Fur seals on the Namib coast =Amy Schoeman

Only five towns with fewer than 150 000 inhabitants between them are situated on the Namib coast, a tract of land greater in length than the British Isles, as measured from the Shetlands in the North Sea to Land's End in the south and the Isles of Scilly in the Celtic Sea beyond. Before them stretches the empty expanse of the South Atlantic and across it lies another continent in another hemisphere. At their back, the desert.

Walvis Bay and L岩tz, the places where European powers found a foothold in the 19th century, are today the only seaports in Namibia. Swakopmund and Henties Bay are primarily holiday resorts, while Oranjemund is a company town on the diamond fields.

Other settlements once existed in the coastal desert, built in boom times after diamonds were discovered almost a century ago, but they are now fallen into ruin or altogether gone. They survived and sometimes thrived as long as their diggings turned a profit.

As towns founded under German rule, L岩tz and Swakopmund even today are very different to the others in appearance. The architectural character of their inner towns is unique to Namibia. In the improbable setting of an African desert it consists mainly of Jugendstil or art nouveau and Wilhelminische, a style akin to Victorian, with German colonial elements in addition to bits and pieces of other traditions.

Swakopmund shares a stretch of coast, little more than 100km long, with Henties Bay and Walvis Bay. South of Walvis Bay lies the Great Sand Sea, a wilderness without roads or other infrastructure. A wide detour across the desert is necessary -- from the coast to the escarpment and back again -- to drive between Walvis Bay and L岩tz. As the crow flies the distance is 400km. By road it is twice as far.

South of L岩tz the route to Oranjemund also runs inland, so as to skirt the diamond fields on the coast, designated since colonial times as the Sperrgebiet or forbidden territory. Outsiders require special permission and police clearance to visit Oranjemund. The town is closed to tourists.

The three towns on the central coast were all built at the mouths of ephemeral rivers, Walvis Bay on the Kuiseb, Swakopmund on the Swakop and Henties Bay on the Omaruru. The rivers hold water underground in aquifers that are tapped for domestic and industrial consumption. Desalination of sea water is planned to augment the supply.

L岩tz also uses water from an aquifer, piped from the Koichab Pan 120km inland, as fossil rivers in its vicinity are buried under desert sands. Oranjemund is the only town with access to a perennial river. It is supplied from wells on the north bank of the Orange.

Other than L岩tz and its immediate environs, only a small stretch of coast -- perhaps one fifth of the whole -- is readily accessible to visitors. It extends northward from Sandwich Harbour, a lagoon on the edge of the sand sea south of Walvis Bay, to the ephemeral Hoanib River on the Skeleton Coast.

Two lagoons on the central coast, Walvis Bay and Sandwich, are recognised as wetlands of international importance, with huge concentrations of migrant birds, while the Cape Cross Seal Reserve north of Henties Bay holds the biggest seal colony in southern Africa.

The sand sea in the coastal portion of Namib-Naukluft Park and the Sperrgebiet together occupy the southern half of the coast from the Orange River to the Kuiseb. Both areas are closed to casual visitors because of security and environmental concerns. Access is restricted to guided excursions with authorised operators along specified routes to a small number of scenic destinations.

L岩tz forms an enclave within the diamond area at the end of a corridor-like road from the interior. A string of inshore islands south and north of the town -- all of them small, barren, waterless and uninhabited -- support breeding populations of seals and seabirds such as penguins, gannets and cormorants. As a conservation measure they are off limits to visitors at all times, but pleasure boats are allowed to sail close to them.

The northern end of the coastal Namib, beyond the Ugab rivercourse, constitutes the Skeleton Coast Park. While tourist facilities are available in the southern part of the park, access to the northern half -- a wilderness between the Hoanib and the Kunene -- is restricted to fly-in safaris with a concession holder.

Sea fog shrouds the Skeleton Coast = Amy Schoeman Apart from roads that connect the coastal towns with the interior, the only road on the coast is one that runs straight from Walvis Bay to the entrance of the Skeleton Coast Park, a distance of some 230km on the edge of the largest plain in the Namib. It starts as a black top but soon becomes a so-called "salt" road, desert gravel soaked with sea water and compacted, to form a hard surface that is as smooth as asphalt.

The road is close to the sea at first with high dunes on the landward side. Like the road itself, the scenery soon changes. Once the dunes flatten out the desert becomes a bleached plain that persists beyond every rise, with small bushes scattered over it, black hillocks in places and white salt pans at a slight remove from the sea. In the noonday sun even small objects loom large, mirages that float on air in the heat haze up ahead.

People do not live out there, only in the towns beside the sea. Populations practically double and campgrounds along the coast fill up in high summer, when visitors arrive in droves from the torrid interior to cool off and catch fish in the surf. After a short season they go back to where they came from.

Flamingos on the Walvis Bay lagoon = Johan Jooste

The greatest concentrations of seabirds and shorebirds in southern Africa are found on the bleakest of shores, the Namib coast, where migrant birds flock together at the end of arduous journeys from Eurasia and the African interior.

Against all the odds they home in on a handful of habitats with enough shelter and food to support them. On a coastline of almost 1 600km the only suitable destinations are three lagoons and the mouths of two perennial rivers. The food chain that attracts birds to the desert littoral originates on the seabed off the southern coast of Namibia. Under the influence of strong winds and rough seas, bottom layers laden with nutrients well up to the surface, to nourish plankton as it drifts north on ocean currents. Namibian waters consequently teem with pilchards, horse mackerel and other fish that attract seabirds.

Along a stretch of coast between Walvis Bay and Cape Cross, a quirk of the wind drives phytoplankton towards land throughout the year, so much so that scums bank up on the beaches. Intertidal and subtidal forms of life that sustain shorebirds -- worms, molluscs, crustaceans and other creatures -- thrive here in greater abundance than anywhere else on the west coast of southern Africa.

Eastern white pelicans  = Johan JoosteThe Walvis Bay lagoon is recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. It is the nucleus of an area -- 12 600ha in extent -- that regularly holds over 150 000 birds in summer, mostly Palaearctic and intra-African migrants. No fewer than 13 species of seabird and shorebird are present here from time to time in numbers that are greater than 1% of their world populations. In the dry season Walvis Bay supports 80-90% of all the flamingos in southern Africa.

Sandwich Harbour to the south is also recognised under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance. With over 50 000 birds regularly present in summer, the Sandwich lagoon remains a crucial haven for migrants, despite a steady shrinkage in its size due to sand encroachment. Its shorebird densities are among the highest anywhere in the world, with over 7 000/km² on occasion.

In winter and early summer, Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay between them hold nearly all the chestnutbanded plovers (Charadrius pallidus) and half the blacknecked grebes (Podiceps nigricollis) in existence, both of them intra-African migrants.

Palaearctic shorebirds from as far away as the Arctic circle migrate to the Namib coast to escape the northern winter.

The commonest are curlew sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), sanderlings (C. alba), little stints (C. minuta), red knots (C. canutus), grey plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), bartailed godwits (Limosa lapponica) and ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres).

Palaearctic seabirds also arrive in great numbers, especially common terns (Sterna hirundo) and Sandwich terns (S. sandvicensis), migrants from the North Sea and the Baltic. Uncommon elsewhere in southern Africa, black terns (Chlidonias niger) are also regular visitors, albeit in much smaller numbers.

Coastal and marine habitats support 12% of all bird species found in Namibia. Apart from vagrants they number some 80 species. Twelve of them breed in Namibia, mainly on offshore islands. The diminutive Damara tern breeds out on the desert plains.

African or jackass penguins (Spheniscus demersus), endemic to southern Africa and an endangered species, occupy four islands near L岩tz, the only sites outside South Africa where they breed. Another shared endemic that is under threat, the African black oystercatcher (Haematopus moquini), also breeds on islands off the Namib coast.

Similarly all four species of saltwater cormorant found in southern Africa share a range only along the Atlantic coast in Namibia and South Africa.

Two of the cormorants, the crowned (Phalacrocorax coronatus) and bank (P. neglectus), are endemic to the range. With small populations overall, they are largely confined in Namibia to rocky shores and islands on the southern coast, where they roost and breed.

Both the other cormorants, the Cape (P. capensis) and whitebreasted (P. carbo), are widespread and numerous in the subcontinent.

The smallest tern

Common terns = Johan Jooste With long wings in proportion to their body, terns are graceful and agile in the air compared to gulls and skuas, their larger relatives in the Laridae family. Pointed wings and a forked tail emphasise the difference. They dive into the water for food, or pluck it out as they skim the surface, whereas gulls scavenge and skuas steal.

Some 20 tern species are found in southern Africa, mostly as seasonal migrants from the northern hemisphere. The only endemic one, largely distributed on the Namib coast, is the Damara tern. It is the smallest tern in southwestern Africa, less than half the size of the largest, the Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia).

Their name notwithstanding, Caspian terns in southern Africa are not migrants from Eurasia, but residents on both coasts. As such they breed in Namibia and elsewhere. Another resident tern on the Namib coast is the swift or greater crested (Sterna bergii). Like the Caspian tern, it inhabits both coasts.

Damara terns are a rare species with a population of 13 000 in Namibia. The largest colony roosts on a sandy beach between Walvis Bay and Swakopmund.

Grey of back and wing with a white breast and black head, they are swallow-like in appearance and quick in flight. They forage for small fish and shrimps, usually on their own, but roost in company with other terns.

Damara terns breed from November to February. They nest in a scrape on the desert plain, at least a kilometre inland, so as to reduce the risk of predation. When they feel threatened, they fly off as a diversion.

If breeding birds are unduly disturbed, they are likely to abandon their nest. A pair of Damara terns, if they are not permanently put to flight, raise only one chick a year. Both parents help to incubate the egg. The chick hatches in 18-22 days. It remains dependent for about 20 days as a hatchling and 75 days as a fledgling.

(Sterna balaenarum)

Length: 23 cm.
Wingspan: 51 cm.
Habitat: sheltered bays and lagoons.
Status: endangered.

A family of distinctive parts
Greater flamingos = Johan Jooste

Their neck and legs are extraordinarily long. They are built to wade, but their toes are webbed. Their bill is heavy and bent in the middle. They hold their head upside down when they feed in order to filter out microscopic titbits.

All in all they are a family of distinctive parts, the Phoenicopteridae, but their common name notes only the colour of their plumage.

Mainly pink or scarlet, flamingos got their name from the Spanish flamengo -- an earlier form of flamenco -- derived from the Latin word for a flame.

Flamingos are highly nomadic and usually migrate at night in a long skein. Both species found in southern Africa, the greater and lesser, descend on the Namib coast in the dry season. They return to the Namibian interior to breed on the Etosha Pan if the summer rains are sufficient. The greater breeds in other countries as well.

Flamingos are gregarious and noisy birds that breed and feed together in huge flocks. Size and colour distinguish the species from one another. The lesser is far redder than the greater. Its bill is dark red, almost black; the greater's is pink with a black tip.

The colour differences are attributed to diet. Greater flamingos eat mainly animal matter such as larvae and small molluscs, while lesser flamingos prefer vegetable matter such as blue-green algae and diatoms. The former feeds from the bottom and the latter from the surface. Both wade and swim as they feed.

(Phoenicopterus minor)
Length: male 1,2m, female 1,1m.
Wingspan: male 1,4m, female 1,2m.
Coloration: white and red.
Mass: male 1,7kg, female 1,6kg.
Habitat: shallow lagoons and estuaries, flooded pans.
Status: globally threatened.
(Phoenicopterus ruber)
Length: male 1,7m, female1,5m.
Wingspan: male 1,7m, female 1,5m.
Coloration: white and pink.
Mass: male 2,9kg, female 2,6kg.
Habitat: shallow lagoons and estuaries, flooded pans.
Status: globally threatened.

Seals ............

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