Namibia may be the aridest African country south of the Sahara, but it is home to an impressive diversity of species and ecosystems, from parched coastal deserts to subtropical wetlands and savannas, with 1,500 kilometres of coastline and some of the richest coastal seas in the world.
It is also the country with the second lowest population density in the world (after Mongolia), meaning relatively low human impact on the environment and large swathes of wide-open, pristine landscapes.
Populations of Black Rhino, Bush Elephant, Oryx, Springbok and Kudu, as well as rare and endemic species like the Hartmann’s Zebra and Black-Face Impala, have increased in many parts of Namibia over the last 30 years.
While most people book Namibia safaris to see the Big 5, or come for sand boarding and hot air balloon tours, it is also a world-class birding and fieldherping destination, as well as a fantastic place to see small mammals.
As is the case in most of Africa, the bulk of the wildlife and nature tourism opportunities in Namibia are via guided tours on game reserves and in national parks–places like Etosha National Park (to see elephants), Waterberg Plateau Park and Skeleton Coast National Park.
All gorgeous places in their own right and ones well worth seeing.
But, for those willing to head a bit further off the tourist circuit, a much more wild and far less trodden Namibia experience awaits.
Enter, Gobabeb Desert Research Station.
Gobabeb Desert Research Station (inside Namib Naukluft National Park)
The Gobabeb Desert Research Station is an internationally recognized field site located inside of Namib-Naukluft National Park (the largest conservation area in Southern Africa), in the heart of the Central Namib Desert.
First established as a potential desert research site in 1959, the station was inaugurated in 1962, and has become a regionally and globally important site for research into climate, archaeology, geology, ecology, and the geomorphology of desert landscapes as well as a popular filming destination for Namid Desert documentaries.
It provides easy access to three iconic Namibian ecosystems–The Sand Sea to the south, Gravel Plains to the north and riparian woodlands along the ephemeral Kuiseb River.
Namib-Naukluft National Park is often passed over by people who visit Namibia, and is among the less popular Namibia tours for those interested in the country’s nature and wildlife because it is not a big 5 site. You won’t see desert elephants or lions here.
The lack of water and vegetation means that larger ungulates are scarce in the Namib, with only Gemsbok and Springbok common throughout. However, despite the limited prey animals, the desert still supports populations of Cheeta, Brown Hyena and Spotted Hyena.
What you come to a place like Gobabeb for is the wonderful herpetofauna, avian and small mammal diversity and, of course, African staples (like the aforementioned) and other occasional desert wanderers from the east like Kudu and Warthog.
Because of its location at the intersection of three distinct ecosystems, as well as its situation on the seasonally dry Kuiseb River (an important movement and migration corridor), large rains and unpredictable weather can bring in unexpected guests (especially mammals and birds).
An alternative to your typical Namibia safari tours
Visiting requires a park entry permit from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism in Windhoek, but the site looks well worth the effort.
Accommodation options range from villas to camping tents, all of which place you square in the middle of the spectacular Namib Desert.
The Namib Desert Ecoregion
The Namib desert is also the only desert biodiversity hotspot in the world, with more than 9,000 animal and 4,000 plant species recorded.
Much of this is made possible by both the ephemeral rivers that flow through the Namib, as well as the airborne moisture that floats in from the Atlantic.
The Namib is a fog-dependent ecosystem, with fog being the most predictable form of free water in this hyper-arid environment. Fog can occur along the coast and several kilometres inland hundreds of days out the year, and it underpins all the water intake of Namib fauna–from the plants to the herbivores that consume them to the invertebrates and lizards that directly “harvest” the moisture.
These fog-dependent deserts are likely highly sensitive to climate change which, in addition to the other major threats in the Namib-Naukluft National Park region–the harvesting of groundwater for human consumption and mining, overgrazing by local pastoralists, and off-road driving damaging the lichens (which stabilize substrate, prevent soil erosion and provide food and moisture for a wide range of Namib fauna)–makes the long-term health of a place like Namib-Naukluft precarious and a station like Gobabeb essential.
Extending along the coastal plain of western Namibia, with sparse and highly unpredictable annual rainfall, this is one of the most arid places on the planet, home to high levels of plant endemism and specialized desert fauna–in particular, a large number of desert rodent species.
If you are willing to sacrifice a big five experience, Namib-Naukluft has a lot to offer–especially birdwatchers, fieldherpers and those interested in small mammals like gerbils, shrews, foxes, moles, jackals and a very interesting mix of bats.
The Central Namib Bioblitz 2022, undertaken as part of the Great Southern Bioblitz–a multinational inaturalist-based effort to catalogue as much of the southern hemisphere’s biodiversity as possible–turned up some 563 species in the region:
It is only right to start a profile of a place like Gobabeb with a breakdown of the reptile diversity.
Namibia is home to the second-highest lizard diversity in Africa, which makes it no wonder that it is the herpetofauna that ultimately contributes the most species to the Namib Desert’s global biodiversity hotspot status, with some 77 recorded species of snakes, lizards and tortoises (43 of which have been recorded at Gobabeb) and five species of frogs.
Usually quite high on most Namibian fieldherpers’ lists are the 6 Bitis (Adders) species found in the Nambi Desert:.
Top left clockwise: Horned Adder (Bitis caudalis), Puff Adder (Bitis arietans), Many-horned Adder (Bitis cornuta), Dwarf Puff Adder (Bitis peringueyi), Namaqua Dwarf Adder (Bitis schneideri), Desert Mountain Adder (Bitis xeropaga)
As well as the fantastic desert gecko species (more than half of Namibia’s gecko species are endemic).
Top left clockwise: Namib Sand Gecko, Namib Giant Ground Gecko, Common Barking Gecko
And the desert Chameleon species
Left-to-right: Cape Dwarf Chameleon (Bradypodion pumilum), Namaqua Chameleon (Chamaleo namaquensis)
While certainly home to world-class desert herping, what Gobabeb and Namib-Naukluft National Park are probably best known for is the birds.
The breeding and migratory season, which runs from November until April, is the best time to visit Gobabeb, when birdwatchers can expect to see Rosy-faced Lovebird, Spike-heeled Lark, Pale-winged Starling, and even the endangered White-backed Vulture.
Top left clockwise: Rosy-faced Lovebird, Spike-heeled Lark, White-backed Vulture, Pale-winged Starling, Swallow-tailed Bee Eater, Dune Lark.
Gobabeb has registered 195 bird species in total, with more than half (105 species) vagrants. Of the 90 resident species, some 86 percent were associated with the ephemeral Kuiseb River habitat.
The 2022 Central Namib inaturalist Bioblitz mentioned above recorded 112 species–including both marine and inland species.
The station and surrounding research area can also be a great place to turn up some unexpected finds, including Flamingos, African Crake, African Jacana, and Grey Wagtail, which may make temporary stopovers in a place like Gobabeb after having been pushed off course by the strong winds blowing from the escarpment during the winter or disoriented by the bleak and monotonous surroundings of the Namib.
Of the species found at Gobabeb, only three can be considered true desert birds, whose range is restricted to the hyper-arid Namib. They are Ruppell’s Korhaan, Gray’s Lark and the Dune Lark.
Left to right: Dune Lark, Gray’s Lark, Ruppell’s Korhaan
Because of the relative monotony of the landscape here and the elusiveness of the animals (birds and mammals), it’s worthwhile having a good spotting scope.
Historically, Gobabeb was home to megafauna like the African Elephant, the Black Rhino, Giraffe and Lions–all, unfortunately, extinct in this area.
But Gobabeb still has a lot to offer mammal watchers with an eye for and interest in smaller species–and, of course, iconic animals like Cheetahs, Hyenas and Baboons.
44 mammals species have been recorded in the Gobabeb study area, including wonderful species like the Short-eared Elephant Shrew, 11 species of bats, 10 carnivores, 12 rodents, (e.g., Namib Golden Mole, Namib Dune Gerbil), two lagomorphs, 4 bovids, and the Rock Hyrax and Chacma Baboons.
Top left clockwise: Short-eared Elephant Shrew, Black-backed Jackal, Rock Hyrax, Chacma Baboon, Cheetah
And, because of Gobabeb’s location along the Kuiseb River, during high rainfall years, mammals like Kudu, Warthog, Caracal and Harmann’s Mountain Zebra, which typically do not occur so far west into the Namib Desert, will venture into and temporarily stay in the Gobabeb study area.
Wild certainly not offering the explosion and incessant din of invertebrate life found in forest ecosystems throughout the tropics, Gobabeb (and the Namib desert more broadly) holds its own when it comes to invertebrates, especially its exceptionally high detritivore beetle diversity.
The 2022 Central Namib Bioblitz recorded 142 invertebrate species, including the stunning Spotty Conehead Mantid.
Gobabeb is actually not that out of the way. It is secluded and located inside the national park, but it is easily reachable by vehicle from more popular Namibia tourist destinations like Swakopmund, Walvis Bay, Sesriem and Sossus Vlei.
Accommodations and food
Gobabeb has a variety of accommodation options, including a campground and several “villas,” clay houses and two-person bungalow options at a range of prices.
You can find out more about all of them here.
They have a rates list on the site, but the last time I clicked on it, it 404ed on me.
Your best bet is to reach out to email@example.com and inquire.
Not your typical Big 5 Namibia safari
If you are looking for something outside of the safari lodges and guided tours and have a serious passion for desert wildlife, it would be hard to find anything that even approaches the uniqueness of a place like Gobabeb–certainly anywhere in Africa, and I would wager any desert ecosystem in the world.
The Namib desert is unrivalled in Africa when it comes to the majesty of its geological features, as well as, more strikingly, the quantity and diversity of the life it supports.
Perhaps only given a run for its money by the North American deserts with respect to biodiversity, the abundance of life at Gobabeb, thanks, in large part, to the station’s location at the confluence of three unique and highly productive Namib Desert ecosystems, makes it one-of-a-kind wildlife experience.
Wonderful herpetofauna, bird and small mammal diversity and the opportunity to stay at one of the region’s most productive and well-respected research outposts…what more could a serious nature and wildlife traveller want?