Desert time. Today we are heading out to explore the desert with Batis Birding Tours. At 8am a cool looking 4x4 vehicle rocks up outside our accommodation. Now that's service! “Hi, I'm Dayne,” the friendly driver says. “Welcome to our Living Desert Tour.”
We are heading out to explore a portion of the world's oldest desert - the Namib desert that surrounds Swakopmond like a threatening tsunami. “Hmm?” I wonder to myself as we whisk along the streets en route to pick up another group . “What in the world can we see in a dry desert?” We've driven through and walked in this desert already on our adventures in Sossusvlei. Besides a few Oryx it's seems pretty devoid of life. Well that is besides the 202 tyre carcasses we counted from Sossusvlei to Swakopmond.
“It's a family business,” Dayne says as we drive through Swakopmond's maze of streets. He tells me how his parents, his brother and himself have been involved in hospitality and wildlife for many years. I'm pleased we're on this tour as I love family run businesses. They seem to have more soul…more passion.
As we near our entry point into the desert Dayne points out the remains of a railway line near the coast. “That one was washed into the sea. I'll show you the second line that was claimed by the desert,” he says. We turn off the road into a “permit only” zone and enter the Dorop National Park. “The park was proclaimed in 2010 to protect the Damara Tern,” Dayne explains, “because it breeds here and only lays a single egg a year.” However at the moment all I see is sand, lots of it. I'm still wondering if there can be any animals in here. I'm soon to find out.
We stop next to a pile of bones. “Ok,” I think, “it's at least an ex-animal.” In fact it turns out to be a horse…lots of horses, as Dayne shares the hundred year old sad story with us. Batis Birding Safaris who run this tour is one of only five companies who are licensed to visit this highly sensitive region. “There are many people lining up to get permission,” Dayne says, “but we will have to die first,” he jokes enthusiastically. Well, let's see what makes him love his job so much.
We stop. “Join me outside,” Dayne says, and so we all leap out. Soon we are having a desert version of a geography lesson. Dayne places a printed map of this region over a map of Southern Africa that he draws in the sand. Soon was are drawn into his fascinating account of how the deserts form and move. I'd never realized they moved so much. “The dunes in this area, which is the younger part of the Namib desert, are just 2 million years old, and are moving at about 50-60 meters a year.” Eish! They're racing snakes these dunes. And due to the single wind direction in this area these dunes have only one goal - Swakopmond. We've already witnessed how they claimed the town of Kolmanskop. Swakopmond stands in all its modern glory on the edge of this desert tsunami. It's only saving grace is a mostly dry river bed. If that defense is breached…or when that defense is breached, tourists will come and visit Swartkopmond ghost town.
Moving on we stop and stand on the huge dunes that totter near the edge of Swakopmond's vanguard. 34 degrees. That's the magic number. A dune can't get steeper than that before the sand slides and the beast inches forward. This dune is headed into the gulley of the river soon.
Hannah picks up a newspaper that must have blown into the dunes at some stage. It's dated 2009. Six years old and it looks perfect. It just shows how little rain this area has as even a newspaper does not decompose.
A shrill whistle sounds. That's our party's signal to go to Dayne, who's out searching for critters. He must have found something. I'm surprised because the most we've seen so far are horse bones and a newspaper. Soon we are looking at a small Toktokkie insect while Dayne explains how it is amazingly adapted to the desert. “I've got something exciting for you,” Dayne says. He leads us to a little bush clinging tenaciously to the sand for its existence. Inside, camouflaged like a desert marine is a snake. “Wow! That's amazing,” I say as Dayne extracts the snake form it's hiding place. It's not going to be my last “wow” moment either. It's a horned adder. Apparently a nasty little fella if he bites you. “The good news,” Dayne says, “is you won't die. The bad news,” he continues.“is you will wish you did! Plus you'll end up with bratwurst fingers!” Now I'm hungry. Why did he say that.
“Come and see this,” Collin the local guide the company has trained says to us. “What?” we all say staring vainly at the sand. “That,” Collin says pointing at the sand, “those eyes.” However as hard as we stare we cannot see the eyes of what apparently is a Sidewinding Adder. I hand Collin my camera. “Ok, take a photo of it so we can see.” He does and when I zoom in I see a beady little eyeball staring back at me. Incredible. How in the world did they find this snake. There is no trace of it at all. Apparently it burrows itself into the sand and just pokes its tail out when prey arrives, twitching it to attract the prey. And then…well, it's pretty much bratwurst for the poor lizard or whatever.
It's not long and Dayne has located another adder. This one is more hyper than the first two and we have to be wary as we watch it. “This is amazing,” I say. “I thought there was nothing in this desert and we've already seen three snakes!” We are all walking a lot more carefully now. It's as though every bush or seemingly innocent bit of sand has a beast within it. Incredible!
We're off again and Dayne is pointing out many fascinating aspects of this amazing desert. “I've got something really great to show you,” Dayne says as we stop. This is becoming the standard refrain for our adventure. We cluster around a bush and Dayne tells us about the most venomous animal they have in the desert. It's not a snake, it's the desert's biggest scorpion, the Black Hairy Thick Tailed Scorpion. Eish! With a name and intro like that we all back away from the rock. This critter doesn't sound like one to have a close encounter with…well, that is unless you're Dayne.
He sticks his hand under the rock and encourages the scorpion to crawl onto his hand. We all look on in a mixture of awe, fear and bratwurst expectation. Soon Dayne is showing us this amazing scorpion - as it crawls over his hand. We are all still a few steps back, especially after he says, “and it can also squirt it's venom!” Nice.
And I thought there was no life in these endless sand dunes. The action continues with Collin digging like a rabid dog to catch a beautiful Dune Gheko and Dayne raising like a banshee up a dune to apprehend a fleeing Shovel Snouted lizard. “I've got a real treat,” Dayne says. We're beginning to expect treats. He's found a Namaqua chameleon. He's soon showing us how it's “faster than a jet” tongue catches some live worms he fortuitously has in his pocket.
It's not just the animals. It's the amazing landscape, the old flood planes, the fascinating Dollar bush with its transformer seed pods - you have to see this to believe it, and more. This desert feels more alive than I ever imagined. Creatures everywhere. Dunes moving with a mission. Plants that transform at the squirt of water. It's alive, truly alive. I look at this amazing, endless sand with new eyes - living eyes.