African desert has its own X-files


August 02 2006 at 11:24AM By Veruska de Vita

his is when you'll see them, round barren patches devoid of plants and rocks.

Perfectly circular and mostly equidistant, they pockmark the landscape like Leopard's spots.

The Himba people, native to the Namib Desert, believe they have always been there, much the same way a zebra has always had its stripes.

Colonialists believe that they're made by fairies, yes, the creatures of myth and folklore, that migrated across stormy seas to find new breeding grounds.

In the Namib, evolutionary mutations cut deep into history.

White Ladies (sand spiders) do cartwheels down dunes, owls leave their night time narrative printed in the sand like tattoos and the sound of the desert turns introspective.

The enigma of fairy circles, much like Stonehenge and crop circles, has attracted researchers from many schools of thought.

Theories have been flung about furiously, resulting in caustic disagreements and years of extensive correspondence.

The circles have been dug up, the sand tested for geomagnetic forces and radioactivity.

Two chefs from Carlton Food Network have even pitched a tent smack in the middle of one of them, passing the night in feverish dreams that in the morning had them itching with insect bites. They blamed it on the fairies. Others looked to the heavens for an explanation and when the alignment with the moons of distant planets didn't quite match up, they threw up their hands and blamed the circles on UFO landings.

Locals joke, saying that Bushmen have been playing golf. Others like to blame highly creative desert dwellers wanting to get onto the crop circle bandwagon and stir up some interest in Sossusvlei.

Ruth Amasubiya, who comes from the Caprivi Strip in the North of Namibia, explains that in traditional beliefs, the circles were made by a dragon's breath. "There is the opinion that beneath the edge of the Namib Desert, the oldest desert in the world, lies a crack in the earth's crust. A dragon lives there.

"Whenever he exhales, bubbles of fire rise to the surface, burning the vegetation, causing it to completely vaporise, forming circles."

There seems to be an invisible barrier in this area of Sossusvlei that protects it. So evocative is the place that a lodge was built here, appropriately called Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge. In this part of the world there is no cellphone signal, the skies are remarkable clear and relatively free of satellite and radioactive interference, there are no telephone poles, no electricity wires and there is only one road to get there. Remote and pristinely special. Is the immigration of fairies any wonder then?

It seems that concentric circles attract eccentricity. Bob McGown, a geophysicist from Portland University in the US, lay awake at night with an eye on the stars. But at the break of day, his telescopic gaze would turn to the fairy circles.

As the resident astronomer at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, McGown was affectionately known as "MadBob". He came in search of meteorites but instead found "self-organising" natural craters made by teen social creatures. Instead of fairies he found a community more endemic to the area - termites.

In his correspondence with Vernon Swanepoel, a ranger at Sossusvlei Mountain Lodge, Bob admits that he is an amateur at studying termites. "Just the discussions with Carl Sagan and Miles Paul and the popular Nova show called From Telescopes To Termites by Frank Drake have sparked my curiosity.

"The aspects that interested me the most are the complex interactions going on to create these circles. Since we know that termites live in these circular mounds their migration underground may have an effect on the frequency and distribution of the fairy circles.

"The fairy circles have been baffling scientists since the early 1970s," says Swanepoel.

A keen researcher himself, he's had many late night debates over the organic essence of these rings.

"People have had a lot to say regarding the circles.

"I've heard everything from landing locations for flying saucers, impact points for broken-up meteorites, tribal dancing spots and fossilised termite mounds."

At first he's reluctant to discuss his theories, it's sometimes difficult to let go of the shroud hiding the natural explanation. And then he reveals the piles of neatly filed papers and books he's collected over the years.

The papers reveal the correspondence between him and a pharmacologist called Carl Albrecht in which each guided the other towards a more probable explanation.

In 1993, as the fairy circles kept evolving, each waxing and waning over a period of 30 years, Albrecht stepped into the Namib Desert.

He researched like an insomniac by night. Albrecht presented the hypothesis that the circular barren patches were caused by a chemical associated with termites.

A fraction of the size of a pinhead, these termites have a protrusion coming out the top of their heads where a semi-volatile chemical is stored. Precious in its ability to inhibit dehydration resistance in plants, the termites release it into the soil killing off the plants and creating a water trap. Albrecht published his hypothesis in the South African Journal of Science in 2001.

In the article he suggests that since termites are not covered by an exoskeleton and are prone to rapid dehydration, they build their nests many metres underground and only come out at night. The reason for their disappearance when other researchers dug by day.

"Understanding the factors that cause circular barren patches is principally driven by curiosity but may have relevance for an holistic understanding of the evolution of deserts," writes Albrecht

"It is possible a termite induced peripheral zone of barren patches on the edge of the Namib, may help to extend the desert in time."

"Perhaps the circles are the desert's way of creating breathing space for itself," suggests Elizabeth Light, a journalist from New Zealand.

From the top of a sand dune she looks down at the spotted landscape, temperature dropping as the sun sets behind the mountainous petrified dune.

Swanepoel, the unofficial keeper of the fairy circles, glances over at her. Under the weight of the Atlantic, the desert had held its breath for millions of years.

Perhaps, with the help of the creatures native to its warmth and its harshness, it's ensuring its survival. Perhaps it is the migrating fairies, as yet unphotographed, who in spring, bask in the heat of the desert, remove their clothes to reveal their true selves and fly amongst colonies of tiny winged termites.