The Namib Desert Fairy Circles

Dating back more than 55 million years, the Namib Desert is believed to be the oldest desert in the World; and stretches the entire length of Namibia’s west coast.

In the local Nama language ‘Namib’ means “place where there is nothing” and seeing as this arid landscape makes up more that 15% of Namibia’s driest and most inhospitable land surface, it would be easy to assume that this statement is true; but this seemingly desolate landscape is far from lifeless! The Namib Desert comprises of gravel plains deserts, mountain ranges and the famous sand sea at Sossusvlei.

One of the great mysteries of the Namib Desert is the ‘fairy circles’ – barren patches of sand that are circled by vegetation, making the landscape resemble a massive polka dot tablecloth. These fairy circles, what causes them, how they are formed, and why they are found in certain stretches of the Namib Desert have long puzzled researchers.

The fairy circles have been known locally for more than a century, with the first informal mention of this unique phenomenon, in literature, dates back to the 1920’s, with studies intensifying in the last quarter of the 20th century. Local Himba legend states that Mukuru, their original ancestor created the fairy circles, and they ate the god’s footprints. The local Bushman communities ascribe magical powers to the fairy circles, and there are even some local tour guides who tell of dragons that inhabit the subterranean chambers and the fairy circles are the result of their underground fire-breathing exploits!

As study of this unique phenomenon has intensified, scientists are becoming more divided as to their origin. One German researcher, who has spent more than 6 years studying the fairy circles claims that they are created by termites. Psammotermes allocerus was found to inhabit every fairy circle investigated, and by creating these bare circles, he believes that they are generating their own rainwater stock for survival. In 2014 similar fairy circles were discovered in a remote part of Australia, and here termites were not always present.

Another German researcher says that there is too little precipitation to support this termite theory, and that the plants themselves create the fairy circles, and by creating these circles the plants can best capture the scarce rainwater to make optimal use of it.

Another theory which has been put forward is that these fairy circles are the result of naturally escaping gas from the Earth, essentially Earth farts. Other theories have ranged from ostriches taking sand baths to contaminated radioactive materials.

While there is no universally accepted theory as to the source of these curious circles, and they continue to befuddle international scientists and researchers, so whilst the people with the big brains try to figure that out, did you know that one of the best places to spot fairy circles is at Le Mirage Resort and Spa, located just 20 minutes away from the entrance to the world-renowned Sossusvlei.

As the sun moves across the horizon and the shadows lengthen, you can hop on a quad bike and ponder this conundrum for yourself, whether it is Mukuru or a dragon in its lair… why not choose your own favourite theory to just one of Namibia’s many mysteries.

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