Saturday, June 14, 2008

African Adventure: Desert Elephants, lichen fields, seals, and soem rural Africa in 4x4 (Jan 24-26)

Current Location: Uis, Damaraland, Namibia.

Highlights: Desert elephants, Seals by the 1000s, lichen fields and some rural Africa by 4x4.

Upcoming: Himba people, Kaokoland with extreme heat and off road driving.

Current GPS Coordinates: LAT: S 21 21 91 LONG: E 14 86 79

These last few days have been some of the most spectacular of the whole trip so far. We left Swakopmond and drove north along the skeleton coast where we found vast expanses of lichens that stretched for miles. These are the lichen fields, a very unique ecosystem, which look like fields of brown dead grass. However with the addition of just a few drops of water, the lichens literally spring to life. I’ll go into lichens more at the end of this entry as they are incredibly fascinating and some of my favorite organisms, although they are not really a single organism. After the lichen fields, we arrived at the Cape Cross seal colony with over a quarter of a million seals. This was truly spectacular and we were lucky enough to arrive just a few weeks after the main calving season so there were lots of really cute seal pups. The pictures below say more than I can describe. Cape Cross was also a landing spot for some of the early Portuguese explorers in the 1600s and is marked by two crosses. We stayed until the reserve closed at 5 p.m. and headed off on our way across the barren Skeleton Coast Park towards the Brandberg Mountains, Namibias highest point at about 2800 meters. The sun was starting to go down so we just pulled off the road and set up camp for the night which basically involves putting up the roof top tent (easy), opening the back door, and putting down the fold-down table on the back door. This was a beautiful spot right in the middle of nowhere, no people, no man-made objects, just flat open expanses of desert with the odd shrub that exists off of fog from the ocean as it infrequently rains here. We treated ourselves to fresh chicken (we bought the previous day) and made a delicious stir-fry.

We had met a Brit called Steve in Windhoek and had arranged to meet him in Uis, a town close to the Brandberg Nature Reserve. (Steve was in the area buying crystals to sell in London). The Brandberg Nature Reserve is a large area (about 1600 square km) where you are free to camp and drive anywhere and is bordered to the north by the Ugab River where Namibias unique desert elephants live. One of the reasons I wanted to travel to Africa was to visit this type of remote area where you are not bound to the roads and where rural Africans (in this case the Damara people) live in small villages. We spent one night at the Brandberg Rest Camp (great place) in the tiny town of Uis, then headed off into the Nature Reserve in search of desert Elephants. Steve joined us, as did a local guy called Jody who knew the area well. Taking Steve along actually turned out to be a bad idea, although he was nice enough guy. We were scheduled to depart at about 8.30 am. Steve took his time getting ready and we ended up leaving about 11 am which frustrated me somewhat. Then off we went, first driving along a road, and then we turned off the road into the Reserve en route for the Ugab River we could see in the distance. We came across a Damara Village and asked if they had seen the elephants. In fact the elephants had passed a few days ago, after giving them a Polaroid (which they loved) we drove into the dry riverbed and went in search. Inspired by the odd sighting of elephant dung we continued through the soft sand of the riverbed. A while later, we came across another village and a young Damara guy called Manfred joined us as he said he knew where they were. Now the Landy is pretty packed of stuff and we were already 4. We have room in the front for one person and a forth person can sit very cramped in the rear on a jump seat. To accommodate Manfred, Jody sat on the front wing and held onto the bulbar while Manfred sat inside to direct me as he spoke some English. We drove further along the riverbed seeing more elephant dung and footprints until we reached a weir which was impassable, but this was where the elephants had been sighted recently. We pulled out of the riverbank, set up camp, then walked along the river in search of elephants. This was one of the few stretches of the river where there was still water; the trees grew lush along a narrow band along the banks and provided the elephants were food. That afternoon and evening we found lots of fresh dung, many elephant tracks in the soft wet river sand and many elephant trails through the trees, but we found no elephants! Somewhat reluctantly, I went to bed in the rooftop tent on the bank of the river in the hope I would see or hear elephants, while the others camped higher up in the rocks to avoid the elephants! Steve pretty much complained and moaned the whole day about different things and made lots of little demands of our time and limited resources which became annoying. He also insisted that we departed at 7.30 am the next morning so he could be back in Uis to catch a ride out of town. This also frustrated me as we left about 3 hrs late the morning we departed because he took his time. So we had to leave this beautiful peaceful spot and the chance of seeing desert elephants so we could get "the moaner" back to town! But I did manage to climb to the top of an outcrop of rocks to watch the sunrise.

So now we are back in Uis and its 12 noon. Steve is sitting next to me cleaning some crystals as his lift out of town was late! So we are going to finish this diary entry, fill up with petrol as it will be sparse in the coming few days and leave for the north.

Now lets talk more about lichens! Lichens are neither plants nor animals but actually a symbiotic association (the living together) of a fungus and an algae and sometimes a bacteria too. By living together in this tight complex association, they are able to exit in places where neither the fungus nor the algae could live on their own. Lichens are actually incredibly common and come in all different shapes and colors. Apparently David Attenbrough did a piece on the lichens in these lichen fields on one of the BBC wildlife shows so we repeated a neat trick he did. The lichens look dead, just like shriveled crispy old leaves or grass, but with the addition of just a few drops of water, they burst into life and open and expand almost like a blossoming flower. This was pretty amazing so we included a before and after picture of lichens below. The lichen fields were just a few 100 meters form the ocean, but it rarely rains here so the lichens are adapted to absorb moisture from the fog that blows in from the ocean. When there is no moisture, they dry up and go dormant so they grow very very slowly.

No comments: