Tag Archives: lichen fields

Lichen fields on the Skeleton Coast

The north-western coastal area of Namibia is an intimidating region to say the least; a region where very little rain falls and very little conventional plant life can be sustained.  There are few bushes and almost no trees, grasses or other ground cover, there are, however, the remains of many shipwrecks and it is not difficult to figure where it got its popular name – the Skeleton Coast.  Sailors surviving a shipwreck along this coast in days of old faced a tremendous fight for survival.

There is a form of plant life, though, that flourishes in this harsh environment – lichens.  Found in relative abundance in “lichen fields” dotted along the coast, these plants grow in such profusion that they add a colourful tint to the otherwise bare rocks; white, green and organge-red seem to be the most prolific colours found here.

Rob in a familiar pose!

So what are lichens?  Well, technically they are composite organisms consisting of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and an alga.  They grow in some of the most hostile environments in the world, such as in the cold of the Arctic tundra and in the heat of the Skeleton Coast desert.  In these extreme conditions they may be the only plant life present.  Just how tough these plants are was demonstrated in 2005 when two species of lichen were sent into space aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket.  The capsules in which they were packed were opened and the lichens exposed to the vacuum and extreme temperatures of space for 15 days.  On their return to Earth they were found to have suffered no discernable damage whatsoever!


In the lichen fields that we visited on the Skeleton Coast the lichens are found mainly on the bare stones and pebbles that lie there in abundance, but also on the exposed ground.  This makes them extremely vulnerable to disturbance by vehicles moving through the area and the damage caused is quite obvious where vehicle tracks are found.


The cells of the algae are capable of photosynthesis, as are the cells of green plants, and convert the carbon dioxide from the air into carbon sugars that feed both the algae and the fungi.  Both the symbionts are able to extract water from the mist rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean, and the fungi help in protecting the algae by retaining the water.  It is interestng that in this environment neither the algae nor the fungus can exist without its partner.


The shape that is adopted by the lichens varies quite considerably, some looking like small leafy plants (called foliose) and others looking like hard crusts (called crustose) or collections of filaments (called filamentous).


The word algae (singular alga) is derived from the Latin “alga” meaning “sea-weed”; fungi (singular fungus) is derived from the Latin “fungus” meaning a mushroom.

Every rock a masterpiece!


Day trip through the Skeleton Coast Park

With most of Namibia awash with rains, and a camping trip long overdue, last week we decided to head off to the dry Skeleton Coast Park for a visit.  Our first night was spent at Buck’s Caravan Park at Henties Bay, which enabled us to set off very early the next morning for our day trip through the Park.
We had spent some time researching the area so that we would know what to look out for.  There are a number of trip reports on this section of the coast, some of which are not very flattering, labeling the area as “boring”.  Fortunately, we also read that one should stop often to examine the countryside, as the desert is alive with lichen and other plant and animal life.  This made our journey so much richer and we’re glad we were offered that advice.

The journey to the Skeleton Coast Park is interesting in itself, with the Cape Cross seal colony a major attraction along the way, as well as the lichen fields, the salt works and the spectacular scenery, but we will write about these in separate blogs.
Gates to Skeleton Coast Park

Entry to the Skeleton Coast Park requires a permit, which we purchased in Windhoek beforehand.  The gates at the entrance to the Park were impressive, if somewhat forbidding with their skulls and crossbones, and added to the excitement of entering an area that has evoked feelings of fear and dread in the hearts of many a sailor who has been stranded on the beaches with little hope of surviving the harsh desert.  It has also spelled the ruin of many prospectors who considered the area to be rich in minerals.
Amazing scenery
The first thing that strikes you about the Skeleton Coast, apart from its incredible beauty, is its isolation.  It was comforting to know that the Park officials knew we were there, because we only saw one other car for the duration of our five hour visit.  Imagine having a whole park virtually to yourself in this day and age!
Wreck of the Atlantic Pride
After passing over the Ugab River, with its windblown shrubs and Acacia trees, we made our way to our first stop, which was the wreck of the Atlantic Pride fishing vessel.  Not much remains of this hapless boat, but it sets the mood and shows that man is no match for the angry sea and the desert.
Amazing scenery
The landscape is timeless and gives one a feeling of being in a state of quiet meditation.  The scenery changes every couple of kilometers so one is constantly looking at different colours and textures, from gravel plains to sand dunes.  We stopped often to examine the lichen fields which add golden colours to the ground.  It was as if our Maker had used every little rock as a miniature artist’s palette and then discarded it to go on to create an even better landscape further along.
Lichen covered rocks
Next we came across a rusty old oil rig which once was the dream of hopeful prospectors.  Now it is prey to the salt air that has rusted it into delicate filigree patterns that add a beauty of their own in the desert.
Remnants of the oil rig
We were excited to come across both a black-backed jackal and a Gemsbok in the desert,  wondering what they lived on in this inhospitable environment.  At Torra Bay, which is deserted for all but one month of the year when the fishermen are allowed to camp there, the lonely buildings were guarded by cormorants and crows, which lent a mournful air to the place with their loud cawing.
A lonely gemsbok in the desert
We exited the Park through the Springbokwasser Gate on the east and this drive is also through magnificent scenery of barchan dunes and grey-capped gravel mountains dotted with grazing springbok.  We stopped to look at the Welwitchia mirabilis plants that are abundant alongside the road and the poisonous Euphorbia damarana, which are quite different from the usual Euphorbia plants that are found elsewhere in the country.

It was an incredible day’s drive and at no point were we bored or tired of the scenery.  In fact we’d love to be able to spend a bit longer exploring further up north as we’re sure the Park has a lot more to offer than we could cram into a single day.