Tommy’s Living Desert Tour

Having arrived yesterday, we’re in Swakopmund for two nights so we have today to play.

On our way in yesterday we sat through a video presentation at Desert Explorers Adventure Centre which offered various forms of locally based diversions including: parachuting (in tandem), sand boarding, quad biking, seal and dolphin boat trip, township cultural visit, a living desert trip, Several are targeted at brain-dead youth; few appealed to our group which was clearly a different demographic.

This is an apposite place to mention damage to the desert environment, a particularly delicate ecosystem, which was a particular hot button of our leader. Much of the expanse of sand is covered by lichens. Lichens are a complex symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. Lichens are particularly slow growing, taking up to 40 years to develop fully. Along come quad bikes and 4x4s driven by city idiots, all screaming across the delicate dunes and sand carving tracks with their BF Goodrich tyres and shouting “whoo hoo!”. The more civilized ones might simply drive up a dune for a sun-downer. Either way, the lichens are destroyed and take 40 years to grow back. Even film crews with lorry loads of equipment making yet another Mad Max movie pitch up and compound the problem. We saw tracks through the lichen all over the place. Mad Max was a particular disaster, flattening a vast swathe of desert and destroying the moisture-containing succulents upon which wildlife relies.

What did appeal to most of us was a living desert tour. However, before we arrived, Leader Louis had advised us that there was a better version: Tommy’s Living Desert Tour. 12 of 14 of us signed up for that.

20170224_082118 Deflating the tyresJ17_0373 Living Desert TourThis morning, Tommy and his crew picked us up from our guesthouse. We piled into Tommy’s ancient V8 Land Rover (1970s – the best off road vehicle ever produced, he said) and another old faithful. He drove us just beyond the Desert Explorers Adventure Centre, through a barrier and into the desert area, which runs right up to the coast. Shortly he stopped and began deflating the chunky off road tyres. They’d started at 3.0 bar/44 PSI for road use and he went down to 0.8 bar/14 PSI for desert use. This both increases contact with the sand and, therefore grip, whilst reducing impact on the sand by not sinking in anything like as much. To further reduce impact, not only do they avoid all forms of life including lichens, but they drive over the same tracks every time. Very conscientious; very conservation minded. Another vehicle containing a German family joined us and Tommy began a briefing, explaining the desert environment in German and in English. He was a great character with a story for every situation, both witty and informative. Incidentally, the dark patches on the dunes [right-hand picture] are neither shadows nor dirt but magnetite, a magnetic metal deposit which Tommy demonstrated later using a powerful magnet covered in a plastic bag.

J17_0345 Namaqua ChameleonWhat these guys couldn’t see wasn’t there. The first creature was “easy”, though: a Namaqua Chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis) on top of a small sand mound amongst succulents, the Dollar Plant. After a brain dump of information, Tommy put some mealworms down to see if it would eat. It did. I’ve got the tongue fully extended but this one’ll do here, with a meal worm being retracted.

J17_0367 Hidden GeckoJ17_0365 Palmate GeckoMost of the wildlife in the desert is much more difficult to spot ‘cos it tends to be buried beneath the sand. This, of course, protects the critters from moisture loss and predation. What these amazing desert guides spot are minor signs on the sand. For example, there’s a Gecko living under the sand here [left]. It’s one of the cutest little chaps you could imagine; a Palmate Gecko (Palmatogecko rangei). Tommy carefully excavated the hapless creature to show us. He did, of course, handle it with reverence and release it afterwards so it could hide itself again.

The western Namib gets only about 5mm of rain per year, on average. The coastal fog is the lifeblood of this desert. With warm desert air hitting the cold Benguela current off the coast, this area enjoys ~180 days of morning fog each year. A beetle climbs dunes in the early morning and upends itself, allowing moisture to condense on its elytra and run down to its mouth. The Palmate Gecko licks moisture that condenses on its body. The Dollar Plant (seen above with the Namaqua Gecko) stores water in its fleshy leaves and squeezing them releases a meagre drink but it’s enough to keep other animals alive.

J17_0379 Tractrac ChatJ17_0402 Gray's LarkThere were a couple of mobile toilet cubicles positioned to give what the Germans delightfully call a Pinkelpause [a pee break]. We were soon descended upon by some relatively tame desert birds, Tractrac Chats (Cercomela tractrac). While I was flat on my belly snagging these guys, we were very fortunate to be visited by the endemic Gray’s Lark (Ammomanes grayi), a bird that twitchers will travel thousands of miles to see. [I understand, I’d do it for a dragonfly.]

_17C1140 Tommy drawsJ17_0362 Spider tubeTommy stopped again and began drawing a diagram in the sand. There’s a spider that puts out a star-shape of threads over several metres of the sand’s surface. These are connected back to its lair, which is a 30cms vertical tube beneath the sand, built of sand particles glued together with silk. He turned, crossed a few metres of seemingly plain sand and began carefully excavating yet again saying, “there’s one here”.

J17_0371 Shovel-snouted LizardJ17_0370 Shovel-snouted LizardAfter a stop, Tommy’s favourite phrase was, “let’s go and find something more interesting”. At one point, the more interesting thing he found was a Shovel-snouted Lizard (Zeros anchietae), also living beneath the sand, of course. It uses its snout to dig through the sand. It seems to enjoy becoming living jewellery. Once it has something in its jaws, it won’t willingly let go. In this case, what it won’t let go of is Francine’s ear lobe. Cute!

This was a wonderful excursion which I’d highly recommend. It was one of the most informative and enjoyable 5 hours I’ve ever spent. It cost N$700 (~£45) per person and it was worth every penny.

Who said deserts were sterile?

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