27 Mai 2009 | English Articles

Gobabeb - 50 years persistent research and fascination

People don't ask "where is Gobabeb?", they ask "what is Gobabeb". First of all, it is the place of the fig tree, original in Khoekhoegowab (Nama): !Nomabeb - where the usually dry river bed of the Kuiseb river negotiates a rocky bottle neck in the Namib Naukluft Park . - But foremost Gobabeb is an oasis of research and learning.
After some 50 years of research in the Namib desert Gobabeb has become an international brand name for ecological science of deserts and arid regions. The first researchers ventured out into the forbidding Namib to trace phenomena of climate, insects, reptiles and flora, fascinated by the astonishing survival strategies and adaptations of animals and plants facing extreme conditions. The amount of knowledge about fauna, flora, the geological history and climate of the desert has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five decades. Yet, old and new findings and research results have never lost their charm to both layman and researcher alike.

But as the human world has changed tremendously over half a century, similarly the questions and problems scientists and desert ecologists attempt to address and to solve today have changed. Whereas scientists five decades ago compiled data and records strictly within their separate domains, for instance of meteorology and entomology, the emphasis now is placed on integrative and interdisciplinary research for the benefit of sustainable human and environmental development through the sustainable utilisation of natural resources in the socio-economic environments and arid lands of both Namibia and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The central message of the concept Gobabeb is that all forms of life are precious, must be protected and cannot be taken for granted. Since 1997 Gobabeb features as a "SADC Centre of Excellence" for research, training and networking in support of the United Nations Environmental Conventions, particularly the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, thereby gaining specific significance in Southern Africa.
While the research station Gobabeb, situated squarely on state property inside the national Namib-Naukluft Park , is covered by a truly unique partnership concluded in 1998 between the Ministry of Environment and Tourism and the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), public funding and financial maintenance is by no means a given. The research station therefore, like its supporting foundation DRFN are increasingly project driven in order to generate income. Scientists and researchers accommodated for their tasks at Gobabeb have to pay fees. Further more, after a long process of negotiation with government Gobabeb in February 2009 has received an official tourism concession which will be operated by a concessionaire on the account of Gobabeb to supplement its income. Adventurous beginningsWhen towards the end of 1959 a desert expedition of eleven well known international scientists, experts and seasoned science scouts of then South West Africa returned from the lower Kuiseb River to Windhoek they made headlines in the local press. "Wüstenforschungs-Institut in Südwest" - Desert Research Institute in South West - the Allgemeine Zeitung, the German language daily, blazoned as a lead story on 26 May 1959, when the sovereign name of modern Namibia had not yet been coined. After a museums congress earlier that year in Windhoek a motley group of scientists and local experts had set out to the lower Kuiseb area of the central Namib to find a suitable location for a desert research station. Dr. Charley Koch, entomologist and honorary curator of the Transvaal Museum, was the scientific leader while Attila Port, a veteran of the colonial war in Namibia, acted as geographical guide of the group which identified the Gobabeb area as the ideal site for a field station to facilitate research in the Namib.
The location of Gobabeb, about 90 km from Walvis Bay, was selected for the combination of three ecological features found there and - crucial in the desert - the availability of drinking water in the river bed. The three features being the riverine oasis of the Kuiseb, the vast dune fields south of the river bed and the gravel plains to the north of it.
Three of the eleven participants, namely Koch, Port and businessman Bernhard Carp of Cape Town, organiser and financer of the expedition, had ventured a year before into the Gobabeb area and to Sossus Vlei to study the little known insect fauna of the Namib. The idea to establish a desert research field station was then born. However, the present location was finally determined during the expedition of 1959 when the research party of eleven camped and worked for 20 days from the waterhole of Gobabeb, but also ventured as far as Sandwich Harbour. Most of the other participants are also well known: Willy Giess - botanist from Windhoek, Dr. W. Hoesch - ornithologist from Okahandja and from further afield the herpetologist (expert on reptiles) Dr. C. Brain, the entomologists (insects) Dr. L. Vari, Dr. Brown (Pretoria) and Dr. R. Paulian (the latter of Madagascar), Dr. R. Lawrence (expert on spiders and scorpions) as well as another ornithologist, Dr. O. Prozesky.
Dr Joh HenschelThe present director of Gobabeb, Dr. Joh Henschel, first came to Gobabeb some 30 years ago to pursue some research on hyenas. Before he became director of Gobabeb in succession to Dr Mary Seely, he partly worked for the Desert Research Foundation from Windhoek, frequently visiting Gobabeb as a data manager, also assisting scientists and researchers with data analysis. It is during his term of heading the research station that aside the continuous scientific ecological tasks carried out, the station will also become the hub of a tourism concession, a first in its history of half a century and an opportunity to raise awareness for ecological tourism in the desert while generating some income towards the functional upkeep of the research station.Dr. Mary SeelyThe management of the desert research station is marked by continuity of staff and purpose. Dr Mary Seely became the director of Gobabeb after the first head of the outpost, Dr Charles (also known as Charley) Koch, had passed away in 1970. Dr Seely directed the station and its research for over three decades, supervising various research projects and obtaining funding for the support organisation, the Desert Reseach Foundation (DRFN), domiciled in Windhoek, which she serves executive director. She is the author and co-author of dozens of publications, some of which serve as desert guides for tourists.

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