Of fog-basking, metabolic water and milli-osmoles: Animal adaptationJuly 12, 2016
The clarity of wide-open spacesJuly 14, 2016
Text and Photos by Ron Swilling | Main photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk
The dunes are singing. While sitting amongst them on a windy dawn, an eerie music can be heard vibrating through the sand, like a whale song, or a didgeridoo moan. It’s as if the Universe has plucked a chord on her ancient harp and it is resonating here in this red world of sand.
S ituated in western Namibia, the Namib-Naukluft Park extends north from Lüderitz to Swakopmund, incorporating dune sea, gravel plains, wetlands and rugged mountains. Covering nearly 50 000 km2, it is one of Africa’s largest conservation areas. The dune sea developed gradually as sand, washed down the Orange/Gariep River into the Atlantic Ocean, was transported northwards by the ocean currents and wind, deposited on the beaches of the Skeleton Coast and blown into the interior. A especially spectacular massing up of such windblown sand is at Sossusvlei, where the sand grains have a high iron content and the deep red colour is the result of ‘rusting’ or oxidation of these particles.
When the light changes at sunset and sunrise, when day moves to night and night to day, there are endless opportunities to listen to the universe, as the dunes turn red and glow in the sun’s rays. Catch these magic moments before the sun rises high in the sky or sinks into the night and we miss out on the magic.
Sesriem Campsite makes a good starting point to venture forth to Sossusvlei, but take note of the times when the entrance gate is closed for the night. At dawn a procession of cars moves westwards in the direction the dunes disappearing into the distance. For a fine view you can climb Elim Dune or Dune 45, sit on crest and feel the fine red sand blowing against you. From here you can see the Naukluft Mountains in the east and the dune sea extending to the west, and wait for the first rays of the sun to catch the glint of the red sand. Alternatively you can sit between the dunes, watch the ripple patterns change and how the grasses are blown by the wind, and imagine what the insects and animals whose tracks you can see look like and whether they will appear.
The Namib has a true desert or hyper-arid classification, with a mean rainfall of less than 100 mm a year. True desert is unsettling for some people. It involves a switch of perception to be open to a beauty that is so dry and different. It has a stillness that speaks, an energy all of its own.
A journey to the Sossusvlei area reminds us that many life-forms make this arid land their home, and that appearances are often deceptive. The dunes themselves have a slow and steady motion. Rivers such as the Tsauchab have been blocked by this movement, ending the flow of water at Sossusvlei in a group of pans. The name ‘sossus’ refers to ‘the end of the river’, Sossusvlei marking the end of the Tsauchab’s journey to the sea, once its final destination. In the rare years of high rainfall, the Tsauchab reaches the dry pans and Sossuvlei transforms into an oasis. Around Sossus, the other pans include !Nara Vlei, Hidden Vlei and Dead Vlei, Dead Vlei having been cut off from the Tsauchab River hundreds of years ago, the trunks of its camel-thorn trees remaining for centuries on the cracked clay floor of the pan. The switch of perception which allows you to delight in this true desert has a field day here, as the surreal pan surrounded by dunes is absorbed and entertained by the senses.
Sossusvlei’s parking area is as far as a two-wheel-drive vehicle is allowed. From here the five kilometres to the vlei can be walked or a shuttle bus can be taken. When I was there I went on a Sossus-on-Foot journey with a husband and wife team. They collected us at the parking lot and gave us a guided tour of the area, telling us about the fauna and flora, the movement of the dunes. We were especially enetrtained by the guide’s San stories of tracking animals, and diamonds being ‘lucky stones from the moon’.
The life of the desert opens up even more as the camel-thorn trees and !nara plants are pointed out, the !nara melons providing sustenance to the resident gemsbok population. A head-standing or fog-basking beetle may be found to show how it lifts its behind in the air to catch precious desert moisture. A magnet run across the sand collects iron particles to its surface, revealing the sand’s high iron content.
A day in the dunes, often ending at the Sesriem campsite under a dark sky of bright stars, and next to a sizzling campfire, is a full one. Senses have been heightened, parameters extended, boundaries blurred. Sitting under a camel thorn with the Namib surrounding you, you may, just for a while, resonate with that deep universal sound humming from the centre of the Earth.
This article was first published in the Flamingo January 2005 issue.