Treasure hunting

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The Namib receives an annual precipitation of as little as 2mm. This immense expanse of dunes stretching along the foggy coastline is the habitat of a surprisingly fascinating array of desert flora and fauna. Mariana Balt joins Tommy Collard on one of his famous Living Desert Tours to learn more.

Tommy Collard is as interesting a character as the creatures he points out on his tours. He has worked in conservation, tourism, business, herpetology and farming, and his enthusiasm for desert life is contagious. Even the vehicle in which he collects us from our accommodation in Swakopmund is one of a kind.
With his immense knowledge of the Namib and even greater love for it, watching him find the creatures of the desert is an experience next to none for us. He has personally developed the Living Desert Tour over years and takes to the task of introducing life in the dunes with an enthusiastic but conservation-minded approach.

From the minute we leave Swakopmund and head out past the historical Herero graveyard (next to a modern upper-class suburb) on the final drive through the dunes to the Atlantic Ocean on the western side of the dune belt, Collard opens our eyes to much more than sand.

On tour with Tommy. Photo: Mariana Balt

Starting with the more vegetated, life-rich eastern side of the dunes, our first stop is to deflate the tyres of the modified, eight-cylinder Land Rover, and to learn the rules of the expedition. Collard and his associates meticulously follow the same tracks every time, to avoid unnecessarily disturbing the natural habitat of the creatures we are to meet.

The next stop is triggered by marks invisible to the inexperienced eye, on a small dune next to the tracks. Collard soon digs up a barking gecko, while pointing out and explaining the life cycle and behaviour of an onlooking beetle.

Several times during the next hours, we follow the same procedure: Collard, while cracking some jokes in the vehicle, suddenly stops, gets out and follows more invisible ’tracks’ just to come up with something more interesting than the previous find.

A shovel-snouted lizard. Photo: Mariana Balt

This includes the shovel-snouted lizard (Meroles anchietae), the origin of its name very clear. Even the toes on its hind feet have serrated scales that give it extra traction in sand as well as helping it ‘swim’ through the dune sand. Next we find a sidewinding adder (Bitis peringueyi) and later a horned adder (Bitis caudalis). While the horned adder is fairly easy to spot between the twigs of a desert plant, how Collard finds the elusive sidewinding adder still baffles me. We only see its eye protruding from the sand when it is pointed out with a red laser dot.

A horned adder – this one for some unknown reason without horns. Photo: Mariana Balt

A highlight of the experience is finding the palmato gecko (Pachydactylus rangei) that has transparent skin and beautiful colours. It requires some careful digging into the side of the dune, but seeing this nocturnal desert-dweller is worth the effort.

We are privileged to watch a large Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis) enjoy brunch, as Collard all the while explains the variety of dune colours, how the area’s plants and small animals survive the harsh climate, and how they obtain water.

Even a fish moth becomes more interesting after we learn how it uses a swimming motion to travel through the sand beneath the surface. We learn about more adaptations like protective eyelids and tubular nostrils that allow other lizards to live below the surface.

A family of tractrac chats get to know Tommy and are waiting for their lunch of meal worms. Photo: Mariana Balt.

But Collard’s tours don’t just care for the dune creatures. Halfway through the excursion, a little white ‘building’ comes into sight, and a flock of tractrac chats welcomes us to a mobile toilet. They appreciate our pitstop as much as we do. The tame family, having been rescued previously by Collard, takes their meal-worm take-away lunch from his hands – and mouth.

More elusive is the Gray’s lark (Ammomanopsis grayi) that unobtrusively (except of course to Collard’s experienced eye) is hatching on its nest on a gravel plain between dunes. This once again emphasises the devastation off-road driving can cause to desert inhabitants, as drivers will only spot her when it is too late.
Every tour reveals its own secrets, like the dancing white lady spider (Leucorchestris Arenicola), the Parabuthus villosus black scorpion, desert wasps, crickets and several beetle species, and other lizards and geckos that have adapted over centuries to survive the dune dynamics of the desert.

The final stretch holds some excitement for adrenaline junkies, with a swift stop to ‘roar’ down a so-called ‘roaring’ dune, as well as learn more about the ‘black sand’ or magnetite found in the desert and collected by Collard from the desert floor with a strong magnet.

The tour ends with a beautiful view of the Atlantic and Swakopmund from the south-eastern side, before we pass a nearby adventure centre where a few camels graze lazily before taking tourists on a ride into the dunes – possibly another adventure to consider while you are at it.

Plan your desert experience

See what the desert has to offer by combining a Living Desert Tour in the morning and a Welwitchia/Moon Landscape Tour in the afternoon. The first takes you on a 4-6hr tour of the dunes while the second ventures inland to the ’Moon Landscape’, the Swakop River Canyon with its rock formations, and the Goanikontes Oasis, where the famous Welwitchia mirabilis plant and sightings of wildlife, lichen fields and more await you.

Tommy Collard digging in the sand. Photo: Mariana Balt

Remember: Arm yourself with sunscreen, hat and camera. Water and light refreshments are provided by your host. The photographic opportunities are endless, so make sure all your batteries are charged.

Cost: The morning tour leaves at 8am and returns at about 1.30pm. Rates until 31 October 2020 are N$800 per person and from November 2020 to 31 October 2021 N$850 per person. (The Namibian dollar has the same value as ZAR). Children aged 12 and under pay half-price. A minimum of two people will secure your tour. Refreshments of bottled water, 100% fruit juice and other cooldrinks are included. Rates for the full-day combined tour until 31 October 2020 are N$1 600 per person. Children aged 12 years and under pay half-price. Refreshments and lunch-packs are included, and a minimum of four people are required.

Booking: Tommy or Kit +264 (0)81 128 1038 / info@livingdeserttours.com.na / tommystours@yahoo.com. Visit www.livingdeserttours.com.na for information.

Beware: Off-road driving is prohibited in certain areas. Desert gravel plains and lichen fields are sensitive. These areas teem with animals essential to the desert ecosystem and tracks destroy them. Vehicle tracks are the most serious pollution in the Namib. Off-road driving in the dunes between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay may only be done in designated areas with a free permit from the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

Read up on the coastal biodiversity before visiting to avoid activities that may have a negative impact on
the coast.

Written by Mariana Balt
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