High on our bucket list of things to see in Namibia has always been the mystical fairy circles that are found in Kaokoland. Our dream was realized on our latest trip when we were driving through the remote Giribes Plains and the Marienfluss area, and there was great excitement in the car when we first spotted them. Man has always been intrigued by things that have no explanation and fairy circles have had scientists baffled for decades. The African people attribute spiritual powers to these barren sandy circles in the grasslands and call them the “footprints of the Gods”, but unless the Gods have big round feet, or round spacecraft, they could be wrong.
Like the famous crop circles that show up in areas in the United Kingdom, fairy circles appear magically and come in all different sizes, ranging from small ones measuring about two meters in diameter to the larger ones that are about twelve meters across. They are typically bare sandy patches surrounded by long grass. Although extensive studies have been made on these circles, scientists can only tell us for certain that they grow and have a life expectancy. Studies done on the circles in the Namibgrens Nature Reserve in southern Namibia have shown that small circles exist for approximately twenty-four years, whilst large ones last up to seventy-five years before vegetation takes over again.
There are a number of theories as to what causes them, one being that they are the result of harvester termites nesting underground, but digs have not proved this. It was also thought that euphorbia plants left a poisonous residue in the ground that prevented anything from growing for years, but this too has not been proven. We didn’t see any evidence of euphorbia plants in the entire area so think this is the least likely of the explanations. Students from the University of Pretoria surmised that they might be hardpans – layers of soil that cannot be penetrated by water – which would prevent anything from growing in them, but if hardpans are the cause it doesn’t explain why they are circular. So the mystery remains unsolved.
The circles appear at their full size or grow rapidly to the size that they remain at for the duration of their ‘lives’. They are rather fascinating, don’t you think. If you’re interested in sponsoring a fairy circle for yourself (which I think is a rather quaint fundraising idea), you can do this through the staff at the Namibrand Nature Reserve, who will mark it with a ceramic plate and give you the GPS co-ordinates of your fairy circle and then monitor it over a number of years to see how it behaves and survives.
Now don’t laugh when I tell you my theory of how they are formed. I think the area is a giant cookie factory and there’s a benevolent being that comes along with an enormous cookie cutter to make grass cookies for the poor animals that have to survive in really harsh desert conditions further up the road where there is hardly a blade of grass to eat.
If you think that the fairies made them, well you may be right, as your guess is as good as anyone else’s. If you have any ideas that you’d like to share, do leave a comment.