After collecting at Etosha, we headed west toward the coast again, this time to the Skeleton Coast (so named because of the region’s inhospitable climate and harsh coastline that has scuttled many a ship over the years.) The drive over took us through some gorgeous terrain—hills that seem to be nothing more than piles of red boulders, petrified forests, lush deserts, and we had a great campsite in a dry wash in the middle of nowhere with a new moon and a sky full of stars. The desert becomes increasingly stark as you approach the coast, and we saw some of the most barren terrain that we’ve encountered yet. In spite of this, however, there are some green oases in the middle of the desert—rivers are flowing all the way to the coast this year, and these water courses are full of plants (and hence, the animals that eat them). The Skeleton Coast is a really interesting area because access is strictly controlled, so between that and the fact that it’s not really on the way to anywhere, there are very few visitors. It definitely felt like one of the most remote places we visited. There’s not much going on botanically, but there are some interesting historical relics—for example, the remains of some shipwrecks are still visible.
After driving southward through the Skeleton Coast, we spent a couple days in the vicinity of Henties Bay. This area is interesting because it is subject to a lot of fog thanks to the cold current coming up from the Antarctic (anyone who has visited the San Francisco Bay area knows what this is like). It felt strange to feel cold in a desert in the tropics, but that fog is bone-chilling. And it’s amazing how much water can make it to the ground from a foggy morning. My boots were soaked after wandering around in the sparse vegetation that can make it on fog drip.
There’s also a large seal colony on this part of the Namibian coast. They’re very interesting animals—they live in tight quarters, so they’re constantly squabbling over space, and they have some formidable teeth, so they actually seem quite alarming when biting at each other. The stench is also unbelievable—the combination of an all-fish diet and high population density does not have a pleasant result!
So, after seeing the seals and a slight delay after getting a flat tire on a rocky road, we headed back to Windhoek (or Rainhoek, as I’ve taken to calling it—every time we’re in the city, there is a drenching downpour) to collect a colleague from the national herbarium, Esmerialda Klaassen. Esmerialda accompanied us on our excursion to the northeastern part of the country. First, we zipped north to the Grootfontein vicinity where we began looking for a number of our remaining species that we needed to collect. We were fairly successful in finding the plants, but we were even more successful in finally encountering some of the more alarming reptilian species found in southern Africa. Late one afternoon, Travis was looking for a grass and came upon a shrub from which a loud hissing sound issued. We never saw the source of the hiss, but it was almost certainly a puff adder, a notoriously aggressive snake with highly toxic venom. Thank goodness it decided to warn Travis that it was there! The next day, we were on a farm searching for a species called Tragus pedunculatus. As we drove on one of the farm roads, an enormous black mamba slithered swiftly across the road in front of the vehicle. These are intimidating animals—the snake we saw was over 2m long, and they are FAST. This one zipped across the road and slithered on alongside us for 20 meters or so. It lifted its head up as it traveled, which for some reason seemed really threatening. I was relieved that our black mamba viewing was from such a safe distance—black mambas can release large quantities of a very toxic venom that acts as a neurotoxin, ultimately causing its victims to suffocate.
The next day we encountered one of the more interesting features of northern Namibia: The Red Line. This is a fenced line arching across northern Namibia that was established during the 20th century to slow the spread of some devastating livestock diseases (including foot and mouth disease) from northern Namibia to the southern two-thirds of the country. All vehicles passing these checkpoints are inspected, and no red meat can cross when headed southward. This line also happens to demarcate an area of the country where property is communal, as opposed to the huge private farms common in the south. Interestingly, areas north of The Red Line were apparently largely ignored by the South Africans during the years when they administered Namibia, so the northern areas lack some of the lingering influences of apartheid that you can experience in southern Namibia and South Africa (e.g., mostly white landowners, many blacks employed in low-paying, menial jobs). These communal areas north of the Red Line are strikingly different from the sparsely populated south—there are people and livestock almost everywhere, most people live in traditional dwellings (often round buildings with thatched roofs), and there are far more field crops grown (in part because the area gets more reliable rains.) Happily, the population density is still relatively low, which means that the plants are generally not experiencing too much grazing pressure from livestock or other human-related impacts.
Our first few days in far northern Namibia were spent driving across the Caprivi Strip, the strange little piece of Namibia that juts out on the northeastern corner of the country. The Caprivi Strip (and the rest of northern Namibia) is also home to some tremendously large rivers (like the Zambezi, pictured here), which are alleged to be laden with crocodiles and hippos. I was just as glad we didn’t happen to see any of those animals. The rivers are exceptionally large this year thanks to the record rainfall in the area, and in many cases have spilled over their banks to cause dreadful flooding. It had been dry for a few days by the time we went through the region, so the worst of the flood waters had received, but there were obvious water lines several feet up on the sides of many buildings, and many roads were still impassable, like this one. Clearly this has been a devastating rainy season for many people in this area. On the bright side of things, it appears that these flood waters are teeming with fish—all along the central part of northern Namibia, we saw all varieties of people out in the water catching fish with nets, lines, or baskets. There were fish for sale at every bridge, and people were making what looked to be fish biltong (jerky) in great quantities.
One of the more memorable experiences of our trip was a failed attempt to find a locality in northwestern Namibia among some Himba villages. The Himba are a group of people who are frequently featured in Namibia tourism publications thanks to their…striking style of dress. The women who dress in the traditional style are bare-breasted with ruffled skirts and quantities of jewelry, wear their hair styled in elaborate braids with a topknot, and smear their skin and hair with an orange-brown pigment. It seems like very few men actually stick to traditional dress, but those who do wear loincloths and not much else. It’s very picturesque (but sorry, I didn’t take any photos), but I personally prefer a little more protection from the elements in the tropics! Anyway, we sought a grass known from a very small area in northwestern Namibia, and we had what seemed to be a reliable locality that we found along a road on one of our maps. We set out to find the road, but it was not a simple matter—we had a GPS to help us navigate, of course, but the map’s roads really didn’t correspond well with the “roads” (tracks, really) that were actually still in existence on the ground. We made our way through a maze of tracks and got near to where we needed to be (after passing numerous Himba villages and an assortment of solitary and not particularly friendly-looking men with bows and arrows), but the road had disappeared! It was very frustrating, but at least we got to see some interesting scenery along the way.
After our northern adventure, we headed back to Windhoek, collecting along the way, and spent a final two days in the rainy capital before heading home. It was a long journey home, but my specimens made it home with me, so now I can settle into the many months of data collection that will come next.