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Fascinating creatures and history on the fringes of the sea of dunes

Avatar of inke inke - 19. June 2017 - Discover Namibia, Environment, Tourism

 

Devoid of life. That, at first glance, is the impression given by the red dunes and the adjoining white gravel plains of the Namib Desert on the doorstep of the coastal town of Swakopmund. The seasonal Swakop River, which reaches the Atlantic Ocean at Swakopmund, forms a dividing line between the town and the dunes to the south. Sand and stones, wind and fog, otherwise nothing. Or so it seems. This area is home to an amazing array of creatures, and there are also relicts from the past to take a closer look at. 

Every morning various tour companies guide their groups of tourists to the marked out dunes on the other side of the dry riverbed. It is just a short distance away and previously anybody was allowed to go there – by car, on foot or walking the dog. A few years ago, however, the area was reserved for tourism and may now only be explored on dedicated trails. Too much damage was caused by people ‘who didn’t know better’, and the ever increasing number of vehicles in this fragile environment severely threatened the survival of the desert-adapted creatures of the Namib.  

Dayne Braine is one of the tour guides who introduces visitors to the peculiarities and wonders of the desert right next to Swakopmund and has them spellbound. He starts by briefly outlining the terrain and the geological history of the Namib, already hinting that it is a living desert, and explains why the area is closed off by an oily wire rope. The critically endangered Damara tern comes to breed here, on the dune sand and the gravel plains. In fact, 90 percent of this species breeds on Namibia’s coastline in December and January which is the main holiday season in Namibia. 

Then there is the story behind the large bleached bones in the dunes. For decades it was thought that at this spot in the desert the German colonial forces, the Schutztruppe, shot almost one thousand horses freshly delivered from Europe because horse sickness had broken out among them as they approached their destination. But recently discovered documents show that the bones in the desert are from South African army horses which were to be shipped back to South Africa. A total of 1695 horses and 944 mules were shot in December 1915 because they had contracted glanders, a contagious disease.

The remains of the railway line which once ran south of the Swakop River to the coast and between the ocean and the dunes to Walvis Bay are another relict of bygone times. While the visitors walk along the old embankment and take photos, Dayne is looking for desert dwellers among the stones and on the vegetation. Soon enough he finds one: a black hairy thick-tailed scorpion (Parabuthus villosus). The Parabuthus species is among the most venomous scorpions in Namibia and southern Africa. Parabuthus villosus was first described in 1862 by Wilhelm Peters, a German naturalist and explorer. This large species measures up to 18 centimetres and is one of the few diurnal scorpions. To prove the point, the visitors encounter another one of these arachnids making its way across the gravel plain at the foot of a dune. 

Elsewhere, Dayne discovers a young desert chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis), also called Namaqua chameleon, in the shelter of a dollar bush. With the help of some mealworms which Dayne brought with him the small reptile is easily lured onto the dune sand. Next he finds a sidewinding adder (Bitis peringueyi) in the sand under another dollar bush. As the visitors watch in amazement the snake quickly buries itself in the sand again with swift twists and turns of its body. Seconds later only the eyes, which are on top of its head, and its nostrils remain exposed. Thus camouflaged and protected from the searing temperatures, this small venomous snake lies in wait for prey such as small mammals and lizards.  

Drawn by the activity in the desert and previous encounters with Dayne and tourists, a tractrac chat wings closer and lands on the leafless twig of a nara plant (Acanthosicyos horridus). This light green plant is a member of the gourd family (cucurbitaceae). The thorns are its leaves and the fruit, which is larger than a tennis ball, is a food source for insects, reptiles, small mammals and even oryx antelope. The tractrac chat, however, eats insects or other protein such as the mealworm which he has just spotted between Dayne’s fingers. He comes to sit on his hand to help himself. These usually shy birds have become quite trusting, much to the delight of the visitors.  

Dayne looks around and thanks to the ‘dune news’, the little tracks on the sand, he can tell where other desert dwellers are hidden beneath the soft surface. This time he doesn’t find a web-footed gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) or a burrowing skink (Typhlacontias brevipes), which is a limbless lizard species, but comes up with a shovel-snouted lizard (Meroles anchietae). This type of desert lizard not only runs across the soft dune sand at a remarkable speed but can just as fast dive into it and disappear from sight. Well camouflaged a Namib day gecko (Phoptropus afer) sits at the fringe of the gravel plain at the foot of the huge dunes.

The visitors are amazed at the variety of creatures which are perfectly adapted to the harsh conditions of the seemingly lifeless desert on the doorstep of Swakopmund. The Namib Desert is alive, and specialists like Dayne take visitors to the fringe of the sea of dunes to see for themselves and learn more. 

Dirk Heinrich

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