Finding Beauty in Dunes of the Namid Desert

Day 74, Grand World Voyage

Saturday, March 18, 2023; Walvis Bay, Namibia.

When the pandemic ended our 2020 Grand World Voyage in Australia, one tour company in Africa refunded all our money. We didn’t have too many private tours booked, but most were small companies that didn’t have the cash on hand, especially with an uncertain future, to make us whole. It’s a chance you take when booking private tours. (Holland America’s shore excursions may be pricier, but the company immediately refunded all tours that we missed.)

The company that refunded us was Red Dunes Safaris in Namibia, and the refund was prompt. So, I was glad to rebook for our 2023 stop in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Apparently, others moved faster, because my first choice — to the great sand dunes that spill into the sea at Sandwich Harbor — was booked. But JP Koch, who owns the company with his brother, recommended the Moon Landscape and Welwitschia Tour as an alternative.

One unpleasant surprise when we arrived: Instead of the usual welcome by a local musical group, we faced a pigeon “greeting” on the pier. It was quite a mess and impossible to avoid. Yuck!

While Luderitz is a small and relatively poor city, Walvis Bay is more prosperous, perhaps because it has a giant harbor. Shipments to all of the interior of Africa come through this port, and it also is a popular place to live, especially for Germans (who settled much of Namibia). Large houses and apartments line its sandy riverfront, which is a favorite home for storks and flamingos as well.

Sandwich Harbor to the south of Walvis Bay is home to miles of giant sand dunes. We didn’t go there, to the disappointment of one couple on our van. You need four-wheel drive for that, and even then, the drivers lower the air pressure of the tires for the dunes. (It pays to read the tour descriptions carefully.) Four-wheeling through the dunes is a popular activity.

My friend Toya Horn Howard graciously shared her photo from a Sandwich Harbor tour.

That didn’t mean we missed the sand and dunes. Dune 7 outside Walvis Bay is so named because it is the seventh dune past the river. It also is the highest in Namibia at 1,256 feet. Only one in our group climbed it. “Old knees” was the most common excuse.

As we traveled farther inland, the arid landscape didn’t appear to have much more than sand, hard rock and the occasional brush.

But when we stopped and trekked out into the “nothingness,” we found another world. The main attraction was the Welwitschia plant, endemic to the Namid Desert.

This plan has only two leaves, although they split and fray as the plant gets older. And by older, I mean hundreds of years. Our guide estimated that one we came across was about 300 years old, based on the appearance of the “trunk” hidden under the leaves. Some are estimated at nearly 2,000 years old. The center gathers moisture from the desert air at night and stores it, allowing the plant to survive up to a year without rain.

We found one female plant with its cone that will shed seeds. It is so well known in Namibia that the national rugby team is nicknamed the “Welwitschias.”

More common were Nara bushes, with their ball-like melons, and the “dollar” plants, which are a source of water for those unlucky enough to be lost in the desert. We spotted a few small lizards, but they skittled away faster than I could photograph. Fortunately, in my opinion, we didn’t see any snakes.

After leaving the flat dry desert with its moon-like appearance — a popular location for film crews – we entered the rocky gorges of the Swakop river valley.

We were more than ready for the Goanikontes Oasis and lunch of fish and chips, burgers, grilled cheese and great local beer.

Perhaps the strangest “plant” we saw was the cellular palm, as we named it. Those who worked with me in the old AT&T days will remember our attempts to hide cell towers in various kinds of fake trees.

We could have stretched out the trip, but we wanted to return to the ship for a special presentation by children from the Bernard Nordkamp Center choir from the Namibian capital of Windhoek. Earlier in the cruise we raised almost $10,000 through a silent auction for the children’s home. Some of the older students had visited the ms Amsterdam many years ago. In addition to performing, they had fun swimming in the ship’s pools during the day.