Tuesday, 1 October 2013

In search of the Tweeblaarkanniedood

First time I heard about a plant called the welwitschia (tweeblaarkanniedood in Africaans) I Googled it, of course, and the pictures I saw put me right off trying to find one of these weird-looking plants while we were in Namibia. Most were snapped in poor light (i.e. too bright) and the plants just looked, well, dead. Luckily the folk in our excellent bed and brekky place in Swakopmund insisted we make a diversion off the Swakop to Windhoek road to see the welwitschia. We were very glad we did...
On the trail of the hard to find welwitschia. Actually they are not that hard to find.
You just have to drive a LONG way into the Namib desert [out of Swakopmund] to see one.
This gives you a good idea of what the inland, 100km east of Swakopmund, looks like.
No bitumen, no phone reception, no water and no NRMA.
However, don't make the mistake of thinking nothing exists in the Namib desert.
It gets a few millimetres of water (from sea fog) and supports a few scrubby bushes, oryx, steenbok and the weird welwitschia plant...

Tatty, old, scraggy, ground-covering things that look like neither a tree (apparently they are a type of pine tree, to which it is closely related) nor a cactus. Welwitschia was discovered by Friedrich Welwitsch in 1859 - he had been sent into Namibia (or German South West Africa as it was then called) to locate new species of plants. He found a doozey.

A good view of Namibia's own moonscape. Heavy erosion over thousands of years has carved a massive system of canyons into the desert landscape. Hard to photograph unless you either camp out there to get the early morning light or drive very, very early. Having got lost on the way, we arrived at 11am. Not a total disaster, but 9am would have been better (next time I read the map!).

This 'tree' only ever has two leaves. These grow to anything up to 4 metres long. They fray and split multiple times so any adult plant looks like it has a dozen trailing fronds, not just two. Most of the plants we saw were less than a metre high and perhaps two metres in diameter but one, protected by its own mesh enclosure at the end of Welwitschia Way, measured twice this.
Experts reckon this specimen is more than 1000 years old. Records claim some welwitschia have lived for up to two thousand years.

Big daddy welwitschia at the end of the hot, dusty trail. It's a massive, 1000-year old welwitschia plant baking in the midday sun. Apparently this species exists on moisture extracted from sea fog that forms at night as the cool air comes in off the Atlantic over the hot sands. Its Africaans name is tweeblaarkanniedood.
Slightly smaller and less protected welwitschia plant. I had to lie down on the sand to get this tight angle. It was uncomfortable as the air temperature was in the high 30s.
I read somewhere that plants in Angola are better protected than in Namibia.
Angola still has so many unaccounted land mines to deter even the most avid plant collector.
Something of an irony in that the only sponsor of the welwitschia way - the long drive out to this remarkable desert fortress - is a uranium mine!

Local guesthouses in Swakopmund hand out tourist guides for the drive to welwitschia on which there are more than a dozen 'points of interest'. Including one stop to see cart tracks made by bullock carts as they trekked inland. The environment is so fragile here that these tracks, made more than 100 years ago, are still visible.
In 1915 the South African army camped along the road on a mission to kick the Germans from what the British considered their territory.
In one spot you can still see rusting bully beef tins scattered in the desert sands.

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