26 July 2007


today was the day. i was heading back into the namib naukluft desert, this time the northern part of the massive park, in order to photograph some of the oldest living welwitchia mirabilis in the world. after a walk along the ocean into swakupmund proper and another failed attempt to get online, we headed back to our b&b to await the arrival of self-taught naturalist george erb, our desert guide, as arranged by chris the previous day. i had been hoping to get in touch with someone at the desert research center to check my facts on the ages of the particular welwitchia on our route for the day, but since email was still unavailable i resigned myself to shoot first and ask questions later. i was still a bit concerned that i was not getting exactly where i needed to go -- there are some old plants recommended to me by braam van wyk that were much further south than swakupmund, which we had actually driven past the day before -- but lacking a 4x4 i dolefully drove past the turn-off. i had also learned from chris that perhaps the most ancient plants are further north at messum crater, but the site is remote even by namibian standards and the roads downright treacherous. (apparently even on the "good" road, a 4x4 is required, and if something were to go wrong it was likely to take days before a helping hand might drive by. the unexpectedness of my horseback riding incident the previous week sprung back into mind, and i took it as a lesson learned on unknown unknowns: in this case taking a potentially dangerous trip into unfamiliar desert was more foolhardy than a reflection of my dedication to my project. it helped that both chris and george seemed convinced that the plants on our route are over 2000 years old, so i relaxed into the day and we drove out of town and into the namib desert.

the welwitchia are truly strange and unique plants. surprisingly enough, they're part of the conifer family and live only in the very specific climate along the coast of namibia and angola where coastal fog and desert meet. ernst van jaarsfeld, chief horticulturalist at kirstenbosch botanical garden in cape town, met with me the following week to discuss the the welwitchia, which he described as being arrested in its juvenile stage. technically, the welwitchia has a trunk (when pressed for the defining attributes of a tree, ernst replied with a smile: you have to be able to to climb it), though it's unlike any trunk i've ever seen. it grows in an almost wavelike form (you can see the annual growth rings, though they're too distorted for an accurate count), and unlike anything else in the plant kingdom it grows only 2 leaves over the course of its entire life. i observed that you can think of the two leaves as baby teeth -- instead of falling out and being replaced by adult ones, imagine instead that they never fall out...and never stop growing. because of this the welwichia actually holds the record for longest leaf growth of any plant, though it's a common misconception that this distinction belongs to the raffia palm.

but back to the desert.

we drove into the park and past newly laid pipeline carrying water away from swakupmund and into the sandy expanses. george explained that the namibian government has leased out large portions of the park to international mining corporations. while they do bring in a few low-wage jobs for namibian citizens, namibia is not sharing in the profits from the mining of their natural resources. i began to wonder what weight the designation of "park" has -- many parts of the park are now off limits to the public as the mining companies are given the right to restrict access. later the in day we would drive through land marked as private access for "swakup uranium" at my coaxing -- it was the only way to get to an old acacia tree i was dying to see before sundown.

but first we drove along the welwitchia route, a self-guided driving tour that many visitors to the park take, culminating with "the big welwitchia." it is aptly named, and an incongruous sight fenced off with an escalated viewing platform with dubious stairs. there were other huge plants nearby -- just as big, really. as with any plant, light, water, nutrients, pH, and other factors can effect growth rates, but in general the bigger the welwitchia, the older the welwitchia. we abandoned the tourist route and headed to what might be an even bigger, and unfenced, specimen. apparently some radio carbon dating was done on some of the plants in the area about 10 years ago, the results of which i plan on looking into. i've heard everything between 1,500 year to 3,000 as an age estimate for the largest welwitchias. as people are more likely than not to overestimate when it comes to ages, i'm trying to parse all the data and get down to facts. as with the baobabs, it is proving to be difficult.

as the afternoon wore on we left the desert plains for the comparative green of the canyon. we drove along a bone-dry river bed, an occasional ostrich zigzagging prehistorically away from the jeep. we made it to the acacia (also known as "camel thorn tree," camels being the only animal that eat its thorny branches) that george had talked up earlier in the day. he estimated its age at 3,000 years or more. i was excited at the prospect of adding another OLTW to my list, but when i checked in with ernst the following week, he thought it unlikely that the tree is over 500 years old. it is lovely, none the less. i worry about the encroaching mining operations.

all in all it was a great day, having seen just a small part of the beautiful and varied, however unforgiving, desert. and i was content that i saw some of the oldest welwichia in the world, national plant of namibia, surviving against the odds by the most simplistic of means.

1 comment:

Rachel Simmons said...

Only two leaves...how incredible! It's torturous for the rest of us that you don't shoot digital, you know. :)
I liked your mental flashback to the horse "ejection" and your description of how that has given you a bit more pause when it comes to the extreme nature of your art adventures.
But my goodness, you are experiencing some amazing places, people and plants!