A group of Mountain zebras nearby Twyfelfontein, Damaraland
Travel

The Alluring Landscapes of Damaraland, Namibia

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 colors of Namibia, Damaraland
The colors of Namibia
A typical Namibian road, Damaraland
A typical Namibian road
At sunset, elongated shadows create picturesque images on the yellow ground, Damaraland
At sunset, elongated shadows create picturesque images on the yellow ground

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.

This reclusive species of zebras tend to escape at the first unknown sound, Damaraland
A group of Mountain zebras nearby Twyfelfontein. This reclusive species of zebras tend to escape at the first unknown sound
Few animals are able to live in the region, Damaraland
Few animals are able to live in the region
Western Kunene is one of the aridest regions in Namibia, Damaraland
Western Kunene is one of the aridest regions in Namibia

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.

Travelling through the amazing Namibian lands, Damaraland
Travelling through the amazing Namibian lands

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.

Some animals and the “Lion Man”, a shapeshifter, Damaraland
Some animals and the “Lion Man”, a shapeshifter
A white tree may look dead but, it’s ready to burst into life at the first drops of rain, Damaraland
A white tree may look dead but, it’s ready to burst into life at the first drops of rain
An elephant, engraved more than 6000 years ago, Damaraland
An elephant, engraved more than 6000 years ago
Among the various animals, some human feet, Damaraland
Among the various animals, some human feet
Thousands of drawings testify the use of this site as a sacred place, Damaraland
Thousands of drawings testify the use of this site as a sacred place
The red sandstone characterizing Twyfelfontein, Damaraland
The red sandstone characterizing Twyfelfontein

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.

The view from Ugab river, Damaraland
The view from Ugab river
These wonderful animals can travel hundred of kilometers to reach fresh water, Damaraland
These wonderful animals can travel hundred of kilometers to reach fresh water
After a delicious meal, a young elephant sleeps in the shadow, protected by his mother, Damaraland
After a delicious meal, a young elephant sleeps in the shadow, protected by his mother
Most of the elephants stay in the bed of the Ugab river, one of the few water sources of the region, Damaraland
Most of the elephants stay in the bed of the Ugab river, one of the few water sources of the region

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 mirabilis is the symbol of Namibia, Damaraland
Welwitschia mirabilis is the symbol of Namibia
There is no shadow here: better be prepared against the heat of the sun, Damaraland
There is no shadow here: better be prepared against the heat of the sun

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.

The petrified trees share the territory with some ancient Welwitschia, Damaraland
The petrified trees share the territory with some ancient Welwitschia
The crystals are composed by silicate acid, Damaraland
The crystals are composed by silicate acid
The petrified forest, with chunks of trees transformed into “stone”,Damaraland
The petrified forest, with chunks of trees transformed into “stone”

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.