PROFILE: TOMMY COLLARD
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.”