What the heck is a Welwitschia?

Welwitschia Street

When you are making your way around Swakopmund, Namibia you will notice a street named after the Welwitschia. Therefore, the first thing that comes to mind is – What the heck is a Welwitschia? However, the Welwitschia may be the best thing that ever happened to Swakopmund, even better that Angelina Jolie giving birth to one of her kids there in 2006.

The Welwitschia and Angelina

The Welwitschia and Mrs. Jolie really do have a few things in common if you think about it:

  1. They are both weird. Angelina Jolie is weird, I mean really weird. In comparison the Welwitschia plant only looks weird to the untrained eye. But to a botanist it is the most beautiful creature on earth! Frederick Welwitsch discovered the plant in 1859 and he was so overwhelmed by the sight of it that he “could do nothing but kneel down and gaze at it, half in fear lest a touch should prove it to be a figment of the imagination”.  I guess everyone has their own Brad Pitt!
  2. I was previously ignorant about both of these natural phenomena until I visited Swakopmund. I did not know about Angelina giving birth in Swakopmund. Nor would I have learned about this lovely plant had I never visited this fair city! Lucky me!
  3. Both Angelina and the Welwitschia give birth in the desert! That’s right, there are male and female Welwitschia plants. You can tell them apart by their cones.

The Welwitschia Knows Best

These cool attributes that they share are very interesting. However, the venerable plant is still more interesting, more sane and more appreciated in Swakopmund. After all the locals still have not named a street after Angelina Jolie in their town. In the end, the Welwitschia will see many, many pop stars come and go in a single life time.

Photo of the Welwitschia cones

Photo of the Welwitschia cones. Male or female? They can be difficult to tell apart….

The Welwitschia plant can be found outside Swakopmund on the Welwitschia Plain. The Welwitschia Plain is a good day trip all on its own, but I chose to combine it with the Moon Landscape tour. Both destinations are located conveniently close to each. It is more efficient to see both in one day, rather than to returning to Swakopmund first. Plus, I found that a few hours of each in one day was plenty of time to enjoy them both.

I am going to save the best for last and cover the Moon Landscape first. If you are more interested in the Welwitschia then you can skip ahead a few paragraphs to that section.

Welwitschia Moon Landscape Tour

From Swakopmund take B2 going east, then take a right onto C28. Then you need to find your own way but I found it to be rather simple. You are going to need a Namib Naukluft National Park permit. This is because the Moon Landscape and Welwitschia Plain lie inside the northern boundaries of the park. Permits are available for a nominal fee at the Ministry of Environment and Tourism Office in Swakopmund.

Bring a local map with you and you can also get some good info from the locals before you head out. **Hint – they should have a good basic map of the drive and additional info at the tourism office.

Coastal Fog

Don’t worry if Swakopmund is fogged in the morning as you head out, it always burns off by mid morning. Watching the fog burn off of the Moon Landscape from one of the scenic view points can be a rewarding experience. This fog is crucial for the survival of many desert species of plant and animal. Without it they would not have any other source of water. It only takes a little bit to keep them alive and the fog is all that they need.

Geology of the Moon Landscape

The Moon Landscape is what is left of a granite mountain range that formed about 500 million years ago. This formation occurred as the Gondwana continent crashed together. Over millions of years, the process of erosion leveled the mountains down to their roots. In the Moon landscape area, this former mountain range has been transformed into badlands topography.

Erosion in the Namib Desert

The Moon Landscape is formed primarily from the effects of the Swakop River over the last 2 million years. This erosion force is assisted by strong winds and extreme heat which further eroded the Moon landscape. As a result, this makes it easier for the water to sweep away the mineral fragments. Ironically, it is not the water that imposes the strongest force of erosion onto the granite. Instead it is the heat and wind that cause the granite to break down more efficiently. If it were not for the combined forces of wind, water and heat then the Moon Landscape would not be so geologically profound as it is today.

Photo Moon Landscape Namibia

Photo of the Moon Landscape from one of the scenic viewpoints.

Moon Landscape View Points

The drive is very open and it provides a good overview of the Namib Desert Scenery. It was great to be able to soak it in a bit more. There are several view points overlooking the Moon landscape and it is a great area for photography. It is possible to do some exploring and there are a few bunny trail roads leading into the badlands. I did see signs of life but it appeared that the camps had been closed down for some reason.

After taking in the Moon Landscape it was now time to drive over and visit the Welwitschia Plain which is not too far away.

The Welwitschia Plain

This plant is a living fossil and it can live for up to 2000 years. As a result, if Paleontologists had a favorite plant it would be the Welwitschia. Furthermore, the Welwitschia is endemic to the Southern Angola and Namibia. The plant’s habitat hugs the Atlantic coastline from Southern Angola all the way down to the Kuiseb Canyon in Central Western Namibia. Additionally, its habitat stretches from the Atlantic coastline to about 100 km inland.

Welwitschia posing with Springbok - Welwitschia Plain

Springbok posing with a Welwitschia plant near the Welwitschia Plain.

Biology of the Welwitschia

The Welwitschia has 2 leaves, a stem base and roots. It’s 2 leaves continue to grow throughout its life, eventually the leaf ends begin to split and whither. The plant stem height is up to about 1.8 meters maximum and the maximum radius that the 2 leaves can grow around the stem base is about 8 meters. However, the plants I saw in this area seemed to have a smaller visible radius than this. Although what is beneath the sand may be much larger. Please respect the area around the plant and do not walk up too close to it especially if it is marked with a stone radius. They take a long time to grow back!


I found this drive to be very worthwhile. The plant itself was not terribly exciting. However, Namib Desert landscape and the wildlife were fantastic. There are some great photo opportunities to be had.

An additional benefit is that I would soon be driving back over to Windhoek to meet my friend. I would be going over the Bosua Pass. The C28 road is a straight run over to the Bosua Pass and takes you right into Windhoek  Doing the Welwitschia and Moon landscape tour gave me really good preliminary look at the what I could expect for my future drive. Lots of open road and desert scenery for sure!

Photo Welwitschia Plain

Beautiful photo of the venerable Welwitschia plant taken on the Welwitschia Plain.

Photo Welwitschia Plain

Welwitschia Plants enclosed by stone circles.

Photos from Trip to Moon Landscape and Welwitschia Plain

Photo of the Moon Landscape in the scenic Namib Naukluft National Park.


Article sources:

Namibia – Fascination of Geology
A Travel Handbook
Nicole Grunert