28 Mai 2010 | Natur & Umwelt

Brandberg: Much more than the highest mountain in Namibia

Amongst the many Namibian landmarks carrying colourful names based on their appearance the Brandberg is perhaps best characterized by the defining feature used to describe it. Derived from the German and Afrikaans languages the name literally means burning mountain and originates from the radiant red glow the mountain emits in the last rays of the setting sun.
Rising majestically from the surrounding plains in an area generally referred to as Damaraland in the north-western Namib Desert, the almost circular monolith classified as an inselberg is the most prominent feature for hundreds of kilometres around and can be seen from a great distance. It is composed of a single massif of granite formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago when ancient magma chambers cooled and were gradually exposed by erosion caused by glaciers, wind, rain and temperature activity.

What remains of the prehistoric magma intrusion is the highest mountain in Namibia reaching over 2570 meters and covering an area of more than 600 km". The mountain forms a dome shaped plateau with the highest point being the "Königstein" (German for `King's Stone'). Various challenging routes lead to the summit which is best attempted by experienced climbers only.

Owing to its genesis, the area around the Brandberg is rich in minerals and a sought after destination amongst geologists. The predominant mineral found in the region is feldspar which often has a pinkish colour, sometimes giving the mountain the striking red appearance it is known for. The complex birth of the massif is still evident in horizontal layers of basalt, veins of quartz and dykes of dolerite often characteristic of inselbergs. The base of the monolith features dark terraces created when the surrounding rock was baked and hardened by the volcanic pipe rising towards the surface.

The violent upheaval which created the mountain carved deep cracks and faults into the bedrock forming numerous gorges which dissect the central part of the complex. This created a radial drainage system where water accumulates and runs down ravines sustaining plant life and attracting a variety of animals to the area. This in turn led to the first human settlements at the foot of the mountain of which remnants in the form of artefacts dating back thousands of years can still be found today.
Archaeological data suggests that the area around Brandberg was first inhabited by mobile groups of hunters and gatherers who concentrated around the most reliable waterholes and springs. The most obvious marks left behind by these settlers are the multitude of rock paintings which were discovered by topographer Reinhard Maack in 1917. Some of the thousands of paintings are estimated to be as old as 5000 years. They bear witness to the fact that the Brandberg was a site of spiritual significance for the indigenous people whose legacy can still be traced in over 100 archaeological sites in the area.

The rock paintings represent the biggest attraction for tourists visiting the Brandberg today. The most famous among them is the `White Lady', located on a rock panel under an overhang and depicting a figure that for a long time was erroneously considered to be female. The representation is now generally considered to portray a medicine man or shaman as part of a group of people on the move, either engaged in hunting or celebration.

The character referred to as `White Lady' is now assumed to be wearing white ornaments as a male shaman would have giving the figure its distinctive colour. Irrespective of new scientific evidence the name `White Lady' is destined to remain, having captured the imagination with the suggestion that the indigenous San people who applied the drawing may have had a female visitor who was not of African origin.

Regrettably many of the figures in the frieze depicting the `White Lady' have lost much of their clarity and detail. This is partially because the colours produced by grinding red and ochre stone and mixing it with charcoal, manganese, egg shells and other substances have faded over time. In addition, visitors to the site used to spray the mural with water to enhance the colours for picture taking thus speeding up the deterioration of the drawings. Today visitors are only allowed to view the `White Lady' and other rock paintings in the same ravine in the company of a guide, to protect the valuable heritage from vandals. To reach the `White Lady' it is necessary to hike from the main parking area at the foot of the mountain about forty minutes over difficult terrain along the ancient watercourse leading up to the rock painting.

Except for being a haven for photographers, mountaineers and archaeologists the Brandberg also attracts botanists and zoologists, drawn by the huge diversity in plant and animal life in the area. The flora of the Brandberg is dominated by alien looking aloes and euphorbia shaped by the cruel climate and arid conditions they have to endure. Despite the harsh conditions the area is home to an abundance of wildlife among them the rare desert dwelling elephant and black rhino which are a major drawing card for tourists.

There are various accommodationoptions available in the area surrounding the Brandberg of which some are located in the village of Uis which is the main gateway to the mountain and is conveniently situated en-route between Etosha National Park, Henties Bay and Swakopmund. As such the former mining town is ideally suited as a starting point for exploring other landmarks in the vicinity, amongst them the Petrified Forest, Burnt Mountain and Organ Pipes as well as Twyfelfontein and the craters Doros and Messum.

While most tourists associate Namibia with its world famous desert, invoking images of infinite horizons, vast open spaces and endless seas of sand dunes, this connotation ignores the fact that the country has much more to offer than the sweeping vistas of the desert which gave it its name. The Brandberg bears testament to this and its significance as a favourite tourist destination and a site of archaeological importance make it much more than the highest mountain in Namibia.

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