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The Spectacular Sand Dunes in Namibia
Hot air balloon ride - a once in a life time experience

By Dr. Irving Spitz

Preparing the balloon for take-off prior to sunrise.  Note the moon.
Preparing the balloon for take-off prior to sunrise.  Note the moon.
Close up of preparation for take-off.
Close up of preparation for take-off.
Lift off of the balloon.1
Lift off of the balloon.2
Lift off of the balloon.
Shadow cast by balloon on fairy circles.  Note the tracking vehicles.
Shadow cast by balloon on fairy circles.  Note the tracking vehicles.
Views of mountains, dunes and the fog.
Views of mountains, dunes and the fog.
Views of mountains, dunes and the fog.

Namibia is situated on the southwest Atlantic coast of Africa, and borders Angola and Zambia to the north, Botswana and South Africa to the east and South Africa to the south.  One of the most fascinating tourist attractions in this country is a visit to the towering sand dunes, mountains and canyons of the Namib Naukluft Park.

This vast park, encompassing some 50,000 sq km, is the largest in Africa and exceeds the size of Switzerland.  The Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the world and extends over 2000 km along the Atlantic coast beyond the borders of Namibia into Angola in the north and South Africa in the south.  It is never more than 200 km in width from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the escarpment in the east.  It is one of the driest deserts on earth with an annual rainfall ranging from 5 mm in the coast to 85 mm in land.  Crucial to the ecosystem, is the cold Benguela current which sweeps northwards up Africa's west coast from the icy Antarctic.  The cold ocean cools the prevailing wind which then releases its moisture as fog on reaching warm land.  The fog condenses providing water essential to sustain desert flora and fauna. 

The dunes, for which the area is world famous, were created about 2 million years ago by accumulation of sand.  Most of this comes from erosion in the catchment area of the Orange River which forms the southern border between Namibia and South Africa.  The sand is carried down the river into the Atlantic Ocean and is then blown north and east by the prevailing winds.

This park is reputed to contain the highest sand dunes in the world, some being over 300 meters in height.  These dunes are not inert piles of sand but constantly change their shape due to the prevailing winds.  This unique ecosystem supports small desert animals and plants.  Depending on the time of the day and the prevailing light, the dunes are arrayed in spectacular colors of orange, red, pink, brown and greyTheir brilliant orange color develops over time as the iron in the sand becomes oxidized; the older the dune, the brighter the color.
Sossusvlei is the most well known dune.  The word “Sossus” is derived from the Bushman language and means “the gathering place of water.” The word “Vlei” is an Afrikaans word meaning “a shallow lake.”  The Tsauchab River and its tributaries, terminate at Sossusvlei.  Its passage to the sea is blocked by the northward movement of the dunes.  The Tsauchab is a dry river bed but on the rare occasions when Namibia receives considerable rains, the flooded river fills Sossusvlei.  The water can remain here for some months turning the vlei into a shallow glassy lake.   

Another spectacular site is Deadvlei which is a ghostly expanse of skeletons of ancient dried camel thorn trees.  These punctuate the dried silvery white pan of mud and clay and make for a dramatic and eerie atmosphere.  Carbon dating has revealed that the trees are 500-600 years old.   

Scattered throughout the park, are small round patches devoid of vegetation.  These are known as Fairy circles.  Their precise origin is unknown but they have been the subject of many theories including the possibility that some type of vegetation may have grown in the region and poisoned the immediate surroundings.  Another suggestion is that they were caused by termites.  Finally it has also been postulated that they may be related to local radioactivity that alters the growing pattern of the desert flora.

One of the most fascination experiences for the visitor to the Sossusvlei area is a ride in a hot air balloon.  Namib Sky Balloon Safaris have been operating balloon rides for over 20 years.  They have conducted over 60,000 flights.  Each balloon is good for 700 hours of flight.  There has never ever been a single safety issue.  These flights operate about 300 days a year and only cease in January and February.  Flights are also cancelled if the prevailing winds are too strong. 

Propane gas is used to heat up the air in the balloon and inflate it.  It also rotates the balloon upright and eventually propels it off the ground into the air.  This process begins prior to sunrise.  When all is ready, depending on the size of the balloon, 4-12 people climb into the basket for the take off.  The balloon sails high over the surrounding dunes and mountains.  There is silence only occasionally interrupted by a burst of gas.  The pilot keeps firing the propane burner at regular intervals to ensure that the flight remains stable. Whilst flying, there is no turbulence and the balloon travels at the current wind speed.  The pilot controls the altitude and selects the flight direction by choosing the appropriate wind channels.  A ground crew has permanent radio contact with the balloon. 

The basket is a perfect platform from which to view the landscape.  The tranquility of the flight gives unsurpassed views. The splendor of the desert is dramatically revealed as the balloon soars with the wind over sand dunes and mountains with the endless vistas of shadow and light. 

Over 2000 years ago, the Roman Historian Pliny the Elder, stated Ex Africa semper aliquid novi (From Africa, always something new). How true, even to this day!



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