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Gobabeb - Where three desert worlds meet

Avatar of inke inke - 10. April 2015 - Discover Namibia

Gobabeb with its striking water tower. Photo: Senta Frank

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?   

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 annual summer desertification programme also shows that Gobabeb is not an ivory tower where eccentric scientists lose themselves in minute detail. On the contrary, 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.   

The location for the station was carefully chosen. At Gobabeb the Namib shows its multifaceted nature. The desert comes in many forms and shapes. Sand dunes, mountains, gravel plains and dry riverbeds in an arid area provide different habitats with very specific conditions for plants and animals. 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. Since Gobabeb is 60 kilometres from the coast as the crow flies, coastal fog makes it there only on 37 days a year on average. This leaves the Kuiseb River as the most reliable source of water. When in flood after sufficient rain in its catchment area that starts close to Windhoek, the river's surface water may reach Gobabeb. The Kuiseb River always flows subterraneously and therefore forms a long linear oasis in the Namib.  

This also explains why the research projects largely aim at results with functional applications. Special nets for "milking" fog (up to 3.3 litres per square metre during a very foggy night) are one example. In addition the station takes great care to base its operations on sustainability:
- more than 90 percent of electricity and hot water needs are met by solar energy
- the kitchen uses two solar cookers (box and parabolic cooker)
- waste water is recycled by a treatment plant
- organic waste is fed to goats belonging to neighbouring Topnaar communities
- recyclable waste is sorted and taken to recycling companies in Walvis Bay
- the most recent buildings were constructed with clay bricks made from Kuiseb mud which insulate well (interiors remain cool in summer, warm in winter)   

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. This institution has more than earned the sheet of three stamps that NamPost issued in 2012 on the occasion of Gobabeb's 50-year jubilee.

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