E-Travel Log # 3: Namib Desert Sand Dunes at Sosusvlei

Dear Students:

Greetings from Swakopmund in the Namib Desert on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean! Hoe gaan dit? (Pronounced who--hawn--dit.) That's Afrikaans, a commonly spoken language in Namibia, for 'How are you?' The usual answer is 'Goed, dankie' (pr. 'hoot--donkey), meaning 'Good, thank you.'

This week Lilia and I are visiting two schools in Swakopmund, a small coastal city sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert. This report includes a flashback to last year when Lilia and I visited another part of the Namib called Sossusvlei, which boasts the Namibia's highest and most colorful dunes. In this report, we’ll tell you about the Namib Desert and Sossusvlei; examine the interesting names of antelopes from southern Africa; and challenge you with another guess-who animal poem and an antelope math puzzler. Enjoy!


Last Sunday, we packed our tent and our camera and we drove five hours from Windhoek to a sea of sand that straddles the Atlantic Ocean – Sossusvlei. Sossusvlei is the most famous section of the Namib Desert, known for its massive, rust-colored dunes. After camping under a perfectly clear sky and a full moon on Sunday night, we woke before dawn on Monday to visit the sleeping giants. We watched the moon set and the sun rise over the dunes, then climbed one, taking photos, playing in the sand and bounding down the slipface before the heat got too intense. We also spied springboks and ostriches wandering the dunes and watched several kinds of beetles motor over them, leaving behind their miniature four-wheeler tracks. After a few hours, the temperature of the sand’s surface (which can get as hot as 160 degrees Fahrenheit), not of the air (which, on average, only hits the 80’s), drove us back to the shade of our camp site, a natural oasis with large thorn trees and even a pool! In the late afternoon when things began to cool back down, we climbed another dune and watched the sun set and the moon rise. It was quite an incredible day and we felt very privileged to experience the wonders of Sossusvlei.

Namibia’s Namib

The Namib Desert, at 85 million years old, is the oldest desert in the world. It runs up and down the whole Atlantic Coast of Namibia, stretching for 2000 kilometers from South Africa to Angola (yet is still only 1/30th the size of Africa’s -- and the world’s -- largest desert, the Sahara). It is one of just five coastal deserts in the world and (along with the Arabian Desert and the Takla Makan Desert in northwest China) has some of the highest dunes in the world, the tallest (called Dune 7, near a town called Walvis Bay) reaching a height of over 1200 feet. That's one big sand box! And Sossusvlei has one such sandbox after another, like a sea of still waves. Maybe that’s why it is also called the Dune Sea. Actually, though, the waves of sand are always on the move, just very, very slowly, as the wind constantly reshapes them and moves them forward. Surfs up! Grab a wave. It might take you a long, long time (like centuries) to ride one of these, but it's a lot of fun to climb their slopes and run down their slipfaces, causing a small avalanche of wonderful sand.

Slippery Slopes

The slipface is the steep part of the dune. It always has an angle of 33 to 35 degrees. (Even tiny dunes only two inches high have a slipface with the same angle.) On big dunes, the slipfaces are very hard to climb since every step causes a cascade of sand that restores the angle. Better if you climb the slope, at 17 degrees, with its wavy ripples and more firmly packed sand.

Since slopes are more stable and retain more water, plants can sometimes grow on them. Lots of animals live in the dunes, too. In the slipface, you can find fog-basking beetles, button beetles, shovel-snouted lizards and the golden wheeling spider. These animals are well adapted to swim in the pure (dust-free), polished sands of the slipface. In the slope, you can find wedge-snouted desert lizards, 'formula one' beetles (the fastest running insects in the world), dung beetles, dancing white lady spiders, spoor spiders, gerbils and golden moles. At night when the sand is cooler and firmer, the slope animals make tunnels in the dune. But when the sun arrives on the scene and heats things up, the tunnel entrances collapse. The animals don't mind, though: they remain inside, comfy and cozy in their air-conditioned rooms, till the temperature outside cools down once again.

A Desert Full of Life

In all, 52 reptile species, 14 mammal species, 31 bird species and many, many insect and arachnid species live in the dunes. So much for deserts being empty!

The Namib isn’t all that hot, either, as far as deserts go. Sometimes (though quite rarely) it even snows in the mountains just east of the desert. And it floods in the Namib every few years, turning the red sand sea briefly green (with the plants that sprout up suddenly) before the sun dries everything up again.

The Namib is truly a spectacular place -- one of our earth's amazing natural treasures.

Sand Ghosts

While we were climbing one of the dunes, Lilia discovered a strange but interesting phenomenon: sand ghosts. Sitting on the ridge of a dune with her back to the rising sun, she scooped up some sand with both hands and tossed it out in front of her. As the veil of sand drifted in the air down the side of the dune, a shadowy figure, resembling Lilia herself, seemed to float away with the sand. There’s actually a scientific explanation. Can you figure it out? We’ll tell you what was really happening in the next report. (We even captured two sand ghosts on film. Maybe the photo will give you a clue.)


Last year, on our trip described above to Sossusvlei, Lilia and I saw many animals. Here’s the rundown:


Have you ever heard of an oryx or a springbok or a kudu? They are antelopes (from the list above) that we saw during our trip to Sossusvlei. There are many different kinds of antelopes in central and southern Africa, some with very interesting names. Here is a sampling:

1. eland
2. kudu
3. nyala
4. sitatunga
5. bongo
6. lechwe
7. puku
8. kob
9. topi (also known as sassaby)
10. gerenuk
11. springbok
12. klipspringer
13. oribi
14. dik-dik
15. suni

Almost all antelopes are fast, agile and graceful (with wildebeests being the most obvious exception to the rule). They can be various shades of tan, brown or gray, some with stripes and patches, and they have distinctively curved, curled, spiraled or ringed horns. Some antelopes are as small as Chihuahuas and others are bigger than a horse. Some live in rocky mountain areas, others in grasslands; some in swamps; others in forests. All are vegetarians; some grazers and others browsers.

Antelope Activities

You’ve probably heard of Rhebok athletic shoes; well, the original rhebok is actually an antelope. You might know that an Impala is a kind of car – but the original impala is also an antelope. Why do antelope names fit well for a sports shoe company or a car? Are there any antelope names above that you think might make a good match for another company or product? Maybe each student in your class could choose an antelope from the list and make up a company or a product to be named after it.

Here's another activity: just for fun, read a name from the list above and see if you can try to picture the antelope, its size, its colors, its horns, its tail, its habitat and what it might eat. If you like, research the antelope you chose and see how close your imaginative picture is to the real thing. Maybe you can share your findings with your classmates till you know about the whole list.

Here's a list of distinguishing characteristics that match the antelopes listed above (but not in the right order). Maybe you and your classmates can try to match them and I'll put the answers in the next report.

a. has slightly spiraled, white tipped horns; has several vertical white stripes on back.
b. tiny antelope with long flexible nose; has short, spike-like horns that tilt backward; stays on rocky hillsides; besides leaves, eats fruit, seedpods and flowers.
c. has a long, thin face; its shoulders are much higher than its rump; runs very fast; is reddish-brown.
d. largest antelope; besides eating grass, digs for roots and bulbs with hooves; male has neck dewlap and tuft of hair on forehead.
e. has long, spiral horns; has many narrow, white, vertical stripes on back.
f. has very long thin legs and neck; has white rings around its eyes; stands on its hind legs to reach leaves.
g. is the only southern gazelle; has a white face with thin black stripes from the eye to the upper lip; jumps with back arched and legs stiff.
h. has dark, shaggy hair; has slightly spiraled, white-tipped horns; lives around swamps.
i. forest dwelling antelope; has stout, shallowly spiraled, white-tipped horns; chestnut red with several vertical white stripes on back.
j. has coarse spiky hair; is very small; is only antelope to walk on the tips of its hooves; has very short, thin, straight horns; whistles when alarmed; lives in mountain ranges and rocky habitats.
k. its hindquarters are higher than its shoulders; has long, thick, ridged, lyre-shaped horns; chestnut colored above, white below.
l. tiny secretive antelope; constantly flicks white-edged tail; has short, straight, heavily ringed horns; is mostly nocturnal.
m. golden yellow above, off-white below; short, stout, lyre-shaped, ridged horns; lives near rivers and marshes.
n. has rufous-yellow-orange above and white below; whistles when alarmed; has a very short tail with a black tip; whistles, sprints then stops and looks back when alarmed.
o. is reddish brown with a white throat patch and white underneath with black patches over its thighs and knees.


Here are two 'guess who' animal poems I wrote. The titles of the poems are the Swahili words for the animal speakers. Guess who!


Rolling, running, trotting, strolling
Nothing can stop this wild parade
Kicking, lunging, lurching, bucking
For grass is the magnet, grass is the magnet

Stumbling, crashing, splashing, rumbling
Nothing can stop this beastly charade
Trampling, tumbling, shoving, stampeding
For grass is the magnet, grass is the magnet

Snorting, snuffing, grunting, groaning
Nothing can stop this raucous tirade
Buzzing, blatting, bleating, humming
For grass is the magnet, grass is the magnet

Hankering, longing, yearning, wanting
Nothing can stop this clumsy raid
Straining, striving, craving, pining
For grass is the magnet, grass is the magnet
And we are the iron filings.



Graceful the pattern on my coat
Graceful the twirl and the curve of my horn
Graceful my dancing prance on the plain
Gracefully dancing, gracefully prancing
Graceful my effortless leap in the air
I'm graceful, grass-eating swara, the ___________.


If you visit the Safari! section of the Africa School Project Web site, you'll see that these two poems are actually concrete poems; that is, the words are put on the page to create an image that gives a clue about the topic. There, you'll also be able to check the answers and click forward to drawings and photos of the animals and read interesting facts about them.

By the way, the answer to the last report's poem is the cheetah. I'll tell you the answers to this report's poems in the next report.



Here's an antelope math puzzler:

Blue duikers are the smallest of antelopes in southern and central Africa, weighing in at around eight pounds, while the largest African antelope, the eland, can reach 2000 pounds. How many blue duikers would it take to make one adult male eland?

I'll tell you the answer in the next report.


Well, that's it for this report.

Mbaa, vakwetu! (That's Rukwangali, a language spoken in northeastern Namibia and by a friend of ours in Windhoek, for 'Bye, friends.')

Paul Hurteau and Lilia Cai
Africa School Project Coordinators


Teachers: Here’s an idea to expand the first antelope activity above: Once your students have created their products and assigned antelope names to them, have them develop a marketing campaign to sell their products. They can create ads, highlighting how the qualities of the chosen antelope are reflected in the product. Then, they can fix prices for their products and try to sell them. Categorize the products, allot each student a fixed amount of money for buying products and have a sale to see which products were designed, marketed and priced most effectively.

Visit the project’s online adventures at www.oneworldclassrooms.org/travel/africa/index.html.


E-Travel Log #1: Introduction
E-Travel Log #2: Windhoek, the Capital of Namibia
E-Travel Log #3: Namib Desert Sand Dunes at Sosusvlei
E-Travel Log #4:Swakopmund, Between the Desert and the Ocean
E-Travel Log #5: African Animal Safari!
E-Travel Log #6: Okanguati, the Forgotten Land
E-Travel Log #7: African Languages
E-Travel Log #8: Schools in the Kalahari Desert
E-Travel Log #9: Cheetahs!!
E-Travel Log #10: So Long from Africa

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