Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Africa - the Namib Desert

As soon as we, in our Landrovers, drove out of the town of Walvis Bat, Namibia, I began to understand why people love Africa, in a way that other continents rarely inspire.  It's the landscape.  It's beautiful, and big, and old.  The landscape is so overwhelmingly what it is, and it's difficult to picture anything, other than time, managing to change it.  Unfortunately, human beings can and do change it.  The Namib desert is a protected area, but uranium mining has been allowed in parts, and I can only imagine what would happen if oil, or another resource that someone can get rich off, was discovered.
  But for now the desert is here, in all it's subtle beauty.  It's odd to call it subtle, since it is so huge, but it is subtle, in its colours, its shapes, and most of all, in its life.
  The desert is an eco-system, and during my trip there, I learned about the life forms that live and thrive and interact there.  Without Tommy, our guide, though, I would have thought nothing lived there except a few scrubby plants.
  First we visited Dune 7, which is the largest dune in the world.   There are others that are higher, but apparently for sheer number of sand grains, this one is biggest.  Melissa climbed to the top, and I went part way.  It's s hard climb.  The sand is fine and soft, and so every step sinks in and also slides down, so climbing is two steps up for every step climbed.  The bottom of my calves became sore quite quickly.  The dune became steeper the higher you went, and Melissa needed to use her hands near the top, since she had to lean forward to keep her balance.
  A man from Michigan informed me that there is a much bigger sand dune in northern Michigan.  I just smiled and nodded. 
   Walking back down is rather fun, though.  It's like skiing, as each step glides down as the foot sinks in the sand.
Here is what the road looked like just before we left the pavement and entered the desert.  Once we did so, the drivers got out and let air out of the tires, to have better traction in the soft sand.  While the routes through the desert and well known by the drivers, and are supposed to be the only places vehicles are allowed, the sands shift and so each day new drifts might appear or dunes move over, covering an area that was previously clear.

I've always wanted to see a desert, a real desert with a lot of sand and only sand.  I got my wish here.
Here is my first step, followed by Melissa, who having made a snow angel on the ship's deck, had to make a sand angel.
The sand was rippled in this spot, but a few meters over it was totally different.  Here are some glimpses of what we saw here.  This desert is mostly quartz.  The white areas of made up of larger grains which, being heavier, are sorted by the wind.  The black is magnetite.


Okay, finally we get to the life forms.  I took a very large number of photos of the landscapes, though, even though they can't portray the sheer size of the area, and how the shapes and colours changed as you moved through it.  You can breathe a sigh of relief, though, as I am not going to show you too many of them.
  Tge life.  The above is a head-stand beetle.  It's a picture of a picture because, although Tommy had brought several beetles in a jar, he couldn't show what it's like when they get to drink.  This area gets between 3 and 15 millimetres of rain a year.  Yes, milimetres.  It's within 15 kilometers of the coast, and so even though it gets so little rain, there is often fog, which is an important part of the ecosystem.
  This beetle gets all it's water from the rain.  People here talk about 100 milllimeter rain and what they mean isn't the total depth, but the distance between rain drops.  The beetle fortunate enough to be rained on will drink the entire drop, which for something of its size is like one of us drinking seven litres at a time.  Its shell is waxy which helps keep the water inside its body.  The beetle provides a travel mug for other creatures.
Above is the doorway to the home of the dancing white spider.  It's called that because when alarmed it will stand up, four legs up in the air, four legs on the ground.  It can also form itself into a ball and roll down dunes, which is how it escapes its worst predator, a wasp. 
  The spider can dig only a few centimeters in two hours, but it's tunnel is half a meter long.  WHile digging, the spider uses its web material to stick the sand grains together, so its tunnel doesn't collapse.  Unfortunately the wasp is able to enter the tunnel.  When the two meet, they fight.  If the spider wins, it eats the wasp.  It the wasp wins, it stings the spider into unconsciousness because it needs it alive.  The wasp lays an egg and the resulting larva eats the spider as it grows.
Tommy was very careful to dig the spider out at the end of its tunnel, so he didn't destroy all its work.  He also kept a hand over it to shade it at all time, and when we were finished looking at it and he'd got it to roll down a dune a couple of times, he put it in a jar in his landrover.  The spider is nocturnal, and direct sun can quickly kill it.  He does a night tour in the desert also, and he returns it to its burrow then.
  Next we looked for sign of the sand-diving lizard.  This little guy can dig into the sand until he is entirely covered in no more than a couple of seconds.  As you can see, he has a strong jaw, too.

While we looked at the lizard, and Tommy tried to get it to hang from my earlobe as a sort of living earring, one of the other drivers found this.
Tommy told us it was a baby black mamba, and once several people had hastily stepped back, confessed it was a skink, a legless lizard.
Next we looked for signs of this gecko.  It was easy, kind of, once we knew what to look for.
Yeah, right.
Unearthing the gecko was hard work as this creature, unlike the spider, can dig and burrow very quickly.

But Tommy succeeded at last.  He was a great guide.  He so obviously loves the desert and all that lives there, and he has a great deal of respect for all the creatures we saw.
   Many creature live underground because during the day the temperature is cooler and at night it is warmer.

He had even more respect for the next creature we found.

Yup, this is a sidewinder snake.  During the day they hide in the shade of the few plants, but often move from one plant to another, leaving a track in the sand.
This snake is venemous, and can be fatal.  It does move sideways, keeping itself in a sinuous 's' shape.  It can move very fast, and only fifty percent of its body touches the hot sand at any one time, which enables it to move during the day.  Our tour began early in the morning, and the sand was pleasantly warm, but later in the day it gets hot enough to literarlly fry an egg.

  Here is last creature Tommy found for us.  He's a chameleon who spends the day hiding in the cool shade of a plant.  He happily ate some of the head-stand beetles in Tommy's jar, and also some meal worms.  His tongue is very long and very fast.  I tried several times to photograph it in action, but was never fast enough.  The chameleon spent a lot of time examining the beetle or worm Tommy put out for him.  His eyes are on turrets and can move independently.  He'd study the beetle and us and the sky, before making his move.  When in the bush, he is dark, but on the sand, he grew paler.

As you can tell from the length of this post, I loved the desert.  I wish I could have had more time there, especially enough to do a night tour.  That's the nature of cruising, though.  You get a taste of many different places, enough to entice you and help you decide that someday you must return.  Africa is one place I must return to, and I've decided that after visiting only the one place.  We have several more stops here.
  Before I close, I want to tell you a little about the joys and fears of driving through the desert.  Many of the approved routes moved beside the length of a dune, but in places we went up, over, and down.  The dunes are steep, especially the higher flanks, and often we were on a sideways angle as well.

We traveled in four vehicles and two of the others got stuck.  My driver, who didn't get stuck, found his friends' misadventures hilarious, although he cheerfully admitted that everyone gets stuck sometimes, and that the next day would probably be his turn.  In a way, driving here is like driving in heavy snow.  Spinning your wheels digs you in deeper, and you need to rock to get out or back up, if you can, and try again.  It's snow, though, that covers quicksand, as there is no pavement under the sand to keep you from digging even deeper.
The above is an effort to show you how steep the dunes are.  The shot is straight through the front windshield.  The landrover shown has just come down the side of a dune, and we have just come over the top.  At times it seemed as if we shifted 180 degrees as we went up, over the sharp edged top and down.  It was like a rollercoaster, but without any smooth curves on the track.  We bounced, ricocheted off the side doors and off each other.  Sometimes we felt as if we were lying down on our backs, sometimes we felt we'd soon be standing on our heads.  At times it was scary, and one person asked our driver if the landrovers ever rolled.  He said no, and I believed him.  He knew just when to shift gears, when to go fast to gain momentum and when to slow down to get more traction.  Toomy's company does three tours a day, so the drivers have a lot of time to practice.  They also come out often to check on the routes and make alternate plans in case a dune has shifted enough to make a section too dangerous.  
  They all clearly love the desert, and I can understand why.  Three tours a day might get boring, I didn't ask, but since what you see is ever-changing, and what you look for is hidden, everytime could be see as an adventure.

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