South Africa’s desert, tucked away in the northernmost reaches along the Orange River, was only recently declared a separate ecosystem. It is a land of hidden life, of mists and bejeweled lichen, speedy beetles that drink fog, of long-legged bushman grass and opportunistic flowers.

Did you know?

Tenebrionid beetles stand head-down atop dunes, drinking the fog that condenses on their bodies.


In South Africa, desert is generally taken to be the thirstlands of the Karoo (Nama and Succulent), and the dry, grassy Kalahari.

But in the past few years have scientists added another biome to South Africa's impressive ecosystem list: true desert. South African desert conservation occurs in the very far north-western part of the country, within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park.

On a vegetation map, you'll strain your eyes to see it. No more than a tiny button, this land is just a small tongue of Namib desert flickering across the Orange River.

Desert conservation in South Africa protects life pared down to its elements, a cryptic landscape of extremes, a place of rocks, heat and searing wind. But look closer. When the heavy sea mists come in, dozens of lichen species open up to the moisture, a strange bejeweled world that demands you be on your knees to really see it.

Over a year, there is less rain than an afternoon's thunder shower anywhere else, and some years are stingier than others. The rainfall comes during the searing summer. In a bad year, it seems so barren you'll wonder whether all life has passed forever.

But after a good rainfall, long-legged bushman grass springs up and covers the sere plains in an otherworldly sea of waving lemon yellow.

In South Africa's desert, plants and animals speak the language of rain, constantly expressing climate conditions in astounding ways. And it's this fragile life, this indomitable spirit, that burns itself as an incandescent after-image on your mind.

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