Namibia’s Mobile Sculptures

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SOUTH AFRICA

THE artist’s style is ever changing, and yet, the effect is pleasing. The medium is sand. The artist? The wind, which molds the mobile sand dunes into distinctive shapes. Perhaps the best known is the crescent shape. The side of the “sculpture” facing the wind has a gradual slope. The slope on the leeward side is steeper and shorter. The top ridge of the dune looks razor sharp, though it is easily blunted by a kick from a clumsy boot.

The Namib Desert in southwestern Africa is a good place to view these mobile sculptures. It has some of the tallest dunes in the world, reaching heights of over 1,300 feet [400 m]. In area, though, the  Namib is smaller than the world’s great deserts. It extends from the Atlantic Ocean to a maximum of about 100 miles [160 km] inland and is 1,200 miles [1,900 km] long.

Other Artists at Work

The wind is not the only artist featured in this remote ‘art gallery.’ A closer examination of the dunes shows evidence of the distinctive designs of other artists. For example, you may see what looks like a long, fine chain casually thrown across the sand. If you wait long enough, you may even see the artists at work. The “chain” is made of footprints left by beetles as they cross the sand at night. Not far from the “chain” is a symmetrical row of what appear to be tiny holes in the sand. These are also footprints, left by an elephant shrew hopping to its destination. Suddenly you realize that this remote, seemingly barren art gallery is teeming with life.

To the north, along the Skeleton Coast, you may see the work of other desert artists. They treat the sand roughly, and the finished product is rather messy. Look out! Here they come, bounding over the dune. One thing is certain, they enjoy their creative activity. These large creatures run down the dune with surprising speed, throwing sand in all directions. Not content with running, they also slide, dragging their back legs and leaving furrows in the sand. They charge to a nearby water hole, jump in, and frolic like happy children. These artists, African elephants, weigh about six tons each!

Another eccentric artist with curious ways, though not as rough, is the Péringuey’s adder. Its graphic design on the sand looks like a series of crooked sticks. The snake leaves these prints behind as it propels itself in a peculiar sideways fashion. Suddenly the tracks come to an end, and there is no sign of the adder. Where did it go? If you look very carefully, you may see two slit eyes peering at you through the sand. The rest of the snake is totally immersed in the sand. Thus camouflaged, it patiently waits for a meal—usually a passing lizard.

One design on the sand is perhaps not so aesthetically pleasing. Wide tire tracks are visible, left by three-wheel motorcycles specially designed to negotiate this terrain. Man has also left his mark.

A Temperamental Artist

Many others, too numerous to mention, leave their mark on these sands. These include rhino, lions, giraffes, and jackals, which may be seen at the Skeleton Coast game park and elsewhere.

But the wind is the artist in chief. It determines the general appearance of the gallery and rearranges the shapes as it pleases. It is forever making changes. If you return to this gallery a year from now, you may notice that some of the dunes have been moved as much as 100 feet [30 m] in your absence! That is what Namibia’s winds can do.

[Map on page 27]

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AFRICA

NAMIBIA

[Picture on page 26]

Elephant shrew

[Picture Credit Line on page 26]

Des and Jen Bartlett