By the side of the salt road up the Skeleton Coast and en route to the Messum Crater on the Namib’s gravel plains lie some of the world’s most extensive (foliose) lichen fields. One of Namibia’s more overlooked treasures – especially since to the uninitiated they resemble shrivelled, dead bits of plant for much of the time – they warrant closer examination. In contrast, on overcast mornings, when there is moisture in the air, they show their true colours, “blooming” and producing a kaleidoscope of colour, turning purple, orange, black, green or reddish-brown, only to shrivel up once more as the sun burns more to reduce transpiration. If you happen to miss the show in the morning fog, at any time of day you can stop, sprinkle a little water on a patch, wait a few minutes, and watch the transformation.

Lichens are truly extraordinary: plant-like but not plants, rather organisms that are combinations of algae living among the filaments of a fungus in a symbiotic relationship. The alga absorbs light and moisture from the air to photosynthesize and provide food and energy; the fungus also absorbs and stores moisture, draws nutrients from the ground, and usually acts as an anchor. For this reason, lichen are important stabilizers in the Namib, helping prevent erosion, though a relatively common sight is the Xanthomaculina convoluta, a free-flowing foliose lichen that blows around and collects in hollows and dry river beds; with a charcoal-grey appearance when sheltering from the sun, it turns green when absorbing moisture.

Of the world’s 20,000 known lichen species, the Namib hosts around 120, many endemic to the area. One of the most visually striking is Teleschistes capensis, a relatively large bushy specimen, which can grow several centimetres high, and resembles a piece of terrestrial coral the colour of burnished gold when open. Some lichen are thought to be thousands of years old – even older than welwitschias, growing at a glacial pace of only 1mm per year. This also makes them incredibly fragile; a thoughtless bit of off-road driving over seemingly featureless desert can result in the destruction of centuries of growth.

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