05 April 2012 | Reiseberichte

Where dunes and ocean meet

Progress through the thick sand along the beach is slow. While the off-road vehicle is labouring hard, tour guide Nico Robberts is surprisingly relaxed steering his car along the difficult route he seems to have negotiated many times before.
"The track along this stretch of shoreline is so deep the tires practically find their own way", he laughs and adds: "This section of the route is however relatively short. In a moment the road will turn even closer to the water's edge where at times it's impassable even during low tide. People who are unfamiliar with the area are thus strongly discouraged from trying to reach Sandwich Harbour on their own."

Soon afterwards it becomes apparent what Robberts means. The steep dune belt to the left of the track and the ocean to the right start moving diagonally towards each other and form a funnel becoming ever narrower on the way ahead. "That's the most treacherous part of the journey", declares Roberts and pauses to observe the reaction of his four fellow passengers. When realizing his announcement has had the desired effect of increasing the anticipation among his already excited guests, eagerly waiting to proceed, he puts the vehicle in motion again.

With every passing meter travelled the dune belt and shore line move closer towards each other until they almost merge in a bottleneck intermittently covered by waves obscuring the previously clearly visible track. In some areas the beach sand gives way to rocky bedrock covered in sea water and hiding some dangerous depressions and cavities underneath.
Robberts, who has been working as tour guide for Sandwich Harbour 4x4 (http://www.sandwich-harbour.com/) since the start of the company in 2009, brings the vehicle to a standstill and let's the tourists disembark. Some of them start scaling the steep dune on one side of the vehicle while others wander along the beach collecting drift wood, shells and stones. When everybody has assembled around the car again Roberts explains: "This section of the route is very treacherous because the motion of the waves produces a constant change in the soil conditions and creates unstable pits filled with quick sand where unsuspecting drivers can easily get trapped. For that very reason the lagoon at Sandwich Harbour is sometimes inaccessible even during low tide."

The large natural tidal lagoon is fed with brackish fresh water seeping through the dunes surrounding it and is situated about 55 kilometres south of the harbour town Walvis Bay. The bay owes its existence to the fresh water sustaining an array of plants which in turn stabilize the dunes and prevent them from silting up the lagoon.

Beside that the fresh water accumulating in the lagoon plays another vital role: It supports an array of animals including springbok, ostrich, black backed jackal and the elusive brown hyena. In addition a large variety of small reptiles, insects and birds are found in the area, among them lizard, gecko and beetles as well as flamingos, pelicans and a variety of terns and waders, making the area a hot spot for ornithologists and being the main reason for it's status as "Wetland of International Importance".
First surveyed in the 1880s by the Royal Navy the vicinity around Sandwich Harbour has an eventful history few people are aware of. Initially used as a convenient site for small scale whaling, trading and fishing and housing some temporary settlements for seasonal fishermen, its commercial value declined as the lagoon silted up, catches got poorer, equipment broke down and provisions got scarce resulting in poor health of the resident fishermen.

Although its name may suggest otherwise the area was never actually a port or used as harbour. Rather its name seems derived from an English whaler called Sandwich operating in the mid-1780s whose captain is believed to have produced the first map of the area.
After efforts to use the site for whaling purposes largely failed, various other enterprises were started ranging from building a guano island in the lagoon to shark-oil extraction, sealing and establishing an abattoir. All of these ventures were eventually aborted, mostly falling victim to the harsh elements and isolation of the area.
The most overambitious of these doomed projects must be the futile attempt to establish a meat canning plant at Sandwich Harbour. The unsuitable site was chosen by the German company involved because Swakopmund lacked both a jetty and harbour while Walvis Bay was British territory at the time and had no fresh water.
Sandwich Harbour on the other hand seemed a good choice at the time because it offered a protected bay and fresh water. These advantages could however not compensate for the many drawbacks of the site, the main ones being its isolation and the fact that it was surrounded by dunes, making transport by ox-wagon impossible.

As a result cattle purchased in Walvis Bay and Swakopmund had to be moved to Sandwich Harbour along the beach and over dunes without food or water, their condition deteriorating rapidly during the journey. In addition the slaughtering process was hampered by sand and meat meant for export went off because the tins it was packaged in were of poor quality and didn't seal properly.
Today few visible remnants tell of the long faded dream to use the area commercially. Most of the dilapidated structures that remain are in the process of being reclaimed by the sand, restoring the untouched beauty of the remote site, still exuding a special magnetism on the few visitors privileged to see it.
Sandwich Harbour 4x4 - Walvis Bay - Namibia
Naude & Katja Dreyer
[email protected]
Tel. +264 64 207663
Fax. +264 88 64 5452
Cell. +264 81 147 3933

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