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Archive for October 3, 2012

Wednesday, 3 October, 2012 – Swakopmund to Khorixas

My reason for wanting to visit Namibia was to see the fog – this is one of three of the world’s main fog deserts, along with the Atacama Desert in Chile and Baja California in Mexico. All three of these deserts are found along the coast where a cold polar gulf stream flows past a landmass warmed up by the sun around the Tropic of Capricorn or (in the northern hemisphere) the Tropic of Cancer. To be more specific, I wanted to photograph the flora that relies on such regular fogs for their survival.

I knew from my visits to Chile and Baja, that the phenomenon extends for quite a distance along the coast and also to a varying extend inland, depending on the geography. If you are reading these Diaries with a map near by, you’ll see that Swakopmund is situated along the Atlantic Ocean at about 22 degrees 40′ South and you’ll remember that we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23 degrees 30′ South on two days ago, so it was no real surprise that it was foggy when we walked across the B&B’s car park for breakfast. A chat with the owner confirmed that waking up to fog was typical for the area and that this might lift by late morning. The traffic sign along the coast road as we headed north said it all:

S2617 - fog

S2617 – Fog

We stopped at the wreck of a stranded trawler (this area is known as the Skeleton Coast) and saw the beach covered in what looked like a succulent plant.


S2618 – Tetraena clavata

As we were in Africa, my first thought was that these belonged to the family Mesembryanthema-ceae or Crassulaceae, but without buds, flowers or fruits to help identification I could not decide.  I remembered seeing similar plants in the Chilean fog zone, the Chilean Bell Flower of the genus Nolana, in the Family Solanaceae, so more searching to be done. Any thoughts?

[PS: Many thanks to Derek Trible for suggesting the iSpot website, a project run jointly between the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Open University. I took a look, joined and tried them out using this plant and within the hour had a name (Zygophyllum) that, after some more Googling, fits, although there is a view that this name is synonymous with the name Tetraena clavata.]

Unlike Chile, where the fog often drifts in as low cloud, at about 400 m until it hits the coastal hills that are a significant barrier to moisture extending farther inland and rise up almost straight out of the (Pacific) Ocean, here the land is again as flat as a pancake so that with a following wind, mist and fogs can drift in for many kilometers.

To record this fact digitally, I asked for a stop and to my amazement saw a small plant that at first sight looked like a cactus!

S2619 - Acanthopsis sp

S2619 – Acanthopsis sp

We saw it again later on the trip and learned that these plants belong to the genus Acanthopsis, where the members are difficult to tell apart, so ‘sp.’ will do. In the Richtersveld, in days to come, I was told that this plant is known in Afrikaans as a ‘verneuk halfmens’, a ‘false Pachypodium namaquanum’ and I guess that seedlings of the Pachypodium resemble this plant. It seems a tough customer, as it was the only plant found in this part of the desert.

Nothing new to report plant wise at the next few stops which was disappointing as I had hoped to see Welwitschia mirabilis, the icon of the Namibian fog desert. I had expected to see this plant near the beach and I had location data of plants growing in a protected area with one, in a cage. We dislike such artificial conditions so, with limited time, I suggest that we’d look for these plants growing in their natural environment. As the day went on and we drove farther away from the coast, I wondered if I had made the right choice.

We passed a village with souvenir stall along the road and with local Damara people in their costumes selling home-made jewelry and pottery.

S2622 - Eunice going back to her roots

S2622 – Eunice going back to her roots

Eunice asked the ladies if they would pose with her for a picture. No problem!

At our next stop, it was back to succulent plants, or rather pachycauls, fat stemmed trees.

S2623 - Adansonia digitata

S2623 – Adansonia digitata

Again, I’m completely out of my depth on names, so this is my best guess and a reminder to carry a pen and notebook into the field and write down the names suggested by friends as they are given. It’s not a plant I would grow back in the UK.

Light was failing as, around 17:00 hrs we were approaching Khorixas. I was dozing in the back seat, as usual, when Eunice, almost immediately followed by Cliff and David shouted ‘Welwitschia – STOP!’  And there they were, growing just a few meters from the road in large numbers. Fading light was our only problem. We decided to take the best pictures possible now – we could always come back tomorrow for more, if needed.

S2624 Welwitschia mirabilis

S2624 Welwitschia mirabilis

Our excitement was cooled a bit when, soon after continuing our journey, we picked up a puncture.

Later, at our hotel I learned that the town of Khorixas was previously known as Welwitsch, after the Austrian botanist / explorer Friedrich Martin Josef Welwitsch. The Welwitchia Primary and Secondary Schools in town remain as a tribute to the good Doctor who found the plants both in what is now northern Namibia and southern Angola.