Namibia’s Castles of Sand

As regular visitors to the central areas of Namibia, north of Windhoek, we have always been fascinated by the enormous termite mounds that dominate the landscape.  We were fortunate enough, on a recent guided hike in the Waterberg, to gather some information about these remarkable structures and their creators, the Macrotermes michaelseni.

Rob dwarfed by a termite mound

The termites don’t actually live in the towering structures, but have their nests about a meter or so beneath the ground.  Extensive studies have shown that the mounds are built to assist with the ventilation of the subterranean nests and to maintain and regulate the temperature needed to keep the termites alive.  The mounds are in a constant state of repair and adaptation to keep up with the needs of the colony.

Typical termite mound

The termite colony consists of  a king, a queen, numerous workers and a few soldiers. The queen lives in a queen cell that is only accessible by small portholes, through which the workers remove her eggs (which she lays every three seconds), her waste and bring her food.  The soldier termites have distinct cutters to assist with their food gathering duties.

Worker termite

Soldier termite

One of the amazing features of the termites is their symbiotic relationship with a certain fungus, Termitomyces, the culture of which makes a compost of the digested grass, wood and waste from the termites and recycles it into food for them.  At the same time, the fungal spores produced grow into enormous mushrooms, known locally as Omajowa.  These mushrooms sprout at the base of the mounds during the rainy season and can weigh up to a kilogram each.  Neither the fungus nor the termites could exist without each other.  The Omajowa mushrooms are harvested by the locals, who eat them as a replacement for meat, or sell them to earn some income.

We were also told that the indigenous tribes use the sand from disused termite mounds to build their huts.  The red sand is mixed with cow dung to form clay for their walls.

Hollowed out branch

Although for the most part the termites are useful in nature, they are also quite a destructive force, as once they build their nests around trees, the trees usually die off, as can be seen from the photo above of a covered branch.

A tree doomed to die

It’s common to see animals and birds on the termite hills – obviously a good look-out place to watch the world go by!!

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