Plant Wonders of the Kalahari Desert

Most of Alicia Simcox’s young life was spent traveling and now she records her time exploring the nature in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Kalahari Desert.

Kalahari Dessert

The author's father, botanical explorer Joseph Simcox, encouraged her to take this trip with him. Here he's shown admiring a gemsbock cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus).

Photo courtesy Jason Piper

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The trip from Rome was long, first to Paris and from there 12 hours straight to Johannesburg, South Africa. I was coming down to join my father and my uncle on a three-week expedition. Two continuous years living in Rome was enough, and I was excited to get out of the place and get back to nature. My dad met me at the airport with tears in his eyes and welcomed me back to the “good life” as he called it. The road is pretty exciting, I have to agree.

Most of my young life was spent traveling. By the time I was 19, my dad had taken me to more than 70 countries. His life was all about travel and tales, and still is. We kids had grown up hearing about amazing plants. He told a lot of stories about the strange and wonderful plants of Africa. We heard about the monstrous tubers of the Marama Bean (Tylosema esculentum), the ones that were portrayed in the 1980 South African comedy film The Gods Must Be Crazy. He told us about the Methuselah of leaves: the Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) with its two leaves that keep growing for up to a 1000 plus years! My dad raved about the Nara Melon (Acanthosicyos horridus) and dreamed of taking us there to eat it, and he was obsessed about the strange succulent “diet” plant, Hoodia Gordonii. This expedition promised to bring to life many of the stories my father had told us as kids about the African flora. For this trip I had dreams of digging up Marama tubers and sinking my teeth into the Kalahari Desert melon, the Nara. These were my thoughts upon arriving in Johannesburg; there still was a lot of road between us and them.

We would be working with a seasoned film team to record the expedition. My father had organized collaboration with Natural History New Zealand productions and Aquavision productions of South Africa to film the trip. The Aquavision team was handpicked by Phil Fairclough from NHNZ, and it was a world class lineup of talent. Greg Nelson, famous for his nature films, would be head cameraman; Carl Ruysenaar would be the expedition tech man, and Jan Lampen was signed on as Director. Our own “team” flew in from all around the world. My Uncle Patrick and his fiancée Danielle flew in from Australia. My “Uncle Jake,” Jason Piper flew in from Colorado, and my dad from Washington D.C. With so many people and so much equipment, there was a lot to do.

 It took us two days to prepare our vehicles for the trip. The road ahead would be desolate. We would drive through most of northern South Africa into Botswana and then cross over into the majestic country of Namibia. We had to shop for supplies for the road—among them canned beans and peas, beef jerky, water, juices and practical essentials like toilet paper. We tallied our collecting equipment: Ziploc bags, sifters, buckets to wash seeds, and newspaper for drying them. After two days of preparation, our checklists were complete and we were ready. Each team member had an assigned vehicle based on his or her skills. The film crew had its own stuff to do, and it seemed that their equipment checklist was ten times longer than ours. We loaded and unloaded the equipment, trying to arrange it and the people. Finally we were ready; everyone took their assigned places, and our mini-convoy joined the traffic jams and started winding its way out of Jo-burg into the country.

The first of our destinations was a camp in the Northern most part of South Africa. This was only a night stopover before we continued on to Botswana. All I can remember about it was that we roasted a lot of meat on an open pit fire (the film team members were serious carnivores) and ate and went to bed in conical thatched roofed stone huts. The next day we made good time covering several hundred kilometers before we crossed into Botswana and made our way to a national park to camp. This park was known for its wild lions; it was pretty exciting as well as scary, since at any moment a wild lion could have appeared at our camp site. Veterans of safari travel, the film crew took things in stride. Carl and Jan just took a plastic mat and went to sleep in the grass. My uncles took advantage of the tents on top of the vehicles. Greg set up a tent on the ground.

My father was so concerned for our safety that he obliged me to spend the night with him inside the only open building, the public bathroom. We blocked the doors against lions entering (supposedly), laid our sleeping mats on the dirty floor and tried to go to sleep. It was one of the worst nights of my life. We were eaten alive by ferocious mosquitoes; I had to put socks on my hands to protect them from the blood thirsty little devils. At dawn everyone else claimed to be well rested, but not us! So much for the lions getting us; what we really had to fear was the insect!

This part of Botswana was filled with wonderful plants. We started down a very sandy track with the film team following in the van. My father started screaming and cheering when he was the first to see the Gemsbock Cucumber (Acanthosicyos naudinianus) fruit. He shouted to stop and leaped out and pointed at the prize. Everyone gets excited with his enthusiasm, so there was general chaos as people followed suit to see the marvel. The “prize” was an irregular orb covered with pointed tubercles about the size of a grapefruit and was approximately butter colored. “This,” holding it up, he said, “is the Gemsbock Cucumber!” He quickly sliced it open and shoved a piece forward for my Uncle Patrick to try. Patty put it up to his mouth and tried it. My dad interrogated, “Is it good, is it good?”

“Is it good?” Patty repeated. Grimacing, he said, “No, it’s terrible!” There were lots of laughs; my dad even chuckled mischievously. Despite Patty’s poor review, they were too important a find not to collect. We spread out and started harvesting fruits. After all that commotion, with a full gunnysack of Gemsbock Cucumbers in hand, we hopped back into the land cruiser and continued down the track.

Not much time passed before another yelp; this time it was me when I discovered a fire engine red cucurbit hanging from a vine in a tree. Dad recognized it. “It’s a Boroboloho,” he shouted. Everyone piled out. Patty got to it first with my dad running behind. Greg was on them like a fly, his big glass lens poking right in their faces. He filmed; we took pictures. The fruit was really cool, about 4 inches long, half brilliant red and half emerald green. My dad summoned the guinea pig again, “Try it Patty.” My uncle was not so eager this time, but after reassuring expletives on its edibility, he chomped in and nodded that it was not bad. The Boroboloho (Coccinia sessilifolia) is a time-honored food of the bushman and one that has promise for dry hot areas of the world. The crew continued down the trail that seemed to me to be getting questionable for passage. Our Land Cruiser moved along, but I could see that Carl was fighting not to drive in our tracks. At one point, they stopped because the sand told them to. Carl and Jake pulled out the shovels and started shoveling while everyone stood around analyzing the best way to dislodge the thing. Between brute and brains, brute strength won out. The whole team pushed and shoved, and we got the van moving again.

The Kalahari Bushmen who inhabit these places know a lot about their nature. The things we were finding were new to us, but they had figured out how to use most of them a long time ago. A good example of their knowledge is a strange looking clawed seed pod. It is called the Devil’s Claw in English; its scientific name is Harpagophytum procumbens. The Bushman calls it the Lion Crippler. It was recounted to us that the Bushman will ring a camp with these “claws” and that when a lion steps on one, the “claw” depresses under the lion’s weight, opening up. When the beast lifts its paw, the prongs of the claw retract, gripping firmly into the central pad of the paw thereby “crippling it” with pain. This use struck us as legitimate, even though as I’m writing this, I’m still a bit skeptical! The Devil’s Claw has a more prominent use, one that is even gaining in the west. It is widely used in bush medicine for inflammatory disorders and even gynecological ones. Studies in Europe and North America have confirmed the efficacy of Devil’s claw in relieving inflammation and even the pains of arthritis. My dad liked it best as a face ornament. We spent the rest of the day filming and photographing. Our stay at the “lion” camp ended with many good finds. We never were attacked by a lion; we did not even see one!

The rest of Botswana was very cool. My dad wanted to find the Marama bean and according to his research, it was going to be growing everywhere. Sure enough, as we zipped down the highway at 60 miles an hour, he started cheering. He had been waiting to see this plant in the wild since as long as I could remember. Even though we had planted the same species many times in our gardens in Mexico, it never had time to mature before something happened to the plants. It was quite a different to sight to see the green bi-lobed leafed plant with yellow flowers sprawling on the desert floor. It was incredible. This perennial plant is even more amazing because of its ability to produce large amounts of seeds even though it grows in very arid conditions. The seeds of the Marama help sustain the Kalahari Bushman, and they offer a wonderful potential food source for other arid areas of the world. The seeds are about the size of a macadamia nut and taste something between a cashew and a peanut. The young tuber of this plant is also nutritious; it is roasted by the Bushmen in coals and eaten like a potato. The plant sucks up all the water it can during the rainy seasons and stores it in its tuber. It is said that a mature plant can go three years without a drop of rain, solely on the reserves in the tuber. We were fortunate enough to fall upon some indigenous San people who live in the bush. These people are professionals at finding where these plants grow, and it did not take them long to take us to some older plants that were probably around 30 years old. Despite their huge size, up to 500 pounds, older tubers are not eaten; only the beans are collected from them. It is the juvenile plants with tender tubers that are dug up to be eaten. My father and I, along with the group of locals, dug up a young tuber that must have weighed about 10 pounds. The San ladies took it back to camp and buried it in the hot coals to roast it. To me it was amazing to see that much good food being supplied by nature.

The Marama bean was just one of many delights that we encountered with the San Bushmen. Another rare desert cucurbit was added to my dad’s must-find list. The so called Kalahari Cucumber root, (Cucumis kalahariensis) was a real thrill for him. As we were following them through the bush, they came upon a discrete little vine; the leaves identified it as the Kalahari Cucumber root. My dad started digging and soon produced a tapered white large carrot-shaped root about a foot long. The Bushmen instructed him to peel off the thin bitter outer skin of the roots. He ate it, pronouncing it refreshing and delicious. This cucurbit “carrot” is completely unknown to most of the world, yet it really is a stupendous find. My dad considers it one of the top potential vegetables for hot dry places.

Thanks to the friendly San Bushmen, we finally learned how to eat the Gemsbock Cucumber, too. Back at the camp, one of the elder ladies grabbed a bunch of our collected fruits and buried them in the center of the ashes. On our return from the track, the San ladies started fishing them out of the ashes, and there were an eager group of takers. They took the fruits and chipped out a segment about an inch and a half in diameter. Then they just slurped out the cooked pulp. Patty and I and dad took one each and savored the result. My dad mimicked the young man who just tipped his up and finished it off in one gulp. “That is wonderful,” my dad said, happy to add another species to his eating experience menu. The coal-roasted Gemsbock cucumber was really good. I would liken it to a stewed juicy zucchini with more flavors.

We were very impressed by the San. Even though they have no formal education, they have traditional survival skills that put most Westerners to shame. The San are tiny, (some of the smallest people I reckoned I had ever seen) yet they were very strong. They knew the Kalahari like the back of their hand, and that impressed me a lot. I thought to myself, “What if we could be so attentive to what nature has to offer us in our own environments?” It is a pity that most of humanity would resort to eating the uncommon fruits of nature only during famine or desperate need. These people have a rich natural tradition of the desert because for millennia their ancestors have been learning and passing down that knowledge to their children. The San people that we met were monetarily poor, as can be seen in the pictures. They have no clothing other than the skins they have from animals they have killed. Despite their lack of elaborate material possessions, these people have a richness that we in our modern world have completely lost. I found this Zulu saying that evokes the ideas of the people of the “land” and says it clearer than I could:

“As soon as the new rains, life begins miraculously. Grass sprouts, flowers open and the frogs croak creeping out of the earth that hid them. Thus the earth conceals life, protects it against desiccation and revives it as soon as better times arrive. Without the gifts of the earth no one lives. . . The earth has a very powerful spirit that rules over our life and death.”

These people see Mother Earth as a gift that allows them to survive. They truly appreciate it for what it is, a miracle. My trip to Africa was enriching me in ways that I would have never imagined. It reinforced my awe for nature.

After we bade farewell to the San Bushmen of Botswana, we continued our journey towards Namibia and the coast. The roads to get there were removed from all civilization and they seemed to go on forever. The only things to see were beautiful mountains, deserts and an occasional tree. On one stretch of road, we fell upon a tower of giraffes that were serenely nibbling leaves off spiny acacia trees. That was truly one of the most amazing nature scenes I have ever seen!

One of the more curious edibles that we stumbled upon on our voyage through Namibia was the so called “diet” plant (Hoodia Gordonii). This plant is a leafless spiny succulent plant that is known for its medicinal properties. The flowers, unfortunately for us, smell like rotten meat and are usually pollinated by flies. The indigenous San people call this plant llhoba. The plant has been used in different ways, such as for indigestion and small infections. The “diet” plant, as the common Western name would suggest, is also known for its appetite suppressing properties. It is commonly chewed by the indigenous people as a hunger suppressant on long hunting trips through the desert. My father cut a small piece of the plant, skinned the spines off and chewed on the piece for most of the remaining trip. He claimed to have lost his appetite and that he was full of energy. I still don’t know if I am to believe it or not.

After several days we reached our destination, the coastal city of Swapkopmund, the first real civilization that we had been to in a week and a half. It was nice to get a shower and eat food that was not canned. The rest of the crew danced and partied, joyful to be back with people. In the morning our tasks would start again. First on the agenda was finding the precise locations of the Nara melon, (Acanthosicyos horridus) colonies, and the Welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis).

By good fortune we fell upon a nature conservation office, and on the walls there were posters of both the Nara melon and the Welwitschia. Bingo . . . clues! The posters did not give precise locations for our sought specimens, but they did show us habitat profiles. Surmising about them and referring to maps and an atlas, my father and uncle decided that we should drive about 50 miles south of Swapkopmund where the sand dunes were to be found. The Nara melon lives on the sand dunes. The terrain is almost pure sand, but seasonal rivers flow through the areas where the Nara grows. Despite its barrenness, there are actually aquifers below that support the Nara’s growth. Nara plants get very big and are known to live for at least a century. Clumps of plants dot the dunes green. We knew what we were looking for from photos that we had tracked down.

After driving those 50 miles, we took a little dirt road into a Topnaar village, and my father noticed a woman and her husband setting seeds out on the ground to dry. My father, taking the cue, jumped out of the car to inspect the seeds. Sure enough, the locals had collected hundreds of Nara melons and were removing the seeds. The seeds are known as “butterpips.” The Nara melon is an essential food source for the Topnaar people.

Trying to communicate with them was a bit comical; they spoke only a smattering of English, and we spoke nothing of their language. Asking where the Nara was, through charades and hand gestures, we finally got an answer. They told us that the melons were to be found 3 miles to the right, and the man generously said he would direct us. After winding the Cruiser through a myriad of empty sand hills, we jumped out and started running. The Naras dotted the sides of these hills with lush green. It was a fantastic scene to see.

Up close the plants are very weird, spiny and leafless. This to my knowledge is the only leafless cucurbit (member of the squash family). Not having leaves, the photosynthetic “organs” of the plant happen to be the stems and spines. The timing was perfect; the plants were laden with fruit. Our Topnaar guide showed us how to twist one off; dad quickly opened one of the small watermelon sized fruit (about two pounds) and to my amazement the flesh was not “poisonous tasting!” (My father says that a lot things are tasty that to me taste awful) but rather delicious. The flesh was meatier than a watermelon, had the consistency of a cantaloupe, and tasted like a milky papaya: sweet and nutty.

We were able to collect about 50 of the spiny green fruits that we took back to our hotel in Swapkopmund to eat, admire and photograph. It was amazing to think of the potential of this fruit if it were grown in other parts of the world. All of us were content. It was pretty neat to think that your work would make a difference and that you could help promote the appreciation of Mother Nature’s diversity. The Nara day was a good day for us all.

 After the long day at the Nara site, we went back to get food and rest in the town of Swapkamoud. The next morning I was awakened by my father´s only too annoying, “Start waking up, honey.” He had apparently been up for a while and had gone for a walk, finding a bookstore. He had bought a rare book on the Seaweeds of South Africa. The city of Swapkamoud is on the coast, and my father thought it would be exciting to try to collect some Kelp species while we were there. My father had never attempted to do “seawater collecting” before and he was kind of hesitant, but he was ready for the adventure. We all walked down to the pier and, to our contentment, we found that the pier’s pillars were chock full of his interesting Namibian Kelp (Laminaria pallida). After this observation, I did one of the stupidest and dangerous things I have ever done. My father jumped off the 35-foot-pier into the freezing Atlantic waters. I did not want to be outdone by my father, so I decided to jump in as well. I was not physically prepared for the shock of the waves and gulped in tons of salty water and felt like I was almost drowning. The waves were relentless as they kept bashing me into the sharp shelled mussel colonies that covered the pillars of the pier. If it had not been for another assistant on our team, Sean Spender, my Uncle told me I would have been a goner. Sean swam over and grabbed me and basically saved me! We all got out of the water alive, and my father had in his hands an awesome Kelp (Laminaria pallida) trophy. We were cut up and bleeding from the mussels, but I was happy to be breathing! Thanks Sean!

The last biggie on our plant hunt was the prehistoric Welwitschia mirabilis. This plant can live to be more than a thousand years old. We drove through the desert, challenging each other for the first sighting. Dad yelled first, (he just is an old goat at this) Jake slammed the brakes on, and the vehicle came to a halt. He leaped out of the Land Cruiser and ran at full sprint across the sand. We followed suit. When he got there, he screamed at us to watch for snakes. The plant was just a giant gnarly pile of raggy leaves, a perfect place for a pit viper to hide. My Dad became so emotional by the strange beauty of the plant that he teared up. “There was something spiritual about a living organism that could survive such an inhospitable place,” he said. It had been twisted and turned about by the strong desert winds for probably hundreds of years. Only two leaves come out of the core of the plant, and they are a silvery blue green color. They just sprawl about the desert floor. The trunk of the plant looks like a normal tree stump that has been burned off. From it two black lips merge, from which the two leaves extend. This plant was very useful to the Topnaar people, who used it for medical purposes. The crown of the plant was also eaten much like a potato. We did not eat this plant; our curiosity was satiated just to see it in its natural splendor.


Alicia Simcox is the daughter of Joseph Simcox, “The Botanical Explorer.” Alicia has traveled to 70 countries with her father, studying the wonders of the green world. She presently is finishing her university studies in Rome, Italy, majoring in philosophy and languages.