Clive Cowley’s
JOURNEY INTO NAMIBIA
4x4 in dune field = Clive Cowley

Namibia is a young country only in the sense that it became an independent state as recently as 1990. In reality it is incredibly old, a land where the passage of time took on concrete and visible forms as its residue slowly changed to rock.

Cultural artefacts, in contrast to the earth, are elusive and frail. While a painting on rock fragments found in the Apollo 11 cave in the south was done at least 14 000 years before the first pyramid was built in Egypt, prehistoric artworks elsewhere in the country -- that is to say surviving paintings and engravings that lend themselves to dating -- are mostly no older than the medieval monasteries and castles in Europe.

Namibians themselves did not build with stone on a monumental scale, but always lived in landscapes that are primevally old; old down to their roots in native rock; plainly old, with strata laid bare on the surface, like bones.

Mountains like the Gamsberg and Naukluft were formed long before vertebrate life appeared on earth; desert rivercourses still lie in depressions left behind when ice-age glaciers crawled across the land before dinosaurs came; the very tracks of dinosaurs remain imprinted, after all this time, in sandstone where they once walked; and the Namibian coast was formed simultaneously with the Atlantic Ocean.

When a supercontinent known to geologists as Gondwana was torn asunder, a cataclysm that changed the face of the earth millions of years ago, the southern continents we know today were left behind as relics. The land that was to become Namibia, once locked in the interior of Gondwana, now lay on the southwestern littoral of Africa.

Immense tracts of its native rock, complete with lava fields and fossils -- even wind patterns caught in sandstone -- came to rest on the opposite side of the Atlantic in South America, beyond a shoreline that was a mirror image of its own.

In the throes of continental separation, lava burst out of fractures in the earth. When the volcanoes died their craters contained granite cores, which in the fullness of time were revealed as mountains -- the Brandberg, Erongo and Spitzkoppe among them -- as water and wind wore away the surfaces around them.

In rocks in Namibia fossils are found of multicelled organisms with exoskeletons or hard shells which were among the earliest creatures to appear on earth. They lived in a shallow sea which once covered parts of the country, even before the advent of what scientists call the "Cambrian explosion", when the ancestors of nearly all creatures ever to exist would burst forth into the visible world.

Earlier still when life on the planet consisted of no more than bacteria, algae and plankton, sediments from a long-buried sea were changed to schist, the very stuff the highlands around Windhoek are still made of.

Such prodigies of nature originated in the earliest ages of the earth. In comparison the Namib Desert is young, but still widely held to be the oldest desert on earth. It was already fully formed long before hominids ancestral to humankind left the forest and learnt to walk upright on the African savannah.

Naturally all the world is old, but Namibia shows its geological wonders more than most countries, partly at least because it is an arid land. Over much of it, the vegetation is too sparse to cover the hard evidence that elemental convulsions of earth, water, air and fire shaped the land.

Like the volcanic fires from the bowels of the earth, extraterrestrial fires in the form of meteorites also left their mark on Namibia, where they ended their journey from outer space. Imbedded in the ground near the town of Grootfontein, the 60t Hoba meteorite is reputedly the biggest meteorite ever found on earth, but merely the remnant of a body which fell out of the sky in the Stone Age.

In earlier times a fire-storm appeared in the heavens as a shower of meteorites pelted down over 20 000km² of the country in the vicinity of the Brukkaros crater. Out In the desert, another meteorite left a hole 2,5km in diameter, now called the Roter Kamm.

Dugout canoe in the Caprivi

In far-flung wildernesses Namibia still holds the natural world largely intact in all its splendour. Its horizons are wide and its skies open. The spirit of Africa dwells in wild places where game paths criss-cross the land like wrinkles on its ancient face.

The country is home to the bulkiest animal on land (the African elephant), the tallest animal (the giraffe) and the biggest bird (the ostrich). Here large animals like elephant, giraffe and rhinoceros dwell in driest desert, as well as in bush and woodland.

Africa lives in such creatures as it lives in the rocks which shape its landscapes. It lives in the trees rooted in its soil, like the welwitschia, a dwarf conifer with some survivors in the desert from the time of Christ. Or like the omumborombonga -- in Namibian tradition, the ancestral tree -- out of which the ancient ones, the original parents of humankind, emerged into the harsh light of day, with only the mother tree and the wild fig for shade. Their birthplace was no Garden of Eden, but the spirit of Africa dwelt in it, as indeed it still does and shall for evermore. Africa is also out there in the Namibian woodlands where baobabs grow ever so slowly, living trees which -- for all we know -- may well be older than nearly all the great cities in the world that survive from ancient times.

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