Monty's Year at Gobabeb Training and Research Centre, Namibia

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Namib Geckos

A barking gecko hatchling on the interdune. Adults grow to be larger.

The Namib is largely a silent place.  When the wind isn’t blowing even a library’s white noise would probably seem obtrusive.  Yet on warm evenings, just after sunset, a reliable cacophony of noise erupts from the quiet. Percussive and repeated clicks burst from all directions in machine-gun rapidity: barking geckos. Sounding a bit like two pebbles being clapped together in quick succession, penetrative calls accentuate the surrounding holes of silence even more.

In the early evening only a few isolated individuals sound off from the surrounding sand and gravel, but this quickly crescendos to a powerful chorus of males rudely interrupting one another.  Competing for the ears of choosy females, the males sit at the mouth of their burrows and use the natural hollow of sand there project and amplify their calls.  Ironically, they are just as elusive as they are loud.  Upon the approach of footsteps or a light, they will shy back underground.  Unique to the Namib, three separate species can be distinguished by the pitch and number of “clicks” in their call (ranging from 4 – 16).

Many other gecko species are found around Gobabeb, but perhaps the most interesting is the Palmato “web-footed” gecko. This charismatic species is found in the dune sea and has webbed feet, a unique trait that allows it to burrow into compacted sand. A nocturnal creature, it comes out to feed on dune ants and termites after dark. Even then it is vulnerable to predators, not least of which is the white lady spider… (see previous post).

A palmato gecko beginning a new burrow. It uses it's front webbed feet to loosen compacted sand, and shovels away the sand with it's back feet.

Palmato gecko

White Lady Spider

The “dancing” white lady is only one of many uniquely adapted spider species found here in the Namib.  Consider this a first installment…

Named after a famous rock painting in Namibia, Leucochestris arenicola is large (over five inches across) and inhabits long silk lined burrows.  It is found only in the sand sea and the dry Kuiseb Riverbed, and its burrows tend to be located near the base of dune slopes.  Their large holes are covered by an interwoven sheet of sand and silk, which make them very difficult to find.  During the heat of the day the spiders rest deep below ground, but they become active at night.  Positioning themselves upside down in their tunnels, they “listen” for vibrations with sensitive hairs lining their long legs.  When a bumbling creature is heard above, the spider rushes to the surface and ambushes the prey.  Common species taken by white ladies include palmato geckos, beetles, and even other white lady spiders (more on that soon!).

Males traverse long distances from their burrows at night in search of mates.  In order to advertise their presence, they tap rhythms on the surface of the ground with their legs.  If a female is pleased with what she hears, she may exit her burrow and mate but unsatisfactory males can be eaten instead.  I often see the tracks from this tapping behavior while walking in the dunes around Gobabeb, but few people have ever been able to see the behavior which causes it.

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This past weekend I went camping and was lucky enough to find some of this amazing white lady courting first-hand.  The photos capture a cannibalistic female (on top) I found eating an under-performing male (on the bottom).  I also witnessed some tapping behavior, which is featured in the BBC clip below.  The BBC clip covers some of the fascinating research being done by Dr. Thomas Nørgaard here at Gobabeb.

The middle of nowhere.

The expression is absurd.  Used to describe a host of locations, it seems to paradoxically cast certain places outside the fabric of space itself.  Worse yet it suggests these dimensionless worlds have centers!  Hillbillies, wilderness areas, break downs on desolate highways … the phrase carries a lot of associations.  While I am no stranger to the proverbial “middle,” all the remote places I’ve inhabited have left me feeling relevant to in some larger spatial context.  The “middle of nowhere” just hasn’t been an appropriate descriptor.

Until now that is.  Welcome to the Namib Unconformity Surface.  A place defined by absence.  Nothing, nobody, nowhere.  Home Sweet Home.

Seemingly stripped bare the gravel flats are only a small block of a hyper-arid region that stretches the height of the U.S. along the southwestern coast of Africa.  Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn, the plain is surrounded by an overabundance of abstruse spaces.  To the west the frigid waters of the southern Atlantic sweep northward, meeting the sun-baked interior in banks of fog.  The south holds an enormous wilderness of sand, continually sculpted fresh by counteracting winds.  The westward margins blend into mazes of cliffs and canyons that form the base of an escarpment rising thousands of feet into Kalahari.  To the north lies the “Skeleton Coast,” an ominous wilderness of dunes and mountains.  And of course, above and around, a sky that would shame the state of Montana.

Nathan, Gareth, and I had been hiking since before dawn.  Making our own path across this flat netherworld of space, we drift.  There is nothing organic in sight.  The shark-tooth profile of Gungachoab stands out clearly behind us, although the base where we began five hours earlier is obscured by an opaque shimmer of air.  Low on the opposite horizon lies a heat-distorted skyline of orange dunes, extending far beyond what the curvature of the earth allows us to see.  Our destination, the twisted and fractured bedrock of Swartbank Mountain, looms ominously.  Between pulses of wind the endemic silence is exposed.

The previous afternoon we found a spring hidden among the outcrops and fallen boulders of Gungachoab’s long ridge.  One of seven in the region, its pathetic seep endures a never-ending siege of evaporation.  It manages to hang on, but barely; the salinity of the shallow pools hovers at about six times that of seawater.  Yet this water teems with life.  Within and around the centimeter deep pools, halophytic plant species flourish.  Encrusted within plate-like fragments of salt, the spoor of springbok, spotted hyena, black backed jackal, and ostrich are preserved. Colonies of green algae live inside pockets of salt crystals, perpetually covered by translucent sunshields.  A rare wolf spider darts between pockets of salt hunting for flies and water insects.  Only ever observed at these isolated springs, the species has never been formally described or studied.  In the clefts of rocky slopes, owl pellets and sun bleached bones of gerbils, chameleons, and rock hyraxes reveal a haunt of top predators.  And there is us, three blissful Homo sapiens, uniquely maladapted to this place yet enjoying a damn good sunset all the same.

The following morning we awake to the chill of humid air and a strong southeasterly.  It is only quarter past five, but we have a long walk ahead of us.  By sunset we need to be on the far side of Swartbank Mountain, a distance of 25 kilometers or so, for our rendezvous with Gareth’s wife and our ride back to Gobabeb.  As we hike towards our prepared water cache, the moon, just past full, sheds the landscape in an unsaturated monotone.  From our vantage on the low ridge the mass of an approaching fog bank can be seen riding the coastal breeze from miles away.  Its periphery arms stretch ahead of the main mass like legions of an invading army.

An hour later, our bottles now dripping with cold water, we push off from the inselberg into the beyond.  We orient vaguely towards Swartbank but the shape is obscured by fog, the advancing brink now only a few hundred meters away.  On the opposite horizon the orange ball of a sun breaches, still cool but intensifying by the second.  The cloud halts.  Moments later it begins it’s retreat.  High on the day’s arrival, we sprint towards the barrier until our visibility is reduced to a few meters.  The sun’s low-angle light ricochets off water droplets ethereally.  Mica crystals sparkle.  Lichen colonies, inconspicuous before now, adopt a microscopic vibrance.  The sun burns though.  We are exposed.

From the plain Gungachoab and Swartbank appear to float ship-like from the plain, their hulls enshrouded in fog.  Like all outcrops punching through the Namib, their scars attest to an epic worthy of Calliope.  O Muse!  Tell us a tale of Precambrian orogenies, cratonic movements, recumbent foldings, imbricate thrusting, intrusions, emplacements, and aeolian processes!  Sifting through time incomprehensible, the story begins half a billion years ago as tectonic fate unites star-crossed continental land masses.  Compressing sediments, a mountain chain rises from the depths of the Iapetus Ocean.  Life follows suit, trading watery homelands for a chance at new niches.  Myriad taxa, ever radiating in spirals of interconnected selective pressures, transform the region over hundreds of millions of years.  Sediments accumulate.  By the early Cretaceous crustal wanderlust rumbles again, and the Gondwanan plates pull apart.  As the subterranean cores of ancient mountains torturously split, dikes of molten rock suture the wounds.   On the surface, Atlas, the long awaited son of Iapetus, floods into the expanding cleft.  Erosion and aridity take hold of southwest Africa as the two land masses drift further and further apart.  For the first time the stubborn cores of the ancient mountains are uncovered.  As their earthly shawls unravel grain by grain, inselbergs (island mountains) are left behind as naked sentinels in an empty land.

But such macroscopic drama blurs details.  Stop and smell the biotic crust!  Interwoven in the porous gypsum sub-layers are countless combinations of lichen.  Each “species” an association of algae and fungus, the symbionts stabilize the surface against strong winds.  Crustose forms perched on the summits of larger stones intercept low flying fog droplets in mid-air.  The undersides of translucent quartz holds visible sheets of cyanobacteria, photosynthesizing through the rock while absorbing the moisture that collects around its margins.  As we walk we audibly compress the ground.  Our footprints here could last months.

Closer inspection of the dull gypsum crust reveals endless variety.  Larger bits of marble and dolerite feature amidst crystals of rose quartz and mica.  Between blocks of calcrete pebbles of innumerable variants can be found: granite, schist, copper, and garnets.  In one spot pearly fragments of ostrich shells adorn the matrix.  A black and white bicolor beetle scuttles across the surface.  Tiny black wells encircled by a careful arrangements of quartz pebbles reveal the lairs of corolla spiders.  Using the stones to enhance the vibrations of blundering ants or termites, the spiders wait for prey deep below the surface.  Larger burrows slope diagonally into the earth.  These form the homemade amplifying chambers of barking geckos.  Only used on warm calm nights, three different species compete to woo females with different variations of percussive clicks.  Termite species shift untold sand granules, constructing subterranean realms out of the remnants of ancient monuments.

Unfortunately this sand also holds a richness that is less easy to ignore.  Approaching the base of Swartbankberg and the end of our hike across the flats,  a plume of black smoke erupts from a heat distorted source.  Uranium prospectors.  At concentrations of a few hundred parts per million the Namib gravel plains hold some of richest deposits on the planet.  Rigs like this one scour the land, drilling boreholes hundreds of meters deep.  While a number of mines have been active in this region for decades, recent years have seen concession after concession of this “protected” landscape doled out to multinational corporations.  Companies awarded exclusive prospecting licenses search far and wide for profitable deposits, marking the map for further development.  One such place, a mere 5kms from Gobabeb, has remained quiet.  For now.

In order for any operation to be economically viable enormous areas must be churned and processed leaving behind holes measured in cubic kilometers.  Far more impressive than the lowly burrows they replace, humans’ evolutionary legacy can be seen from outer space.  Radioactive dust is suppressed with millions of liters of fresh water drawn up from plummeting aquifers.  No worries, each mine will only last a few years before the exhausted deposit forces a self implosion.  “Environmental Impact Assessments” precede the dynamite, capturing unidentified species for the next generation.

I fear for this place.

Uranium prospectors from the top of Swartbankberg

Station Tour

Gobabeb was founded in 1962 by an Austrian entomologist interested the incredible beetles found here, most of which belong to the Tenebrionidae family.  As time went on, Gobabeb grew to accommodate biologists, geologists, and anthropologists.  When Namibia gained independence in 1990, the station expanded it’s role from that of strictly a research institution to one of teaching and learning as well.  Last year over a thousand students visited the station, and efforts continue to expand our environmental education impact across the country.

I live in building situated on “Luxury Hill.”  As the name suggests, my accommodations are nicer than the trailers where interns live.  The view from the front porch…

Garden under the porch, dunes to the south, gravel plain all around.

Kitchen facilities, a communal dining and living room, as well as a T.V. are found in “Old House.”  After work, myself and the other staff usually cook dinner to the sounds of the Namibian hit artists like Tate Buti or the horribly dubbed English of a Brazilian soap opera entitled “Shades of Sin.”

(Left to right) Old House, Intern Trailers, Luxury Hill (where I live).

The Main Station has offices, research labs, the library, storage facilities, a workshop, a petrol pump, and our all-important server tower.  Beyond Main Station are more staff accommodations, guest lodging, a swimming pool, and the river-bed camping spot that visiting school (and safari) groups use.

Looking west over Main Station, the swimming pool / basketball court, and guest accomodations

Water is pumped up from the Kuiseb River aquifer into the 20 meter tall water tower.  The depth of this aquifer varies greatly from year to year, depending on how strong the floods are.  The water tower can be seen from many miles away, and is the symbol of Gobabeb.

Power to the station is supplied via a hybrid solar-diesel system.  About 75% of the energy is generated using our 370 solar panels, but sometimes a back-up generator is needed for foggy mornings.  We are almost 50 miles from the nearest access point to the main power grid.

Battery room where solar energy is stored. It is air-conditioned (the only room at the station) to ensure they don't overheat.

A solar panel array near the villas (i.e. where the station director lives). The petrol pump can be seen in the foreground.

1 Month

When I first came to Gobabeb, I couldn’t decide if I had been transplanted to the Moon or Mars.  I definitely wasn’t on earth.  The statistics didn’t make sense.  Ground temperatures on the dunes routinely fluctuate over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a single day.  The solar radiation here is 300 x more powerful than necessary to bake away the 1 inch of rain that falls per year.  Indeed, the conditions are so extreme here that NASA comes to Gobabeb to study how life might survive on other planets (no joke).

Yet, after almost a month, I’m feeling very much at home.  While the creatures that thrive here are inspiring in their tenacity and evolutionary creativity, my own existence feels idyllic.  New friends, frequent adventures, and constant stimulation with work duties keep me happy in a very fulfilling way.  Somehow the pulse of nature just feels stronger here.  And I think that’s awesome, sand grains etching into my corneas and all.

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Braai

(braɪ) noun, Afrikaans.  A meal in which meat and other food is cooked over an open fire outside.

We’re cutting across the gravel plain moonscape in an open bed of a bakkie.  To the west, muted oranges and purples emanate skyward from an absent sun.  Behind, dust clouds follow the truck, veiling the inky blue-black sky.  My companion stares through me, her eyes sweating tears.  I cover them gently with the palm of my hand while her moon-lit hair whisks amid eddies of chill air.

She, our new goat, is lying at my side, shackled at the ankles with twine.  Frequently testing her situation, she convulses.  Occasionally she curls her tongue through a loop in my shoelaces, pathetically pulling for a snack, a hold.  All around her face, pools of sand buzz to the metallic reverberations of a rutted road.  One bump sends her bloated ribcage skywards only to be slammed harshly down instantly.

Some time later we arrive at Tsababis, a collection of houses the Topnaar staff and their families call home.  Just far enough from the main research facilities of Gobabeb to have a name unto itself, it exists, apart, perhaps as originally designed.  A dirt area between the cinder block houses forms a small courtyard where we park.  Excited shouts of young children pierce the air.  They know what comes next.

In a single coordinated motion one of the men drags the bleating animal from the back of the vehicle and onto a raised cement slab.  The head is left hanging off the edge, exposing the neck.  Bathed in yellow light from a nearby porch, the carotid artery swells rhythmically.  A careful positioning over a plastic bucket, and the punch-swipe of a blade ends everything.  A dog warily cleans up the warm liquid.

Although none of it would not have been possible without the supervision of a toddler council, adults remove the hide, pull out the guts, drain the blood, and distribute the cuts to various stakeholders.  Myself and a few other station staff, as the financial backers of the operation, claim the choice meat and the liver.  The warm skin, too.  You never do know when you might need a goat skin rug.  We leave the head and innards for more appreciative recipients.

All are invited to a braai, to be held in one weeks time.

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Training

Given the content of my last few posts, you might be fooled into thinking that all I have been doing is camping and watching sunsets.  Let me put those thoughts to rest!  While many schools are able to come to Gobabeb for day or weekend field trips, most schools cannot afford the cost of transport to our remote location.  Thanks to a grant from the Finnish Embassy, over the past week we were able to bring Gobabeb to them!  In the last four days I have worked with close to 400 kids in 7 schools (40 more tomorrow!).  I am beat!

Grinnell Corps Fellow Michelle Fournier (who I am now taking over for) spent much of the last year creating the Namib Desert Environmental Picture Building Game.  Inspired by a similar game developed in South Africa, the objective is to teach environmental ethics using issues familiar to those that live in the Namib (i.e. mining, deforestation, water scarcity, waste management, informal settlements, etc.).  As many classrooms here are managed using old-school teaching methods, students actually find the game extremely fun, and it forces them to think critically in ways that are quite challenging.

One of the most interesting schools we visited was located in the DRC (Democratic Resettlement Community), an informal settlement located outside of the coastal community of Skakopmund.   Informal settlements are outside of municipal jurisdiction and do not have sanitation, adequate water access, medical facilites, or schools.  With increased urbanization, more and more people are moving here and setting up shacks from whatever material they can scrounge up.

The DRC School Project and Community Center was started 5 years ago by two social activists and has expanded modestly since then.  The school aims to take kids off the street and help bridge them to public government schools within a year or two.  The school also hosts local organizations and offers free computer classes to the community.  I really enjoyed talking to the woman who continues to develop and build upon her original initiative.

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Sundowners

During the course of the coming year readers of my blog will undoubtedly see references to one of the greatest traditions alive in southern Africa today – “sundowners!”  At it’s core, a sundowner implies 3 things – a view of the western horizon, a cold drink, and friends.  In Namibia, these things have been easy to come by!

More than an excuse to enjoy a beer or a coke at the end of a hot day (although it is also that!), a sundowner is time for reflection.  Seeing the sun melt and descend below the horizon highlights the passage of time in an intensely tangible way that few other things can.  Before your eyes, another day ends, never to be repeated.  While a sundowner can illuminate the sacred nature of the present, a good sundowner also serves to inspire the future.  No matter who you’re with, it seems the the last moments of a day are usually shared in awed silence.

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Although open-container laws are probably more strictly enforced in America than here, you should find a view of the horizon and try this one at home!

Scenes from my first week at Gobabeb

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Work

July 21: My office (!)

The last 48 hours or so have been filled with non-stop activity and learning.  Exhilarated, overwhelmed, and exhausted seem like appropriate adjectives for now.

Over the next ten days I will take over the duties of the previous training person here at Gobabeb, so I have a lot to learn in a short amount of time.  From the sound of things, most of my skill-set will have to be acquired on the job, but I am excited to learn and contribute as much as I can to what I am quickly realizing is one of the most amazing places I’ve ever been able to experience.

In a couple of days I will embark on a 4 day expedition to different schools in the region doing environmental education and outreach.  I am really excited to get a better sense of what it’s like for Namibians to live here as well as explore the environmental challenges that everyone here must face.  Also, I may or may not be slaughtering a goat in the next few hours.

Over the next 12 months I hope to share little tidbits of my life here, but for now, enjoy a few of the photos I have taken!

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