Gobabeb, Namibia – Part 2

By Johnie Jonker

After turning right just past Vogelfederberg, we arrived 60km later at Gobabeb, where we were put up in the international visitor’s facility, being the special guests of Joh and his wife.


The next morning we crossed the Kuiseb in a well-used Land Rover 110 pick-up with rather special tyres, to Joh’s research site among the dunes, where he was studying the Dancing White Lady spider.

View from the LR. Note the spare wheel tyre.


This trapdoor spider burrows into the side of the dune, lining its tunnel with silk. Joh had pegged out a large research area in a 10m x 10m grid, this being crucial to the survival of his specimens. After taking the spiders to the research station for measurements, they had to be returned to within a few meters of their origin if they were not to be attacked by neighbouring spiders, due to the territorial nature of the species.

For more detail, refer to the paragraph on Study Area here:…-30-02-321.pdf

Team Spider, with our transport parked doer in the distance.


Joh was expert in spotting the outline of the trapdoors, and we also soon got the hang of it.

Trapdoor: The C-shaped trapdoor, with the tell-tale spider footprints leading up to it, indicating a nest.



He would measure and record the angle of the dune slope and the diameter of the trap door, then start digging around the outside to determine the angle of the sack into the side of the dune and also its length. 

The prey contents at the bottom of the nest also had to be analysed, but the spider was still in there, hanging underneath the trapdoor trying to keep it shut against the intruders. The trapdoor was then prised open, and the spider would raise its four front legs in an aggressive stance, realize that it’s up against something completely outside of its league and make a duck for it.

Spider: The spider and sack.

The spider was quick, but no match for Joh, chasing after it in full cry with his camera, prior to capturing Leucorchestris arenicola and putting it into a plastic vial with some breathing holes in the cap. 

Back at the lab the spider was weighed, sexed and coded, quite cleverly, with dots of different colour Tippex on its legs, so that if it was re-captured after release, something could be learnt of its movements.

The Tale of the Topnaars

Another piece of research undertaken by the Centre, was to determine how – when other animals were looking for shade – the Oryx could stand out in the midday sun and not collapse from heatstroke.

This trait was also displayed by the Topnaar goats, so the facility bought one from the local inhabitants and implanted a number of temperature sensors into various parts of its skull.

These sensors were wired to a transmitting collar and could be monitored real-time. From this data it was learnt that air in the nose cavity circulates over an area of high density blood vessels, and by increasing the airflow through panting, heat is drawn from the blood prior to reaching the brain. As often, technology imitating nature, the same principle is applied in a car radiator, with the fan increasing the airflow, reducing the coolant temperature.

But there is a twist to the tale.

Once the research was completed, the Centre had no purpose for the goat anymore and returned it to the Topnaars, who were now seriously suspicious of it. I mean, it does not make economical sense: First, these people buy the goat from us – we get money – now they give it back without wanting a refund?! The animal must be jinxed. (Hierrie bok is getoor!).

So they promptly turned it into a braai.

Our final night was one of those “big sky” moments, camping at Mirabib under a rock overhang. With the full moon lighting up the landscape, you (once again) realized just how insignificant you were.

Cave: Our campsite at Mirabib.

Mirabib: Morning of our final departure to Windhoek via Gamsberg Pass.

Upon our return, I complained in writing to VW about their sub-standard wheel spanner, and after a few weeks received a brand new – properly designed – spanner through the post from VW Germany.

As mentioned in the introduction, this article was triggered by re-reading the March 2009 LW article: “It sure beats working”, which contained an inset about the Dancing White Lady Spider, compared to a similar-looking spider of a different species.

I recognized the spider, but seemed to “remember” that similarly to the Carparachne aureoflava, it ALSO formed a wheel, rolling away when threatened.

I contacted the Gobabeb Training and Research Centre to enquire the whereabouts of Joh. Well, not only is Dr Joh R Henschel still there, he has been the director of the facility since 2002.

Here is his comment on my query:

“The spider we ‘chased’ was Leucorchestris arenicola, the Dancing White Lady Spider, and not the Golden Wheel Spider, Carparachne aureoflava. Only the latter spider wheels (as does the White Wheel Spider, Carparachne alba, but that one is uncommon). These spiders (Leucorchestris and Carparachne) look quite different, but belong to the same spider family, Sparassidae (or huntsman spiders); in taxonomic terms, a family is a group of closely related genera, another example of a family is for instance Canidae, or all jackals, coyotes, and wolves of the world.”

Studying some additional material on the Gobabeb website, showed that where our visit took place in an era where the facility was open only to researchers – and socially only possible by personal invitation – it is now open to the public, with facility tours and guided desert walks, also offering accommodation.

Being one of those rare places you sense, rather than see, I would recommend a visit for those who experience nature similarly. I’ve seen someon commenting that it does not have the greatest dunes. Namibia is about a lot more than dunes – and its driving – and this is not a reason for going to Gobabeb.

Even for those whose leisure wheels are a bit disappointing off the beaten track, this would be do-able. Although gravel, access is via a proper road – somewhat potholed from recent reports – 110km from Walvis Bay, making it suitable for even a day visit.

Better though – as travel after dark is not allowed in the Namib Naukluft Park – would be an overnight excursion ex-Swakopmund or Walvis Bay, and from there onwards to Windhoek via the Gamsberg Pass – or south, via Solitaire.

More information – including images, map and downloadable Visitor’s Info document – can be found at:

It takes a while to find the brochure, so: Click Visitors at the top of page, then General Information in the drop-down menu on the right, then Download at the bottom of the page.

 Johnie Jonker