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How does one know that the Namib is the oldest desert on earth? And that the ostrich originates in Namibia? The answer to both questions is the same and it is revealed by the fossilised dunes of the Namib, or rather, UNDERNEATH the Namib Desert. Largely covered by the sand sea of the ‘young’ Namib, the ancient sandstone layers become visible only here and there. One of the most beautiful sites – apart from the Tsondab Canyon close to Solitaire, which is closed to the public – is found in Gondwana Namib Park, some 30 km south of Solitaire. There the russet sandstone, known as Tsondab sandstone, has been exposed and cut into by an ancient river. Guests of Namib Desert Lodge spend the night right at the foot of the fossilised dunes or at the camping site with views of the dunes-turned-into-stone.

These former dunes were already there about 20 million years ago. The sand compacted into sandstone during more humid phases 16 to 8 million years ago. But desert conditions prevailed in many parts of today’s Namib even during ‘humid’ periods. That is the reason why experts regard the Namib as the oldest desert on earth.

Petrified sand dunes, Kuiseb River (25 Cent), issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

Petrified sand dunes, Kuiseb River (25 Cent), issued in 1986, artist: Johan van Niekerk

The stretch of sand sea which is 80 km wide and now extends from Walvis Bay to Lüderitz was formed much later. The sand, by the way, is erosional debris from the Drakensberg Mountains. It was washed into the Atlantic Ocean by the Gariep/Orange River and deposited on the sea floor and along the western coastline. Constant south-westerly winds carried the sand into the interior and over millions of years swept it into huge fields of sand and dunes.

The fossilised dunes answer the question about the origin of the ostrich only when you take the time to stroll about and scrutinize the ground. You will find that here the Tsondab sandstone is extremely rich in plant and animal fossils. Roots have left their traces, for example, and tunnels of ants, termites, beetles and spiders are discernible. Even spider webs have been preserved – a rarity! A word of warning: collecting of fossils is strictly prohibited.

Furthermore, the fossil remains of rodents and reptiles were found, as well as those of animals which remotely resemble aardvark (anteater), giraffe or elephant. Based on these finds scientists were able to piece together a rather comprehensive picture of the landscape of that time – it did not look much different from today.

The shell of an ostrich egg embedded in sandstone which is millions of years old. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The shell of an ostrich egg embedded in sandstone which is millions of years old. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The most intriguing fossils contained in Tsondab Sandstone are fragments of large eggshells. They look similar to ostrich eggs, as we know them, and there are several variations which differ in thickness and in the pore structure on the outside. This suggests that there were different types of ostrich-like birds. Since similar shells are always present in other layers of similar age as well, the different types cannot have existed alongside one another at the same time. Instead, a sequence of different species becomes apparent.

The oldest shells are from eggs which were laid about 16 million years ago. Their initial thickness of 4 mm decreased over the ages; today’s shells are 2.5 to 3 mm. The primeval eggs were also much larger – they weighed over 2 kg and had a volume of up to 1.7 litres. The equivalent today is about 1.5 kg and 1 litre. In Gondwana Namib Park some fossil shells have been discovered which do not seem to resemble any of the types known so far. They now have to be examined by experts.

Fossilised dunes of the prehistoric Namib in Gondwana Namib Park. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

Fossilised dunes of the prehistoric Namib in Gondwana Namib Park. Photo: Gondwana Collection Namibia

The layers of Tsondab Sandstone thus contain the phylogenetic tree of today’s Ostrich. On the basis of the eggshells its line can be traced back to an early ancestor that existed 16 million years ago. It may have resembled a giant bird which occurred on the island of Madagascar at that time. Therefore it is plausible that the Ostrich originates in Africa and spread to Eurasia only at a later stage.

The fascinating story about the origin of the ostrich can be learnt from the book ‘Passage through Time – The Fossils of Namibia’, written by geologist Gabi Schneider and beautifully illustrated with drawings by artist Christine Marais.

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When you pass ‘Martin Luther’ just outside Swakopmund and have heard the story of the road locomotive you will probably chuckle spontaneously. But is the story that is told about the monstrous steam engine in fact correct? Was the whole idea really that crazy?

The discrepancies already start with the name. According to historians the famous words “here I stand, I cannot help it”, which Martin Luther is supposed to have uttered in 1521 after his interrogation by the Imperial Diet in Worms were never spoken. The derisive name for the vehicle, which got stuck 1.5 km outside Swakopmund and was abandoned there, is therefore on shaky ground. The time of naming is also wrong: The joke about ‘Martin Luther’ was already doing the rounds before the steam engine had even driven its first few metres in the Namib…

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

The steam ox with three wagons. Source: National Archives

But back to the start. As more and more settlers arrived in the country at the end of the 19th century, the volume of goods increased as well. Ox wagons were the only mode of transportation for heavy loads. However, almost 100 km of desert had to be negotiated on the way from the coast into the interior. There was nothing to feed on for the oxen and they were worn out completely. Many oxen died and the route was lined by their skeletons. The surviving animals needed months to recover from the ordeal. Therefore only three return trips per year could be made from the coast to Windhoek. It was still very early days for automobiles and plans for a railway line remained shelved because of the costs.

In this situation senior lieutenant Edmund Troost had the idea to import a traction engine. His steam ox, as he jokingly called it, was supposed to drive from Swakopmund via Nonidas and Goanikontes to meet the ox wagons at Heigamgab and save them half the trip through the desert. “The route up to almost 2 km out of Swakopmund was (…) hard, of a rocky nature”, Troost stated. He also felt that enough water for the steam engine was available along the route. At his own expense he shipped the vehicle from Germany after obtaining the government’s assurance that public goods would be transported with his vehicle.

However, even the vehicle’s arrival in 1896 started with a glitch: It could only be off-loaded in Walvis Bay and the departure to Swakopmund was delayed by business in Cape Town and unrest among the country’s Nama and Herero population until the contract with the engine driver had expired. As Troost reported later on, the nickname ‘Martin Luther’ had already been coined at that stage. First an American gold hunter, and after him a Boer, tried to drive the vehicle. The deep sand became a gruelling obstacle: The behemoth got stuck every 50 metres and shovelling it clear was a tedious process. Labourers simply stayed away, water had to be obtained up to 30 km away. Three months passed before the steam ox finally huffed into Swakopmund.

Martin Luther Swakopmund, 9 Cent, issued in 1975, artist: Arthur Howard Barrett

But there was no end to the problems. The engine had to be stoked for three hours before the vehicle was able to move. Troost lamented that at times it was operated for only three hours per day because the engine driver insisted on his breakfast and lunch break. In retrospect he also said that the 2-metre tow bar to the wagons proved too short, causing them to swing off heavily to the sides on the uneven surface. A 10-metre tow bar would also have been an advantage when crossing sandy riverbeds because at least the vehicle and the wagons would not have gotten stuck together.

The last blow for the steam ox already came after less than ten transports. Some 1.5 km out of Swakopmund several pipes melted in the boiler because apparently there was not enough water in the steam system. Repairs were not worth the effort since in the meantime governor Theodor Leutwein had received confirmation from Germany that a narrow-gauge railway line was going to be built from Swakopmund into the interior…

Contact for collectors: Philately Services, Private Bag 13336, Windhoek; Tel +264 (0)61 2013097/99, philately@nampost.com.na

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