Namibia’s desert landscape is a fragile environment, where it’s easy to inflict lasting damage through a few careless actions. Careering across seemingly desolate dunes on a quad bike can be exhilarating fun, as can charging down the side of a sand dune, but both actions threaten some of the desert micro-fauna, most of which lives less than 10cm below dune surface. The eggs, larvae and young of beetles, spiders and reptiles are especially vulnerable on the dune slipface (the steeper incline on the lee side), where these animals concentrate. In particular, you should keep clear of patches of stabilizing vegetation. Generally, the least damage is caused by walking up and down the crest of the dune.

In Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, most tour operators are responsible and operate within designated areas, aimed at minimizing the impact on the dunes, and employing guides who ensure that sand-boarding is carried out only on specific slopes, and that on quad bike tours, everyone follows in the same tracks, on set routes, behind the guide. It is generally individuals who have their own bikes and vehicles driving “off-piste” that cause the most damage.

Several companies (notably in Lüderitz) offer off-road wilderness camping adventures through the Namib, but before embarking on one, you need to satisfy yourself that they are trying to minimize their impact on the environment. It is worth asking: what is the maximum number of vehicles they travel in; whether they always follow the same tracks; what they do with their camping waste; and whether they use stoves rather than making fires. There is a culture of machismo among some off-road drivers – evident even in some of the Sandwich Harbour tour drivers – that can lead to a greater environmental footprint than is necessary.

Similarly, when corrugations on some of the gravel roads become uncomfortable it’s very tempting to drive onto the adjacent, often harder, desert crust, and make new parallel tracks. As well as leaving unsightly marks that can stain the landscape for years, this poses a threat to birds’ nests, such as those of the endangered Damara tern, and may also destroy barely discernible lichen and other plants that have taken hundreds of years to grow, and which provide vital nutrients or shelter for other wildlife. Penetrating the desert crust by off-road driving also exposes softer sand and soil to wind erosion.

Essentials

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