Between Etosha and the Skeleton Coast, Damaraland is a vast territory dominated by a harsh, dry landscape. The few grasslands present are all concentrated on the Eastern border. Vegetation becomes sparse going toward West, ending up with a sandy desert, characterized by enormous dunes.
The name of the region is the old apartheid name which is still in use in touristic lexicography, while the territory is currently administratively divided between Erongo and Kunene.
The word “Damaraland” means “land of Damara people” and it is of late origin. In 1963 the South African government, the former government authority in Namibia, released the so-called “Odendaal Plan”. The plan, from the name of his conceiver, Fox Odendaal, intended to divide Namibia into several regions and to assign them to different ethnic groups, with forced deportation. Damaraland was, of course, appointed to Damara population.
Damara culture has been a mystery for anthropologists for decades. It’s a Bantu population speaking a Khoisan dialect. Bantu is one of the leading macro identity groups in Africa, localized in Central Africa. They include the Zulu and the Luba cultures. The lingua franca throughout most of the African continent, Swahili, is also a Bantu language. Khoi-san, instead, is an endemic cultural group developed in South Africa that includes two population, the Khoikhoi and the San. The San language is characterized by the use of clicks, phonetically represented as “!”, and it has severe differences in both syntax and vocabulary from Bantu. It’s unknown to scientists how Damara, with clear Bantu extraction, adopted San language.
It is believed Damara population was the first human colony to enter in Namibia. Arriving from the North, they passed through this territory, before settling in the central area of the state, where they lived organized in semi-nomadic tribes until the forced deportation following the release of the Odendaal plan.
Marks of ancient civilizations in the area, before and after the first passage of the Damara population, can be found in several areas. Twyfelfontein is the most famous site where to find the traces of this passage. The name is a direct translation in Afrikaans of the original Damara “ǀUi-ǁAis”, meaning “uncertain spring”. This valley has been used for millennia as a sacred place for shamanistic rituals. Several sandstone slabs, surrounding a seasonal spring, have been engraved and painted by a stone age culture which colonized the region six thousand years ago. Rhinoceros, elephants, lions are the most common subjects, but we can also find animals that are not from the area, as sea lions and penguins, testifying how this population had some experiences related to the sea, about 100 km away from the valley. There are also some mythological representations, such as the so-called “Lion Man”, a lion with human features that may be related to shapeshifter legends.
The problematic desertic conditions of Damaraland forced animals to adapt to the harsh environment. Several groups of elephants stroll in the dried river bed of the ephemeral Ugab River. While not being considered a separate species, they developed features that make these animals more suitable to survive on a predominant sandy ground. They are slimmer than its cousins living in Etosha, with longer legs and larger feet, allowing them to have a better grip on the dunes. These elephants can walk for tens of kilometers without any water source, eating moisture-laden vegetation that manages to grow in this arid climate.
Apart from animals, the botanic world evolved as well to be apt to the environment. Example of this transformation is the Welwitschia mirabilis, the national plant of Namibia. This curious prehistoric plant is endemic to the area and unique in the world. It’s often considered a living fossil, as it has no cousins in current evolution branches. The plant has only two leaves spread on the ground, departing from a woody bilobed crown. These two appendixes can grow up to 8 meters in length, splitting into several strap-shaped sections thanks to the action of the wind and the sand. It’s like being in contact with an extraterrestrial entity, a Jurassic witness of our past.
Welwitschia can be found in several places across Damaraland, but we suggest to look after them near Khorixas, in the Petrified Forest National Park. This is a twin of Arizona’s homonymous National Park. As in the American case, floods and rivers brought here several tree trunks, covering them with alluvial sands. Without available oxygen, the organic matter could not rot, but instead, it followed a specific form of diagenesis called silicification. Each cell tree gradually (over millions of years) replaced its water with silicic acid, fossilizing the wood and effectively transforming it into stone. The sand has been carried away by the action of rain and winds, while the stone-tree were left there, an immutable testimony of prehistoric times. There are several chunks of trees in the area, with enormous Welwitschia growing nearby.
Kunene, or Damaraland, is an exciting land, a direct testimony of the strict relationship between men, animals, and nature. All living beings evolved to adapt to a territory that looks so inhospitable at first glance. It’s easy to see how different population identified this region as mystical, a place that enhanced the contact between humans and divine. Every day, at sunset, looking out from the top of our room, we could admire the power of raw nature dominating uninterrupted till the horizon.