by Linda Vergnani
September 2001, Leadership
This story won the print prize and the overall award in the 2001 South African Science and Technology Journalism Awards.
The extraordinary denizens of the Namib desert attract scientists from all over the world to the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre on the banks of the Kuiseb River. Linda Vergnani was invited into this exclusive academic enclave.
Walking through the starlit night of the Namib desert, Dr Joh Henschel is attracted by a faint sound. Turning his torch towards the source, he spotlights the pinkish-brown geometrically patterned coils of a horned adder.
The reptile emits a louder hiss as Henschel manoeuvres it off the path and into a cardboard box. The adder, which we had almost walked into, is presented to a visiting Austrian TV crew, who are braaing oryx and zebra steaks after a day spent filming in the desert. They gather around to admire the stocky 50cm snake before Henschel sets it free.
Decades of work at the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre in the heart of the Namib have attuned Henschel, a noted arachnologist, to the subtle sounds of its myriad inhabitants. Henschel is research director of the Desert Research Foundation of Namibia, which, together with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, runs the Gobabeb centre.
He began his research on spotted hyaenas in the Namib in the seventies and later became a world expert on sand-living spiders. Henschel speaks fondly of his arachnid subjects. The 25 sand-dwelling species of the Namib include a spider that cartwheels down the dunes to escape predators. "Then there is the spoor spider, a heat specialist that withstands more heat than any other spider in the world. It uses silk to trap ants, and then holds them against the hot sand until they suffer from heat shock. Within 15 seconds the ants are roasted.’’
A recent discovery is the corolla spider which arranges a flower-shaped pattern of quartz crystals around its hole. The stones are linked to the lair by radiating "signal lines" of silken web. Through these telegraph lines, the spider instantly picks up the vibrations of any insect which touches the crystals and then pounces on its prey.
It is these extraordinary desert denizens, like the spiders, that help attract scientists from across the globe to Gobabeb. They come to study the unique plants, insects, reptiles and mammals of the area as well as to look at broader issues like climate change, biodiversity and desertification.
The research centre is situated in the Namib-Naukluft Reserve, on the banks of the Kuiseb River — a linear oasis lined with ancient acacias. Rare flooding of the Kuiseb, such as the record one in April, keeps the great Namib sand sea at bay. On one side of the river are soft, sinuous apricot dunes and on the other the glittering, quartz-strewn gravel plains.
The spectacular landscape makes the Namib a magnet for ecotourists. They come to photograph 1 000-year-old Welwitschia plants plus creatures ranging from lizards that dance a slow jig to keep their feet off the searing sands, to nomadic elephants and black rhino.
Some 200km away at Sossusvlei, which boasts some of the highest dunes in the world, new upmarket lodges have been built to accommodate wealthy tourists. They are prepared to spend thousands of dollars to experience the solitude of the sand sea and photograph the gigantic star dunes.
However because of road construction, which has turned the last 15km of road to Sossusvlei into a veritable sand pit, visitors drive randomly across the gravel plains causing irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem. At the vlei itself, lines of people trudge up the slopes, creating the impression certain dunes have sprouted bristles. The silence is broken by the roar of revving engines and the whoops of local louts boarding down the dunes.
In contrast Gobabeb is reserved for scientists and educators — an intimate community that is open to journalists and filmmakers by appointment only. Dominated by a giant water tower, the tiny settlement includes laboratories, a library, offices and staff quarters set snugly against the almost unspoiled dune sea. All supplies are trucked in and electricity comes from a generator.
Henschel explains that if the public had access to the station, the staff would literally have no time to work. More than 1 300 research papers have been produced by researchers based at Gobabeb.
The centre buzzes with activity — both from the handful of resident researchers and the half-dozen students from Germany and elsewhere who use it as a base for fieldwork.
Before Namibia’s independence a decade ago, the Desert Ecological Research Unit, as it was then known, was funded by South Africa’s Foundation for Research Development via the Transvaal Museum. Now it is forced to raise its own funding through various environmental studies and through staff serving as consultants to filmmakers and others.
Arriving at the station for a brief visit, Henschel checks on the research activities and then meets the Austrian TV crew, who are dressed in designer desert gear. Among the things they want to film are "fog-basking" tenebrionid beetles and a pilot fog-harvesting project.
Quietly spoken research assistant Vilho "Snake" Mtuleni is assigned to assist the crew. He drives them into pristine dunes, where a furnace wind blows a constant spume of sand over the curving crests. On the slipside of the dunes, beetles hurtle about hunting for food in the swirling detritus of dune grass.
For dramatic effect, the crew films Mtuleni running after head-standing beetles — although in reality he captures them with little effort. Like other dune inhabitants, the beetles rely on fog for moisture. When the fog clouds roll in at dawn, these fog-baskers tilt their backsides upwards and drink the water that condenses off their bodies and legs.
After assisting the crew, Mtuleni sets off to inspect 70 traps set in the dune field. The traps consist of plastic buckets set slightly below the dune surface.
Armed with a teacup and metal spoon, Mtuleni crouches over each trap and sifts out the tiny captives. Holding up one beetle, the carapace of which looks like a peach pip buffed with black boot polish, he pronounces that it is Onymacris plana, "one of the fastest beetles in the world". At each trap he identifies the insects by their Latin names and records their details before setting them free.
Mtuleni explains this is part of a study into the population dynamics of insects that is linked to climate and other factors.
The next morning icy fog billows around the station as Mtuleni and Henschel set out to inspect an experimental fog-harvesting net near the Topnaar village of Klipneus. The Austrian crew follows and films drops of water collecting on the net and dripping into the gutter below. The net, which is the width of a tennis court and can supply 20 litres of water a day to a household, has been set up by two Walvis Bay students. Henschel is concerned that rather than pouring into the collection tank, the water is dripping from the gutter and he and Mtuleni discuss ways of correcting it.
At Klipneus, gnarled grandmother Maria Druru Xoagus welcomes Mtuleni like a long-lost son. Gesticulating in pantomime fashion for the filmmakers, the Topnaar woman explains in Afrikaans that all the drinking water is currently brought in by tanker. She doubts the project will be able to deliver water from fog. "I will believe it when the tank is full."
The next day, sailing a 4x4 through the thick sand of the dry Kuiseb River, Stellenbosch University student Elias "Charlie" Shanyengana speaks of the harsh existence in Topnaar settlements. In some villages the salinity level of the borehole water reaches double that recommended by the World Health Organisation.
Part of his thesis in chemistry involves studying small-scale desalination of water and he intends testing a cheap R3 500 solar-powered desalinator in one of the worst-affected settlements.
Driving 30km down the Kuiseb river-bed to test the borehole water at remote Topnaar farms, Shanyengana stops at each one to greet the inhabitants and ask permission to test the water. Immensely personable and popular, Shanyengana is the first Namibian to do doctoral work at Gobabeb.
As the vehicle sloughs from one side of the Kuiseb river-bed to the other through thick caked mud, Shanyengana tells of how he spent much of his childhood in Angola, Zambia and West Africa after going into exile with his father, a South West African People’s Organisation leader. He first visited Gobabeb as an undergraduate student at the University of Namibia and was so impressed that he later joined the foundation. Among his tasks is "planning how to transform Gobabeb into a model centre for appropriate technologies in Southern Africa". This includes looking at alternative building materials and renewable sources of energy.
Among international students working at Gobabeb is Petra Moser, who is studying for a diploma in landscape ecology at the Westfälische Wilhelms University of Münster in Germany. Like other foreign students she is stunned by both the solitude and opportunities at Gobabeb. "This is a unique place in the world," claims Moser.
She is doing fieldwork on the germination and cultivation of the !nara, a melon that is a staple food of the Topnaars. Before checking the spiky !nara plants that erupt from nearby dunes, she offers me a taste of the yellow juice. The knobbly fruit, which the Topnaars praise as the "many-breasted foster mother", is disappointingly insipid. With the wild !nara supply dwindling, Moser is exploring whether the melons can be cost-effectively cultivated as a crop.
Later two ghostly pale University of Nottingham scientists arrive from England to confer with Henschel. Dr Peter Crittendon, senior lecturer in the school of biological sciences at Nottingham, and Amelia Hunt, an environmental microbiologist, explain they are travelling to the Skeleton Coast to research the relationship between the ammonia emitted from the giant Cape Cross seal colony and the presence of a special orange lichen. Crittendon says: "We came here to find out whether we could use the laboratory facilities and they have been very helpful to us."
Dr Mary Seely, the dynamic American biochemist who has been director of the Desert Research Foundation since 1970, comments: "One of the beauties of being at Gobabeb is the wide range of people one works with — plant physiologists, geologists, archaeologists, climatologists, zoologists from all over the world. You get to know them, eat with them, talk with them."
With the foundation’s main source of income from applied research that is useful to decision-makers, Seely has moved her base to Windhoek. She shows a sheaf of reports prepared for donors and government ministries.
"At independence people thought we were just doing beetle work," comments Seely. "It’s taken close to a decade for us to get people to recognise the importance of research to development."
For example, Seely says in 15 years’ time the diamonds will run out in the Sperrgebiet, but the area has enormous ecotourism potential which can be developed in the interim.
Working with the United States Bureau of Land Management and Kirstenbosch Botanical Research Institute, the foundation is working on a project aimed at building up community-based ecotourism as a way to prevent desertification. Seely says: "If we can look at alternative ways of making arid land productive, other than ploughing it or grazing it, we can prevent desertification."
The foundation is currently working with communities in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia to see how they can expand ecotourist opportunities. It is part of a programme to support the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification in the Southern African Development Community. The programme will culminate in a major international symposium to be held in Cape Town in 2002.
While the Namib is the biggest tourist attraction in Namibia after the Etosha game reserve, Seely is concerned that uncontrolled tourism is starting to ruin certain areas. At Sossusvlei, she believes part of the solution lies in barring all cars and installing a silent, solar-powered train which will take the increasing flow of visitors into the sensitive dune area.
It is perhaps ironic that the well-publicised research at Gobabeb has helped to bring floods of tourists to the Namib. Seely maintains if the desert is not being utilised it will not be preserved and may end up to be a dumping site. "We are not looking at preservation of the desert but at sustainable use. We feel it is important to highlight its value and educate people so they use it in a sensible way."
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