EXTREME NAMIBIA - The World's OLDEST Desert


In this weekly EXTREME NAMIBIA blog series we explore some of our country's extremes, and share with you practical information on how you can come and discover them for yourself.

"Namib" is the Nama word for "vast" - and this desert, stretching for 1,600km along Namibia's coast, is certainly the embodiment of vastness. The most arid parts of this sandy expanse receive an average of just 2-5mm of rainfall a year, which would manke you think that this is 1,600km of nothing - yet even here, in one of the planet's most extreme wildernesses, life perseveres.

Namib desert from the air

The Struggle for Survival in the Namib

Bizarre plants, innovative insect, and mammals with their own "cooling systems" all manage to eke out an existence in the Namib; read on to find out about some of nature's most extreme adaptations!

Camlthorn trees in Deadvlei

Camelthorn trees are a characteristic sight in the Namib - most notably the fossilized remains of those in Deadvlei, which date back over 900 years, but have not rotted thanks to the extreme dryness. The tree's huge thorns deter overgrazing, and its deep roots can tap water sources located up to 50m underground. Because competition for the water is so tough, they have also developed a way to avoid growing too close together: their seeds, which grow in large, crescent-shaped pods, will only germinate once they have passed through the digestive tract of an animal. The animals then wander and disperse the seeds, far from the source. Clever!

Desert-adapted elephant

Desert-adapted elephants are not a distinct species of elephant, but their behavior is quite unlike that of savannah elephants. They walk up to 60km a day between water sources, and have learned to dig waterholes with their tusks. If this fails, they can go up to four days without drinking. Their home range can be an astonishing 2-3,000 square kilometers, and their feet are wide to facilitate walking across these great distances on the soft desert sand. Desert elephants they walk carefully to avoid knocking down trees, breaking branches or scraping bark - unlike their savannah cousins, which are known for being highly destructive.

A giant welwitschia

A very old welwitschia, standing around the height of a man. Its two leaves have shredded, making it look like there are many more. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

The welwitschia is one of the world's oldest - and oddest - plants. It is the only species in its family, and throughout its lifetime - which can be up to 1,500 years - it will only grow two leaves, which can each measure up to 4 meters long. The welwitschia only grows in this region of Namibia and Angola, and given the arid nature of the Namib, it is believed to survive on the dew caused by the frequent fog. Welwitschias are truly prehistoric-looking, and are believed to date back to the Jurassic period.

Oryx in the Namib Desert

The oryx, also known as a gemsbok, is a common sight in the Namib desert, thanks to its incredible adaptations to the intense heat and lack of water. The oryx has an effective "cooling system" - blood is pumped through cooler vessels around its nose while it breathes rapidly - which means that while its body temperature can reach over 40 degrees celcius, their brain remains much cooler. The high body temperature means it loses very little water through sweating - which is good news, as they can rarely drink, and have to obtain most of their liquid from food. Additional adaptations include efficient kidneys to produce highly concentrated urine, a white belly to reflect the heat back onto the sand, and the ability to breate up to 210 times a minute - wow!

Namib Desert Facts

  • The Namib, at 55 million years old, is the world's most ancient desert, as well as being one of the driest. Much of it is protected as part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park which covers almost 50,000 square kilometers, making it larger than Switzerland.

  • Rainfall varies from 85mm in the westm to just 2mm in the east - but the area is often covered by a thick fog, which allows plants and animals to survive thanks to the dew it creates.

  • Another souce of water are the rivers. Although the beds seem to be almost always parched, there is permanent waterflow underground which creates linear "oases" on the surface.

  • Watch a fascinating video about some of Namibia's most extreme desert-adapted wildlife - including rolling spiders and invisible snakes - here.

Practical Information 

  • Sossusvlei is one of the most visited destinations in the Namib-Naukluft National Park, but visitors can also enjoy hot air balloon rides, quad biking, desert hikes, paragliding and sand boarding. Download our Adventure Travel Planning Guide to find out more!

  • True adrenaline junkies might prefer something a little more challenging - 100km of Namib Desert is a tortuous race which takes place near Sossusvlei in extreme weather conditions. Alternatively, one of the toughest foot races on earth is the Namib Desert Challenge which covers 228 km of inhospitable, desert terrainover five stages of high-endurance ultra-running. Read more about these events in our Endurance guide.

  • If you want to get up closer to some of the species that have learned to survive in the desert without venturing to the Namib, visit Swakopmund's Living Desert Snake Park - it houses a variety of snakes, scorpions, geckos and monitor lizards with information about each.

  • Spend a thrilling day tracking desert-adapted elephants - contact a Namibia tour operator to plan your tracking experience. You can also find your ideal accommodation near the Namib Desert in our Accommodation Guide.

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