Flying over the incomprehensible vastness and undeniable romance of the world’s oldest living desert, in what can only be affectionately described as a tin can (the tiniest little four-seater plane), was definitely one of those pinch-me moments.
This wasn’t my first time seeing the Namib Desert, nor will it be my last. I actually had a fleeting glimpse of the Sossusvlei dunes way back when. I was all of 21 and, with a heart full of wanderlust, was backpacking solo around the world. I met up briefly with a childhood friend and, on a whim, we borrowed his mum’s VW for a whirlwind 6-day, 5 200 km roadtrip around Southern Africa.
We had a very short-lived (and, I recall, rather thirsty) 12 hours in the desert, but nonetheless, I was captivated on arrival. As young, carefree twenty-somethings, we recklessly broke all the rules and got lost, alone, in the desert after dark (I do not recommend nor condone this!) and ended up locked out of our campsite and forced to sleep under the stars. It was as reckless and irresponsible as it was adventurous and unforgettable and needless to say, I always vowed to return one day.
Fast forward many years, and this time my arrival was by plane and my long-awaited return to this enchanted desert playground was far less impulsive and undeniably more luxurious. With a bird’s eye view of the endless sea of undulating dunes beneath us, I wondered just how much, if anything, had actually changed in the 55-million-year-old desert that remains largely untouched by time.
Natural and unexplained phenomena
When I first visited Sossusvlei all those years ago, the hauntingly beautiful and usually bone dry Deadvlei pan was miraculously filled with water. I’m told this rare and remarkable occurrence happens only once every decade or so, making that first visit even more special than it already was.
My long-awaited return to Sossusvlei, however, revealed yet another mysterious phenomenon, one that I certainly hadn’t witnessed on my inaugural visit: the weird and wonderful fairy circles. Best seen from the air, although clearly visible from the ground too, these strange, symmetrical and evenly spaced circles remain, to this day, an unsolved (and hotly debated) mystery.
I guarantee that the stark yet ethereal beauty of the Namib Desert will leave you speechless. Its ancient, never-ending caramel dunes, together with its blissful, uninterrupted silence and almost apocalyptic Mad Max-like lunar landscape, are made even more surreal and otherworldly by the mystifying presence of these mysterious fairy circles.
A largely unexplained phenomenon, parts of the Namib are populated by peculiar, grass-ringed patches called fairy circles. Puzzlingly scattered across the desertscape, these curious, naturally-occurring circles not only appear to be evenly spaced and sized, but they also never overlap.
It’s as if the desert’s flawless complexion has been marred by a baffling, widespread rash, as millions of eerie crater-like pockmarks dominate the dusty terrain. Fascinatingly, there are only two places on the entire planet where these seemingly magical circles exist. Originally, it was believed that these strange bald spots only occur in Namibia’s ancient Namib Desert; however, in 2014, fairy circles were discovered in yet another desert environment in Western Australia.
Some say it looks like the desert has chicken pox, but I like to think of it as an enormous cinnamon-coloured sheet of pastry that is covered in the repetitive, round perforations of a cookie cutter.
No one knows, with absolute scientific certainty, why these cookie cutter patterns exist in just two of the world’s deserts and nowhere else on earth. Scientists, ecologists, entomologists, botanists, travellers and local cultures alike each have their own theories, many of them laughable, and the strange puzzle continues to baffle and bewilder onlookers from around the world.
There are countless hypotheses and the debate is longstanding. True to their namesake, are these circles formed by hand-holding fairies dancing gleefully to Ring Around the Rosie? Is the desert secretly inhabited by underground, fire-breathing dragons? Have dust-bathing ostriches formed the recurring patterns with their feathered frolics in the sand or is it a reserved sleeping spot for Namibia’s national animal, the revered oryx?
If you ask the local people, they have their own cultural beliefs too. Some see the fairy circles as a gift from heavenly deities, while others believe they are God’s footprints in the sand. Or, better yet, are they simply the work of unexplained UFOs? Cue the Unsolved Mysteries theme song…
A more plausible possibility
There are two far more probable and realistic explanations for these puzzling desert formations. One school of thought insists that the ominous circles are most likely the result of neighbouring armies of underground termite colonies duking it out regularly for territory and nutrients.
The other school claims that the fairy rings are caused by desert vegetation competing for scarce water and nutrients in the soil. A meeting of the minds, recent scientific research actually suggests that it is a combination of both duelling termite colonies and competing vegetation.
Whether you believe in frolicking fairies or intergalactic intruders, or you support the more down-to-earth scientific explanations, the longstanding fairy circle debate remains an unsolved mystery. We love a bit of magic and mystique, and perhaps what we love most about these weird and wonderful fairy circles is that they are the perfect size and setting for romantic, lantern-lit dinners-for-two under the stars.