Driving into the heart of the Messum Crater crossing a wide flat basin of 22 km located within the Dorob National Park, in Namibia, is definitely a lifetime adventurous ride.
The Messum Crater is not like other craters in Namibia, it is composed of both intrusive and extrusive rocks and it is dated between 132 and 135 million years old.
On the 11th of February 2021 Daniele and I, while exploring Namibia in southern Africa, decided to cross one of the most unique and biggest volcano crater of the region, the Messum Crater, located in Gobobose Mountains west of Brandberg.
We left Uis, where we camped for the night, early in the morning.
After about 53 km on the road D2342 we intercepted the Messum River, a dry river bed, literally crossing the road from east to west descending from the Brandberg Mountain on the right. We left the main gravel road to follow, on the left, the gps tracks and previous 4x4 traces on the ground. The adventure had begun.
The first life forms that we encountered were large endemic plants, the Welwitschias. Many of these plants were lined at the edge of the route.
The Welwitchia Mirabilis is endemic to the Namib desert within Namibia and Angola.
The plant is commonly known simply as Welwitschia in English, after the Austrian naturalist Friedrich Welwitsch happened upon this mirabilis (Latin for miracle) in Namibia in 1859.
But the name Tree Tumboa is also used, meaning "stump" because of its short trunk. It is called Kharos or Khurub in Nama, Tweeblaarkanniedood in Afrikaans, Nyanka in Damara, and Onyanga in Herero.
Informal sources commonly refer to the plant as a "living fossil".
These plants are unique, there are no other living plants related to its family.
They existed in Namibia 120 million years ago.
The ages of some of the plants existing today have been determined by carbon-14 dating. They live hundreds of years; probably some of them are 1,000+ years old.
The species is dioecious, with separate male and female plants. Fertilization is carried out by insects including flies and true bugs. The most common of the true bugs attending Welwitschia is a member of the family Pyrrhocoridae, Probergrothius angolensis, but a hypothesized role in pollination has so far not been demonstrated.
Infrequently, wasps and bees also play a role as pollinators of Welwitschia. At least some of the pollinators are attracted by "nectar" produced on both male and female strobili.
We continued to follow our gps track, also following the track. The landscape that surrounded us was vast, almost reminiscent of another planet.
A poor, primitive landscape characterized by these immense rock formations and an equally rocky terrain in a desert context.
It is said that Messum is a volcanic feature that forms part of the Goboboseb Mountains to the north-east. The formation was created around 130 million years ago in connection with the breakup of the Gondwana continent.
Specifically it dates from the Etendeka period and, according to geologists, was the source of many of the intrusive and quartz-like extrusive rocks found in the area today. In all likelihood, it was an important source of magma during that period.
The eruptions in the Etendeka region are said to have created one of the most extensive basalt areas on the African continent. Similar areas in Brazil have been linked to Namibia, and to where the Etendeka region ends in Angola.
The crater was named after Captain W Messum, who was an explorer of the coastal regions of Southern Africa, which he surveyed from the ocean between 1846 and 1848.
We were lucky enough to find along the way a Wild Tsamma Melon plant.
It belongs to the same species as watermelon. There are sweet varieties that can be eaten raw just like watermelons. There are more bitter ones can be cooked over coals, which will soften the texture. Tsammas are very drought-resistant which makes them a great source for food and water in the desert. These melons can be up to 90% water. That certainly can help in the dry, hot desert!
The area of the crater, however, is not only the object of study by geologists for its plant varieties, rocky conformity and its mineral composition, but it is also an important source of interest for lichens
Namibia is home to at least 100 different lichens species of the 18,000 identified around the world. These are found from the Namib coast and the gravelly desert plains to the Waterberg Plateau in central Namibia.
Lichen fields play an important role in stabilising the upper layer of the soil, thus augmenting the ecosystem in the Namib Desert. Their colours are brighter on mornings when the skies are overcast and there has been moisture in the shape of coastal fog or a rare rain shower, causing the tiny organisms to absorb the water and unfurl, becoming soft and leathery to the touch.
Lichens are organisms that represent a mutualism between algae and fungi. The algae are the dominant partners, changing sunlight via chlorophyll into the nutrients the organisms need to survive. The fungi at the bottom, which form the biggest part of the organism, mainly provide support, as well as absorbing minerals from the earth to feed the algae.
Lichen fields are extremely vulnerable; a four-wheel-drive vehicle will wipe out an entire hectare of these intriguing organisms every ten kilometres it travels. Because their growth rate is exceedingly slow, only about 1 mm a year, it will take at least 100 years for them to re-grow so when you encounter lichen fields, refrain from leaving the tracks.
From above, as from the satellite, it is possible to notice the veins or streaks that the water creates by flowing from the rocky conformations towards the valley, highlighting and carrying certain minerals that are aggregated together
Just shortly before heading to the center of the crater, we stumbled upon the only green and lush life form, a tree, a beautiful tree. Maybe an Acacia or maybe a Sumac tree
We were then entering the big valley, that huge space in between the center of the crater and the concentric mountain surrounding it in circle.
From afar we saw a sign, the only symbol of civilization in that desolate land, we knew we were at the center of the volcano.
We then parked our vehicle and we started exploring the rock formation following a small path. Probably a place of shelter for animals and for local tributes in the past.
The train then stopped again and we jumped off to take a nice selfie together.
We then climbed up the rocks to find a nice view point to enjoy the well deserved panorama and breeze.
Climbed down the mountain, and after drinking a liter of water we jumped on our 4x4 and crossed the second half of the crater, keeping to the right.
We were soon intercepting the Messum River bed, running down to the coast.
The scenery, although minimally changed, we literally started driving inside the river basin, surrounded by its banks.
Exiting the crater via the Messum River the walls of the river are carved through eons into spectacular formations resembling "Horses Heads".
The river basin then crosses the road D2303, we took the road for a few kms and then turned right again on the course of the Messum River, driving on a very arid and flat desert area, arriving directly at Mile 108, where its majesty, the Atlantic Ocean shows up in in all its splendor and wilderness.
Photo credits: Giulio Aprin