Let’s play Toktokkie – Fiona McIntosh laces up her boots and discovers there is no better way to discover the Namib Desert secrets than on foot…
“No, this is not a toktokkie, it’s a dung beetle,” explained Sebastiaan Kazimbu in response to our insistence that the first beetle we spotted must be the trail’s namesake. “Toktokkies have a large abdominal shell and small thorax, while the dung beetle has a much larger thorax relative to its abdomen.”
He gently scooped up the beetle and held it up for us to inspect. “But these dung beetles are unlike their brothers elsewhere. Most dung beetles roll dung and detritus into balls and push it behind them, but if you look carefully at the hind legs of this one you’ll see that it has a hook on each leg, as well as hairs, which allow the beetle to move forward carrying its food. It’s probably an adaption to the loose sand of the dunes.”
We were on day one of our three-day hike with Tok Tokkie Trails through the NamibRand Nature Reserve. One of the largest private reserves in Namibia, the NamibRand was created almost 25 years ago by the conservationist Albi Brückner, whose vision saw livestock farms combine to form a 200 000 hectare protected area that displays the full biodiversity of the Pro-Namib ecosystem.
Tok Tokkie Trails showcases the unique flora and fauna of this spectacular but harsh, arid region. And there really is no better way to get to know the secrets of the desert than on foot. From base camp we drove a short distance into the dunes before embarking on the two-hour walk to camp. The sun was already low in the sky, bathing the dunes in golden light, and Sebastiaan’s patience was tested to the full as he waited for some errant members of the group to catch up.
But he was an experienced guide so found plenty to amuse the members of the eight-man party who did not fancy themselves as David Attenboroughs, pointing out the earlobe-shaped pods of the camel thorn tree (Acacia erioloba), which we learnt is much loved by oryx and springbok. “It’s also known as the ‘giraffe thorn’,” Sebastiaan explained. “Giraffe are tall enough to pluck leaves that antelope cannot reach and the tree’s vicious thorns don’t puncture their tough tongues and lips.”
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We’d only gone a few metres when we stopped again, this time to observe some circular, grass-fringed sandy patches in the veld. “These are the mysterious fairy circles of the Namib Desert,” Sebastiaan explained. “No one knows how they are formed. The Himba people will tell you that they are the footprints of the gods; I’ve also heard myths that they were formed from the fiery breath of a dragon living within Earth’s crust. The circles start off small and grow over time but they never overlap. They baffle the scientists.”
For the next half-hour we wandered over rolling russet dunes, pausing regularly to get down on our haunches and study the tiny tracks and delicate ripples in the sand. Sebastiaan identified them one by one.
These were made by the hairy-footed dune gerbil (Gerbillurus tytonis), which is endemic to the main sand sea of the Namib Desert. This is the path taken by a Namaqua chameleon (Chamaeleo namaquensis) that lives in sandy areas with scrub vegetation. And the big prints over there are from a Cape fox.
A little bird hopped by, another special called the dune lark (Calendulauda erythrochlamys), which caused huge excitement among the twitchers. Next up, our eagle-eyed guide pointed out phallic-shaped mushrooms known as false ink caps (Podaxis pistillaris). He explained that the Nama people mix the ink with water to use as face paint and sunscreen.
As the shadows lengthened we continued on our journey through red dunes, the backlit grasses swaying in the breeze. It was the stuff of fairy tales. I’d been looking forward to sleeping out under the stars but hadn’t expected the degree of luxury we would experience on this trail. We crested a dune and there in the shade of a massive camel thorn was a camp, the table already laid for dinner.
We were shown to our desert suites – four spacious and private campsites where swag bags were laid out on stretcher beds. Our overnight bags were conveniently placed next to our beds and, in true African safari style, there were foot mats, stools for our shoes and a canvas basin of steaming water with a towel. We washed off the red desert dust under a hot bush shower before convening at the bar for G&Ts and cold beers. And our three-course dinner was a feast accompanied by freshly baked bread and salads washed down with fine wines.
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This is slackpacking at its very best; a good walk by day and spoils at night. And since everything is included in the trail price you can relax and indulge. As the sky darkened and the stars started twinkling, Sebastiaan took his cue to give us a tour of the heavens. He pointed out Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and the major constellations before we retired to continue our observations from our camp beds.
The trail on day two was more challenging. We woke to the sound of birds and were treated by the camp masters to coffee in bed and hot water for washing. After an early breakfast we headed out towards Horseshoe Pass, our route over the mountain.
Early mornings are the best time of day in the desert. The light is soft, the air still and the pristine dunes full of fresh tracks. Sebastiaan was in his element, enthusiastically pointing out the journeys of numerous beetles, geckos and snakes. We caught a glimpse of a golden mole (Eremitalpa granti namibensis), another Namib special whose silky coat allows it to avoid the heat by gliding under the sand, a dancing white lady spider (Leucorchestris arenicola), a wedge-snouted lizard (Meroles cuneirostris), a Western three-striped skink (Trachylepis occidentalis) and a pair of cute bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis) – all in the first hour.
At the base of the pass we entered more lush but rocky terrain. Pretty, little flowers hid in the crevices and the view from the top over the reserve was magnificent. By mid morning we had picked our way down the other side of the mountain to our lunch stop, a large, open-sided tent under a camel thorn that, judging from the size of the nests in it, was clearly a favoured spot for Sociable Weavers (Philetairus socius).
While we enjoyed some icy-cold water and cool drinks from the cooler box in the tent, the busy birds flew in and out of their nests and bathed in the water that Sebastiaan had put out for that them. “You’ll often find a Pigmy Falcon, the smallest raptor, sharing a weavers’ nest,” he explained. “The falcon gets free lodging in exchange for protecting the eggs from snakes and other predators.”
As we ate and sheltered from the hot sun, Sebastiaan regaled us with more intriguing facts about the desert and its creatures. “As you’ve seen, the desert is very much alive thanks to the clever ways in which insects, birds and other animals have evolved to cope with extreme conditions.”
“Take the toktokkies, which are members of the Tenebrionidae family, the darkling beetles. There are around 20 species of toktokkie in the Namib alone, all flightless but with different adaptations to the environment. The most important thing for survival is water, which is mainly derived from early morning fog. At dawn the beetles climb the dunes and trap moisture from the fog in grooves on their shells. You’ll often see them balancing on their heads like acrobats so that the condensed dew can trickle down into their mouths.”
And, we learned, that’s not all these intriguing toktokkies have to contend with. They have to meet the challenge of the intense sunlight and desert heat. Many, like the waxy darkling beetle (Onymacris rugatipennis albotessallata), have a white waxy layer on their shell that reflects the sun’s rays, and most have super-long legs to keep their bodies away from the ground. Some are super athletes, like the racing darkling beetle (Onymacris plana), considered the fastest insect on earth. It can run a metre in under a second so would be a fair match for Usain Bolt.
After a lengthy siesta we set out again onto the red dunes, reaching camp just before dusk. On route we had more lessons in desert ecology as Sebastiaan alerted us to the different types of vegetation – largely tall Bushman grass (Stipagrostis ciliata) with patches of spiky ostrich grass (Cladoraphis spinosa) – and pointed out the prolific tsamma melons (Citrullus lanatus) which, apparently, ostrich love.
Our guide was like a magician. At one stage he stopped and pulled out a big round magnet from his pocket. We watched in amusement as he then ‘wrote’ with the small shards of magnetite that he’d extracted from the sand. Other special touches added to our enjoyment of this very well-organised trail. Early in the hike, Sebastiaan had gathered some dry, red sticks, which he’d placed in a small jar of water. As we toasted our last night on the trail he opened the jar. Hey presto, the sticks now bore green leaves. “This is the Bushman’s tea bush, [Myrothamnus flabellifolius],” he said, laughing.
“The tea made from its leaves, branches and roots can be used to treat colds, asthma and all sorts of aches. Its other name is the resurrection bush. It can survive for two years without water and looks dead, but after rain it comes to life again.”
We waited quietly for dinner, revelling in the tranquillity of our oasis. Our ears were now tuned in to the desert sounds and, as darkness fell, we were entertained by the constant chattering of barking geckos (Ptenopus garrulus) and hoots of owls.
And we noticed the subtle, simple but all-important details carefully designed to enhance our experience. The NamibRand is one of the few Dark Sky Reserves in the world and the amount of light pollution is kept to an absolute minimum with tins placed over the lights to reflect the rays back down. And we learnt a little of the local language from our highly entertaining chef Belinda Diana Burtze who presented the menu both in English and in Damara-Nama, a bizarre language of clicks.
The cultural theme continued on our final day. After crossing a grassy plain of huge herds of springbok and curious gemsbok, we paid a visit to the NaDEET (Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust) centre, where a group of city school kids were learning about desert ecology and the sustainable use of energy, water and other resources, and having a fine time rolling down sand dunes and being out in the wilderness. A kettle was boiling on a solar-powered stove – a cheap, accessible unit designed for local communities.
By the time we returned to the centre we felt rejuvenated and enriched. The slow pace had enabled us to fully immerse ourselves in the Namib and, thanks to Sebastiaan’s mentoring, we now understood more about the fragility of the desert, its unique flora and fauna and the challenges of managing conservation and tourism.
We’d been spoilt rotten and, despite several hikers’ initial fear of snakes, scorpions and spiders, we’d enjoyed the privilege of sleeping out in the open and seeing stars like never before. The NamibRand is a very, very special reserve. I can think of few more beautiful places to take a hike.
In a Nutshell
- When to go: The trail is open year-round other than during the hottest summer period between mid-December and mid-February. Most rain falls from October to the end of March. The days are still warm during the winter months but temperatures often fall below zero at night so you’ll need down jackets, gloves and beanies.
- Up to it? Distances are fairly short, with a maximum of 10km a day, and only one hill. Your overnight bags are transported to the camps and the guides tailor the pace to the group so this is not a particularly difficult trail. That said, much of the route is over undulating sand dunes, and the slow pace means that you are out in the sun for long periods so a reasonable level of fitness is required.
- Linger longer: If time and budget allow, factor in some extra time in this wonderful, remote place. A couple of nights spent unwinding in one of the classic camps of the Wolwedans Collection really is the ultimate spoil, while the NamibRand Family Hideout offers self-catering accommodation in an old farmhouse, as well as exclusive camping.
- The name toktokkie describes the ‘tokking’ sound that the male and female beetles make when they tap the ground with their abdomen in order to communicate.
- Toktokkies are larger than most beetles and have a thick shell that helps keep heat out and moisture in.
- All flightless, the toktokkie wings are an important part of moisture management by trapping exhaled moisture, which is then retrieved and put back into the body.
International Dark Sky Reserves
- Since its formation in 1988, the International Dark Sky Association has been drawing attention to the hazards of light pollution. Its mission is to work with planners, legislators, manufacturers and the general public to use energy-efficient solutions that direct light to where it’s needed, rather than allowing it to escape and pollute the sky.
- International Dark Sky Reserves (IDSRs) are areas of public or private land that possess an exceptionally starry night sky and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its natural, educational, scientific, cultural and heritage value.
- IDSRs are identified by the association as reserves managed in a way to minimise the effects and hazards of light pollution.
- The NamibRand Nature Reserve, declared an ISDR in 2012, was the first ISDR in Africa, and the only one in the developing world.
- There are currently nine IDSRs but only three – the NamibRand Nature Reserve, the Aoraki Mackenzie Reserve in New Zealand and the Kerry IDSR in Ireland – have ‘gold tier’ designation and, thanks to management efforts, boast the darkest and clearest skies in the world.
- Gazing into the night sky in these gold tier IDSRs, you’re not distracted by glaring light sources and will see an amazing array of sky phenomena including the Milky Way, Aurora, zodiacal light and even faint meteors.
- But, apart from the obvious attraction of being able to see the stars in all their glory, what’s the benefit of dark skies you may ask? The overriding aim of the NamibRand Nature Reserve is to ‘conserve all indigenous natural resources occurring in the reserve and thus to restore and maintain biological diversity.’ If not managed correctly artificial light can have a negative effect on plant species and animal species (particularly nocturnal species) by causing habitat and behavioural changes.
- The Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust Centre, in the core of the reserve, runs environmental education programmes that teach Namibians and visitors, particularly groups of local school children, about the Earth, sky, their cultural heritage and how to protect their unique environment and night sky.
Words Fiona McIntosh
Photography Fiona McIntosh, Matthew Holt and supplied