Namib-Naukluft National Park

Namib-Naukluft National Park

If your picture of the desert includes enormous Lawrence-of-Arabia dunes, vast gravel plains, towering mountain ranges and deep sculptured canyons, then your image is of the Namib-Naukluft National Park. Covering almost 50,000km², it is one of the largest conservation areas in Africa and protecting one of the oldest deserts on earth (South America’s Atacama Desert being the other contender for this title). The Namib Desert’s scenery is stunning, and its wildlife fascinating; you just need to make the time to observe it. It’s easy to explore the contrasting landscapes by yourself. The roads are spectacular, so make sure you leave plenty of time to stop, take photographs and have a picnic surrounded by space and silence.

What to see in the Namib-Naukluft

Jutting out into the desert are the impressive Naukluft Mountains. Whilst the high plateaux and mountainsides tend to be rocky and sparsely vegetated, the ravines and valleys are verdant. This area receives few visitors but is peaceful, beautiful and ideal for serious hiking.

The Naukluft Mountains

An hour’s drive northeast of Sesriem, the main escarpment juts out into the desert forming a range known as the Naukluft Mountains. In 1968 these were protected within the Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park – to conserve a rare breeding population of Hartmann’s mountain zebra. Shortly afterwards, land was bought to the west of the mountains and added to the park, forming a corridor linking these mountains into the Namib National Park. This allowed oryx, zebra and other game to migrate between the two, and in 1979 the parks were formally combined into the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Geology of the Naukluft Mountains

The uniqueness of the area stems from its geology as much as its geographical position. Separated from the rest of the highlands by steep, spectacular cliffs, the Naukluft Mountains form a plateau. Underneath this, to a height of about 1,100m, is mostly granite. Above this base are alternating layers of dolomites and shales, with extensive deposits of dark limestone, rising to about 1,995m. Over the millennia, rainwater has gradually cut into this massif, dissolving the rock and forming steep kloofs, or ravines, and a network of watercourses and reservoirs – many of which are subterranean. The name Naukluft, which means ‘narrow ravine’, is apt for the landscape.
Where these waters surface, in the deeper valleys, there are crystal-clear springs and pools – ideal for cooling dips. Often these are decorated by impressive formations of smooth tufa – limestone that has been re-deposited by the water over waterfalls.

Flora & Fauna of the Naukluft

Receiving occasional heavy rainstorms in summer that feed its network of springs and streams in its deeper kloofs, the Naukluft supports a surprisingly varied flora and fauna. Its high plateau and mountainsides tend to be rocky with poor, if any, soil. Here are distinctive euphorbia, acacia, commiphora and aloe plants (including quivertrees – which are found in a dense stand in Quivertree Gorge). Most are low, slow-growing species, adapted to conserving water during the dry season. The variations of slope and situation result in many different niches suiting a wide variety of different species.

Down in the deeper kloofs, where there are permanent springs, the vegetation is totally different, with many more lush, broad-leaf species. Wild, cluster and sycamore figs are particularly prevalent, whilst you should also be able to spot camelthorn, buffalo thorn, wild olive and shepherd’s trees.

The Naukluft has many animals, including large mammals, though all are elusive and difficult to spot. Hartmann’s mountain zebra, oryx, kudu and klipspringer are occasionally seen fleeing over the horizon (usually in the far distance). Steenbok and the odd sunbathing dassie are equally common, and springbok, warthog and ostrich occur, but are more often found on the plains around the mountains. The mountains should be a classic place for leopard, and the smaller cats – as there are many small mammals found here – though these are almost never seen.

Over 200 species of birds have been recorded here, and a useful annotated checklist is available from the park office. The Naukluft are at the southern limit of the range of many species of the northern Namib – Rüppell’s parrot, rosy-faced lovebirds and Monteiro’s hornbill all occur here, as do species typical of the south like the Karoo robin and chat. In the wetter kloofs, watch for species that you wouldn’t find in the drier parts of the park, like the water-loving hamerkop, brubru and even African black ducks. Raptors are usually seen soaring above. Black eagles, lanner falcons, augur buzzards and pale chanting goshawks are common.

Sesriem & Sossusvlei area

When people speak of visiting the Namib Desert, this is often the area they mean. The classic desert scenery around Sesriem and Sossusvlei is the stuff that postcards are made of – enormous apricot dunes with gracefully curving ridges, invariably pictured in the sharp light of dawn with a photogenic oryx or feathery acacia adjacent.

Sesriem and Sossusvlei lie on the Tsauchab River, one of two large rivers (the other being the Tsondab, further north) that flow westward into the great dune field of the central Namib, but never reach the ocean. Both end by forming flat white pans dotted with green trees, surrounded by spectacular dunes – islands of life within a sea of sand.

Sesriem Canyon

About 4km from Sesriem, following the signs left as you enter the gates, is Sesriem Canyon. This is a narrow fissure in the sandstone, 30m deep in places, carved by the Tsauchab River. It was used by the early settlers, who drew water from it by knotting together six lengths of hide rope (called riems). Hence it became known as ses riems.

For some of the year, the river’s bed is marked by pools of blissfully cool water, reached via an easy path of steps cut into the rock. It’s a place to swim and relax – perfect for the heat of the day. At other times, though, the water can be almost stagnant and definitely not a place to bathe – except for the large frogs that are marooned in these pools. It’s also worth following the watercourse 500m upriver from the steps, where you’ll find it before it descends into the canyon – another great place to bathe at times.

Sossusvlei area

The road from Sesriem to Sossusvlei is soon confined into a corridor, flanked by huge dunes. Gradually, this narrows, becoming a few kilometres wide. This unique parting of the southern Namib’s great sand sea has probably been maintained over the millennia by the action of the Tsauchab River and the wind.

Although the river seldom flows, note the green camelthorn, Acacia erioloba, which thrives here, clearly indicating permanent underground water. Continuing westwards, the present course of the river is easy to spot parallel with the road. Look around for the many dead acacia trees that mark old courses of the river, now dried up. Some of these have been dated at over 500 years old.

Dead Vlei is an old pan with merely the skeletons of trees left – some over 500 years old. Many consider it to be more starkly beautiful than Sossusvlei.

Sossusvlei & Nara Vlei is as far as the pans extend. Beyond here, only tall sand dunes separate you from the Atlantic Ocean. Most years, the ground here is a flat silvery-white pan of fine mud that has dried into a crazy-paving pattern. Upon this are huge sand mounds collected by nara bushes, and periodic feathery camelthorn trees drooping gracefully. All around the sinuous shapes of the Namib’s (and some claim the world’s) largest sand dunes stretch up to 300m high. It’s a stunning, surreal environment.

Perhaps once every decade, Namibia receives really torrential rain. Storms deluge the Naukluft’s ravines and the Tsauchab sweeps out towards the Atlantic in a flash flood, surging into the desert and pausing only briefly to fill its canyon.

Floods so powerful are rare, and Sossusvlei can fill overnight. Though the Tsauchab will subside quickly, the vlei remains full. Miraculous lilies emerge to bloom, and the bright yellow devil thorn flowers (Tribulus species) carpet the water’s edge. Surreal scenes reflect in the lake, as dragonflies hover above its polished surface. Birds arrive and luxuriant growth flourishes, making the most of this ephemeral treat.

These waters recede from most of the pan rapidly, concentrating in Sossusvlei, where they can remain for months. While they are there, the area’s birdlife changes radically, as waterbirds and waders will often arrive, along with opportunist insectivores. Meanwhile, less than a kilometre east, over a dune, the main pan is as dry as dust, and looks as if it hasn’t seen water in decades.

Individual dunes afford superb views across this landscape, with some of the best from ‘Big Daddy’. It’s a strenuous climb to the top, looking out across to ‘Big Mama’, but the climb, followed by a long walk, are rewarded by the spectacle of Dead Vlei laid out below – and the fun of running down the slip-face to reach it.

History of the Namib-Naukluft National Park

The park has grown gradually to its present size. In 1907 the area between the Kuiseb and Swakop rivers was proclaimed as ‘Game Reserve No 3’. Later it was augmented by the addition of Sandwich Harbour in 1941. In 1956 the Kuiseb Canyon and Swakop River Valley were added, along with the Welwitschia Plains, and in 1968 the park was renamed the Namib Desert Park. In 1979 a large area of what was the protected ‘Diamond Area No 2’ was added, including Sesriem and Sossusvlei, and the park was officially joined to the Naukluft Park, creating the Namib-Naukluft National Park.

Most recently, in 1986, the rest of ‘Diamond Area No 2’ was added, taking the park’s southern boundary as far south as the main road to Lüderitz, and increasing its area to its present size of 49,768km2 – larger than Switzerland, or about the same as Maryland and New Jersey combined.

Natural environment of the Namib-Naukluft

Though much of the interest in the Namib-Naukluft national park is the wildlife – the area’s geology and landforms are also fascinating and well worth understanding. The four basic types of environment found here, and some of their highlights are:

Sand dunes

Dunes are everybody’s idea of a desert, and generally thought of as being bare and lifeless. Whilst this is not inaccurate for many deserts, the Namib is sufficiently old for endemic species to have evolved. Various grasses grow on some of the more stable dunes, but most of the vegetable matter comes from wind-blown detritus. This collects at the bottom of the dunes, to be eaten by fish-moths (silver-fish), crickets and the many tenebrionid beetles – or tok tokkies, as they are known – near the base of the food chain. Particular tenebrionid species occur in specific environments, with those in the coastal fog belt adapting ingeniously to harness the available moisture.

These then provide food for spiders, geckos, lizards and chameleons which, in turn, fall prey to sidewinder snakes. Rare Grant’s golden moles eat any small beetles or larvae that they can catch, and birds are mobile enough to move in and out of the dunes in search of the smaller animals. Endemic to this region is the dune lark, which is seldom found outside the dune areas.

River Valleys & Pans

The river valleys that run through the Namib are linear oases. Though dry on the surface, their permanent underground water sustains trees and bushes, like the camelthorn, Acacia erioloba, and nara melon, Acanthosicyos horrida, found in the middle of the great dune sea at Sossusvlei. Other common river-valley trees include the ana tree Acacia albida, the shepherd’s tree, Boscia albitrunca, easily identified by its white trunk; the wild green-hair tree, Parkinsonia africana and the marvellously weeping false ebony, Euclea pseudebenus.

The lush vegetation found in these valleys makes them a favourite for numerous insects and birds, as well as larger mammals like oryx, kudu and springbok. These are the most likely areas to find nocturnal cats from leopard to caracal, especially where the rivers cut through mountains rather than dunes.

Gravel Plains

Throughout the desert, and especially north of the Kuiseb River, the Namib has many expansive, flat plains of rock and stone. These come alive during the rains, when they will quickly be covered with tall thin grass and creeping yellow flowers, attracting herds of oryx, springbok and even Hartmann’s mountain zebra. During drier times there are fewer large mammals around, but still at night black-backed jackal, aardwolf and the occasional aardvark forage for termites, while bat-eared and Cape foxes scavenge for insects, reptiles, and anything else edible. Spotted hyena and even the rare brown hyena are sometimes recorded here. Both leave distinctive white droppings, but only the sociable spotted hyenas make such eerie, mournful calls.

Resident larger birds include ostrich, secretary birds, Rüppell’s korhaan and Ludwig’s bustard, while enthusiastic ‘twitchers’ will seek the pale, apparently insignificant Gray’s lark (amongst other larks), which is endemic to the gravel plains of the Namib.

Inselbergs & Mountain Outcrops

Throughout the Namib there are mountains, often of granite or limestone. Some, like many between Sesriem and Sossusvlei, have become submerged beneath the great dune sea. Others, especially north of the Kuiseb River, jut up through the flat desert floor like giant worm casts on a well-kept lawn. These isolated mountains surrounded by gravel plains are inselbergs (from the German for ‘island-mountain’) – and they have their own flora and fauna. Euphorbia, acacia, commiphora, zygophyllum and aloe species are common, whilst the succulent lithops (often called living rocks, for their pebble-like shape) occur here, though less frequently.

Many inselbergs are high enough to collect moisture from morning fogs, which sustain succulents and aloes, and with them whole communities of invertebrates. Temporary pools in crevices can be particularly interesting, and there’s a whole microcosm of small water creatures that lay drought-resistant eggs. These survive years of desiccation, to hatch when the pools do finally fill.
Being open land these make perfect perches for raptors: lappet-faced vultures, greater kestrels and red-necked falcons are typical of this environment. Also watch for sandgrouse, which congregate at water around dusk and dawn, and other well-camouflaged foraging birds.

The NamibRand Nature Reserve

South of Sesriem the NamibRand Nature Reserve protects a beautiful area of desert. Low dune fields cut into the desert plains, with mountains visible in the distance. At sunrise the contrast of the ochre sand, yellow grasses and long dark shadows make for spectacular photography. It’s a magical, captivating place.

Covering about 2,100km2, an area equivalent to about half the size of Belgium, the NamibRand Nature Reserve is one of the largest private reserves in Africa. Lying south of Sesriem, it borders onto the main Namib-Naukluft National Park in the west, a boundary of about 100km, and in the east its extent is generally defined by the Nubib Mountains.

There are a wide variety of different desert landscapes and environments within this, from huge red sand dunes to vegetated inter-dune valleys, sand and gravel plains, and some particularly imposing mountains. It’s a spectacular area of desert.


The reserve was formed from a number of separate farms established in the 1950s to eke out an existence farming in the desert. Several severe drought years in the 1980s demonstrated that farming domestic stock here just wasn’t viable. There were allegations of farmers opening their fences to game from the Namib-Naukluft National Park, only to kill the animals for their meat once they left the park.

Game was the only option, and this survived well on the farm Gorrasis, owned by Albi Brückner (a businessman, rather than a farmer, who’d bought the farm for its landscapes). In 1988 Brückner bought out two neighbouring farms, Die Duine and Stellarine, and gradually the reserve was broadened from that base. Now various shareholders have contributed money to the reserve, and different operators hold ‘concession’ areas which they utilise for tourism.

Flora and Fauna

The NamibRand’s flora and fauna are the same as that in the western areas of the Namib-Naukluft. However, there are also red hartebeest, which aren’t usually found in the national park, and blesbok which have been introduced from South Africa.

To do justice to this region and explore the mountains and the dunes properly, stay for three nights. With more time, it's best to split your stay between Sesriem and either the Naukluft Mountains or the NamibRand Reserve.
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