Gems of the Namib Desert

The Namibian Riviera
August 5, 2016
Etosha – Creatures great and small
August 9, 2016
The Namibian Riviera
August 5, 2016
Etosha – Creatures great and small
August 9, 2016

Text and Photos by Joh Henschel

| This article was first published in the Flamingo March 2008 issue. Information has been adapted accordingly.

The Namib-Naukluft Park was established in 1907, simultaneously with the Etosha National Park. In celebrating more than a century of existence we explore the treasures encountered in the park.

W hen I was a child I was led to believe that deserts were vast deserted places glittering with gems, the mineral kind, and where the risk of death faced you every day. Decades later, I lived in the Namib Desert and discovered that it is not deserted. Its glitter comes from something far more valuable than mere minerals. There is life out there and far more. Indeed, it is El Dorado, quite different to what I had imagined.

The first thing that struck me when I came to the Namib as a student forty years ago was the sense of space, so immense that it was humbling, yet so serene that I felt at peace with myself and the world. The air was clean and fresh, the ground pure. The landscape had an indescribable aesthetic beauty that was invigorating, a sense of place that made me want to be part of its timelessness. In a world that is so preoccupied with itself, these qualities are invaluable for your sanity.

A beetle drinking fog from a trench that it engineered.
Dune-living fish-moths absorb water from the atmosphere.

The second thing that struck me was that the Namib, though dry, was very much alive. Henno Martin, geologist of Sheltering Desert fame, put it aptly: “What greater contrast could there be than that between the old desert with its slowly crumbling rocks and the eternally renewed life which day in and day out joyfully defied the relentless contradictions of dead matter? Living and dead matter were so obviously at variance here, and the living matter so obviously triumphant in its adaptability over the dead elements and their rigid laws that the barren wilderness seemed to us more essentially alive than green trees rustling in the wind.”

The Namib’s jewels are alive, comprising an extraordinary array of creatures. No other extreme desert has so many different kinds of lichens, darkling beetles, sun spiders, scorpions, silverfish and lizards. Many of these creatures are confined to the Namib and some of their specialisations are truly astonishing.

Take window algae that live under partially transparent quartz stones. Pick up a hot stone on a thirsty afternoon and see what you find. A layer of green covers the underside of light stones, and if you look closely, underneath some are tiny snails. Surprisingly, for many small creatures the desert is a moist place. How come?

The Namib has little water, at least as far as the eye can see. It rarely rains and there is no point in waiting for rain. That is why we may think that this desert ultimately has little value for us. But let us examine the water that there is and what it implies. During evenings moist air from the ocean is blown far inland. When the desert cools off at night, dew condenses. Sometimes it builds fog, and thick clouds blanket the desert. Dew and fog wet the stones, sand and plants and for brief moments there is relief from dryness.

Temporary pools abound with freshwater shrimps.

Even when there is no dew or fog, there are tiny creatures that have an uncanny ability to absorb moist air. Now these are the true geniuses of the desert. Beetle larvae, worm-like creatures that shuffle through sand, can do it. So can silverfish. They produce a kind of salt that takes up moisture from the air, and these animals use an extremely strong pump to get water from the salt, something like reverse osmosis but much more ingenious, as it is done by delicate little creatures. This mechanism is, indeed, one of the most special abilities of Namib Desert creatures. By comparison, our unsubtle pressure- and energy-intensive methods of desalination are clumsy.

Namib beetles are famous for their ability to use fog, and about one-third of the darkling beetles do so in one form or another. Iconic is the fog basking that is performed by only two species, both Onymacris. During cool, foggy nights these normally diurnal beetles crawl laboriously up the dune and perform a headstand. Water droplets accumulate on the body and run down to the thirsty mouth. In a single drink, a beetle obtains water equivalent to an eighth of its own body weight. This would be equal to me drinking 10 litres. Other beetles drink water from surfaces. Lepidochora beetles dig trenches where water that they can drink accumulates. Sidewinders and palmato geckos drink fog water from their bodies. Other animals drink droplets off vegetation or lichen. Even springbok do this and can evidently live far out in the desert indefinitely without access to a waterhole. Some plants, too, can take up fog water, either through their leaves, like the succulent Trianthema, or by absorbing dripping water from their canopies, as can spiny dune grass. There may be little water, but if you know how, and where and when to get it, the Namib is not so dry after all. At least not in the past. In recent years exceptionally long intervals without fog and dew (or rain) are raising concern about the limits of tolerance without water.

The baboons of the Kuiseb Canyon are legendary for their thirst endurance. They have been known to go for six months without water, using shade and covering themselves with sand to stay cool. They are able to do this only because they are not disturbed in their wilderness and are thus not unnecessarily exposed to heat and exhaustion. Also legendary is the ability of the six-eyed crab spider Sicarius to endure over a year without food and drink, just waiting in its star-shaped sandy ambush until a water-laden food in the shape of an insect turns up.

The toughest die-hards in the most parched terrain are sometimes rewarded by the unthinkable: rain. When it rains heavily enough, about once in a decade, the desert is transformed as if by a magic wand, and the jewel box overflows in luxurious green dotted with many bright flowers, busy bees, and population explosions of scampering beetles and flocks of birds. Pools of water suddenly seethe with life, some creatures so delicate that it is hard to believe they come from eggs that have tolerated the worst conditions, lying in baking hot, dry dust for a decade.

No desert wonderland is complete without oases. Isolated mountains – inselbergs – generate local run-off of rainwater from their rocky shoulders and water an abundance of plants and animals. Natural cisterns in the rocks form waterholes, magnets for birds and mammals. Drainage lines and ephemeral rivers, dotted with shrubs and trees, traverse the gravel plains. These longitudinal rich patches are home for animals and people or conduits to get from A to B.

The crown jewel of the Namib is Gobabeb. This is the home of desert knowledge. Decades of research have deepened the understanding of principles of dry lands in Southern Africa. Through training based on an outdoor, hands-on approach, this understanding is broadened and the capacity to manage natural resources is improved. Gobabeb is a SADC Centre of Excellence, an Oasis of Learning, where knowledge is translated into sustainable development. Gobabeb is the very pocket from which many of the Namib’s other valuable gems sparkle.

And, of course, the story is true. The Namib does also have mineral gems, such as diamonds and uranium, and lesser metals such as copper. But once harvested, their value wilts, whereas the value of the desert landscape and its many living gems can be enduring, provided we care.

Joh Henschel, now retired, was a researcher at the Gobabeb Training & Research Centre in the Namib Desert west of Walvis Bay.

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