Image: Falkenpost (Pixabay)
The Desert of Tiny Snails, or Ni Nopa Hon, can be found South-south-west of wherever your favourite beach is.
How it got its name can seem a mystery. Anyone who has ever gone and come back knows, but all you’ll get from them by way of travelogue is a knowing grin, and an insistence that you must see for yourself.
So you travel. Across the roads, till where they end. Then leaving your vehicle in a shaded spot, follow a footpath till it ends. Then cover the brush until that runs dry too, always following the westering sun.
In the end, you’ll find the ground growing yellow under your feet, as tides of sand lie sloughed up against the blue blue horizon – the fabled desert.
And you lie back, and relax from your long travels, as everyone is wont to do. The baking sun pours down from a ice-blue sky, making the ground hot. You realise after a bit that your well deserved rest must wait. You strike out in search of shade.
But there’s no shade to be found, no vegetation, not even a cactus bulb. This desert stretches in endless frozen waves, all the way to the sky, unrelieved by the mirage of a green oasis.
As the sun slowly sets on your half day trek across this discomforting blankness, you look back and see your feet have scrawled a meandering trail against the ochre canvas, your footsteps appearing and disappearing among the dunes.
Finally the sun sets. The air begins to cool, and you decide to bivouac. You lay out your supplies within easy reach, tune out the celestial silence of the velvet heavens, and lie to sleep – with a secret wish to slap your friend for tricking you on this pointless hike.
In your sleep, you dream you’re on a rolling deck of a ship. The sea heaves beneath you, and you actually feel your stomach drop, and your up and down ceases to square with the earth’s. You jerk awake.
The desert is a sea. Blue and black under moonlight, the dunes are rising, falling, in all directions. Tucked within your sleeping bag, your encampment floats atop a cresting wave of sand, which crashes, flinging you and your belongings in a roar of sandy surf…
What is going on?
As you stand, you realise the sand is sticking to you, all over. Turning on your smartphone, you see the truth – the sand particles are yellow, and crawling ever so slowly across your skin.
Your scream is lost in the vast desert night.
Calming down, you open up your phone, find a signal and read up on Ni Nopa Hon on the all-knowing NET.
The desert is so named for the distinct yellow snails, the smallest in nature, which form the essential bulk of the landscape by the hundred millions, giving the place its eye-catching yellow by the bright sunny shade of their shells.
The snails, Ponderis Elongatis Mollusci, measure a mere 0.2 mm in length, and display a quick reflex and movement despite their size. When startled, they will retreat in 0.47 seconds back into their shells, and when feeding have been observed to travel at an average of 1.75 times their body length a second.
It is this tendency to “race” while feeding that can explain a peculiar feature of their native habitat, and the often disconcerting experiences of desert hikers there.
In the day, the snails stay in the shells hibernating from the heat, and are blown and piled by the wind into vast dunes, much like desert sand. At night however, when the temperature drops, dew forms from the air on the cooling desert surface, and the snails almost simultaneously come out to feed.
Their intake of dew also contains microorganisms which take advantage of the water to thrive. The snails crawl wherever this nutrient rich liquid can be found, the shells of other snails, or the sleeping forms of travellers. Some travellers report having experienced dreams of being buried alive, only to wake under layers and layers of sedimentary snails. Others aware of the molluscs’ nocturnal patterns find a safe spot on a rock to watch the desert shift under the moonlight, as lower snails boil up from the bottom, leading to slow-motion waves and ripples that are beautiful to see.
You turn off the NET with a wistful look on your face, clamber up the nearest slope of snail sand, and balancing, watch the far desert evolve and shift, like waves of the ocean.
Your decide the killing of your friend can wait.