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Science
ARID EDEN
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Two programmes examining life in extreme environments.

Wednesdays 26 June and 3 July 2002, 9.00-9.30pm

Programme 2: Sea of Sand

Namib desert
Namib desert

Sue Armstrong travels to the Namib desert to discover how the plants and animals that live there manage to survive searing heat and dessicating wind, to make the dunes and plains their home. A troop of baboons that can survive for 100 days without drinking and plants that hide under the sand with only a window on the world, are some of the extraordinary inhabitants of this ancient desert.

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Sue Armstrong describes her visit to the Namib desert:

In the harshest reaches of the Namib desert - a moonscape of sharp, rocky, sun-baked mountains that form its southern border - I was introduced to a "tree" that has that has all its growing parts underground, save for one tiny leaf that pokes above the soil. The tree, a species of Haworthia, can lie dormant for years until rains come. Then the sentinel leaf swells with moisture and opens a "window" through which sunlight penetrates to the underground structures which start to photosynthesise. When the rain passes and the leaf shrinks, the window closes and the tree becomes dormant again.

I was never more aware of the indifference of nature than when I was driving towards the Desert Research Station in the heart of the Namib, travelling alone across a vast plain of sand that seemed to be floating on a shivering pool of heat. I stopped the car to take a photo, switched off the engine, and was suddenly engulfed in a silence so profound it sounded like all eternity. Unnerved, I realised that the tiny white-shelled beetles scurrying around the sand on inordinately long legs knew things I did not know about this environment, and that here they were the masters, not I.
Namib desert

I was expendable in the Namib scheme of things. My life depended on the car being reliable, not losing my way to the research station and on the fact that people were expecting me and would come looking for me if I did not pitch up. In fact I was in no danger, and it was the rude challenge to my self-importance as much as anything else that had unnerved me. Terrible to be up-staged by the kind of thing you'd swat if it crossed your kitchen floor.

Half a century before my visit to the Namib, those white beetles had intrigued an Austrian entomologist, Charles Koch, who gave up his job in Germany to set up the Desert Research station on the banks of the rarely-flowing Kuiseb River at Gobabeb - "the place of the fig tree" in the language of the normadic Hottentots. Over the years, hundreds of scientists have spent time at Gobabeb, uncovering the mysteries of this magnificent desert with its shimmering plains and great stretches of sculpted, ochre-coloured sand dunes, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and, on the other, by pale ragged mountains that look in the distance like water stains on silk against the blank blue sky.
The Namib Desert Research Station at Gobabeb, 'The Place of the Fig Tree'.
The Namib Desert Research Station at Gobabeb,
'The Place of the Fig Tree'.

I walked into the dunes near Gobabeb with spiderman Joh Henschel to find dancing white ladies - formidable hunters that live in holes in the sand - and wheeling spiders that curl themselves into a ball and bowl down the slip-faces of sand dunes to escape spider-hunting wasps intent on using them as living food for their grubs. Joh took me out at night with an ultraviolet light to show me masses of scorpions lurking under the bark of trees in the river bed. Our light picked out a gecko, too, transparent under the ultraviolet so that you could see its skeleton and all its organs. The gecko's enormous eyes, Joh told me, are designed to collect dew which the little creature drinks with lightening flicks of its tongue across its face.

The desert was full of wonders, and surprises. I got a rude reminder one morning when I struggled out of my sleeping bag after a night camping in the river bed and found myself a nice little bush to squat behind. As I stood up and kicked the sand with my bare foot, a horned adder, sluggish in the morning chill, slithered away from under me. But most of my memories of the Namib are magical. Hiking in the rough mountains of the south through a carpet of flowers brought out briefly by a sudden shower of rain. Sleeping under a vast canopy of stars, the sand still warm beneath me and the night air chilly on my face. Nights beside a frugal fire, a tiny beacon of light in a vast expanse of darkness, as desert elephant man, Keith, and I tracked the group he was researching over several hundred kilometres. And, as magical as anything, sitting atop the sand dunes behind Gobabeb of an evening to watch the setting sun bathe the desert in burning orange, softening to pink and lilac as it sank over the horizon. At such moments the ancient rhythms of the desert were hypnotic.

Within weeks of leaving the quiet spaces of the Namib, I was pushing my way through thorn trees that tore at my clothes and bare flesh in Madagascar's dry spiney forest, searching for lemurs we had spotted in the distance. I was intent on catching the haunting cry of these evolutionary relics on my tape recorder. The dry spiney forest - so called because everything has thorns - is an extraordinary environment. Almost every tree and plant found in that arid patch of Madagascar grows nowhere else on earth. And it is home to a myriad equally unique creatures besides the lemurs. Yet this ecological treasure trove is disappearing fast under pressure from overpopulation and poverty. I got a first hand glimpse of these conditions when I stayed a few nights in a village on the fringe of the forest (in a tent in a dusty compound shared with goats, hens and a horrifically noisome latrine!) The villagers' only connections with the outside world were a dirt road and the odd passing vehicle. They grew all their own food, and built their homes with logs cut and carried from the forest on bulging shoulders and buckling legs. I sat by the river for some hours and watched the constant traffic in and out of the woods, and wondered.

The pristine nature of some of the remote places I'd visited was an illusion. There isn't anywhere any longer that is untouched or unthreatened by human beings. The Arctic is poisoned with industrial chemicals that drift with the currents to the poles; its people are watching the sea ice melt as the planet warms. The Galapagos Islands are suffering from a surfeit of eco-tourists who have unwittingly introduced a mass of alien plant species in the soil from their hiking boots. The Brazilian Amazon - still one of the greatest swathes of wilderness in the world - is going the same way as the once-thick forests of Madagascar. And the Namib, ironically, is being starved of water by towns on its borders which are drawing down the water table and killing the vegetation in the dry river beds on which so many living things depend. "Our species has become a terrible neighbour to the 30 million and more other species sharing space on this planet," says Frazier Nash.

"We have become the latter-day 'death star' with the same potential for destruction as the asteroid that ended the days of the dinosaurs." It's a low note on which to end my traveller's tales, but an appropriate one. No matter how remote the places I ended up, the stories I heard from local people made me acutely aware that I was seeing the world as my grandchildren's generations probably never will. It's an almost unbearable thought.

Originally published in the Sunday Herald

More pictures from the Namib desert >>>

Programme 1: Nanuk's Kingdom
Sue Armstrong travels to the Canadian High Arctic.
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