Living Desert

We wake up as the first morning light filters into our tent. We are camping in the Namib Desert, one of the oldest deserts in the world that was formed over a period of millions of years.


At breakfast we meet Tommy, a sand dune and desert specialist with over 40 years of experience. “For millenia, the Orange River carried sand from the Lesotho Highlands to the Atlantic Ocean,” he explains. “Ocean currents transported these sands northward and deposited them on the shore to create these dunes. From here, vigorous winds drove the sand north-east. This ‘marching’ of the dunes continues today at a rate of 20 metres a year.”

We head off in Tommy’s truck, in search of the life hidden in these sands. “It looks like nothing can survive in the desert,” he says. “But that’s a false impression.” Initially, we have no idea what to look out for. Then Tommy suddenly stops and jumps out of the car.

“There!” he points. “Do you see it?”

“See what?”

At what we thought was a random-looking spot, Tommy rummages in the sand with a metal hook with which he draws out a sand-coloured snake. “A sidewinder,” Tommy explains. “It moves sideways to cross the loose desert sands.” He releases the animal, which glares at us as it disappears back into the sand. Soon after, we spot a poisonous scorpion going for a morning jog. As soon as we draw near he starts waving his tail at us. We suspect that tail wagging does not mean the same for scorpions as it does for dogs and keep our distance. Tommy catches the animal with one of his instruments and then takes it in his bare hands, holding it firmly by the tail. After a brief meet and greet, he places the scorpion back on the sand where it continues its workout.

“Next comes an animal with a master degree in camouflage: the chameleon,” Tommy continues as he walks up to a bush. The animal, which had attuned its colouring to that of the bush, immediately changes outfit when Tommy places it on the sand. Tommy places a small beetle in front of it, which the chameleon considers for a while. Then, within a split second, it unfurls its tongue and scoops up the insect. Amazing! His tongue is at least as long as his body! After four beetles and two fancy dress sessions, the chameleon has had enough of us and ‘moonwalks’ back to the bush.

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