When I visited the NamibRand Nature Reserve in southern Namibia it was love at first sight, if for nothing else than its dazzling landscapes and its peaceful isolation. But there’s even more to love, like its fairy circles and dark skies.
For instance, the NamibRand Conservation Foundation is a non-profit organisation that promotes environmental conservation, education and research on the reserve and in the wider southwestern Namib region. One of the main beneficiaries of its fund-raising efforts is the Namib Desert Environmental Education Trust (NaDEET), which brings groups of school kids to sleep out in the reserve, see the night sky and learn how special the environment is.
Mysterious bare circles in the sand – romantically named fairy circles –sprinkle the landscape along the edge of the Namib Desert. Nothing seems to grow inside these eerily precise circles of one to three metres in diameter, their shape so perfect they could have been drawn using a giant pair of compasses.
Various theories have been put forward about what they are and why they occur. Some of these include poisoning of the soil by euphorbia bushes or microscopic fungi, burrowing animals such as rodents, animal dust baths, electromagnetic waves and radiation, meteor showers, underground gas vents – or even that they’re the landing sites of UFOs!
One of the ways the NamibRand Conservation Foundation raises money for its work here is by allowing people like you and me to adopt a fairy circle. You donate N$1,000 (about U$70, €62 or £48 at April 2016 exchange rates) and choose your special circle. A numbered disc is placed inside your fairy circle and you get a certificate recording its GPS coordinates so you can find it on Google Earth.
The NamibRand Nature Reserve is so far from any town that light pollution is non-existent and the night skies are among the darkest on Earth. In 2012 The International Dark-Sky Association – the boffins in the know about light pollution – certified the NamibRand as a gold-tier Dark Sky Reserve, the first and so far the only one in Africa.
This is the strictest and darkest level there is, making it one of the best places on Earth for star-gazing. A gold-tier reserve must have little to no impact from artificial light, and no obvious lights that might cause wildlife disorientation. We noticed, for instance, that the exterior light at our campsite at The Family Hideout on the reserve was shielded so it emitted no light above the horizontal, keeping it focused only where we needed it.
It’s almost paradoxical that the skies in this so-called ‘dark sky reserve’ were actually among the brightest I’d ever seen. The Milky Way appeared brighter, more packed with stars. In fact, if you’ve never looked at it outside a city or town, you might wonder why it’s called the Milky Way at all. But here the gazillions of little stars turned a whole swathe of sky milky white. This is how our ancestors must have seen the skies before we invented electricity and decided to turn night into day.
You might also enjoy:
NamibRand Nature Reserve: put it on your life-list