After a whirlwind trip to Canada to promote Austin’s second television series, ‘Austin Stevens Adventures 2,’ we finally made it back home to the desert.
Swakopmund experiences so little rain that roadside gutter drains were never a consideration in the initial town planning or in subsequent developments, and when the rains finally came that year in a belated thundering downpour, the majority of the roads were underwater in less than an hour. Several local businesses and restaurants were forced to temporarily cease operation due to flooding and roof leakages. A couple of weeks later, Austin and I drove out to Bloedkoppe Rock in the desert for the day to observe the effects of the heavy rain, which Austin knew would herald the emergence of countless species I had never seen before. We visited a waterhole that had actually dried up since our last visit and did not appear to have benefited from the nearby rainfall. There we found the body of an ostrich that had been pulled into three pieces and apparently gnawed on by brown hyenas. There was a slim but exciting possibility that a cheetah may have made the initial kill but only hyenas could have been responsible for scattering the remains as the ostrich’s enormous leg bones had been bitten in half. We found two giant lappetfaced vultures nesting nearby, which was wonderful to see since a farmer had recently killed almost the entire local population by laying poisoned meat baits for jackals, which the vultures then fed on.
Sparsely distributed bright green grass was growing in the desert after the rain, providing shelter for enormous locusts that took flight ahead of us as we neared their resting places. Giant armoured ground crickets, known as ‘goks,’ hung in the trees, and the sand at our feet moved with large black and yellow bombardier beetles capable of spraying skin-blistering chemicals with a high degree of accuracy in response to the slightest perceived threat. When we reached Bloedkoppe Rock and set up camp at its base, we discovered that where we had previously seen only dry sand and rock there now existed several large temporary pools of water created by the rain. In the pools were hundreds of Triops granarius, a type of primitive crustacean believed to be one of the oldest species alive on earth today, their morphology having remained essentially the same since the Triassic period some 220 million years ago. These spiky tadpole shrimp somewhat resembled the much larger and better known horseshoe crab but the largest adult specimens we saw were only several centimetres long. They possessed two bulging light-sensitive eyes and one naupliar eye, hence the name Triops, meaning ‘three eyes.’ On gently overturning one of the shrimp, we noticed many pairs of legs. Several pairs protruded from each of the many segments of the shrimp’s body and allowed the creature to swiftly right itself again if overturned in the shallow water. The heat and drought resistant Triops eggs had survived in the desert floor in a state of diapause since the previous rainfall a few years earlier and had hatched with the recent downpour. Austin photographed the Triops in one of the pools and then we proceeded to climb the steep slope of Bloedkoppe Rock itself. To my astonishment, temporary pools had also formed in depressions high on the rock, and these pools were full of large schools of toadpoles all swimming close together. They had hatched from eggs laid in the water by desert toads and they were completing their development as rapidly as possible before the pools of water dried up. A family of hyrax, or dassies, watched us inquisitively as we observed the toadpoles, now and then emitting a warning call resembling the sharp creak of a door hinge.
After a wonderful picnic dinner by our campfire we wandered around Bloedkoppe on foot to experiment with our recently replaced wedding present from Tigress Productions that had initially gone missing in the post: a pair of night vision goggles that would help us to track game in the dark. Raising them to my eyes for the first time, I was amazed to find that I could perceive almost as much visual detail in the pitch-black desert at night as I could during the day. I lifted the goggles skyward to view the Milky Way and I saw thousands more stars than I could with my eyes alone. Austin and I were certain that the night vision goggles would be very useful to us when camping in areas where big game was common. Later that night, we packed up camp and caught five geckos in ninety minutes on the way home. One of these was Tenopis – a barking gecko, and the other four were the more familiar large-headed geckos that we expected to find in the area. They were all were hunting insects in the middle of the track, so whenever we came across these geckos we pulled over and Austin gently picked them up to relocate them to the safety of the grass away from the sand road. One of these beautiful large-headed geckos was a real giant, barely fitting into Austin’s hand.
Bloedkoppe was not the only area of the desert to be affected by the rain. We spent another very pleasant afternoon in the Namib sand dunes near our cottage, looking for animals to photograph. We came across a small beetle, whose immediate reaction upon being disturbed was to flip onto its back, stick its legs in the air, and play dead. The beetle’s legs twitched for a few moments, as though in the last throws of death, and then went completely still. It did it so well that at first I was completely fooled. Only Austin had seen the beetle actually flip upside down, and I thought he was mistaken at that until other beetles nearby behaved the same way. They were solid black with yellow sides and bright red legs, and many of them were mating. I’d never seen these beetles in the dunes before. It seemed they appeared for a short time towards winter and then vanished once again until the next year.
The same afternoon we found a desert chameleon sitting at the apex of a dollar bush at the base of a sand dune. It had turned black in order to absorb maximum heat from the sun, and it showed no fear of us. Austin took some pictures and then the two of us left the chameleon and began scouting the dunes for round, black dune beetles – the chameleon’s favourite food. We caught a few of the beetles each, and brought them back to the dollar bush. Austin kneeled in the sand in front of the chameleon, and extended his beetle-filled hand thirty centimetres from the chameleon’s face. The chameleon’s eyes instantly swivelled three-hundred-and-sixty degrees and settled on the beetles, and slowly its mouth opened and the bulbous end of its large pink tongue appeared between its teeth. Then the tongue shot out to close the distance between the chameleon and Austin’s hand, enfolded the beetle in the sticky tip and sprang back into the chameleon’s mouth. We were hand-feeding a wild desert chameleon! I had to try it, so I took Austin’s place and showed the chameleon my beetles. It instantly swiped them off my hand with its tongue so quickly and precisely that I barely felt it.
The most wonderful aspect of places containing wildlife was that every time we visited them, either the movement of animals or the state of the environment was somehow different. No matter how many times we explored familiar desert areas there was always an element of the unusual about them that made every trip fascinating, but I knew that Austin’s inherent restlessness would soon demand of us a more challenging adventure.
To be continued in Chapter 30, when a camping trip to Brandberg Mountain goes wrong in almost every possible way!
I would very much like to hear from readers who live in environments that experience dramatic changes in weather or seasons. How do the natural surroundings where you live change over the course of a year? And how do the changes in climate affect the presence of wild animals around you? Please leave a comment below.