We have been walking for more than a dozen days across the Namib — Earth's driest desert. And there is nothing we would like better than to reach the end as soon as possible.
But the beacon — glowing white against the rust-red horizon — irresistibly draws us away from the worn game trail we are following. To get to it, we have to alter our course by at least a kilometer.
It is an egg. A giant one, the size of a melon, with neither nest nor hen in sight. It sits unblemished atop the hard scrabble as if placed there with the utmost care.
We coo and marvel at it, trying to deduce its origins — and perhaps more pertinently, its fate. We have been spotting ostriches almost continuously along the way.
But such a valuable packet of protein and water just abandoned in the middle of the desert? That's reason enough to halt.
I and colleagues from The Nature Conservancy and our partners in Namibia have been covering more than 25 kilometers each day in a historic and eye-opening attempt to walk — east to west — across the Namib, a place bounded by two of Africa’s national parks: the Skeleton Coast and Etosha.
Among other tasks, we are doing a rapid ecological assessment of the habitats we encounter. While this space in-between currently lacks formal protection, a plan forwarded by the local communities to create a new national park would link Etosha and the Skeleton Coast and bring in needed eco-tourism dollars to impoverished people.
The plan is being eagerly supported by government, local conservation organizations and The Nature Conservancy. This new park, situated in the Kunene Region of the Northern Namib desert, would be notable for two main reasons:
Until the park comes to fruition, however, the responsibility of protecting this inhospitable landscape rests to a small non-profit — Save the Rhino Trust.
SRT's shoestring budget can barely keep up with the needs of this endless landscape. On this desert transact, Rudi Loutit, SRT's sockless leader (he also forgoes shades and sunscreen) is leading us. He's been described as a cross between Ed Abbey and Crocodile Dundee.
Also with us are four African rangers from SRT who spot and track wildlife we encounter and handle the water-laden camels that accompany us. Of the more than 20 trackers SRT employs (all from this part of the Namib), this team is an elite group.
They wear their uniforms with rigid pride, though the cardboard stiffness of the starched heavy cotton khaki has long since been beaten threadbare. Their steady if meager salaries make them men of status in their home villages.
Their regular job is to patrol the desert and keep the black rhinos safe — a descriptively simple but practically difficult task.
The rhino is one of the earth’s most valuable animals, with a black-market price tag (for its horns) equivalent to a Porsche.
It also has the agility of a tank and a propensity for trundling off into the most inhospitable parts of the desert with no regard for the comfort of its human minders.
It is easy to mistake conferences for conservation. In the rarified world of international diplomacy, private-public partnerships, generous philanthropy, star-studded soirees, retreats, meetings, and annual reports…we sometimes forget about the people with dirt under their fingernails like Loutit and the rangers, scrabbling to save a little corner of the planet.
But these guys are on conservation's front line. Without them, all our good will would succeed in saving very little.
Now, the SRT rangers crowd around the egg in a circle of worship, mumbling to one another in low tones.
Though I can't understand what they are saying, it is easy to surmise the draw of the giant egg — the equivalent of 12 chicken eggs — to a group of hungry men whose vegetarian diet of maize meal and thin stew is only broken by a lunch time can of sardines.
Still, in the unflinching gaze of their boss and with all of us outsiders taking pictures and obviously excited by this random encounter, the rangers hesitate.
Then, as we take leave and continue along our way towards the sea, they too, one by one, slowly, abandon the egg and the prospect of a huge, simmering omelet.
From our perspective, leaving the egg is the obvious thing to do. This is a protected area, and a packet of protein like this would provide a welcome meal for hungry wildlife — a brown hyena, maybe.
But we also know that in two or three days, we will be at the coast and at the end of our expedition…and the beginning for us of eating well again.
We will bid good-bye to our African companions and board a chartered flight that will whisk us away in air-conditioned comfort to Namibia's capital and the Kalahari Sands Hotel, with its endless all-you-can-eat buffet, conveniently organized by food groups (game meat to fish) and ethnicity (stir-fry to pot roast).
Hot showers will in minutes wash away the thin patina of desert dust that coats us all. And at night, warm, soft beds will cuddle us against the chills.
But the rangers of SRT will spend the rest of their working lives here — patrolling, tracking rhinos and keeping this desert safe. Dust will cover their days. The meager heat of small fires will not warm them enough at night. On long patrols, hunger will cloud their decisions.
They will be back this way — and, away from our eyes and our sometimes accusatory judgment, it is they who will decide what really matters to the conservation of their land.
An egg is an egg, after all.
The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.February 24, 2011