The Namib desert in Namibia is one of the most extreme environments on Earth. Its dune seas and gravel plains often go years without rain, and the unrelenting solar radiation and high temperatures make it possible to fry an egg on a rock. And the only respite for hundreds of kilometres is the Gobabeb Research Station.
The research station, which was established in 1962, is situated at the meeting point of the Namib’s three distinct ecosystems: the famous dune seas to the south, hyper-arid plains to the north, and the ephemeral Kuiseb River running alongside it.
Its sand was once part of Lesotho’s landlocked mountains: the soil travels more than 2,000km down the Orange River into the sea on the west coast. The Benguela Current pulls the sand north, and the sand is blown back inland, forming the red sand sea.
Fog, which rolls in from the coast hundreds of kilometres away, sustains life on these hyperarid plains. The Namib is one of the world’s few fog-dependent desert ecosystems. Creatures that live here -- from spear grass to beetles and scorpions -- have adapted to collect the tiny droplets of water in the air.
Other plants and organisms lie dormant until a few drops of rain reinvigorate the life waiting to germinate beneath the surface.
There are some large game animals in the Namib, but they move with the water. Water is the lifeblood of this harsh ecosystem, where a few drops of rain often have to sustain species for months if not years. This oryx, known as gemsbok in Afrikaans, was the only large mammal for hundreds of kilometres.
The Namib is home to a number of scientific mysteries. So-called “fairy circles” were discovered 70 years ago, but scientists can still not agree on what caused them. They are large circles in which nothing will grow, and they stand out like pockmarks on the landscape. The Himba people, who live in Namibia, think they are the footprints of their god, Mukuru. Scientists argue that they could be the result of termites, gas emissions below the surface, a freak of plant organisation, or pathogenic microbes.
These Welwitschia plants are a peculiar evolutionary dead end. It is an entire genus comprising only one species. (This is an abnormality - for example, the genus canis includes domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes, and jackals.) They are a marvel of the Namib. This Welwitschia pictured here is hundreds of years old.
One example of extremophile life are hypoliths, which are communities of photosynthetic bacteria that live under rocks. There is a particular envelop in which life can occur -- a range of temperatures, pressures, moistures, among other things, says Don Cowan, director of the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics. “Extremophiles give us that outer envelope. That gives us some guidance of where we should look and where we shouldn’t [for life on other planets].”
While some scientists, such as Cowan, analyse the genomes of the tiny organisms using high-tech equipment, other infrastructure is more rudimentary. This piece of equipment, located at the station, measures the hours of light each day. It focuses the sun’s light and uses it to burn a line into a piece of paper. The longer the line, the more daylight hours the station received.
The station is self-sufficient, with satellite internet, its own water tower (which is an iconic white beacon that stands out against the red dune seas), and -- naturally -- a solar power system. Eugene Marais, research manager at Gobabeb, says the station is the largest off-grid solar hybrid system in Namibia, generating 58kWh at its peak, and able to store 200kWh.
Stanley Kubrick made one part of the Namib famous. Mirabeb, a multiple-storey high rock outcropping about a half-an-hour drive from the station, was the site of the opening scene of Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey.