In the northern corner of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, the Welwitschia Drive is perhaps best treated as a short excursion from Swakopmund. Don't forget to get a permit first.
This is a route through the desert along which are 13 numbered stone beacons at points of particular interest. It takes about four hours to drive, stopping at each place to get out and explore, and culminates at one of the country's largest, and hence oldest, welwitschia plants.
An excellent, detailed booklet – well worth getting – is available from the NWR to cover this route. However as it is often difficult to obtain here's a brief outline of the different points of interest at the beacons:
1 Lichen field
Look carefully at the ground to see these small 'plants', which are in fact the result of a symbiotic relationship (ie: a mutually beneficial relationship between two organisms, each depending on the other for its survival) between an alga, producing food by photosynthesis, and a fungus, providing a physical structure. If you look closely, you'll see many different types of lichen. Some are thought to be hundreds of years old, and all are exceedingly fragile and vulnerable.
2 Drought-resistant bushes
Two types of bush found all over the Namib are the dollar bush, so called because its leaves are the size of a dollar coin, and the ink bush. Both can survive without rain for years.
3 Tracks of ox-wagons
Although made decades ago, these are still visible here, showing clearly the damage that can so easily be done to the lichen fields by driving over them.
4 The moonscape
This is an unusual and spectacular view, usually called the moonscape, looking over a landscape formed by the valleys of the Swakop River. It is best seen in the slanting light of early morning or late afternoon.
5 More lichen fields
These remarkable plants can extract all their moisture requirements from the air. To simulate the dramatic effect that a morning fog can have, simply sprinkle a little water on one and watch carefully for a few minutes.
6 This is another impressive view of the endless moonscape.
7 Old South African camp
This is the site of an old military camp, occupied for just a few days during World War I.
8 Turn left at this marker to visit the next few beacons.
9 A dolorite dyke
These dark strips of rock, which are a common feature of this part of the Namib, were formed when molten lava welled up through cracks in the existing grey granite. After cooling it formed dark, hard bands of rock which resisted erosion more than the granite – and thus has formed the spine of many ridges in the area.
10 The Swakop River Valley
Picnicking in the riverbed, with a profusion of tall trees around, you might find it difficult to believe that you are in a desert. It could be said that you're not – after all, this rich vegetation is not made up of desert adapted species. It includes wild tamarisk (Tamarix usurious), and anaboom (Acacia albida), better known for its occurrence in the humid Zambezi valley almost 1,000 miles east – sustained by underground water percolating through the sands beneath your feet.
11 Welwitschia Flats
This barren, open expanse of gravel and sand is home to the Namib's most celebrated plant, the endemic Welwitschia mirabilis. These plants are found only in the Namib, and at just a few locations which suit their highly adapted biology.
12 The big welwitschia
This beacon marks the end of the trail, and one of the largest Welwitschia mirabilis known – estimated at over 1,500 years old.
13 Old mine workings
On the way back to Swakopmund, continue straight past beacon 8, without turning right. Where the road joins route C28 to Swakopmund, marked by this final beacon, is one of the desert's old mine workings. In the 1950s iron ore was mined by hand here. Now it is just another reminder of the park's chequered past.