Moon Valley and the Welwitschia Mirabilis Plants


The day that David had to go to the job site, I took a half-day tour to an area known as Moon Valley. These are the “badlands” of the Namib Desert located about a half-hour east of Swakopmund. I went with Charly’s Desert Tour ( with another couple from Cape Town, South Africa and our excellent guide, Cleo.

On our way to Moon Valley, Cleo gave us some information about Namibia. The population is 2.8 million people. The major industries for the country are salt, fishing and mining of diamonds, uranium, copper, lead, gold and zinc. We passed some larger farms on our way and Cleo said that they farm olive and palm trees, as well as horse and camel farms.

Moon Valley was formed over 460 million years ago when the Damara Granites pushed through the earth’s crust and created this mountain range. It has been eroded over the past 2 million years and has created the “badlands” that we see today. At one point, this whole area was under the ocean.  It was such a contrast from the sand dunes of Sandwich Harbor the day before to see this landscape. It was hard to believe that it is all in the Namib Desert!

In this area, near Swakopmund and the ocean, there is very little rainfall but much fog. The plants and insects get their water from this fog. The animals get their water from the plants and insects. Cleo proceeded to show us a variety of plants and explained their importance in the desert to us.

We were introduced to the !nara plant. This was in a bush and had flowers, which I had not seen the day before.


!Nara Bush


Flowers of the !nara bush that grow into the fruit.

This is succulent plant is nicknamed the dollar plant (Zygophyllum staffii) because of the round, flat leaves that resembles dollar coins, especially when they are dried. This plant rotates the leaves, with the sun, to protect the water that has collected in them from drying. At night, the waxy leaves open to gather more moisture from the fog. The water that this plant collects is full of salt and if a person is collecting the water to drink, it needs to be boiled first to rid it of most of the salt.IMG_0836

Close up of the leaves on the Dollar Bush.

Close up of the leaves on the Dollar Bush.

Another plant from the succulent family is the red aloe. It stores water and like the aloe vera plant, it is used for stomach issues and to help heal burns. Notice the thick root that grows under the leaves.IMG_0829

This is Lithops, which is also called the “stone plant”. Cleo was a jokester and told us that these were the “brains” of a Springbok. He said that he had come across two male Springbok that had been fighting and both were dead. He called the rangers to come and take the animals and that this was some of the brains that had scattered from the injury. How gullible tourist can be!!! We all fell for the story hook, line and sinker!! During the March/April rainy season, this plant grows yellow flowers. It cannot be removed and replanted in another area because it won’t grow.

Can you find the "Stone Plants?"  They are in the center of the picture and you can make out the veins on the leaves.

Can you find the “Stone Plants?” They are in the center of the picture and you can make out the veins on the leaves.

This plant is the Euphorbia damarana. It is very poisonous sap that attacks the nervous system if it gets in your body. If you accidentally touch the plant, our guide said to wash your hands throughly with soap and water. He said that even though you think you might have removed the sap from your hand, if you touch your eye or put your finger in your mouth, it could kill you.IMG_0820

He shared a story that there were men from the north who came down to the region to work in the mines. They were not familiar with the plants from the area and set out to collect kindling to make a fire to cook their meat over. You guessed it, the gathered the Euphorbia plant, cooked the meat and once they ate it, they all died. Such a sad and tragic story and kind of amazing to me that in this day and age, something like that could happen. Interesting to note that the oryx and rhino feed on this plant and suffer no ill effects.

Cleo took us to an area where there was a large field of lichens growing on rocks. These organisms live on the morning fog that is prevalent and so important to this area. During the day, they appear to be dried and dead. However, Cleo took some water and splashed on an area and they came to life. It was interesting to see lichen in the desert when we have it at home on the rocks and trees. According to our guide, if there are pollutants in the air, lichens will not grow. They grow very slowly. Later, when David and I were driving up the coast, there were areas of the desert fenced off with signs saying that it was lichen fields and they were being protected.

After drying in the sun.

After drying in the sun.

After a little water has been poured on them.

After a little water has been poured on them.

This flower is a species of the Australian edelweiss flower. I think this Desert Edelweiss is such a sweet and delicate flower to be living in the desert. IMG_0870

My favorite plant for the day was this beautiful ice plant. These succulent plants have water storing bladders cells in the outer layer of the plant. When the sun hits these cells, they sparkle. I just thought they were so very pretty.IMG_0865

They look like they are covered in crystals.

They look like they are covered in crystals.

The all time best part of the day and main reason I wanted to go on this tour was to see Namibia’s national plant the Welwitschia Mirabilis Plant that only grows in certain areas of the Namib desert but there are a few of these plants in Angola. It is extremely slow-growing and takes 100 years to grow 4 inches.  They live a long time, some plants are as old as 2,000 years.  The average age of the plants that we saw were about 500-600 years old.


There are only two leaves to the plant which are very strong almost like the rubber on a tire. These leaves split to create more leaves. The plant never sheds their leaves. The nutrients flow to the tip of the leaves and then are sucked back from the tip  to help the new part grow. The end of the leaf just curls and dies but is never shed. IMG_0892

It is actually not a plant but a tree that has been dwarfed by the harshness of desert life. The “trunk” of the tree grows about 6 to 9 ft (2-3 meters) in a cone shape, similar to a carrot.

Part of the trunk exposed from shifting sands.

Part of the trunk exposed from shifting sands.

The tree is either a male or female and can be distinguished by the cone found on it. The male has oblong cones with no seeds and the female has the larger cone with seeds.

The male plant is on the left, the female on the right.

The male plant is on the left, the female on the right.


This is a female plant.

Cleo said that the Welwitschia beetle is the pollinator of these plants. However, in an article that I read on-line, that judging by the distance between plants, it is more likely pollinated by wasp. IMG_0889

They are protected by government regulations.  Two years ago, the government gave permission for 5 of these plants to be removed from an area where a road was being built for a mine.  These five plants have been replanted and are being closely monitored by botanist.  IMG_0902

The rock formation in this area were made up of mostly granite. I learned on this tour that granite is composed of mica, feldspar and quartz. Coming from Maine, where granite is so abundant, I really should have known this little piece of trivia. I just never gave it much thought!

On this rock, we got to showcase our musical talents. You can see the corners have worn spots where many before have displayed their musical prowess. It was fun…we played tunes like “Jingle Bells” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” I think I remember Cleo saying that the iron in the rock made the different tones when we hit it on the different corners.IMG_0813

There were various places throughout the valley where unusual rock formations had been made when lava, from inside the earth pushed its way into fissures of the granite and solidified into dolerite. Here are some of the better examples:

The "Great Wall" of Namibia

The “Great Wall” of Namibia


This is the “Namibian pyramid”. Cleo jokingly told us that the Namibians had built the first pyramid and that the Egyptians paid for the plans with camels. That is why there are camels in Namibia today!IMG_0853

Peugeot Canyon is where many wedding celebrations happen. Cleo said that they often place candles on the cliff side. The bride and groom stand under this canopy of wood. I imagine that it looks very beautiful and romantic.IMG_0877

We passed through the river bed area several times while navigating Moon Valley. I really didn’t get good pictures but it was very green with several small trees. Every three years or so, this river bed will get flooded but during the “off time”, it stays green from the water flowing underground. IMG_0879

So this was the trip to the moon!  Years ago, when I was in the Grand Cayman Island, I visited the area on the island “Hell”.  Now, after this tour, I can say that I have been to Hell and the Moon!!

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