Camel expedition conquers the highest dunes on Earth - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection
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Camel expedition conquers the highest dunes on Earth

Avatar of inke inke - 10. June 2016 - Discover Namibia

Two dromedaries with a South African and a German saddle (on the right) respectively. Source: National Archives of Namibia

These days the dune belt between Walvis Bay and Lüderitz is a popular 4x4 route. At the start of the 20th century, however, intrepid explorers ventured into it without any resources worth mentioning. Most of the expeditions which attempted to cross the Namib from east to west, south of 24 degrees latitude, did not make it very far because they simply got stuck in the sand. In 1909 Georg M. Stillger became the first European who managed to reach the Atlantic coast by crossing the dunes with camels. In a supplement, published on 19 June 1909, the Lüderitzbuchter Zeitung reported about Stillger’s expedition which had set out from Sesriem.

Georg M. Stillger had seen to it that his camels were prepared well for the expedition. None of the earlier expeditions which had followed the seasonal Tsauchab River to the west with oxen, horses or mules had made it across the high dunes at Sossusvlei.

“Mr Georg M. Stillger left Bethanien at the end of April with camels which had already been trained. His route took him via Aubrus right through Sessriem [sic], where he arrived in the middle of May. First he travelled along the edge of the Namib, an area which is very favourable for farming. Fertile soil, sufficient supplies of water, game in a rare abundance – this will probably make the land next to the Namib a desirable object of purchase very soon. Once again the Colonial Society can look forward to significant sources of income.”

Georg M. Stillger reached Sesriem in the middle of May. Several other expeditions were already there. They intended to cross the Namib with oxen and mules. On 30 May 1909 Stillger set off into the dunes with his camels and helpers. He was fully aware that they were now tackling the toughest part of the expedition.

“We were able to follow the Tsauchab towards west for only about 40 kilometres. Then the way was blocked by a dune rising vertically for more than 200 metres. Up to that point we had negotiated several dunes without too much difficulty. Now it took the camels about eight hours to get to the top of that large dune. If they hadn’t experienced the earlier hardship in the southern Namib and if they hadn’t been familiar with the drifting sand which sinks away under your step, they probably would have failed here. Thus far everybody has been adamant that it is totally out of the question to cross the aforementioned dune belt from this particular spot, but that opinion has now been brilliantly refuted by the perseverance of Mr Stillger and the trained animals. As is generally known, expeditions led by Major Maerker, by Voigts and others did not manage to cross the dune belt. The expanse of the dunes cannot be calculated and they had to climb over another 50 to 60 dunes, though not of the towering height as the one at the start. They barely covered 80 kilometres in seven days characterized by deprivation. In this whole stretch of desert, the sandy part, there was nothing for the camels to feed on and they had to be content with puny helpings of rice. Many skeletons were scattered in the dunes, of gemsbok which had died of thirst or starved to death!”

Stillger had planned to use camels on his expedition for good reason. The even-toed ungulates have roamed the deserts of Asia and Africa for thousands of years and over the ages adapted to the inhospitable conditions: the heat, large fluctuations in temperature, sandstorms, scarcity of food and water. Camels are protected from overheating and water loss by their shape and special body functions, and they have their own internal energy and water storage system. The body temperature of camels is more variable than that of most other mammals and can fluctuate by six to eight degrees, which considerably reduces sweating. Camels survive a water loss of 120 litres, some 40 percent of their body weight, without coming to harm. They can go without drinking any water for up to two weeks. Dromedaries, the camels with a single hump, were used as draft animals in German South West Africa.  

The humps are a reservoir of fatty tissue. When metabolized the tissue becomes a source of energy which can sustain the camel for up to one month. The thick wide pads on their feet spread out on the ground to keep the camel steady and prevent it from sinking into the sand. Two nose flaps allow camels to open and close their slit-shaped nostrils at will to protect them against inhaling sand. All these physical characteristics of a camel contributed to the success of Stillger’s expedition. 

“On the sixth day (June 6th), after crossing nothing but sand dunes, the expedition reached the sea at Hollam Birds’ Island (24.5 parallel degree). There they considered whether they should continue to Sandwich Harbour or to Lüderitzbucht. Mr Stillger decided to head for the latter. Turning back to their starting point would have been unthinkable. For four days they moved south along the coast. In places where the dunes push far into the sea they had to wade through water which reached up to their chests even at low tide. This was extremely dangerous and Mr Stillger once escaped certain death when a mass of sand collapsed only after he had passed it. Had this happened any earlier it would have been his end because the flood was coming in and there was no way back. At the Oster Cliffs, which are probably around 35 kilometres north of Spencer Bay, the coast starts to form a proper beach to walk on. The way from Spencer Bay to Lüderitzbucht, where Mr Stillger arrived on 11 June, is already known. The first waterhole is south of Spencer Bay.”

Stillger’s expedition from Bethanien to Lüderitzbucht took six weeks and covered some 700 kilometres in total. He attributed his success to good planning and preparation, the careful selection of camels and the company of reliable local helpers.

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