heritage site due to the unique environment. They’re also home to the largest concentration of Welwitschia plants worldwide.
Fauna and Flora
The Namib Desert is itself a World Heritage site, at 55 to 80 million years old, it’s easily the oldest desert in the world, and is one of the driest places on Earth.
Given the unusual environment in this part of the world, it’s not surprising that you’ll find one of the world’s most incredible plant species here. The closest thing the Namib gets to precipitation is the dense, dark fog that rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean to the west.
This is enough to sustain some of the planet’s toughest creatures, and ironically, the world’s longest-lived plants. The Welwitschia plant is one of just three species in the order Gnetales.
It shares some characteristics with flowering plants and cone bearing plants, but it’s essentially a mutant. Research shows that the Welwitschia underwent a mistake in cell division about 86 million years ago.
During this time of extreme aridity, the plant’s genome doubled, likely in an attempt to increase its survival rate, creating quantities of energy-sapping self-replicating DNA sequences, or genetic junk.
As a result of these changes, the plant’s cells simply keep on multiplying, i.e., it never stops growing.
About two million years ago, increased temperature stress meant the Welwitschia again underwent massive epigenetic changes to counteract this junk. These final genetic changes meant the plant pared itself down to just two leaves, growing eternally from its epicenter, with the edges dying off over time.
Scientists believe the oldest Welwitschia has surpassed 3000 years of age. That means it was around when David became King of Israel, at the onset of the Iron Age.
As one of the only living things in its dry habitat, the Welwitschia is an important source of food and shelter for fauna in the area.
Its leaves provide shelter for smaller species like snakes, lizards, scorpions, spiders, and insects. In turn, these creatures are a food source for birds and larger animals, while antelope like oryx and springbok chew on welwitschia leaves or suck moisture from them.
What’s more the leaves act like a litter trap, accumulating organic material, for its hosts to feed on.
Apart from the amazing Welwitschia plants, the Plains are also home to a variety of lichens. These are endolithic lichens growing inside rocks, epilithic lichens which grow on rocks, and vagrant lichens that blow on the wind.
Among this bizarre collection of plants, you’ll also find some garden-variety succulents and flowering plants along the Welwitschia trail.
Drive Route and Attractions
You’ll need a permit to visit the Namib part of the Namib-Naukluft Park, which you can get from the NWR. To get there, follow the tarred road from Swakopmund to Windhoek and turn onto the Khomas Hochland Road (C28).
This road takes you across the Swakop River to the entrance of the Park. Upon entering the Namib Naukluft Park, you’ll see the trail signposted a little further along. Be sure to set aside at least four to five hours for this 160km round trip.
A 4×4 is the best option for exploring this route as the road becomes extremely rugged after the Moon Landscape turnoff.
The trail comprises 13 consecutively numbered beacons, each indicating a point of interest as follows:
- Xanthomaculina convolute
This is one of the best areas to see the desert’s vagrant lichens, which gather in the furrows located here. These lichens look like fragments of dead plant material, but if you pour a few drops of water on them, they unfold and change color.
- Desert Flora
Two stand-out shrubs occur in this area. The Dollar bush has coin-like leaves, while the spindly Ink Bush has fine leaves. Both these plants thrive in an area which often receives no rain for years on end.
- Tracks in the Desert
This is what remains of a decades-old ox wagon trail, the Baaiweg. This route has carved an eternal path through the lichens, as it winds its way inland from the coast.
- The Moon Landscape
These otherworldly scenes over the Swakop River valley came about as the river carved its way through soft surface deposits, leaving only rock behind.
These scenes so closely resemble what we think the moon looks like, that it’s featured in movies such as A Space Odyssey.
You can also see the Rossing Mountain in the background here.
- Lichen Fields
This area shows off the desert’s lichen collection in living color. You’ll see orange, and grey-green tufted lichens and brown lichens here growing on the rocks and in crevices.
- The Moon Landscape (part Two)
From this beacon, you’ll enjoy another view of the moonscape, highlighting the furrows caused by erosion over the years.
- WWI Relics
This is the spot where South African troops camped for a few days during the First World War. You’ll find evidence of their stop in the rusted cans, broken bottles, and tracks to assist the vehicles of the time.
- Dolerite Ridges
You’ll need to turn left at the T-junction to explore the following sites. At this point you’ll notice an eye-catching black ridge of dolerite snaking across the hills.
From here, you’ll travel through a dyke of dolerite. This is a type of igneous rock that comes about when molten lava penetrates a crack in granitic rock.
- Swakop River Valley
This area is in stark contrast to the rest of the route. The Swakop Valley boasts Camelthorn, Tarmarik, and Anaboom trees, nourished by an underground river.
There are picnic sites here, so you can enjoy a break in your trip, and you can also take note of the parasitic plants that live in mutual harmony with some of the trees.
- The Welwitschia Mirabilis
This is the main event along the trail. You’ll find several specimens in this area, all clearly marked and surrounded by rings of stones to protect their fragile root systems.
- The Oldest Welwitschia Mirabilis
One of the specimens here has its own beacon. This plant is estimated to be over 1 500 years old and is protected by a low fence.
This is also the end of the trail. You will turn around here and head back the way you came until you reach the Khomas Hochland Road and turn right towards Swakopmund.
- Von Stryk Mine
The Von Stryk Mine is one last point of interest. It comprised a small, hand dug iron ore mine that originated in the 1950s.
Enjoy Namibia’s Many Wonders
There’s no shortage of unique sights along this small stretch of Namibia’s Namib Desert and it’s only a small sample of the fascinations you could encounter while visiting this African country.
If you’d like to enjoy a holiday with a difference, Windhoek is an excellent place to start. Book your accommodation now and let the journey begin.
Please Note: The details shared herein were correct at the time of publishing. However, with time some of this information may change. We recommend confirming information with suppliers prior to making final travel arrangements. If you do happen to find an issue with any information we’ve shared here, please feel free to contact us so that we can make the relevant changes.