Oddities of the Namib
A DESERT that’s different. Years may pass without rainfall. One inch is a good year. Sometimes it rains but the drops evaporate before reaching the ground. Its only reliable water is morning fogs carried in by winds off the Atlantic. Yet it teems with life. Beetles that stand on their head for a drink of water. Others that swim through the sand. Spiders that turn into wheels and roll down the dunes. Snakes that pretend to be plants and travel sideways. Plants that look like tangled heaps of barbed wire. Others with only two leaves that look like twenty and live two thousand years. And beneath its coastal dunes, vast treasures of polished diamonds. That’s just a few of the oddities of the Namib Desert, stretching along the western coast of southern Africa.
In the Namib there are fascinating beetles found nowhere else in the world. Most of them live beneath the dunes. They can be seen diving into the sand and “swimming” beneath the surface. One kind prefers the gravel plains and keeps its body off the hot sands by means of long legs—scurrying about as if on stilts. Then there is the world’s only beetle with a white back, which reflects the sun’s hot rays. While one white-backed beetle forages for food, its mate may serve as a sunshade by perching on its back.
Namib beetles have ingenious ways of getting water from the morning fogs. One kind digs a small trench facing into the wind, then retraces its steps, drinking the moisture that has collected in the canal. Another walks to the crest of a dune, raises its rear high into the wind and with head low opens its mouth wide. With its back to the wind, droplets of water condense on its body and trickle down into its mouth.
A large spider, eleven centimeters in diameter (4.33 in.), known as the “white dancing lady,” builds a house with a trapdoor on the side of a dune. It feeds on lizards, crickets and other insects. When attacked it takes an aggressive stance with forelegs raised high—hence the name “dancing lady.” Even more fascinating is its method of flight. It folds its legs partially under its body and goes cartwheeling down the dunes. Man, after all, didn’t invent the wheel!
A lovely ball of fur—the golden mole—also travels beneath the sands. It surfaces so seldom and for such brief moments that until recently it had never been seen. Its eyes and ears are completely hidden under its fur to protect them from the loose sand, where it tunnels about in search of food.
A terror of the dunes is the sidewinding Namib adder. It bounces across the sand with quick sideway thrusts and thus avoids slipping into or being burned by the hot sand. And what a crafty way it has for acquiring a meal! With body buried beneath the surface, only the eyes peep through the sand. Several centimeters away the tip of its tail protrudes, looking like a small plant. Soon an inquisitive lizard comes to make a meal of this odd “plant” and becomes a meal instead!
Fenestraria, meaning “windows,” is a plant with flat, club-shaped leaves that lie hidden under the sand with only their tips showing. The tips, however, are transparent, admitting light to effect photosynthesis. A tangled heap of rusty barbed wire? No, a closer look reveals green spiky melons wrapped in thin, thorny branches. This is the nara pumpkin, a food sought by both man and beast. Welwitschia is a large, octopus-shaped plant that seems to have many leaves but has only two. They grow eight meters (26 ft) long and are shredded to ribbons by the winds and become swirled about the plant’s core like octopus tentacles. Welwitschia lives for up to two thousand years!
Large animals also inhabit the Namib. The tallest elephants in the world, with unusually long legs, live there. Also the beautiful gemsbok (oryx) can be seen climbing the dune slopes. Also present are “the water engineers of the Namib.” That’s what the zebras living there are called. They have an uncanny ability to find water. With their hooves they dig holes in the dry riverbeds, going down one meter. Soon water seeps into the hole and they satisfy their thirst. Other animals watch them, and they also use these water holes.
But the polished diamonds of the Namib? Real diamonds? Very real indeed! Over thousands of years the Orange River has flushed millions of diamonds into the Atlantic Ocean. From there, strong coastal currents have washed them up onto the coast and into the desert sands. The result is that hidden beneath the coastal dunes is a vast treasure of naturally polished diamonds, 90 percent gemstone quality. Two hundred million tons of earth must be moved to recover one ton of diamonds—eight million carats. Until recently this was being accomplished about every four years.
There you have a few of the fascinating oddities, and the fabulous riches, of the Namib.