Meet Swakop­mund’s dune bug ex­pert

If you thought the dunes of the Namib were de­void of life, you were wrong. Spend the morn­ing with Tommy Col­lard from Swakop­mund and you’ll never look at the desert the same way again.

“The things a Bush­man can read in the sand… It will blow your boots off,” says Tommy Col­lard over the roar of his Land Rover 101FC – a con­verted Bri­tish Army am­bu­lance from the 1940s.

He puts the Landy into sec­ond gear, checks to see if the jar with meal­worms and tok­tokkies is still stand­ing, and turns around in his seat to talk to us: “We’re go­ing to do the tour in the Queen’s English und Kaiser Wil­helm Sprache. Just shout if you need me to pull over for a pinkeln pause.”

In­tro­duc­tions out of the way, Tommy starts telling us about track­ing. “A Bush­man bat­tal­ion taught me how to track in 1978. Bush­men can read the desert sand like a news­pa­per – they can tell you where a jackal caught a mouse the night be­fore.”

Tommy scans his sur­round­ings with eyes like search­lights. In the 18 years he’s been do­ing desert tours, he has only taken three leave days. He’s here, on his knees in the sand, ev­ery day of the week – that’s why he knows the an­i­mals of the Namib like old friends.

He fol­lows each fact with a joke: “In the Namib, 100 mm of rain means that the rain­drops hit the ground at 100 mm in­ter­vals. This is a desert. If a frog wants to learn to swim here, he’ll have to watch a video on the In­ter­net.

“By day, the sand can reach 57° C. That’s why many an­i­mals live un­der­ground – 14 cm be­low the sur­face, it’s 14° C cooler. And wa­ter is the cur­rency of life. I’ve never heard a man crawl­ing through the desert beg­ging for a sip of beer.”

Then: “If you see a red flag, let me know. We gave each chameleon a flag.” Even the most aloof teenagers in our tour group perk up, but only un­til they see his twin­kling eyes in the rear-view mir­ror. Just be­yond the out­ly­ing houses of Swakop, Tommy pulls over, gets out and bends over to ex­am­ine the sand. He kneels down and draws a cir­cle with his fin­ger. “Come have a look,” he says. He starts to clear the sand in the cir­cle. Two fur­rows ap­pear and be­tween them, grains of sand form­ing a small tower: the nest of a tube spi­der. Tommy care­fully breaks the tip off the tower so we can touch it. The mix­ture of spi­der’s web and sand is sur­pris­ingly soft, like a shred of silk stock­ing.

Tommy’s next find is a Peringuey’s adder, also called a sidewind­ing adder. The snake hides un­der the sand and uses the tip of its tail, which looks like a black in­sect, to at­tract prey. A lizard is a good, thirstquench­ing catch for the snake be­cause a lizard has two blad­ders – one for urine and one that acts as a wa­ter reser­voir.

“Kom hier, jou ko­r­relkop!” Tommy

mum­bles as he digs in the sand. Then he pulls out the snake, barely two weeks old and as long as a ruler.

He grips the snake care­fully be­hind its head and tells us how ven­omous it is. “How many times have you been bit­ten?” some­one asks. Tommy pre­tends to be deep in thought. “When you get close to 60, you stop count­ing…”

At first the tourists are grumpy. It’s cold out­side and they don’t want to get out at each stop, but Tommy’s en­thu­si­asm wins them over. Soon enough, ev­ery crea­ture that he un­earths gets the same re­ac­tion as a lion catch­ing a buf­falo. The tourists press their noses to the glass and whis­per in awe: “He grew up in the bush, you know…”

“He must make a TV se­ries about his ex­pe­ri­ences…” “Yeah, he’s just like Bear Grylls…” Tommy’s bare, sinewy legs are tanned from years in the Namib sun. He prefers to go bare­foot. “What if some­thing bites you?” asks one tourist. “Then I die,” he replies dryly.

He thinks of his job as a vo­ca­tion and tells me a story about the night he took a friend who had threat­ened to com­mit sui­cide for a drive in the desert. Tommy was work­ing as a mis­sion­ary back then. The desert was the most com­fort­ing place he could think of, a quiet space he of­ten sought out him­self. That night made him re­alise that more peo­ple should ex­pe­ri­ence the calm of the dunes.

Tommy hits the brakes, opens the door and yells: “Baby chameleon!”

Where? We scan the ground, but we can’t see a thing. Tommy picks up a rock, ex­cept that it’s not a rock, it’s a black Na­maqua chameleon – the fastest chameleon in the world. Even though they’re a pro­tected species, th­ese chameleons are highly val­ued as pets and they’re of­ten poached as a re­sult. A breed­ing pair can fetch R7 000 on the black mar­ket. Tommy mi­crochips ev­ery chameleon he finds as part of a project that he runs with Dr Krys­tal Tol­ley from the Na­tional Bio­di­ver­sity In­sti­tute in Cape Town. “We can fol­low all the chameleons we’ve tagged on Google Earth,” he says. “We can see where a spe­cific chameleon is at any given mo­ment, and help track down smug­glers across the globe.”

He con­tin­ues: “At birth, a chameleon weighs barely 2 g. Fully grown it can be up to 1 kg and about 30 cm in length. An adult chameleon will try to eat any­thing that doesn’t eat it first.”

Now I see the pur­pose of the jar in Tommy’s ve­hi­cle. The chameleon gets a cou­ple of fat meal­worms for break­fast.

I won­der aloud if we’ll get to see a red ro­man – they give me the creeps. Tommy points to his glass jar. “I’ve caught red ro­mans that could only just fit into a jar like this. For the first 20 sec­onds you try to catch it, af­ter that, it tries to catch you.”

We carry on and Tommy catches a skink about as thick as a fin­ger. “The FitzSi­mons bur­row­ing skink is en­demic to the Namib,” Tommy says with a grin, al­low­ing the le­g­less lizard to bite down on his fin­ger.

Next up: a black scor­pion. Tommy grabs its tail and care­fully picks it up. The scor­pion tries to attack the fin­gers hold­ing it – a white drop of venom oozes from the stinger. “This is Parabuthus vil­lo­sus – it can grow to 18 cm long and it de­tects vi­bra­tions in the air and ground via the hairs on its body. It can sur­vive with­out food for up to a year. Its sting is lethal. The venom works on your cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, your heart, your lungs…”

Only the bravest among us step closer to feel the scor­pion’s legs brush­ing against the skin of our arms. When Tommy re­leases the scor­pion, ev­ery­one re­treats a few me­tres. Ev­ery­one ex­cept a man from Hol­land who has been film­ing the whole en­counter, a forgotten cigar dan­gling from his lip.

Small birds – trac­trac chats – hop over. They know that wher­ever Tommy goes, his meal­worms go too. Tommy holds out a few lar­vae on his palm and the birds hop onto his arm and his head – he looks like a mod­ern-day St Fran­cis of As­sisi.

I watch as the birds fly off with beaks full of worms. Tommy walks over and says softly: “Ja, there’s a big­ger pres­ence here than I could ever show you.”

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