Tag Archives: Walvis Bay

A cure for sea fever (take a Mola Mola marine cruise)

I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face
and a grey dawn breaking.
— John Masefield

I’m sure that many a child has sat listlessly in a stuffy classroom listening to the words of the poem, Sea Fever, by John Masefield, wishing he/she was down at the seaside.  We don’t often get to the coast, so it was a pleasant interlude when we drove down to Walvis Bay a few weekends ago to show a family member the delights of this area.  We decided to take a marine cruise around the bay with a company called Mola Mola Safaris, and it turned out to be an absolute treat!

The weather was perfect and from the moment we stepped on board the enormous catamaran we were entertained by both the staff and the varous sea birds and mammals that live in the bay.  Our first encounter was with a Cape fur seal that jumped on board for a meal of several fish before disappearing off the side to waylay the next boat coming up behind us.

A magnificent juvenile Kelp gull

Then it was the turn of the sea birds, with lots of gulls, pelicans, cormorants and a lifer that generated a lot of excitement for us – a Subantarctic skua.   The gull below would have been a good subject for a Garmin advert!

The new voice of Garmin!

We also saw two shy African penguins that dived underwater when we got a bit too close for their comfort.  We cruised past oyster beds and rusty old factory ships, long since abandonned, and made our way towards Pelican Point which was not only lined with hordes of smelly seals, but home to thousands of cormorants as well.

Pelican Point

Throughout our journey our guide was enthusiastically pointing out the inhabitants of the bay and warming us up with shots of  sherry (or “Namibian coffee” as she called it).

The highlight of the cruise had to be when a pod of Heaviside dolphins swam in the spray at the bows of our catamaran.

Heaviside dolphins alongside the boat

As they dived and surfaced happily they elicited plenty of oohs and aahs from the tourists on board.  This has to be the next best thing to actually swimming with dolphins.  No less exciting were the Dusky dolphins that were also visible in the bay area.

Dusky dolphins frolic in the bay

Before we headed back to the jetty where our ride began, we were given a taste of fresh oysters and some snacks, washed down by sparkling wine.  Definitely a lifestyle we could get used to!  It was a professionally run operation and perhaps the only fault we could find with the whole excursion was that they didn’t have enough oysters!  If you’re visiting Swakopmund or Walvis Bay, be sure to take a marine cruise with Mola Mola – you won’t be disappointed.  They also offer trips to Sandwich Harbour.

The salt sellers of Cape Cross

Head northwards from Swakopmund on the west coast of Namibia, travelling along the well known “Skeleton Coast”, and after 100 km or so, as you approach Cape Cross, (home to a wonderful seal colony), you may find an assortment of very basic, unmanned,  tables set up at the side of the road. These rickety tables support a rather interesting-looking collection of crystals. If you stop and inspect these crystals – and you should! – you will find that they are crystals of rock salt that are harvested from the surrounding area.
Rock salt for sale near Cape Cross

These aggregates of salt crystals are for sale on an honesty system; if you take one you are honour bound to deposit the correct amount of money in the tin provided. The salt sellers return to the tables at the end of each day to collect the money and to replace any of the stock that has been sold.
Rock salt for sale near Cape Cross
Known as halite, or rock salt, these isometric crystals of sodium chloride may be colourless, white, light blue, pink, orange, yellow or gray depending on the type and quantity of impurities present. These variations in colour add to their charm.
Salt pans at Walvis Bay
The road north of Henties Bay (a small but rapidly expanding settlement north of Swakopmund) is known from its construction as a “salt road” and is as smooth as tar, but is, of course, devoid of road markings, being constructed of gravel and salt. When wet it can be very slippery and it carries a speed restriction as a result.
Salt road north of Henties Bay
The global production of salt (sodium chloride – NaCl) is in excess of 210 million tons per annum, of which less than 6% is for human consumption. The rest is for industrial use. In the big picture, Namibia is a relatively small player in the global market, producing around 700 thousand tons per annum, or approximately 0.33% of the worldwide production.   At the large salt-works not far from Cape Cross  salt is mined on a commercial scale.
Salt is also produced in Namibia through the evaporation of water from sea water, for example in the large open pans near Walvis Bay. The climate of Walvis Bay being conducive to rapid evaporation, these salt pans are quite extensive, covering over 3,500 hectares and producing more than 400 thousand tons of high quality salt annually. At the time of our visit, the water in the pans from which the evaporation was taking place varied in colour from the expected pale blue to an eerie pink that looked totally unnatural.
Salt pans at Walvis Bay

Walvis Bay – A Ramsar Birding Site

Walvis Bay is a rather shabby, depressing-looking harbour city about thirty kilometers from Swakopmund on the west coast of Namibia.  On entering the city from either side, one is greeted by waving palm trees, but these soon fade out and you are left with the somewhat drab houses and buildings that immediately make you wonder why it’s on your list of places to visit.  But don’t be fooled by appearances, especially if you are a birder.  Walvis Bay has significant wetland areas that have received recognition by Birdlife International and been declared one of the “areas of global significance for bird conservation.”

Great white pelican

Make your way down to the lagoon and you can immediately see why this area received Ramsar Site status in 1995.  (Wikipedia definies a Ramsar Site as follows :  “The Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands, i.e., to stem the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future, recognising the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value. It is named after the town of Ramsar in Iran.”)

Ruddy Turnstones on the shoreline

Stretching for about seven kilometers, the shallow waters of the lagoon are filled with palaearctic (migratory) birds of every description.  Depending on the tide, one gets to see both the waders and the shoreline birds feeding vigorously in the rich waters.

Flamingoes in the lagoon

The incredibly beautiful Greater Flamingoes live on a diet of invertebrates, whilst the Lesser Flamingoes can be seen shuffling their feet to shift the algae on the sea bed.  Other key species are shown on the photograph below – click on the photo to enlarge it.

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At any given time, the lagoon hosts a minimum of about 20 000 birds, but this figure rises during spring and summer to anything up to 250 000, influenced also by the rains inland. (Walvis Bay is one of the driest cities in the world, receiving less than 10mm of rainfall per annum.)

Birds everywhere you look

The wetland area extends beyond the lagoon to the mudflats and the nearby salt refinery, and different birds frequent these areas for the food that they offer.

Pied Avocets

It’s magical spot, and if you choose to dine at The Raft restaurant in the lagoon (where the food is excellent), you can watch scores of birds flying past as you eat.  Look out too for the different jellyfish that are found in the water – all shapes, colours and sizes.

Flamingo about to fly

For non-birders, Walvis Bay bay offers Dune 7 – a marvelous dune climbing experience; boat trips for fishing, seal and dolphin viewing; kayaking; quad-biking and trips into the desert.  Plenty for everyone really but a real delight for twitchers!

A visit to Sandwich Harbour

It is not a simple matter, reaching Sandwich Harbour, just 50-odd kilometers south of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Ocean coast of Namibia. Lying within the Namib Naukluft National Park, it is jealously guarded by towering sand dunes that plunge straight down into the cold waters of the Atlantic, leaving very little flat and firm sand at the water’s edge, even at low tide. There is no easy access.

Dunes en route to Sandwich Harbour

Dunes en route to Sandwich Harbour

However, for keen birders, it is worth putting in the effort required to reach this important RAMSAR site where, at times, there may be upwards of 200,000 birds present. The area between Sandwich Harbour and Walvis Bay is also home to around 90% of the world population of Chestnut-banded plover.

Chestnut-banded plover

Chestnut-banded plover

We decided not to drive ourselves on this challenging trip, but to rely on the experience of a local tour operator who, as we understood it, ran regular trips to the isolated spot. Hmmm. We left Walvis Bay at about nine in the morning and were very soon deep in the “Sand Sea” that makes up the Namib Desert between Walvis Bay and Luderitz Bay. No roads. No Tracks. Just dunes, one after the other without end.

En route to Sandwich Harbour - No place to drive!

En route to Sandwich Harbour - No place to drive!

The Land Rover Defender coped quite well with the soft sand, although it was defeated by many of the steeper dunes of soft sand that had us sliding backwards or, perhaps worse, semi-sideways, when forward momentum was lost. It was not possible to reach any of the firmer sand at the edge of the sea because the tide was too high and access blocked, and eventually our guide advised us that we would have to walk the last stretch.

Fair enough. Off we went.

Tricky even to walk!

Tricky even to walk!

At about eleven o’clock, still making our way down the coast, knee deep in ice-cold water most of the time, our intrepid guide said that he would return to the Land Rover and see whether he could find a way to Sandwich Harbour as the tide would be retreating by now. We should carry on just a little further and we would reach Sandwich Harbour, where he would join us shortly. I never saw him again until after 5 o’clock! That is, after I had visited Sandwich Harbour on my own (Jane was really ill and, finding a wonderful spot with lots of bird activity, sat out the last stretch to Sandwich Harbour), and after I had walked back to where we had left the Land Rover. Thank goodness not all guides are as irresponsible as this thoughtless soul!

Flamingo in the wonderful setting of the dunes at Sandwich Harbour

Flamingo in the wonderful setting of the dunes at Sandwich Harbour

The bird life is astonishing along this stretch of coast, though, and that was the main reason for the trip. Gulls, terns and plovers of all varieties. Flamingoes. Avocets. Herons. Ducks. Cormorants. All in numbers that would be difficult to find elsewhere.

A Cape teal in the brackish water that seeps through the dunes

A Cape teal in the brackish water that seeps through the dunes

Pied avocet

Pied avocet

Incidentally, in spite of its name, Sandwich Harbour has never been a harbour at all, although it served as a refuge for whaling ships and the like in years gone by. A misnomer, really. Like calling the fellow who drove us on this trip a “guide”.