Sands of time
Is it their colour, their size, their constant movement or their almost inexplicable ability to support life? What makes Namibia’s iconic red dunes so captivating? Len Rix ponders the mystique of Namib sand.


ImagePause on the crest of a mighty dune at Sossusvlei, your eye fixed on the horizon. An ocean of sand stretches away, wave after wave, it seems to infinity. Adults standing beside you are chattering and giggling like excited children. Together you launch yourselves – whoosh! – over the edge, tumbling and sliding and shrieking. Mad, infantile, delirious fun.

Come back later, towards evening. Stand there again, transfixed by the ceaseless play of light and wind across the ever-moving surface. In eerie silence, take in the steadily-deepening colours. Find yourself moved to the point of tears.

Why? It is such a simple thing – so familiar and lacking in mystery. Just little lumps of gravel, once mighty rock, ground down over immense periods of time by wind, water and rough company. Some varieties are sharp-edged, but in the great deserts, where it has been rolled and tumbled and blown about for millennia, it can be wonderfully rounded and smooth, summoning us to play. Fifty-five million years in the making, the Namib Desert is God’s oldest sandpit.

Its colurs are endless. The whiteness of many tropical beaches comes from tiny bits of seashell and coral; the golden strands of Europe are coloured by traces of iron and those of the Coromandel Coast in New Zealand are prettified by gemstones. There are sands on volcanic islands that are almost black and some, in Polynesia, that look like granulated chickpeas. The sands of the great deserts of Africa are almost pure quartz – the mineral from which we make glass.

But why is there so much sand in Namibia? It is the gift of the great Orange River that flows through the Free State in South Africa, and then along the southern border with Namibia, before dumping billions of tons of disintegrated rock into the Atlantic.

From there, cold water currents from the south ferry it up the coastline, pushing it back onshore. Next, airflows moving down from the Equator blow it inland. Never more than 50-200km wide, the Namib Desert stretches a relentless 1600km northwards, deep into Angola. The vast scale boggles the imagination.

But it’s the astonishing colours of the Namib that make it one of the most photogenic places on Earth, and even they owe their being to vast periods of time. Along the shore the sand is pale. Moving inland, the next strip is darker, reflecting its greater age and exposure to the elements. Then comes the full panoply of reds and ochres, burnt siennas and purples. The darker, the older; or, as the locals say, the rustier: for it contains iron minerals.

And there is real mystery, not just in the awe-struck mind of the beholder, but scientifically, in the eternally-changing patterns of the dunes themselves. Too complex for mathematical modelling, they heave and drift, ripple and undulate, compose themselves into steep cliffs, hone razor-sharp edges, or settle into voluptuously rolling hills.

The dunes climb to incredible heights – at Sossusvlei up to 340 metres – standing among the tallest in the world. And as revealed by the presence of shipwrecks up to 50m inland, they are always pushing their way back out to sea, as if pursuing some ancestral memory. Viewed from above, running so close and almost parallel to the ocean, they resemble another set of waves, rising, cresting and breaking their way towards the shoreline. Everything about them speaks of immense aeons of time.

Rain in the Namib is entirely irregular, and very sparse. The only reliable sources of moisture are the dews, left by the freezing fogs that mill around for days. On these all life depends: luckily, the seemingly sterile sand is just rich enough in organic and chemical materials to support a food-chain. First come the grasses and scrawny shrubs, the insects (mostly beetles) and lizards, spiders and crabs that scuttle about beneath them; then the rodents and other smaller mammals, tiny klipspringers, springbok and the noble gemsbok – which can go for weeks without water – then the cheetahs, desert lions, rhino and the desert-adapted elephant; none of them particularly good-tempered, but all astonishing in their capacity to survive among so much unending sand.

And the sand has one more surprise: it speaks. Or rather, it hums, growls and positively roars. Not to order, and by no means everywhere. But where conditions are right – the size, variety and distribution of the grains, depths of the dune, and other factors not yet revealed to science – its voice can be heard if you send a few bucketfuls of sand cascading down the slope. Some describe the sand as ‘singing’, but that hopelessly diminishes what can amount to an overwhelming rumble, like the beginnings of an earthquake. Marco Polo heard it too, in the Gobi Desert, and his report was not believed either.

The poet William Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand. He saw the mystery in child-like things. Sadly, he never did get to Namibia.


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