How the Gobabeb research centre contributes to finding solutions to Namibia’s desertification problems

How does the Dancing White Lady spider find its way back to its den in an almost straight line after hours of zigzagging about? What can we do to prevent deserts from spreading? And above all, where do we get answers to such interesting and vital questions?

Gobabeb with its striking water tower. Photo: Senta Frank

Gobabeb with its striking water tower. Photo: Senta Frank

The last question can easily be answered: some 100 kilometres southeast of the coastal town of Walvis Bay, at the Gobabeb Desert Research Station on the northern bank of the Kuiseb River. Established in 1962, it is visited by more than a hundred scientists each year who conduct research projects on site or avail themselves of the specialised literature. With more than 20,000 publications and 30 journals Gobabeb is the most significant information centre worldwide on the subject of the Namib Desert and arid areas in general.

Gobabeb not only conducts research, however, but also provides training, hence the official name “Gobabeb Research and Training Centre”. Some 2000 students and pupils flock to the station every year to learn about the desert world. The programme raises young people’s awareness of the fragile ecosystems in arid areas and strives to find practical solutions for the problem of desertification that affects many people in a life-threatening way. Furthermore, the research station is experimenting with environmentally friendly technologies.

Gobabeb has more than earned the sheet of three stamps that NamPost issued in 2012 on the occasion its 50-year jubilee. Source: Nampost, artist: Anja Denker

Gobabeb has more than earned the sheet of three stamps that NamPost issued in 2012 on the occasion its 50-year jubilee. Source: Nampost, artist: Anja Denker

The location for the station was carefully chosen. Gobabeb is situated on the bank of Kuiseb River which separates the sandsea in the south from the gravel plains in the north. Thus the station has three significant desert habitats right on its doorstep. The area is part of the Namib-Naukluft Park and therefore protected.

At Gobabeb water is available from three sources: rain, fog and the river. There is not much of any of it, however. Average annual rainfall is about 25 millimetres, but this is very irregular and patchy and some years there is not a single drop of rain.

This explains why the research projects as e.g. the generation of water largely aim at results with functional applications. Furthermore, the research station is experimenting with environmentally friendly technologies. More than 90 percent of electricity and hot water needs are met by solar energy. The the kitchen uses two solar cookers

All of this shows that Gobabeb is three things in one: research station, educational centre and model showcase for man’s sustainable utilisation of scarce natural resources.

Do you want to explore the Namib Desert? Visit the Namib Dune Star Camp for an out of this world desert experience.

Namib Dune Star Camp. Image : Scott Hurd

Namib Dune Star Camp. Image : Scott Hurd

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How did the whales in Walvisbay become endangered?

They are powerful and gentle, inquisitive and wise, compassionate and social. Nevertheless whales have been hunted worldwide for centuries because of the many products that they provide: food, oil, gelatine, soap and basic ingredients for cosmetics and medicines. Whaling stations were also set up on the South West African coast, the first one in Walvis Bay in 1912 and another one the following year at Sturmvogelbucht near Lüderitz. The latter was in operation for two years only.

The whaling station in Walvis Bay. It was completely destroyed by a fire on 31 May 1950.  (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

The whaling station in Walvis Bay. It was completely destroyed by a fire on 31 May 1950. (Source: Namibia Scientific Society)

Walvis Bay was in fact established because of the large pods of whales that were once a common feature along this coast. Portuguese seafarers back in the 16th century called the bay Bahia das Bahleas (the Bay of Whales). The cold Benguela Current is rich in plankton and other nutrients and thus makes the South Atlantic an ideal feeding ground for whales. In 1726 the Dutch West India Company sent commercial whalers to the South West African coast. American, French and Norwegian whalers followed from 1780 onward and hunted Southern Right and Humpback whales to such an extent that both species were on the verge of extinction early last century.

Whale bones are loaded onto railway trucks.  (Source: National Archives)

Whale bones are loaded onto railway trucks. (Source: National Archives)

The most extensive whaling took place in the coastal waters of southern Africa. With the exception of Antarctica the largest number of whales worldwide was caught around the tip of Africa. Between 1908 and 1930 a shocking 73,500 whales were killed – twice as many off the Atlantic coast than off the Indian Ocean coast.

A whale in front of the whaling station in Walvis Bay. (Source: National Archives)

A whale in front of the whaling station in Walvis Bay. (Source: National Archives)

Two whaling companies operated in the “Bay of Whales” in 1912.  The Walfish Bay Whaling Company Ltd ran a whaling station while the Durban Whaling Company Ltd operated a factory ship. A total of 527 whales were caught during the 1912 whaling season and another 508, though mostly smaller ones, the following year. For the first time some thought was given to the protection of this endangered species, but the First World War broke out before any steps could be taken. Whaling was resumed in 1923 and 296 whales were caught.

As the numbers of whales dropped and large factory ships were introduced, the whaling station at Walvis Bay lost its importance. Processing operations were closed down in 1930, but repair work at the docks continued. The whaling station was completely destroyed by a fire on 31 May 1950 and finally closed down.

During the 1930s the League of Nations made first attempts to limit whaling, but with not much success. In 1948, some of the largest whaling nations refused to sign the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and still refuse to do so today. From the 1960s onwards many whale species were added to the Red List of Endangered Species. This has led to the gradual recovery of endangered whale populations.

A blue whale is pulled ashore via the slipway for processing.  (Source: National Archives)

A blue whale is pulled ashore via the slipway for processing. (Source: National Archives)

These days whales are occasionally spotted again off the Walvis Bay coast, in particular Humpback and Southern Right whales that come to the area between July and November to calve and to mate. Sometimes a whale beaches and causes great excitement. The giants of the oceans are back!

Humpback whales can be spotted along the Namibian coastline. (Photo: Wanetta Ayers, Wikipedia)

Humpback whales can be spotted along the Namibian coastline. (Photo: Wanetta Ayers, Wikipedia)

 

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Why biltong is considered by Namibians to be an “all round cure”

Take a few strips of high quality raw meat, coat it with vinegar, salt, coriander, black pepper and sugar and hang it in an airy dry space protected from flies. About two weeks later your biltong is ready. The mouths of most Namibians and South Africans water at the mere thought of well-seasoned dried meat.

“From potholes to politicians, there’s much to depress South Africans these days. Fortunately there’s one thing that cheers up the cheerless, consoles the disconsolate and saves the lost. This gift from the gods is called biltong.”

Delicately spiced biltong strips at the Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

Delicately spiced biltong strips at the Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

In an article published in the June 2011 issue of Go! Magazine, author Buks Barnard sings the praise of the dried meat speciality as a cure-all. If young Namibians and South Africans suffer an attack of homesickness while doing a stint abroad, a nice piece of biltong definitely works wonders, he reckons. And tourists to southern Africa are also beginning to acquire a taste for biltong and have adopted the habit of packing some as a travel snack.

Barnard claims that biltong even has a placating effect on the fans of inveterate sports rivals. The peacemaking quality of a piece of dried meat can best be observed during the heat of a rugby match between the Stormers and Blue Bulls in Newlands in Cape Town, he says. In South Africa and Namibia you have to nibble on biltong when watching a game of rugby – and you share your biltong, too…

The 2011 Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

The 2011 Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

The biltong tradition started more than 300 years ago. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck established a victualling station at the Cape of Good Hope to supply provisions for the ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on their long journey to Indonesia. Soon afterwards the first European settlers followed. Left to their own devices in an untamed country, one of the many challenges faced by the settlers was the preservation of food, particularly meat. After a successful hunt they hung strips of meat from their ox wagons. The meat dried, spices, the basic ingredient that transforms ordinary meat into tasty biltong, were not in short supply at the Cape – thanks to the East India trade.

Many different biltong specialities are on offer at the Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

Many different biltong specialities are on offer at the Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

Biltong fanatic Buks Barnard has firm principles when it comes to buying his favourite snack. First of all you should not count your pennies, he says. The meat has to be of the highest quality and it has to be from the ‘right’ area. Next, the meat must be expertly cut: with the grain, not against it. If the salesperson wants to put biltong into a plastic bag, Buks is tempted to leave the shop immediately. He prefers a brown paper bag. Buks likes to carve his biltong with his pocketknife, piece by little piece as required, but for a trip he takes ready-cut, bite-sized pieces. Oh, and lastly, Afrikaans is the language to speak when buying biltong.

Enjoy!

Christian is happy to be paid with biltong for his work at the Biltong Festival (“sal werk vir biltong”).

Christian is happy to be paid with biltong for his work at the Biltong Festival (“sal werk vir biltong”).

Sources :

Buks Barnard: Biltong: The key to world peace; Go!, p. 82f, June 2011

http://en.wiki.org/wiki/Biltong

http://www.vandermerwebiltong.co.uk/History-of-Biltong-15-w.asp

http://www.suedafrika-insider.com/essen/biltong.html

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kapkolonie

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