Visions of Namibia

I visited Namibia for the first time in November 2013. What I experienced was far beyond my expectations. I found it to be a land of contradictions. It is a place where you can experience daily fog in the desert. Where you may have to wear a coat in the tropics. It has some of the oldest land and human artifacts on Earth, yet it is one of the youngest countries in the world.

It is also a spectacular place for photography. You could almost throw your camera in the air and be guaranteed a great photo.

This collection is the result of a five day trip I took into the Namib Desert and a shorter two day trip to Damaraland to visit the ancient rock carvings of Twyfelfontein. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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UNESCO World Heritage Site #269: Vredefort Dome

UNESCO World Heritage Site #269: Vredefort Dome
UNESCO World Heritage Site #269: Vredefort Dome

From the World Heritage inscription:

Vredefort Dome, approximately 120 km south-west of Johannesburg, is a representative part of a larger meteorite impact structure (astrobleme). Dating back 2,023 million years, it is the oldest astrobleme found on Earth so far. With a radius of 190 km, it is also the largest and the most deeply eroded. Vredefort Dome bears witness to the world’s greatest known single energy-release event, which caused devastating global change, including, according to some scientists, major evolutionary changes. It provides critical evidence of the Earth’s geological history and is crucial to our understanding of the evolution of the planet. Despite this, geological activity on the Earth’s surface has led to the disappearance of evidence from most impact sites and Vredefort is the only example to provide a full geological profile of an astrobleme below the crater floor, allowing research into the genesis and development of an astrobleme immediately post-impact.

The site contains high quality and accessible geological (outcrop) sites that demonstrate a range of geological evidences of a complex meteorite impact structure. The rural and natural landscapes of the serial property help to portray the magnitude of the ring structures resulting from the impact.

This is one of the oddest world heritage site visits I’ve ever had.

For natural sites such as these, there is normally a national park or something which is associated with the site. Visiting the site usually means visiting the park. It is so straightforward that I usually never even have to think about it.

The Vredefort Dome was a totally different experience.

The dome is very interesting from a geological standpoint. It is a very unique place and offers geologists a glimpse at something which they can’t see anywhere else in the world. If you look at the area from a satellite image, you can clearly see the crescent of hills which make up the crater. (Click to see how it looks from space)

From a visitor standpoint, the dome leaves something to be desired.

For starters, the visitors center is closed. It looks abandoned actually. From the comments I’ve read on Trip Advisor, it seems to have been closed for over a year and it was closed due to safety standards.

Then, I found out that there is no park. In fact, all of the land is privately owned. This left me scratching my head as to what it actually was I was visiting. It was basically some hills in a large, grassy region.

Eventually, I found a road where you can drive through the hills, which is the best way to experience the site beyond taking a private tour.

To do the drive, head to the town of Parys and take the R500 out of town. Turn left on the R53 until you see a brown road sign on the left side of the road with the World Heritage logo. This is a gravel road which will loop around and back into Parys. You should roughly be following the Vaal River along most of the road.

A GPS enabled map will be a huge help when taking this drive. DO NOT put “Vredefort Dome” into Google Maps as it will take you to the middle of a farm field.

Hopefully the visitor center will reopen at some point in the future.

The Vredefort Dome is located approximately 2 hours south of Johannesburg by car.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #268: Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls

UNESCO World Heritage Site #268: Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls
UNESCO World Heritage Site #268: Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls is the world’s greatest sheet of falling water and significant worldwide for its exceptional geological and geomorphological features and active land formation processes with outstanding beauty attributed to the falls i.e. the spray, mist and rainbows. This transboundary property extends over 6860 ha and comprises 3779 ha of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (Zambia), 2340 ha of Victoria Falls National Park (Zimbabwe), 741 ha of the riverine strip of Zambezi National Park (Zimbabwe). A riverine strip of the Zambezi National Park extending 9 km west along the right bank of the Zambezi and islands in the river are all within the Park as far as Palm and Kandahar Islands, with the Victoria Falls being one of the major attractions. The waterfall stands at an altitude of about 915 m above mean sea level (a.m.s.l.) and spans to about 1708 m wide with an average depth of 100 m and the deepest point being 108 m. Sprays from this giant waterfall can be seen from a distance of 30 km from the Lusaka road, Zambia and 50 km from Bulawayo road, Zimbabwe. Basalts have been cut by a river system producing a series of eightspectacular gorges that serve as breeding sites for four species of endangered birds. The basalts of the Victoria Falls World Heritage property are layered unlike those of the Giants Causeway World Heritage site which are vertical and columnar.

I’m sure most people are already aware of Victoria Falls. Widely considered one of the natural wonders of the world, the reality actually lives up to the hype.

Straddling the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, the falls are the largest waterfall in the world as measured by volume of water. If you visit when the water is high, like I did in February, the mist can be so great that it is often difficult to impossible to even see the falls.

If you visit during the wet season, expect to get drenched. The mist can be so strong that there is a perpetual rain nearby. My ability to take photos was seriously hampered by the mist many times.

Visiting the falls can be done from either side of the border. I’d recommend crossing the border to experience both sides, regardless of which side you come from. If you come in via Zimbabwe, they offer a dual entry visa for US$45 and you can get a day trip visa to Zambia for just US$20. Park fees are US$30 on the Zimbabwe side and $20 on the Zambian side.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa
UNESCO World Heritage Site #267: Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa

From the World Heritage inscription:

The undulating landscape containing the fossil hominid sites of South Africa comprises dolomitic limestone ridges with rocky outcrops and valley grasslands, wooded along watercourses and in areas of natural springs. Most sites are in caves or are associated with rocky outcrops or water sources. The serial listing includes the Fossil Hominid Sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and Environs, and the Makapan Valley and Taung Skull Fossil Site. The Taung Skull, found in a limestone quarry at Dart Pinnacle amongst numerous archaeological and palaeontological sites south-west of the Sterkfontein Valley area, is a specimen of the species Australopithecus Africanus. Fossils found in the many archaeological caves of the Makapan Valley have enabled the identification of several specimens of early hominids, more particularly of Paranthropus, dating back between 4.5 million and 2.5 million years, as well as evidence of the domestication of fire 1.8 million to 1 million years ago. Collectively these sites have produced abundant scientific information on the evolution of modern humans over at least the past 3.5 million years. They constitute a vast reserve of scientific information, with enormous potential.

The sites contain within their deposits all of the key interrelated and interdependent elements in their palaeontological relationships. Alongside and predating the hominid period of occupation is a sequence of fossil mammals, micro-mammals and invertebrates which provide a window onto faunal evolution, palaeobiology and palaeoecology stretching back into the Pliocene. This record has come to play a crucial role in furthering our understanding of human evolution and the appearance of modern human behaviour .

The fossil evidence contained within these sites proves conclusively that the African continent is the undisputed Cradle of Humankind.

Before I even arrived, I knew I was in for trouble. Every other time I’ve visited a paleontology world heritage site, I’ve faced the same problem: there is nothing to photograph! What makes the site significant are the fossils which have been unearthed and put into museums. Usually my only options are the visitor center or the landscape surrounding it. As you can see, I went for one of the original skulls currently residing in the museum.

That being said, the Cradle of Civilization site in Gauteng Province was unlike any other world heritage site I have ever visited. It is what it would look like if Disney ran a world heritage site. The visitor center was more of a science museum. They actually had a boat ride and an artificial canal inside the building! It was easily the best, most elaborate visitor center I’ve seen in my years of traveling and visits to several hundred world heritage sites. It appears to have been designed to handle the many school trips for all the students in the greater Johannesburg area.

The site is actually a serial site with several locations scattered around an area the size of a large city. The Cradle of Civilization is the main site, but there are others which can be visited. In particular, the Sterkfontein Caves are only a few kilometers from the visitor center, but were closed due to flooding during my visit.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape
UNESCO World Heritage Site #266: Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape demonstrates the rise and fall of the first indigenous kingdom in Southern Africa between 900 and 1,300 AD. The core area covers nearly 30,000 ha and is supported by a suggested buffer zone of around 100,000 ha. Within the collectively known Zhizo sites are the remains of three capitals – Schroda; Leopard’s Kopje; and the final one located around Mapungubwe hill – and their satellite settlements and lands around the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe rivers whose fertility supported a large population within the kingdom.

Mapungubwe’s position at the crossing of the north/south and east/west routes in southern Africa also enabled it to control trade, through the East African ports to India and China, and throughout southern Africa. From its hinterland it harvested gold and ivory – commodities in scarce supply elsewhere – and this brought it great wealth as displayed through imports such as Chinese porcelain and Persian glass beads.

This international trade also created a society that was closely linked to ideological adjustments, and changes in architecture and settlement planning. Until its demise at the end of the 13th century AD, Mapungubwe was the most important inland settlement in the African subcontinent and the cultural landscape contains a wealth of information in archaeological sites that records its development. The evidence reveals how trade increased and developed in a pattern influenced by an elite class with a sacred leadership where the king was secluded from the commoners located in the surrounding settlements.

Mapungubwe’s demise was brought about by climatic change. During its final two millennia, periods of warmer and wetter conditions suitable for agriculture in the Limpopo/Shashe valley were interspersed with cooler and drier pulses. When rainfall decreased after 1300 AD, the land could no longer sustain a high population using traditional farming methods, and the inhabitants were obliged to disperse. Mapungubwe’s position as a power base shifted north to Great Zimbabwe and, later, Khami.

The remains of this famous kingdom, when viewed against the present day fauna and flora, and the geo-morphological formations of the Limpopo/Shashe confluence, create an impressive cultural landscape of universal significance.

Having visited hundreds of world heritage sites, the term ‘cultural landscape’ always throws up a red flag for me. It is a catch all term for places which don’t have obvious artifacts or ruins. Some make for an OK visit, others leave me scratching my head.

Mapungubwe is certainly important in terms of African history. There is a lot which happened there. There was one of the most significant kingdoms to have arisen in early Africa and many important artifacts have been found at the site.

As I suspected, you aren’t going to see ruins or the remains of ancient structures during your visit. The landscape is interesting in its own right, but the history of the site isn’t explicitly tangible on the ground.

To get a sense of the history of the place you need to stop in the museum/interpretative center to get the whole story. Many of the original artifacts where were found are on display, including the most famous piece, the gold rhino.

Getting to Mapungubwe is not easy. It is located at the extreme northern end of South Africa on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe. It is at least a 6 hour drive from Johannesburg with little in the way of towns and cities surrounding it. The closest town is Musina, which is a 45 minute drive away.

While there are camping options available in the park, I found that most of the major attractions could be seen self-driving within 2 hours. There are also guided tours available several times a day.

One thing of interest can be seen in the image above. In it, you can see three different countries: South Africa (foreground), Botswana (the island and left side of the river), and Zimbabwe (the right side of the river).

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

UNESCO World Heritage Site #265:  iSimangaliso Wetland Park
UNESCO World Heritage Site #265: iSimangaliso Wetland Park

From the World Heritage inscription:

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park is one of the outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites of Africa. Covering an area of 239,566 ha, it includes a wide range of pristine marine, coastal, wetland, estuarine, and terrestrial environments which are scenically beautiful and basically unmodified by people. These include coral reefs, long sandy beaches, coastal dunes, lake systems, swamps, and extensive reed and papyrus wetlands, providing critical habitat for a wide range of species from Africa’s seas, wetlands and savannahs. The interaction of these environments with major floods and coastal storms in the Park’s transitional location has resulted in continuing speciation and exceptional species diversity. Its vivid natural spectacles include nesting turtles and large aggregations of flamingos and other waterfowl.

The property consists of 13 separate but contiguous conservation units totalling 239,566 ha including some 85,000 ha of marine reserves. Its history of conservation management dates back to 1895 when the first reserves were created by the Zululand Government, and later proposals for titanium sand mining were rejected. Ongoing integrity issues include the protection of catchment area and regional development (upstream water abstraction, agricultural practices and road construction); land claims (which may result in further boundary issues); resource harvesting and local community issues; and restoration of degraded habitats. A unified management system for all 13 components was also requested.

The park is not inhabited by people apart from six small townships in the Kosi Bay Coastal Forest Reserve (insert current number of inhabitants). There are also two villages (Makakatana and St Lucia Estuary) which are enclaves within the Park but not part of it. About 100,000 people from 48 tribal groups live in villages surrounding the Park and community conservation programmes are key to minimising conflicts and maximising benefits. A progressive neighbour-relations policy fosters good relations with communities who live near the Park to ensure that they derive direct benefits from the protected area such as free access, business and employment.

iSimangaliso was the first world heritage site in South Africa, having been inscribed to the list in 1999. Just a 2.5 hour drive north of Durban, it offers one of the best opportunities to view hippos in all of Africa. During my two days in St. Lucia, I saw hippos, cape buffalo, zebras, warthogs, eagles and antelope. The wildlife was abundant and in a very different environment than where you would normally take an African safari.

Even though most people (including myself) only visit the area around St. Lucia, the world heritage area extends all the way up to Mozambique, making it one of the largest protected areas in South Africa. Kruger National Park gets most of the attention in South Africa because it is an opportunity to view the big five, but iSimangaliso should be on everyone’s list as well. The animals and environment are different, but no less impressive. Given its close proximity to Durban, it should be considered part of your South African adventure.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

UNESCO World Heritage Site #264: Maloti-Drakensberg Park

UNESCO World Heritage Site #264: Maloti-Drakensberg Park
UNESCO World Heritage Site #264: Maloti-Drakensberg Park

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Maloti-Drakensberg Park is a transboundary site composed of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park in South Africa and the Sehlathebe National Park in Lesotho. The site has exceptional natural beauty in its soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The site’s diversity of habitats protects a high level of endemic and globally important plants. The site harbors endangered species such as the Cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres) and the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). Lesotho’s Sehlabathebe National Park also harbors the Maloti minnow (Pseudobarbus quathlambae), a critically endangered fish species only found in this park. This spectacular natural site contains many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara. They represent the spiritual life of the San people, who lived in this area over a period of 4,000 years.

One of the pleasures of visiting World Heritage Sites is discovering great places you didn’t know about before hand. I had heard of the Drakensberg Mountains before I visited, but really knew nothing about them. I found them to be unlike anything I’ve seen South Africa. Mountainous and green, it was almost like driving through a well manicured lawn.

Maloti-Drakensberg is one of a small number of mixed world heritage sites which have been recognized for both their cultural and natural value. In addition to the stunning scenery, there are also Sani bushmen paintings scattered throughout the park. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of the paintings on my trip, but it would be the top priority on any return visits I make.

I did a day trip through the Drakensberg, up the Sani Pass, to Lesotho. The winding, gravel Sani Pass is the only road which connects the state of Kwazulu-Natal to the mountainous country of Lesotho. I wouldn’t attempt to drive up the Sani Pass yourself unless you have a sturdy 4×4 vehicle. It is probably easiest to join a tour for the Sani Pass. The rest of the park can be explored on your own.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.