Africa may be synonymous with the Big 5, but nothing satisfied Neela Badami more than to return from the Namib Desert glutted with memorable encounters with the Little 5!
The Namib Desert owes its name to a Nama word that means ‘vast place of nothingness.’ On its western periphery, it runs along the southwestern Atlantic coast of Africa for two thousand kilometres and stretches across three countries. The coastline it creates is called the Skeleton Coast. The eerie name is a reminder of the time of whaling schooners and slave ships when bleached human and whale bones littered the beaches.
We (my husband Aditya and I) entered the Skeleton Coast National Park after 4 days of camping in Damaraland, in the heart of the desert, tracking the elusive desert-adapted elephants and (hold your breath!) lions. A half-day drive along the stunning coast brought us to the seaside town of Swakopmund and its German architecture. We are staying at the Swakopmund Hotel, a converted railway station (whose façade is a national monument) and after breakfast on our second day at Swakopmund, we are met at the lobby by a little pink-bearded man who introduced himself as Douglas. Douglas works with “Living Desert Adventures” and promises to show us the ‘Little 5 of the Namib Desert.’ Aditya is busy admiring his photos of the lions and the elephants on his camera and doesn’t look very impressed by this offer from Diminutive Douglas (“DD”).
As we set out in DD’s Land Rover, Swakopmund’s famous fog has not yet lifted. The fog is making the winter morning even colder. DD doesn’t sound very worried about the cold or the fog and even tells us that the fog is important to the desert life as a source of water. DD’s Land Rover has a painted mascot, the delicate palmate gecko (Pachydactylus rangei). Its legs are translucent pink, and its webbed feet look like a match for the desert sand. The eyes are large and bulbous, its underbelly green, and an orange hue is visible on its back. The top of its head is dusted in blue.In all, the painting looks pretty, but obviously is too colourful to be accurate. I was to find my skepticism displaced soon enough, though.
We head to the dunes that lie just outside Swakopmund. DD picks a suitable flat patch of land to give us an introductory lecture. He starts by telling us of the common misconception that the desert is an empty place. We crowd around him, our hands stuffed deep in our coat pockets to keep warm. DD pulls out a pointer stick and begins to draw an isosceles triangle in the flat sand. It is a dune, he tells us, and each desert animal prefers a different part of the dune. At the bottom, on the leeward side, are the beetles, feasting on ‘beetle muesli’ (his name for the detritus of grass, seed and other plant material that the wind deposits at the base of the dune). We spot a beetle — Onymacris rugatipinis. Its back is a hive of little round bumps, which creates surface tension to allow water from the fog to precipitate for the beetle to drink. We are suitably impressed by nature’s little water collection mechanism built into the beetle’s exoskeleton. The beetle is then returned unharmed to its home.
DD guides us next to a Dollar Bush (Zygophyllum stapffii); its leaves are almost perfectly round and filled with water and have a bitter taste. The dollar bush houses a resident – a hardy-skinned, black chameleon trimmed in red, its skin the texture of rhino armour to look at. It is standing absolutely stock still, only its eyes swiveling to examine us intruders. DD bends and proffers the chameleon a juicy larva from a small jar he keeps. Nothing happens. A moment passes, then another. We are all standing stock still, having been warned that the little fellow hates sudden movements. Suddenly, it flicks out its long tongue, which snaps up the larva and shoots back in. Its eyes never stop swiveling its full range of 180 degrees, still suspicious of our watching group. We learn that this species of chameleon is among the fastest-moving in the world; and are able to change colour at will. They usually stay black in the morning to retain energy from the sun’s light and warm up, and may turn lighter later in the day to avoid boiling over. The ability to merge colours with the dollar bush also keeps it obscured from the desert raptors. We make sure that the little fellow is safe within the protection of the dollar bush before setting off in search of our remaining little fivers.
Back in the Land Rover, we are driven in between dunes as tall as buildings, lined with ostrich grass. DD is busy scanning for spoor or, as he calls it “reading the Bushman paper”. He stops now and then, and then (astonishingly fast for a white-haired man) dashes off into the sand, digging (furiously but precisely) with his hands.
Now at the base of a tall dune DD points to a mysterious set of sinusoidal marks on the sand. They end near a patch of ostrich grass. DD tells us with barely suppressed excitement that they are the tracks of a sidewinder (Bitis peringueyi) one of the smallest adders in the world. He points to a little black dot in the sand and carefully sets to work, scooping out the sand around the black point until the body of the sidewinder is exposed. Its scales are exactly the same combination of colours as the grains of sand around it, beautifully camouflaging it. The snake, tiring of our attentions, soon began to slither away, sidewinding to minimize exposure of its body to the baking sand. Within seconds, it had slithered right into the dune, the small undulating tracks the only sign that a creature lies buried underneath, lying in wait for a curious but ill-fated lizard.
We are amazed at how sharp DD’s eyes are. Even those of us in the group who are used to tracking big game are amazed. All we can see are dunes. He can apparently see not just tracks, but animals smaller than one finger of his hand atop a dune.
Back in the Land Rover, and a short drive later, DD brakes, and through the open window tosses his hat about twenty feet away, onto a dune. Seconds later, he has run to where his hat has landed and is scooping out handfuls of sand. By the time we have made our way to the top, we can see a tunnel in the sand, now exposed by his digging. We watch as DD smooths the sand away from the opening until the back of a little animal is visible.
With all the care of a master surgeon handling the most delicate of organs, DD scoops up the palmate gecko into the palm of his hand, shielding it from the sun. We gaze at it in wonder. So the creature painted on the Land Rover wasn’t a product of some artist half-crazed by the desert sun! Pink limbs, webbed sand shoes, multicoloured translucent skin, and transparent eyelids – this frail creature did exist. DD was protective of his little charge – he forbade us from demanding photographs that would put the small feller in direct sunlight. As soon as he set him down, he leaped back into his little tunnel abode and disappeared from sight!
DD wasn’t done yet. The next creature we spotted was Fitzsimon’s Burrowing Skink (Typlacontias brevipes). My first impression was that of a tiny little snake, with glossy yellow, almost metallic skin, and with even black dots laid out in neat stripes on its back. This skink is basically a lizard without a neck or legs, and hence looks like a snake – it’s capable of practically swimming through the sand, a feat we witnessed the moment Mr. Douglas set it down. A swish, and a swoosh, and it was gone, whisked away into the depths of its vast, bone-dry swimming pool.
While we were still on the dune with the skink, I sensed rather than saw a movement. ‘Lizard!’ I exclaimed. It was the Shovel-nosed Lizard (Meroles anchietae), also called the thermal dancing lizard or the sand-diving lizard. This merry creature dances, alternating its front and back feet on the dune, to minimize contact with the hot sand, and dives headfirst into the dune to avoid predators. His snout was indeed shaped like a shovel, streamlined at the end where the contact with sand is made. The whole body was perfectly shaped for its sand-diving activities. What a shame it was too early in the day to watch it do its dance routine!
We next saw the Cartwheeling Spider or Dancing White Lady Spider (Carparachne aureoflava), which also exhibits similar exuberance. She cartwheels to escape predators – diving off the dune face, and rolling over and over to the bottom much faster than her predators can move – and jumping upright at the bottom. She is also an accomplished seamstress, spinning a burrow of silk in the dune’s slip face, even closing it with a silk door.
The finale to our morning’s expedition was a drive up and down the dunes along a permitted track, the garnet and iron dusted dunes glowing in the midday sun, while a lone jackal surveyed our progress with disdain. Skink, snake, lizard, chameleon, spider, beetle, jackal – it was our good fortune to have sighted all of these denizens of the Namib dunes.
Neela Badami used to captain the Karnataka Women’s Water Polo Team. She is now a corporate lawyer — that is for 11 months a year. For the twelfth, she slings on her big binoculars and small camera and heads to the deep jungle. She can be reached at neelabadami(at)gmail(dot)com