Namibia is not only home to impressive wildlife, but also to the most extraordinary plants. The Welwitschia Drive is dedicated to two of them! Which two? The Welwitscha Mirabilis after which the tour is named and the colourful lichen plant, both very vulnerable and rare! The drive is close to Swakopmund and is one of the best trips to make from this coastal town. Plan half a day for this trip, read all about the special flora and be prepared for beautiful nature!
How to get to the Welwitschia Drive
The Welwitschia Drive is close to Swakopmund, so that is the perfect base for this trip. Tours to the drive are offered from Swakopmund by many tour agencies, bit if you have your own wheels – and you’ll probably have those in this country – we advise you to drive the Welwitscha Drive yourself.
The start of the tour is at a 30 minutes drive from Swakopmund. From Swakopmund you’ll follow the B2 towards Windhoek from where you turn to the C28. After a few kilometers, turn left onto the D1991 towards the first stop of the Drive.
Prepare your visit: get a park permit
The start of the Welwitschia Drive is not marked by a large gate where you pay the entrance fee for the park or something similar. The Welwitschia Drive is part of the Namib-Naukluft National Park, of the Namib part to be precise. So instead you’ll buy a permit for the Namib part of this national park in advance at the NWR (Namibia Wildlife Resort).
The office is located in the yellow building at the intersection of the Bismarck Str and Sam Nujoma Avenue. The permit costs you – as in all major national parks – 80 Namibian dollars per person and 10 Namibian dollars for your vehicle. With your permit, you’ll also get a map of the park with the Welwitscha Drive, on which the 13 stops along the route are marked and explained.
We have read that a 4WD is recommended for the Welwitschia Drive, as the road would be in a bad state. We didn’t use the 4WD function on our car during the drive at all. We believe the road is perfectly fine to drive with a good 2WD.
How much time do you need? We recommend to block half a day. The round drive is about 160 kilometers. So make sure you have at least 4 hours, if you want to drive around at ease and want to stop at the 13 points of interests.
The Welwitschia Mirabilis
The Welwitschia Mirabilis is probably the best known plant from Namibia and the star of this Drive. It is nice to read in advance about this special plant, if only to understand why you have to be so careful around it. It is a tough, but also very fragile plant: it can survive in harsh desert conditions and can grow up to 1,000 years old! This is so unique that this plant is named ‘mirabilis’.
But the plant is also very vulnerable, as it depends on an extensive root system just below the ground. It is unclear how the plant absorbs water, but the leaves probably play a role in this. The plant is mainly found in the coastal areas, where it can be foggy. The condensation is caught by the leaves and then drips on the ground right into the fragile root system. For that reason you see many stone circle around the Welwitschias to indicate that you should not walk there.
The root system is not the only reason to be careful with this unique plant. The Welwitschia is also quite rare. It takes decades for the plant to grow and it does not often produce young plants. The seeds of the Welwitschia germinate only under the perfect conditions with a lot of rain, so only once every few years or even decades.
How do we recognize the Welwitschia? That is not difficult at all. The plant has a particular appearance with long leaves. Or, well, leaves? In fact, there are only two of them, but throughout the decades the leaves tear in several strips. At the colourful center you can distinguish the males from the females. Females have some kind of pine cones, but males have narrower and smaller ‘pestles’. These female pinecones might explain why the plant may possibly be classified with the conifers. Another suggestion is that it is a succulent plant. That similarity is easier to make by the looks of the plant.
Spending the night at the Welwitschia Drive
Do you want to combine your half-day trip to the Welwitschia Drive with an overnight stay in the area instead of Swakopmund? You can camp on camping spots along the tour itself, near the Swakop River. Your park permit includes permission to camp in the park.
If you are looking for a lodge, Goanikontes Oasis Rest Camp is a good option. Both lodge and camping spots are indicated on our map at the end of this blog.
The stops of the Welwitschia Drive
1.Lichen. The first stop will introduce you to another rare plant. Lichen is a combination of an alga and a fungus. It occurs in all kinds of colors, but the orange version is the best known. It takes decades for lichen to grow, so damage to it will not quickly recover. That is also the reason that no lichen fields can be seen along this route anymore. At the first beacon, a few stones with orange lichen can be seen, but the sight of an orange field has unfortunately disappeared here. A sign explains this and warns visitors to be careful with nature.
2. Dollar Bush. The Dollar Bush – named after its dollar-shaped leaves – can also survive under the harsh desert conditions. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of bushes around here (anymore).
3. Ox wagon tracks. How vulnerable nature is, can be seen at this point. Although ox wagons are no longer used since the arrival of motorized cars, you can see how even after all this time nature has not yet recovered from an ox wagon that once drove here. Also, there was once a lichen field here, but little of it is left.
4. Moon Valley. Here you have a great view over ‘moon landscape’.
5. Lichen. There apparently once were beautiful lichen fields up here, but unfortunately there is nothing left of them.
6. Moon Valley. Time for another photo stop. From this viewpoint you can marvel at the beautiful moon landscape as well.
7. Camp from WWI. During the First World War, South African soldiers camped here. Some of it can still be seen.
8. Turn left. Turn left here to continue the route. You will return here in the and and then continue on the road on the right.
9. Dolerite Dyke. These mountains are such special sight! The back of the mountain is black, like some kind of black backbone. This is where molten lava was forced upwards through cracks in the mountain. As the lava remains eroded less quickly than the granite mountain around it, now black mountain ridges remain.
10. Swakop River valley. After all that sand and the rocks you will be surprised by some trees here! The river will not show itself much outside the rainy season; it is usually just a dry river bed. Next to the riverbed, you’ll find picnic areas and camping sites for those who would like to camp out here.
11. Welwitschia Mirabilis plain. You’ll see so many Welwitschias in this plain around you. Can you distinguish the males from the females?
12. The oldest Welwitschia Mirabilis. One of the last stops on the tour is the largest and oldest Welwitschia in the world. It is estimated that this plant is more than 1,500 years old, a living fossil! David Attenborough once made a film stop here (check out the video here). Unlike the documentary maker, we are not allowed to come so close to the plant. To protect the fragile root system of this natural wonder, there is now a fence around it.
13. Verlaten Von Stryk Mine. From the oldest Welwitschia, you’ll drive straight back to the C28. At the end of the route you’ll find the abandoned Von Stryk Mine. Here an iron mine was excavated by hand in the 1950s.
Continue reading: other unique natural phenomena you can not miss during your trip through Namibia? We wrote this blog on Namibia’s unique nature about it!